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Published: October 25th 2019
As someone who spent a lot of time as a kid reading atlases and geography facts books, I always expected I'd like Lake Baikal; it being the world's oldest, deepest and most voluminous lake (30 million years, 1642 m deep, 20% of the world's unfrozen freshwater), with the world's only freshwater seal (the nerpa, one of which we caught a glimpse for a few seconds) and an endemic salmon-like fish called an omul (delicious smoked for breakfast). Definitely worth the 4 weeks we'd spent on trains, boats and buses to get this far.
The “Asian” Russia part of the trip was completely arbitrary (though it’s useful for dividing what would be a long Russia blog!) as nothing actually changes when you cross the Ural Mountains; the scenery doesn’t vary much all the way across Russia and it’s not until around Krasnoyarsk that you see your first hill, prior to that Russia is endlessly flat, and not until Irkutsk that you start seeing a lot of Oriental-looking people.
From west to east we stopped in Tyumen, which I talked about in the last blog (great parkrun there!), then Siberia’s capital of Novosibirsk just for a few
hours to break up an otherwise long train journey (all we did was eat a huge blini breakfast and sit under Lenin’s statue in the ubiquitous Lenin Square to watch some kind of parade of ex-Soviet navy mariners). We then arrived late in Krasnoyarsk.
We had the luxury of two nights in an apartment in Krasnoyarsk. It was great after the train journeys, single night stops, and sometimes crappy hotels to have space to move around, to unpack a little, be able to wash clothes, to cook some vegetables, and not get up really early. Despite the horrendous appearance of our communist tower-block from the outside, it was lovely inside. We could have had another night to laze a little more, but we had all our train tickets and accommodation booked for the entire Russia leg of the trip, due to train ticket availability a month or so in advance, so had to keep moving. We didn’t get the chance to see any of Krasnoyarsk itself – except the fantastic Central Asian fruit and veg shops – other than through the bus windows on the way to Stolby National Park.
Stolby National Park was a welcome
opportunity to hike in nature after a month of mostly cities. While the forest and rock outcrops were pretty, you could be anywhere really. Definitely worth stopping if you are on the Trans-Siberian in order to stretch your legs and breathe some clean air.
Next stop was Irkutsk. We didn’t think too much of the place though it was a necessary stop in order to get Mongolian visas (see the previous blog for info) and in order to go to Lake Baikal. On arrival we thought it was quite foggy, despite the forecast of sunny weather. When our throats started to hurt after a day wandering about, we realised it was smog and not fog. The cause was forest fires in the taiga – the world’s largest forest that stretches most of the way across Russia and almost this far south – due to bizarrely high temperatures all over Siberia but particularly at high latitudes.
We did the standard trip to Listvyanka, the closest Lake Baikal village to Irkutsk. While I was very excited to see the lake, the village is not that nice, especially not through the foggy gloom. Though we weren’t there
long as all cafes were still shut at the early hour so we soon set off to hike part of the Great Baikal Trail. Their ambitious aim is that this footpath will eventually circumnavigate the lake, which would be fantastic. We just walked a single day to Bolshoi Koty. The official literature tells you the route is just short of 25 km. My GPS watch – which I know is accurate from running 5km and 10km races – put it at just over 20 km. We set off early in order to catch the hydrofoil back, but we arrived with loads of time to spare. The hike took about 6 hours and that included a lengthy (freezing) swimming break. It is a nice route though the initial “great views” following the climb out of the village were completely obscured in the foggy cloudy smoky haze. The path then hugs the shoreline, sometimes down near the beach and sometimes clinging precariously to the cliff sides. We only saw a handful of people until we got to Bolshoi Koty, which had a little shop where you can get celebratory chocolate and beer while waiting for the boat back. I would really recommend
the walk. Definitely don’t just go to Listvyanka and back from Irkutsk (as many Trans-Siberian tourists apparently do) because you’ll be disappointed.
Though if you don’t have much time, skip it altogether and go straight to Olkhon Island. Don’t just take our opinion, some Russians from the Irkutsk area told us “To us, Listvyanka is not Baikal. Olkhon is Baikal”.
When I think of the Asian Russia part of our Trans-Siberian trip, I think mostly of Lake Baikal. And when I think of Lake Baikal, I think of Olkhon Island, which was the highlight of our trip up that point. It’s a fair few hours on a marshrutka but on decent roads, then not too long on a ferry, followed by another about 1.5 hours on terrible roads. It may be a good thing that Olkhon Island has only (bad) dirt roads as it must constrain tourist numbers and development. However, you’d give anything for a bit of tarmac when the bone-shaking teeth-rattling journey starts making your brain ache.
There are some trees but the scenery is mostly rolling grassland; like I expected Mongolia to look (and later found out it did look like that
– see next blog when I get around to writing it). All surrounded by a deep blue lake that you could easily mistake for the sea if you were just dropped here. The main town of Khuzhir is quite a ramshackle place, as was our guesthouse (I think we were actually sleeping in a garden shed; the outside shower though was surprisingly pleasant). However, there are plenty of little restaurants and a new big supermarket catering to all the Chinese tour groups. A highlight of the place was the sunset, where the whole town seemingly heads to the cliff tops with a few beers to watch the bright yellow blob drop behind the mountains way across the water on the mainland (a bit of lingering smog adds to the drama).
It being too far to walk or pedal, we did a guided tour of the north end of the island in an indestructible Uaz. Eight of us bounced around as the driver didn’t hang around between photo points. At every stop we got as much time as we wanted to wander about, and it was stunning. The smog had almost completely cleared and we had blue skies,
deep blue water, dramatic dizzying cliffs, some lovely beaches, and a lot of weird shamanic totems. Olkhon island is a centre of shamanism, which is the religion of the indigenous people of the island though now has much wider appeal. Therefore, you’ll find brightly coloured ribbons, looking a bit like fluttering prayer flags you see in the Himalayas, tied around trees, around rocks, and on specially built totem poles. At high points on the cliffs, on hill tops, and in all the other pretty places, it is common to find such totems, often with offerings beneath where people have said a prayer for something. While some in our group did little rituals, we were more interested in the nature. At one point on the tour we sat on a rock with a gorgeous view of the northern tip of the island and spotted a ground squirrel scurrying about while a big eagle circled over head before it was attacked by a pair of brave little birds a fraction of its size. I could have sat there all day just taking it all in.
Perhaps even better was our following day’s adventure. We rented bikes and decided to
try and cross the island from west to east. It didn’t look far, but we perhaps underestimated the mountain range running along the spine of the island. We got a vague route off the internet and thankfully on these dirt roads there were no cars. We were soon climbing but also seemed to be descending a lot, often at really high speeds on bumpy tracks that once had Magdalena over the handlebars. The steppe-like scenery gave way to forest and the tracks became clearly very little used. Fallen trees occasionally blocked the way, roots and rocks launched us in the air, and the sides were very overgrown. We must have climbed more than we thought as after descending for what seemed like ages, which was really good fun jumping the tree roots and swerving the giant pine cones, we emerged at the other coast. It was beautiful. It was a rocky beach as the water here was quite rough though still crystal clear. Despite being freezing cold we got in to remove the layers of dirt road dirt. It was a small bay hemmed in by mountains on either side and we were most disappointed to find two cars already
there who had driven in on another track!
Following a picnic we set off back and were soon pushing the bikes. We seemed to push them more than ride on the way back until we popped out of the forest back onto the steppe and could then freewheel for ages back to the beach on the Khuzhir side for another well-earned and well-needed dip in the lake. It was knackering, but well worth it.
And that was pretty much it for the Asian Russia part of the trip. The journey back to Irkutsk was horrible as the bus didn’t show up to pick us up from the ferry. Eventually a very old and very full bus limped back to town with us in it just in time for our overnight train to Ulan Ude. We got there around 5am with time to kill and nothing open before getting on the 7:30am bus to Ulan Bator. Should have taken 10 hours but once you cross the border into Mongolia the road is being rebuilt so it took 15.5 hours. All good fun. Actually no it was awful, but does it matter; we were in Mongolia!
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