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Watery World of Lake Baikal, Siberia

Rissy in Lake Baikal

It was 70 degrees centigrade and getting hotter. He was wearing an oversized felt hat. Bex and I, bursting with anxiety lay silently, top to tail, face down on a slated wooden bench. Sweat poured down his red puffy cheeks as he took a deep breath of scorching air and reached for the instrument of pain/pleasure* (delete as appropriate). The whipping began.

There’s nothing quite like the sensory explosion of finding a rare opening window (in this case it was in the toilet) on the fifth day on the train and squeezing your face sideways out of it to gulp in the fresh air. The smell of the wind as it gushes into your face is like every outdoor memory you’ve ever had. Raking autumn leaves with dad, euro-camp evenings, festivals at dawn, cycling through meadows to Paris, first crop tomatoes in Archway, summer days on the heath, camping in Brazil.

The air was sparkling with freshness not just because one breath earlier had been the intoxicating aroma of the solo crapper for 54 people on a fast moving train, but because beyond the valley in Eastern Siberia lay the magnificent Lake Baikal.  

Lake Baikal is no ordinary lake. It’s the oldest, deepest and ‘greatest’ lake in the world.

I’m also sure, although none of the books acknowledge this, that it must also be the coldest. My toes don’t lie.

We got off the train in the “Paris of Siberia”, Irkutsk, where we shared a ride away from the city towards the lake with our very cool train driver and ‘the man who fixes everything’.

Bex commandeered his enormous Captain hat and wore it in the taxi – a move acceptable in Siberia but of banishable scale across the border in Mongolia where we are headed next. Hats are a really big deal there. If it’s not yours don’t touch it. Don’t move it. Definitely don’t sit on it and please, don’t try it on.

It felt amazing to be liberated from carriage 3 as we drove the coast roads around to Listvyanka, a nouveau-riche Russian holiday destination – think Margate meets Nice – to a small ferry which took us on the waters of Lake Baikal to Bolshai Koty, a sleepy fishing village accessible only by boat or a 20km hike over he hills/mountain in summer and by ice road when the thermo hits -30 degrees.

Lake Baikal is a natural wonder. Its puzzled clever science people since they started taking note of the mantelpiece trophy display it’s racked up.

Lake Baikal:

- is the deepest lake in the world

- holds one-fifth of all the world's fresh water

- is a whopping 640km long

- is home to the unique and very cute freshwater seal

- would have lots of birthday cards from the Queen. It's 25 million years old.

- has 1,300 miles of coast line

- is fed by more than 300 streams and rivers but only has one outlet, the Angara

- is an amazing micro climate i.e. you can sunbathe in 27 degree heat 100m from it but up close you need your woollies!

Apparently, if the world ran out of fresh drinking water we could put a tap onto the lake and it would provide drinking water for everyone on the earth for 40 years. And it would be delicious. I know, because we regularly dipped a cup straight into it when we got thirsty.

It blew all my expectations of Siberia out of the water. Perhaps if I’d paid more attention to the planning of this trip and less time worrying about getting cold I wouldn’t have been so surprised by Siberia’s landscape. Even though I knew we were travelling through the tail end of Spring my mind had Siberia down as a desolate deep freeze with limited wildlife and even less greenery. A bleak frozen desert.

And so the feeling of our first hike was like stepping out of Aunty Em’s house in the Wizard of Oz and into a technicolour circus of Spring in all its glory. And weirdly, it couldn’t have felt more familiar.

If magician David Blaine had clicked his fingers and put me in a trance, dropped me on the lake’s coast trail and woken me up I’d have bet my last Rolo I was in Switzerland. The alpine forest climbs high up the sheer hill/mountain sides that drop into crystal clear waters below. That mashed together with an eyeful of the most stunning wild flowers I’ve ever seen took me straight back to the hustle and bustle of London’s Colombia Road flower market. One of my most happy places. We recognised nearly all the flowers as beautiful garden plants people flock to the East end every Sunday morning to stock up on. Only here they grow wild. Untamed. Beautiful.

Siberia. A home from home. Who would have thought?

It was topped on the 3rd night at the hostel we were staying in when I went to get a glass of water and a group of French travellers were playing cards and listening to the Aristocats soundtrack. Amazing.

I suppose the only thing that isn’t much like home is the food. Except for the delicious smoked lake fish which I ate my body weight in to avoid self-destructing on the only other option of donuts. Donuts stuffed with potato. Or, if you fancy a change, donuts stuffed with cabbage. Hmmm. It’s like opening your tummy and putting a brick inside it.

On our second day, happy with our full bellies and drunk on the beauty of our surroundings we decided to get native and turn up the temperature on our experience in a Russian banya.

I was a bit naïve about what this involved but as an activity it is the pride of Russia.

I now know it involves:

  • - A very hot sauna (ours was 75 degrees)
  • - A cauldron of boiling water
  • - A strange man
  • - Felt hats
  • - Bouquets of birch tree branches and leaves
  • - Lying in the heat until you can hardly take it anymore and having the strange man whip you on your legs and back with the birch sticks.
  • - Doing this for over 2 hours of your life
  • - Being tickled with stinging nettles when you’ve finished and thought it was all over but didn’t see the strange man hiding behind the kitchen door wearing gloves and brandishing a bunch of killer-nettles which he takes joy in sweeping all over your body. It’s like rolling in safari ants.

We thought we’d end our Baikal days by hiking 20km back to the main town to walk off the donuts and get our fill of flower-porn before starting our journey to Mongolia. The trail had little written about it in the guide books. The small info that we did find made it sound a bit like a Sunday afternoon stroll through Epping Forest. Wrong.

It took us about six hours of moving as fast as we could through valleys, over mountains and along perilous cliff hugging coastal tracks. We adoped a dog (the dog actually adopted us) and we called her Rosie after the legendary Rosie Pope Swale who also picked up a four legged Siberian friend on her epic run around the world.

We weren’t feeling much like boy scouts when we sat down on the beach for our lunch of a sweaty bag of pasta and a boiled egg. The dog went and sat 10 feet away from us. We offered her a bit of everything we had in return for her good company and excellent navigational skills but she turned her nose up at it all. Later on the track she picked out a tree from the half million we’d passed and dug up half a steak.

The hike was incredible. Incredibly full on. We could hardly walk for days afterwards and to put it in context I was reduced to a shadow of my former self when I found myself enthusiastically eating big golden sultanas for energy. Gag.

I did get to see a gorgeous, very big Siberian Elk though. Rosie chased her out of the forest. Not exactly P.C. wildlife scoping to take an alsation/huskie into the woods without a lead.

Still, if we’d taken any longer to get to the town I think we’d have survived. She’d have dug us all up a steak for tea.

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