Thursday 13 September 2012

The Pearl of Siberia - Lake Baikal

Have you ever seen a lake so big it’s hard to believe its not an ocean. A lake so big that you cannot believe it is not salt water.

We arrived in Irkutsk early in the morning with mixed emotions. Relieved to finally get off the longest train ride of our lives and not having to adjust my watch to a new timezone every morning, eager for a real shower (cold sponge baths with water of questionable quality while bracing yourself against a moving train to avoid falling onto a stinky metal toilet just isn't that pleasant), but also sad to be parting with the friendly people we had met.

Irkutsk Train Station - On the Trans-Siberian Railway
After saying goodbye to our new friends, we were greeted at the train station by Lena who, like the other guides, provided us with our next lot of travel documents. We also met our driver and pretty soon we were on our way to the shores of Lake Baikal. After observing some animated conversation between the two, Lena explained to us about our driver's passion for mushrooms, and how excited he was about the current wild mushroom picking season. So we started spotting figures foraging for the fungal gems among the dense trees of the taiga.

Then Lake Baikal appeared. At 636 kilometres long, 1637 metres deep and holding 23 600 cubic kilometres of water (thats 20% of the world's total unfrozen freshwater reserve), it is a pretty impressive lake. It is also the worlds largest freshwater lake in the world (by volume).

Our plan here was to spend the first night at Listvyanka, a small village on the shore of the lake. The next morning, we would hop onto a Hydrofoil and head north for 20 minutes or so and from there begin a nice two day walk to Bolshoe Goloustnoye Village, another small village on the lake. Then we would bus it back to Irkutsk.

The first night was great; we stayed in a home stay and were fed home cooked cakes, soups and pelmeni (small meat dumplings).

Some tasty Pelmeni (small meat dumplings) - Listvyanka, on the Shores of Lake Baikal
We visited the informative Baikal Museum, where we learned of the huge tectonic forces at play that caused the rift that became Lake Baikal, saw some big tanks full of fish and even a couple of Baikal seals, all unique to the lake. In the afternoon we climbed to a great lookout. It was a good feeling to know that when we went to sleep we would wake up in the same spot.

The view over the largest fresh water lake in the world - Lake Baikal
We met up with our walking guides on the Hydrofoil, Gena and Max. They seemed like a couple of nice guys, funny and full of smiles (different from your typical Russian).

And then our walk began.

Our Walk along the shores of Lake Baikal begin.
The hike was amazing and the guides were awesome, constantly joking. When Gena didn’t understand my mumbling Australian accent he would look at me blankly, before putting his hand on his heart saying “Sorry, My English”. Cracked me up every time. Gena, despite being the senior of the two, carried a huge backpack, and I wondered what it was filled with, until lunchtime came along and we were treated to the best camp food I have ever had. Fresh produce was cooked in several pots and pans over a campfire, washed down with what we would call billy tea. The scenery was striking; we walked through forests, over hills that gave fantastic views, but we always we stayed right beside the glittering lake.

The View over Lake Baikal
Through the Forrest - Lake Baikal
Its hard to believe you can drink that water, as fresh as it comes - Lake Baikal
At the mid way point we stayed at Kodilnaya Village in log huts at what I guessed was a hunting and fishing camp, again only meters from the lake. There were a few other locals there, dressed in the usual camo-clothes that it seemed every Russian man owned (perhaps from their compulsory military service days?), a couple of horses and the occasional souslik. Sunset was a stunner.

Shadows to our camp for the night - Lake Baikal
Tia cold in Siberia - Lake Baikal
Fresh Water - Lake Baikal
Stumped - Lake Baikal
Beautiful Water - Lake Baikal
Boat Ramp - Lake Baikal
We started out early the next day, detouring through dense shrubs and up a steep scramble into a cave, traversing some pretty loose scree, and picking our way through pebble beaches with rocks so flat they just begged for a rock-skipping competition (I won!). Lunchtime was a very tasty fish stew, after which we decided it was now or never, and went for a swim. I braced myself for the cold ... and it was colder! Nine degrees celcius in the height of summer, so it was a quick dip before jumping out into the sun to warm up, followed by another daring dip. Max told us of how the lake freezes over in the winter, so much so that you can safely set up camp in the middle when doing a two day trek across the width. I still couldn't get over the fact that it was fresh water, and we literally drank the stuff we were swimming in. There is a plant in Irkutsk which simply takes the water straight from the lake and sells it in bottles.

Happy to be Here - Lake Baikal
We arrive, sore and tired, at Bolshoe Goloustnoye late in the day. But the house was equipped with a banya (Russian Sauna), perfect for easing the muscles - could we ask for anything more? We felt like we had walked a long way, 39 kilometres over two days, but we were surprised by how little of the lake we had actually seen.

Two Days and 39kms walking equals this far on the map - Lake Baikal
My Index Finger is where we started and my Pinky is where we finished. I understand now why it takes two days just to cross to the other side.

After another good night's sleep we took a sunrise bus back to Irkutsk, said goodbye to our guides and spent the rest of the day wandering around town.

Bus back to Irkutsk
We had an evening train to Mongolia so we spent some time stocking up on more pot-noodles and other goodies from the local market for the ride.

Berries at the Local Market - Irkutsk

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