So if you haven’t heard of Lake Baikal, you should probably be ashamed of yourself. Though, rest assured… I knew nothing about it before moving to Siberia either. Baikal is considered to be the oldest and deepest lake, EVER. Not impressed? It is the seventh largest lake in the world, but secures the No.1 spot for largest freshwater lake containing 20% of the worlds unfrozen freshwater (in the summer). It is home to various living organisms that can only be found in and around this lake – including the super cute Baikal seal, affording it the nickname ‘The Galapagos of Russia.’
Do you have a ‘Galapagos’ in your country? No, I didn’t think so.
However, if fluffy seals and swimming doesn’t excite you much, and you’d prefer to risk it for a chocolate biscuit [by ‘it’ I mean your life], you should visit in the winter like I did.
I arrived in Irkutsk in the morning after two days travelling in Platzcart along the Trans-Siberian rail way. I was recommended to spend a night in Irkutsk by my tour operator before heading on to Olkhon Island by bus. The tour operator shall henceforth be known as The Irredeemably Backward Sphincter (The IBS for short). More to come on this story later.
I thought the first thing I would want to do when I finally arrived at Baikaler Hostel in Irkutsk would be to shower. Instead, my body craved a bed. It felt weird standing without the shudder of a locomotive trundling over train tracks beneath me. I was also keen to spam everyone on social media sites.
Once I had finally showered, I got dressed to brave the winter for the second time that day. A new guy plotted up in the bed opposite me, so I asked if he wanted to come exploring. He was a Japanese expat, living and working in Moscow. He’d been in Russia for about the same length of time I had, but more importantly, he was very happy to let me call the shots on where to go that day
Which turned out to be everywhere, because Irkutsk is about as big as my little toe.
During the day, I fired off a couple of emails to The IBS to confirm that I was in Irkutsk and I would definitely be joining his tour to Olkhon Island the next day. I heard nothing back. Normally, this wouldn’t be much of an issue. I’ve become very good at making excuses for people that take hours, even DAYS, to respond to my heartfelt messages. But I was a stranger in a strange place this time, with all my hopes and dreams sitting in this guy’s hands. If the bus didn’t arrive to pick me up the next day, I would have travelled 1560 miles (2511 km) for nothing.
The IBS eventually emailed me back at 11PM that evening (exactly thirteen hours after I sent my first message). But, he needn’t have bothered, as the next day I stood waiting at our arranged meeting place in -20C for a bus that arrived an hour and a half late. We drove around Irkutsk for no less than an hour before the bus driver began asking which hostel on the island I was supposed to be staying at.
I had to refrain from yelling, “How the hell would I know? I’m pretty sure that’s what my tour operator is for.” But apparently The IBS hadn’t informed them of my destination. After a few angry sounding phone calls the bus driver told me to get out and change buses.
What came next was four hours of off-road snow-roving, squished between an Asian couple in the back seat of a cramped seventeen seater mini bus. It was hardly enjoyable. And somehow, I fell asleep.
When we arrived at the ferry port (being extremely generous with the name here), we waited. And we waited.
And then we waited some more.
I watched the tiny ice breaking boat come and go every 20 minutes, loading just thirteen people at a time. I rang The IBS to find out some details; after all, nobody could understand WHY the boat was only carrying a select few people at a time. The IBS told me it was my own stupid fault for choosing to come to Baikal straight after the New Year (true story). I asked him to drop the attitude and to tell me which accommodation I was booked into for the next two nights. This was when The IBS (MY TOUR OPERATOR) told me he hadn’t booked anything.
‘Excuse me? Que? Shto? What the bloody hell, sir? You mean to tell me that not only do you have the natural grace of an intoxicated beluga whale but you are indeed as incalculably unreliable as my Primark eyeliner?!’ At least, this is what I would have said if I could stop seething audibly down the phone for at least five seconds. Instead I just told him to fuck off.
Fortunately for me, a group of international students had arrived at the ‘ferry port’ and I figured I’d introduce myself. Long story short, I stayed with them.
The hostel we stayed in had prepared banya for our first evening, which unexpectedly turned out to be our only means of washing as there was no running water. The next surprise, and I don’t know why I was surprised by this, was that the toilets were in outdoor sheds. And no, I couldn’t hold it in for three days. On my last day, I had to poop whilst precariously hovering over a gaping hole in the ground, with just the protection of a tiny shed from the Siberian winter.
Moral of the story: do more squats, eat less food.
The jeep excursion that we booked the next day for 900 roubles each, was by far one of the highlights of my life. We visited the Shaman Rock, a spiritual place for a local, and on a shallower note, a tourist’s playground. The gigantic shards of ice were like something from a scene north of The Wall. On clearer parts of ice you could see fish swimming below you, fish that would later be our dinner, as our hostel staff cooked us some beautiful, breaded Omul in the evening.
Heading back to the mainland was just as eventful as heading to the island. A girl who usually lived on Olkhon was travelling back to Irkutsk to visit her friends and we spoke for a while. She managed to catch the second boat ride while I had to wait for two more journeys before I could board. The boat, once again, was only taking small numbers of tourists at a time. You’d think everyone would have accepted this by now, but suddenly there was A LOT of screaming…
While the boat staff were attempting to unload those that were jumping on to the boat without invitation, a girl had been pushed from the edge of the loading station and was clinging for dear life to the side of the small ice boat. I stared in horror as the boat rocked in the waves and squashed her against it and the wall, though letting go would plunge her straight into ice cold water. Thankfully, she wasn’t hurt and I guess her heart will go on.
I shared a much more comfortable mini bus for the next four hours with a gigantic Alaskan Malamute, and we stopped for meat pastries at a road side cafe. Before I knew it, we had arrived back in Irkutsk… Alive.
Piece of cake. Who said travelling in Russia was hard? 😉