Arriving at Irkutsk in the dead of night came with one of those now-familiar slight sinking feelings whereby one imagines the outside to be a post-apocalyptic Mad Max wasteland. Because I was only going to be there for a few hours I’d decided to book accommodation near to the station though, so at least I wasn’t destined to be homeless. As a last resort there are, I gather, “Retiring rooms” at the station however I didn’t trust my limited command of Russian to actually be able to secure one and besides, the hostel was only £5 for the night and 10mins walk from the station…
After a night of limited sleep due to heat and inconsiderate fellow guests (Siberia in summer can be bloody hot, surprisingly) I made my way back to the station to meet Sarah off the 8.28 train from Moscow. We walked into town to see what Irkustsk had to offer.
…Which was rather little, other than the standard cross-lingual childish photo opportunities.
Wankywank indeed. Anyway, I’m sure Irkutsk has many merits but we didn’t find them on the way to the market, despite the optimistic billing of the tourist map. There we boarded a bus to Listvyanka, a little village an hour away on the shores of Lake Baikal.
Pro traveller tip: Do NOT sit on the back seats of a minibus! We made this error and I ended up skyward on a number of the large bumps on the way. Still, it amused our fellow travellers so all wasn’t lost.
Listvyanka’s quite pleasant, but definitely on the touristy end of the scale, mainly Russians and Koreans. We’d booked into Olga’s Guesthouse which turned out to be a great choice. Olga was a great host and made us very welcome, plying us with frequent cups of tea. She also prepared two of the best breakfasts I’ve had here, with jam from her huge garden and lots of freshly baked bread and cake.
Suitably refreshed, we set out to explore the village. Sarah became instantly obsessed with the reindeer tethered to one of the cafes in the centre and from then on frequently regaled me with tales of how much better her life would become, were she to own a reindeer pet. I meanwhile was possibly excessively excited by the proliferation of seal memorabilia in the shops, since Nerpa (freshwater seals) are a big feature of Lake Baikal. Other than 20,000 fluffy seal gonks in the shops I did not see any though. Bad times.
Lunch was thoroughly enjoyable, despite frequently being called a fish murderer- Very fresh Omul and Salmon from the lake, grilled with vegetables. Easily the best meal I’ve had in Russia.
Sarah enjoyed what was apparently one of the better Greek salads out of the several thousand she’s tucked into this trip. Russian menus don’t really do vegetarian to any great extent but the salad is one of the safest options. Later in Listvyanka I became a bit cocky and ordered myself a random salad which turned out to contain raw fish. A little “challenging” to say the least!
The next day we had planned to hike the Great Baikal Trail from Listvyanka to the next village up the coast Bolshiye Koty, from where there are no roads, but it’s possible to get a ferry back. Unfortunately as with all good plans we ended up dawdling massively in the morning and didn’t hit the trailhead until after 12.
The first 3 miles of the trail are steep, hard going uphill through the forest, frustratingly this takes you away from the lake and you then hike another 3 miles back down again. At this point, with the aid of the Runkeeper app and some rough fag packet calculations we reached two truths:
- It was going to be nearly impossible to reach Bolshiye Koty by the time the ferry left at 6pm
- Neither of us had any inclination to re-climb the hill
Time remained slightly of the essence, so we pressed on, nervously keeping an eye on the GPS for the “miles elapsed”. It’s 25km/15miles from the trailhead at Listvyanka to Bolshiye Koty, so a fairly tall order in the remaining time we had. A lot of people do the trail at a slower pace and camp along the way, which seems like a nice thing to do. We managed it in 5 hours.
Along the way we were steamrollered by a large tour group of Koreans coming the other way… Led by a charismatic chap with a speaker blasting out some power ballads, the group in their matching sportswear and walking poles were indeed a hillwalking powerhouse. The Korean and Japanese tourists really do get the most out of their breaks!
Eventually we reached Bolshiye Koty around 5.30pm. Relatively tight but with enough time to briefly collapse before boarding the ferry.
An idyllic place, there is a small population who have various livestock and get around on all manner of strange contraptions such as the Soviet-era three wheeled trikes which were scattered around by the dock. It would have been good to spend a while there, however I think three days would have been excessive.
We boarded the soviet-era hydrofoil back to Listvyanka in company with loads of scouts from all over the world, here for a jamboree of some kind. This turned out to be a canny move since we also left the boat with the scouts for an apparently free ride. #youthfulgoodlooks.
The next morning we bid farewell to Olga and left Listvyanka early in order to get back to Irkutsk and link up with the 10am bus to Olkhon Island. Unsuccessful hitching at first, we luckily managed to squeeze onto a passing bus.
Irkutsk to the main village on Olkhon, Khuzhir, takes a slightly mind-bending 7 hours. One of the problems with Baikal is how the guide books present their maps- It looks like everywhere is a short hop whereas actually it’s huge and all of the settlements and sights are bloody miles away.
The final few KM before the ferry are on dirt roads. Most of the locals have 4x4s and passed our bus using the sandy tracks across the open Siberian plains. Given the teeth-jangling ruts on the main track this has other benefits too!
Whilst on the bus we met Vicky, a fellow Brit (surprisingly few around!) travelling to Ulan Bator. Unfortunately our fairly civilised conversation deeply offended one of the other Russian travellers, an older lady who kept telling us to be quiet in sign language… Quite how she expected to actually sleep on the bus I’m not sure but we had been TOLD!
And so, we arrived at the ferry one vehicle too late, and so waited for the next one to arrive.
Once over the other side another couple of hours of bone-jarring ruts greeted us. Arriving in Khuzhir was, to put it mildly, somewhat of a disappointment. The main factor tending towards this was the wall-to-wall smoke. Forest fires on the mainland combined with a lack of rain had badly affected the island and the drifting smoke reduced visibility to virtually nothing. It’s fair to say that the village is a little…rustic (Although less charitable epithets were spoken at the time), and our hostel not only resembled some sort of joyless Soviet Butlins at first but also turned out to be the chosen accommodation of the grumpy woman from the bus!
We checked in and were shown to our assigned shed. The toilets in many places on the island are “Compost” ones, which is a charitable way of saying “Shitting in a hole in the ground” toilets.
I am gradually adjusting my expectations of civilisation downwards, although seeing these again was somewhat of a culture shock. Whilst out in Africa in the 90’s these were all that my house had… You get used to it, but it’s never a particular delight.
After we’d got over the slight shell shock of arriving at Sunny Hostel (Don’t stay there!) we visited Vicky’s hostel, having cheekily proactively packed sauna clothing on the offchance. Sure enough it was an utter delight of a place with decent toilets and…
When we got into the yard we immediately managed to let two of the adult huskies escape however were reassured that they came straight back. All of the livestock on Olkhon seems to be pretty free-range, and sure enough they returned soon after. Phew.
At this point I’d like to make a major recommendation- Stay somewhere full-board. Vicky was extensively and extravagantly fed throughout her stay for probably less than we ended up paying- The “with meals” places really are good value and save trying to find food in the evenings which involves a lot of walking around in the dark.
Vicky’s place also had a ‘Banya”- Basically a Russian sauna- and we really didn’t need asking twice if we wanted to use it. There are three rooms- The first one is a “dry” one for drinking tea and changing, the second a wet room for washing and dunking oneself in cold water, with the third room being a normal sauna.
I was probably the most enthusiastic of the party about the twigs. Very odd but genuinely quite invigorating. I emerged from the banya definitely cleaner and a little more optimistic about Olkhon’s benefits.
The next day we awoke to receive our Soviet breakfast allocation. We had previously been briefed on the hatch that we would receive our breakfast from, and the hatch that we should return our plates to. Strong hospitality!
Despite the somewhat prescriptive Breakfast Procedure, I enjoyed the first wodge of reliable carbs for the past few days until being dragged away from it to join a tour of the island. I wasn’t feeling on top form due to a slight ear infection and general elderly tiredness but did want to see the island…
Our transport for this tour was one of the sturdy little 4x4s which seem to be default transport on the island and actually seem to get the job done pretty well despite being somewhat stifling and fumey inside. They seem really cut out for winter transport. Roads on the island are non-existent so it’s a series of tracks of varying quality.
The background should have been a panoramic view of the lake, however unfortunately the amount of smoke made it virtually impossible to see, well, anything! A grave disappointment as Olkhon is meant to look like this:
But actually looked like this:
The sun was bravely trying to get through but never really managed it. Nonetheless we did see some of the rock formations which were pretty spectacular. Also on our group was a group of Japanese tourists who were good fun and happily joined in with some stupid posing by the sights.
Olkhon is an important centre for Shamanism, with brightly coloured fabric tied to lots of the key points on the island. Sadly no wizards observed though.
The drive back through the forest was a bit alarming at times. “Track” would be a slightly over-generous term for the rutted path weaving through the trees. I may have slightly over-blown my Fear Face however. I’d managed to find a suitable brace position to avoid hitting the roof too many times.
And so, the next morning, it was time to head back to Irkutsk. The 7 hours in a bus was no more entertaining than the first time. Irkutsk felt like an utter metropolis after a couple of days on Olkhon, and therefore most of the afternoon passed looking excitedly at the large buildings and shops filled with… stuff.
An unbelievably bargainous pizza meal in the evening (£3 each including 60p pints!) rounded off Vicky and Sarah’s Irkutsk time as they had the 10pm train to Ulan Bator to catch. I’m following them up on the Sunday train arriving on Monday morning. In the meantime I’ve granted myself a day off and am doing next-to-nothing today, other than blogging, eating and buying a few supplies for tomorrow’s journey.
I’m feeling a slight sense of trepidation about Mongolia as it really is off the beaten track and likely to be a bit of a culture shock after the relative civilisation of Russia. Still, there’s loads to see and do, and I’ve changed my train tickets and later travel arrangements now so I have a good couple of weeks to see it. I’ve got the proper kit, medical insurance and to be fair it isn’t the first time I’ve been in some properly remote places!
Definitely see Olkhon Island… Despite my mainly jestful slating of it on Facebook it genuinely is a beautiful place, we just timed it badly given the smoke. I would have liked a bit more time here really in order to see places like Port Baikal, however simply didn’t realise how far everything is. A week would be more suitable, particularly in order to do a bit more hiking on the Great Baikal Trail, a volunteer-led effort which is (very, very gradually!) aiming to create a network of trails around the lake.
Do stay at Olga’s.
Don’t stay at Sunny- Book up Tanya’s or one of the other good, catered homesteads on the island well in advance.
Do give it a week!
Peace out, see you in Mongolia.