Stop 5: Irkutsk & Lake Baikal

18 June, 2.41 AM. Krasnoyarsk train station. Our train is finally here. We reach the platform and it’s raining, obviously. We run to the wagon and settle in our seats, while a Russian lady, who has the berth beneath mine, hears us speaking in Italian and immediately starts a conversation with me. Her name is Oksana. She talks and talks and talks and everything she says is so interesting but it’s almost 3.30 AM and I am dead tired. Finally we say our goodnights and I can go sleep.

We are woken up but the loud music playing on the train radio in the early morning. I climb down my berth and we have breakfast all together. Oksana is also up, but she starts gathering her stuff as she’s getting off at the next stop. She tells me I look like one of her daughters and asks me to leave her my contacts, so we can keep in touch. Then she tells me about the history of her city, Krasnoyarsk, of the fact that she actually wanted 5 kids but that after the disintegration of the USSR life got more costly and she just couldn’t afford it. She explains to me why Russians are so attached to May 9th, the day of the Great Victory, as there is practically no family in Russia that did not lose somebody to the war or that doesn’t have some relative who at least fought in it. And about the situation in Ukraine, she also says that it pains her and saddens her to see what is happening and that she is sure that most Russians feel pretty much the same, cause they know what it means to suffer and to die at war.

She gets off the train a bit past noon, and we spend the rest of the day eating “delicious” instant noodles and grechka, again, and just laying around. A woman takes Oksana’s seat. She is accompanied by a man, her husband probably, who terribly smells like cigarettes and looks definitely drunk. He immediately gets her to make the bed, after that he takes her place and falls asleep. What a gentleman.

We can now see the real taiga out the window: huge grass fields and nothingness, just some lonely trees here and there and bunches of wooden houses.

We finally make it to Irkutsk and guess who’s here? Jean-Yves and Solene! So we settle in at our hostel in Karl Marx Street, which is actually really nice (the hostel, not Karl Marx street), although the reception guy definitely looks like he is high, and we head out to meet them. We walk out the door and there they are, talking to some hobo guy from Mongolia! We all walk down the street and end up at the Chili bar, drinking Sangria and Mojito and just having a good time.

18 June. Irkutsk. We get up at 6 AM, bright and early, to start this beautiful day: we are going to Olkhon island! We walk down Karl Marx street and take a right till we reach the bus station. We haven’t even crossed the street yet, that a man with golden teeth and a bright green t-shirt approaches us: Olkhon? I ask him how much he wants and he says 800 Rubles. Still, I remember Jean-Yves saying they paid like 400-500 Rubles, so I tell him that we’ll think about it and keep walking to the station square.

I walk inside and ask at the counters: the price is 475 Rubles, but the first bus available only leaves at 10 AM. Looks like we’ll have to wait. So we buy our tickets and find a spot to sit in the waiting area, cause, I mean, we’re so good at this by now.

Finally, we hop on our marshutka and we immediately have to struggle to make our bags and those of the other passengers fit. We put them in the last row, one on top of the other, like some sort of tetris.

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Our fellow passengers: a wild Russian backpacker-hiker, 3 weird Chinese tourists and a Russian man with his woman. In the front, a guy from Kazakhstan with his wife (one of the many, as we would find out later).

The driver turns on the engine and off we go. We are soon out of Irkutsk and the wildness englobes our marshutka, once again. In front of us only the straight road, going up and down and mildly turning at times. At our sides, woods of pine trees, alternating with uncultivated fields. And cows or horses, chewing near random isolated bus stops. Everything is green. Light green. Dark green.

Then, suddenly, the road goes up and up and up, we get to the top, take a turn and… BAM! Everything changes. Are we even still in Russia? How is this possible? Everything turns brown, and yellow, and ocre, hills on one side, hills on the other side, running one after another. Lonely trees, all branches and no leaves, appear here and there. It kind of reminds me of the road between Jaipur and Pushkar, in Rajasthan. Or between Yerevan and Sevan in Armenia. Again, how is this possible?

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We stop in a small, crumbling village in the middle of a valley. There’s some sort of cafe, so we all get in there, the door covered by a white curtain (to keep flies and insects outside, I guess). The counter is basically a tall, narrow table and the handwritten menu lies on it, together with juice bottles and plates of pirozhki. I order chai, which is served in a plastic cup, and a pirozhok and go sit with Gian and Marta at one of the tables. There are 4 in total. A cat comes in a starts purring under our table.

We need to go to the bathroom, so we go outside and, in the middle of the backyard, there’s a wooden cabin. It’s the toilet. Yes, one of those with the hole in the ground. But as we shall see, we’d better get used to it.

As we wait for Gian, Marta and i hear someone calling us. The guy who was sitting next to the driver yells in Russian: “Where are you from?” – “Italy!” – “Oh, so you have good wine there! Come, do you want to try my wine? I made it myself, I wanna offer it to you!”. Then he disappears into the marshutka and walks toward us after a few seconds with his blonde wife, with a plastic bottle and two full cups of wine. We drink it and it’s incredibly strong. As we talk to them, we find out they’re from Kazakhstan, Chimkent precisely, and when we tell them we’re gonna pass by it, the man, Rafael, insists that we take his phone number and call once we’re there. He will host us and show us around. What?

The driver yells something like: “Hey! Let’s go! Or you wanna stay here chatting forever?”. We get in the car and we’re on the road again. I still cannot believe my eyes at the landscape they’re seeing. I would have never expected such dry lands in Russia. I actually imagined the Baikal area to be green. Here and there, small woods of pine trees shyly appear, which kind of looks like a contradiction in the brownness and dryness of the land. It’s like we travelled through space, into a surreal world.

The road is so bumpy we actually don’t know whether to laugh or be scared. The driver drives like he has to win a race and we jump up and down. It’s ridiculously funny, cause it almost seems like we’re dancing at the Russian disco music playing on the radio.

The road isn’t cemented anymore and it really looks like it was created through the wheels of the cars passing on it. It will stay like this from now on. Up, down, left, right. We suddenly stop, behind a line of cars. We made it to the harbor! Well, quay.

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We’ll have to wait for the ferry to take us on to the island. The line is pretty long , and as the ferry can fit no more than 5 minibuses, we get off and start walking around. Kiosks selling souvenirs are scattered all around. There’s also some sort of cafe, selling dried omul fish, beer and chai.

After an hour or so, the ferry is finally here, so we follow our minibus and get on it. It’s freezing cold on the water, but fortunately about 5 minutes later we reach the other bank.

Dry hills and no road. Dust everywhere. Rocks and lonely, naked trees. The desolation of the place gives it beauty. It’s wildness is mezmerizing, untouched, uncontaminated.

The hiker guy gets off the marshutka in the middle of nowhere. There’s only an old car with two guys waiting for him. He takes his tent and backpack and soon disappears behind us, the sight of him obscured by the dirt raised by the marshutka.

In the end, some sort of village appears out of nowhere, so we guess we made it to Khuzhir, our destination. It looks like the set of an old western movie: there’s only one main dusty road, on its side wooden houses, a few stores and cafes. Other dusty roads intersect, forming 90 degrees angles, more wooden, crumbling houses. I am surprised these streets even have names, but as we ask for directions for ulitsa Nagornaya, where our hostel is, they point us to the end of the main street. Meanwhile, the 3 Chinese decide to follow us to our hostel, cause they don’t have any reservation.

We get there and as we pass through the wooden door, we realise it’s more of a camping than a hostel, a few wooden huts are lined up on one side, in the middle there’s a kiosk and hanging clothes, cats, and dust. Our room is actually okay, but as we ask for the bathroom, the administrator points us to a fence. Behind it, three wooden cabins. Oh, it’s the hole toilets! Hello again. As for the showers, the girl tells us we have to warn her in advance before taking one, so she can “prepare” the hot water. Well, at least it’s gonna be a good training for Mongolia.

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The Chinese also get a room here, right next to ours. We settle in and go for a walk down main street, where we book an excursion to the north edge of the island for tomorrow. Walking back, among the cows, stray dogs and cats, we bump into the Chinese woman, who says the men are cooking and invite us over for dinner. Free dinner? We’re in.

We get back and they indeed yell in their broken English: “Dinner! Dinner!”. Alright, we climb in their hut and a round table is set in the middle of the room: there’s fish, vegetables, some sort of meat and a bowl full of fish soup. They serve us and open up a bottle of beer for each of us. Before we’ve even started to eat, they raise their glasses and go: “Ganbei!” or something like that, and have us cheer with them, as they chug their glasses. And from here onwards, it’s all downhills. The beers seem to multiply, over and over and each time they say “ganbei” we have to chug our glasses. In no time, we’re speaking Chinese words at random, no idea of what we’re really saying. The whole situation is ridiculous and I have no idea what time it is nor how long we’ve been at this.

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At some point Gian is throwing up in the backyard, so Marta and I help him out and put him to bet, and pass out ourselves a few moments later.

19 June. Olkhon Island. We wake up and as Marta and I look at each other we realise: oh shit, we have to do the excursion today! What the fuck happened last night? My head is pounding and my body feels so weak. Perfect day for a hangover. Damnit. Freaking Chinese.

We try to go for a shower, but there’s no water whatsoever. Fantastic. Alright, we’ll just have to make it through the day. We have breakfast and walk out of the hostel, as the Chinese trio salutes us. Even the sight of them is too much for us right now. We reach the tourist information point, where our driver is supposed to pick us up and there he is, with one of those minivans we saw everywhere in Siberia. It kinda looks like a fake wolkswagen for hippies. Ours is dark green. We hop on and there’s two old men with huge beer bellies, whose bags are full of beers and dry fish. We then pick up the other passengers: 2 couples, a Russian one and a Dutch one. There. Ready.

The rollercoaster begins and as we drive through the island we are stunned. It’s hard to describe the feeling of passing through such wilderness. It’s something one has to go and see for himself I guess. On our way toward the North point we make some stops on the coast.

The first thing that strikes me is the color of the water. It is the exact same color of the sky. So much that you actually cannot distinguish where one stops and the other begins. the water is so clear it reflects everything, every single detail. The hills in the distance, the rocks on the coast, the boats floating on its surface. And the shade of the whole thing is stunning. I’m used to the blue sea, sometimes light blue, green. But this lake, this water is lighter, it’s celeste, like the sky, and I have never seen something like this. It really gives you a sense of infinity. You’re eyes get lost in the limitlessness of this celestial blue. And there’s no picture able to convey such beauty, no lense can capture it.

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We take off our flip-flops and enter the lake: the water is freezing, so cold that after just a few seconds we can feel needles in our legs.

We finally make it to the North point and the driver says we can walk around for an hour, after which we’ll have lunch on the hill.

On our way to the edge, we pass by trees dressed in colourful lentochki. Then, towers of stones, a tall tock covered in ribbons, coins at its feet and the blue abyss in front of us. There’s a special atmosphere, a strange vibe, like you somehow can feel why this lake, this place is the home of so many shamans and the cult of nature in general.

Walking back, we look down and spot a bunch of seals, resting on some rocks. The famous nerpi! We meet back with the others, who are all gathered around a table, and eat omul fish soup, local bread and pryaniki with chai. It’s incredibly hot and the hot food is making us all sweat, but nonetheless everything is very tasty and we all enjoy it.

It’s now time to get back, but we still have a couple stops to enjoy. One of them is on the eastern side of the island, basically on top of a rocky peninsula overlooking the water from up high. I climb on one of the rocks and as I reach the edge I shiver and can’t help but repeating out loud “oh my god oh my god”. My eyes are lost in the blue. There’s no end and no beginning. There’s only continuity. I look down and I can’t breathe. The deepest lake on earth looking right back at me.

I hear the honk of our minivan, so I climb down the rock and walk back so we can hit the road again and get back to our small village of Khuzhir. Russian songs are playing on the radio, one of the Russian beer belly guys tells Russian anecdotes and funny stories. All is fine and jolly till our driver pulls over and gets out of the car. After a few minutes, since he’s not back, we realize there’s something wrong and we all get out. The wheel is broken or something like that.

Other marshutka drivers stop and try to help out but apparently there seems to be nothing that can be done. Not quickly at least. I hear the Russian men from our marshutka say that oh well, we should get comfortable, cause it’s gonna take 2 or 3 hours before we can get back. The young guy jokes about the fact that we should watch out for the bears. But are they even joking? I think to myself.

Meanwhile, the other lady from out marshutka starts telling Russian jokes to the Dutch couple and the whole situation is surreal. We’re stranded in the middle of the woods on a wild island on lake Baikal with a bunch of strangers and really we don’t know whether to laugh or to actually get worried. Marta and I just lie on the ground, waiting for something to happen.

Then, out of nowhere, a minivan shows up and takes us in, as our driver Anatoly explains to us that this guy will give us a lift until a certain point, where we’ll have to wait for somebody else to pick us up. So we stop by a beach and as the beer belly duo bravely takes a swim in the freezing water, we just lie in the sand and enjoy the sun. It actually doesn’t take too long before a third driver shows up and finally gets us back to Khuzhir.

We then spend a deserved, quiet night. We visit the so-called Shaman’s rock, which is probably one of the most interesting, beautiful, mystic places I have ever seen. There’s little point in describing it as every attempt sort of takes away from it. Just go and see it.

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We then go for dinner in a small hut by the main street, eat pozy, some sort of local dumplings and get back home when it’s already pitch dark and freezing cold.

It’s hard to put into words the eeriness of the island at this time of night. There are no lights, only the pale hale of the moon, and as we walk down the street we can feel the eyes of the cows and stray dogs on us. It’s so sinister it could be a perfect setting for a horror movie.

20 June. Today’s a travel day. Our objective is Listvyanka, a village on the Southern coast of the Baikal and, as there’s no road connecting the island to it, we actually need to get back to Irkutsk and grab another marshutka from there. We booked our ride yesterday, for 11 AM, and it’s a good thing we did so in advance, cause when we get to the bus stop there’s a crowd already waiting and I am wondering how in the world we’re all gonna fit in one minivan. And I wonder well, cause when the driver arrives it doesn’t take too long to realize that there’s more tickets sold than seats available.

So the ticket lady and the driver start yelling at each other in Russian. Apparently, some people bought their tickets online and she didn’t know about it, so she sold more tickets than she should have. In the end, after a lot of arguing, the driver, who seriously looks like Fred Flintstones, agrees to carry more people, so our marshutka is literally so packed with people and bags that nobody can move. A girl is even sitting on her friend’s luggage cause there’s no more seats.

Anyway, after all this fuss, we hit the road and think: okay, a rough start but everything will be fine now. Wrong. We’re still on the island, just outside Khuzhir, and the driver takes a turn up a bump and gets us stuck in the sand. “Everybody out!”. As we do so, he starts grabbing rocks from the ground, positioning them near the back of the wheel to create some sort of ramp. He then hops in and turns on the engine. Nothing. Still stuck. All the male passengers start pushing as he goes for a second attempt and… success! So, that was actually quite funny but, what’s gonna happen next?

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And indeed, it’s not over. About 150 km away from Irkutsk, Fred Flintstones suddenly pulls over, a weird sound coming from the engine. It looks like it’s overworked or something like that. Still, Fred doesn’t seem too worried about it, he just turns his back on us and starts peeing on the side of the road, smokes a cigarettes and after 10 or 15 minutes restarts the car and off we go again. The noise continues though, and, as we see Gian’s face, Marta and I, who understand nothing about cars, go: “Wait, why are you so worried? Should we be? Like, what’s the worst thing that could happen? Could we like explode or something?”. Fortunately, he reassures us by saying that, worst case scenario, the car stops in the middle of the road. I mean, as long as we don’t explode, that’s fine with me.

And in the end, after a bunch of pullovers and a lot of cigarettes, Fred takes us to our destination safe and sound. It’s been 7 hours, I can’t feel my legs, but hey, we made it! Our fellow passengers yell “pobeda! victory!”.

We now have another ride to catch, and it’s already 7 PM. We go to the bus station counter, ask for a marshutka to listvyanka, but the grumpy lady says that the last one left at 4 PM and we’ll have to wait till tomorrow for the next one. What? No way. We decide to walk to the nearest info point in the hopes of finding a way to get to Listvyanka tonight and as we do so, some Russian men, drivers probably, stop us and ask us what we need. They then point us to the opposite direction, where we actually find a marshutka, a sign next to it saying “Listvyaka”. Bingo. It must be from some private company or something. Or just a gypsy marshutka, who cares. We hop on it and in about an hour and a half we’re in the beautiful Listvyanka.

Once again, the sight of the lake is stunning. It’s 9 PM, the sun is going down, and the water and the sky are painted in pink, violet and light blue. It looks like a fairytale.

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Our hostel is located at the very end of ulitsa Chapaeva, on top of a hill, surrounded by woods. It’s actually a very nice place, kind of looks like a mountain hut. A 15-year old boy opens the door for us and introduces himself as the hotel manager. He shows us the house and gets us to our rooms. There’s a huge common area with a fireplace, dining table, kitchen, TV, sofa. A sofa! A german guy and a swiss girl introduce themselves and we start chatting. They’re also travelling on the Transsiberian but, unlike us, they’re going westward.

In some way, this place is like some sort of hub, a crossroads for Transsiberian travellers. Also, finally some young and relatively “normal” people in our hostel! Travellers, not weird Russian workers or grumpy lonely women actually living in the hostel, as it happened in most places we’ve been staying in Russia.

We’re starving, so we decide to go find a place to eat on the coast. We end up at this bar with an outer terrace overlooking the lake. There seems to be some kind of party going on, most likely a birthday, Russians are dancing to their Russian disco music all around. Neat. We order food and find ourselves a table. In no time, a Russian man, Maxim, approaches us and asks us, in English: “Where are you from?”. And then keeps talking to us, still in English, which is pretty unusual in Russia, and even offers us some of his homemade vodka. Before we have time to kindly decline, he’s back with a plastic bottle and 4 shot glasses. He pours one for each of us and 3,2,1, down. It’s actually quite good I have to say, it leaves some kind of retrotaste in our mouth, which, he explains, is due to the orekhi he put in it, which also give it a yellowish color instead of the usual transparent one.

We thank him and again, before we know it, he’s back with another bottle, filled with another type of home-made vodka, this time transparent. “You have to try this one! 70 degrees!”. Oh boy. Alright. 3,2,1, down. Ouch. That was a rough one. Thank god our food is finally here so we can use it to chase this poison somehow.

Maxim walks away to let us eat, but regularly pops back to introduce us to his friends and finally his wife: an Azeri girl who looks much much younger than he is. She is probably younger than we are. And she’s pregnant. “Dance! Dance!” he goes. We go out on the terrace and can’t resist the call of the trashy Russian hits. This sort of hits:

So yeah we start dancing, while some men from one of the tables creepily take pictures and videos of us. Honestly, we don’t even care, after a whole day spent in marshutkas, fuck it.

In the end, Maxim and his wife, Lyudmila, offer to drive us back to our hostel and before we get out of the car, Maxim says: “Russians love Italy! Italy and Greece! Very good! We don’t want to fight! We like Italy and Greece! But you have to understand, I hope it doesn’t, but if situation get worse and it comes down to fighting, I have to go, you know? Fight for Russia! I hope not.” Yeah, let’s hope not.

21 June. Listvyanka. We’re chilling today, we feel like we deserve it so we’re in no rush whatsoever. The German guy and the Swiss girl told us they would go on the Great Baikal Trail and hike up to Bolshie Koty. They asked us if  we wanted to join, but fuck it, we’re just gonna enjoy the beach and eat fish. And that’s what we do, literally.

We wanted to swim, even just for a few seconds, but the water is so cold that we cannot bring ourselves to actually do it. I put one foot in and it goes numb instantly so I’m like, okay, no way. The water is about 8 degrees, 10 tops. On the other hand, we do manage to eat the famous local hot-steamed omul fish. We buy it from a stand at the market for just 100 Rubles, together with some lavash bread and it is delicious. We eat it by the beach, with our hands, and life couldn’t be better.

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We then spend our evening in the hostel, cooking our usual 500 grams of spaghetti al sumo and just chatting and exchanging travel stories and tips with the other guests, Marcel from Germany, Anya from Switzerland, Jean-Martin from the Netherlands, two Irish women who are actually super funny and super Irish, and a British girl. The atmosphere is great.

22 June. Irkutsk. We manage to get back to Irkutsk with no particular hinders, leave our bags at the station’s kamera khraneniya and now have the whole afternoon to visit the city, before our train to Ulan Ude, which leaves at 12.40 AM.

Too bad, once again, there really is not much to see, apart from a couple of I’ve-already-seen-this Orthodox churches, the incredibly ugly Angara river bank, and the usual Lenin and Marx streets. Pff, Russian cities.

So our day really can be summed up with us walking down the main streets and looking for stolovai to find harbor from the cold and annoying wind. Around 6 or 7 PM we decide that “fuck it, let’s just go to the station”. We find a table in the station cafe and hang out there for a couple of hours. Then we remember that Jean-Yves and Solene are supposed to come back to Irkutsk from Ulan Ude this evening. So we check the trains and there’s one coming from that direction at 11.18 PM. We lay around in the waiting room for a while, and just when we’re on our way to get our bags back from the kamera khranenya we hear someone calling us. Guess who? Jean-Yves and Solene! Good to see them.

We now have about an hour before our train leaves, so we all go for one last beer together at the Harat’s Pub in front of the Station. We hug them goodbye and finally get on our train, direction: Ulan Ude, capital of Buryatiya.

Cheers, P.

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