Chilling at Lake Baikal
14.08.2013 - 16.08.2013 20 °C
Our 86-hour train odyssey ended at Lake Baikal, the world's deepest and oldest lake, which will one day, due to moving tectonic plates, may become the world's fifth ocean, splitting the Asian continent in half.
The lake itself is absolutely beautiful - definitely huge, though we had the misfortune of catching a few very hazy days, with no clear views of the horizon or the opposite shore. However, there is no denying that the haze, which turned into a sort of mist during our boat ride, gave the lake a sort of eerie, mysterious quality. Quite fitting, since I've been unable to banish these few lines of a wikipedia article I found in my research out of my head: "With the Red Army in hot pursuit, the White Army had to escape southward to China across the frozen Lake Baikal in sub-zero temperatures. About 30,000 White Army soldiers, their families and all their possessions as well as the Tsar's gold, made their way across the lake to Transbaikalia. [...] As the Arctic winds blew unobstructed across the lake, many in the army and their families froze to death. Their bodies remained frozen on the lake in a kind of tableau throughout the winter of 1919–20. With the advent of spring, the frozen corpses and all their possessions disappeared in 5,000 feet of water."
Yeah. Dead Marshes, anyone?
The water is incredibly clear and inviting, though only one of us actually jumped in. Josh was very proud of himself and managed to stay in for a whopping one and a half minutes before he started to lose feeling in his feet and felt like his organs were shutting down. (It was probably about 10•C in the water.) I stuck my feet in, which was amazing for about three seconds before it got painful.
Listvyanka, the village we stayed in, was alright, though certainly nothing special, and absolutely every corner smelled of smoke, from the Omul fish that were being smoked. (We had one. It was alright. I can't really get excited about fish.) We stayed at the Britz Chalet, about ten minutes away from the shore in one of the little valleys, which was really enjoyable, built on several levels on the hill, nicely kept with lots of flowers. The included breakfast was amazing on the first day - my first omelette in weeks - but a bit disappointing on the second. Our room had a balcony out to the valley, and something about the wooden building and the chilly, humid morning air reminded me a lot of my relatives' farm in the Eastern Tyrolean alps.
Our Vodkatrain honcho, Dmitry, was definitely a step down from our Moscow one. On the one hand, he did take his job seriously and probably did his best, and the hikes he led us on were more than worthwhile. On the other hand, he often seemed either bored/seriously lacking enthusiasm or annoyed with us, and a bit patronising, and he had a serious lack of communication skills, because even though we kept asking, we never really knew what was going on. (If you answer, "Where are we going right now?" with "Left," you have no place in tourism). The worst was probably when, for several hours, he made me think I was about to be taken to a stable for a hack I'd requested, and only told me the time, 6:30pm, about an hour beforehand. That is not how you deal with tourists, and given that he studied hospitality, he really needs to work on his communication, including the ever-present Russian commanding tone peppered with a few pleases here and there.
In any case, we hiked up to a view point on the first day - taking the world's slowest chair lift for the last bit - and up a few rocky trails along the cliffs on the edge of the lake the next day, which was actually a lot of fun. My hack that afternoon into the national park next to the lake was also beautiful, and I was so happy to be back on a horse for the first time in two years!
(Of course, on the way to the stable, we did not only walk by a burned-down house, he also happened upon an old tank. As you do. Turn a corner in Listvyanka, random Soviet tanks happen.)
It was on our two-hour boat ride that we got a taste of the SIberian chill, but I warmed up easily after with a cup of delicious mulled wine. (Must be the first time I had mulled wine in August.) In general, I think visiting Lake Baikal is better in the winter than in the summer, at least if you - like me - can deal with sub-zero temperatures. There seems to be a lot more to do when the lake is frozen - dog-sledding, ice skating, riding across the turquoise ice like in this amazing photo spread, skiing in the (to Austrians) pathetic little resort, ending your day in the banya... That actually sounds very tempting to me.
Our last afternoon we spent in Irkutsk, about which, to be honest, I don't have much to say. Only a few thing stand out - the admittedly amazing food market, the beautiful Angara riverfront, the huge, incredibly ugly Soviet administration building built on the site of a huge, demolished church. According to the Transsiberian Handbook, people in this part of Russia were supposed to be "rather more friendly and relaxed than those in European Russia". I can't really confirm this. With the exception of one waitress at a Listvyanka café (close to the new Hotel with the yellowish windows, two umbrellas out front) where we had dinner, no-one bothered to smile at us. It's a pity. The Russian rudeness and absolute refusal to crack a smile get old really fast.
(We actually got two contrary explanations for this, from two different Russians: Theory number one says that ever since the fall of communism in 1991, things have been much worse than before for the Russian people, so they have nothing to smile about. Theory number two says that the actually is the communist time, which wasn't easy and bred hard people, and the Russian propensity for ruthless queue-jumping stems from a time when jumping the queue was the only way to ensure you got your food rations. Whatever the reason, it's not an attractive quality.)
It's really quite amazing how negatively the Russian people influenced our experience in their country. Vladimir Putin really is the face of the country - with a few notable exceptions, as already mentioned in my previous posts). Basically, none of us were particularly sad to be moving on to Mongolia. Except, weirdly, the border police who checked our passports three times and handled the customs investigation were probably the smiley-est Russians we'd seen in those two weeks.