Trans-Siberian Railway: Two days at Lake Baikal
Listvyanka ranks right around the #1 spot in our trip, a beautiful quiet beauty. Our log-cabin hotel was nestled in a valley back behind the lake. The valley filled with wooden houses capped with bright roofs, silent with the exception of a rare wandering dog or woman with a baby carriage ambling along the semi-paved roads. A cemetery filled with brightly colored plastic flowers and garlands clambered up the side of one hill, and the most beautiful yet understated Orthadox Russian Church, and my favorite that we saw in our entire trip, hidden among the swirling streets and shacks.
I couldn’t help but picture myself living in that hotel during the winter, gazing out at and endless ocean of white snow gathered along the lakefront, and keeping a fire going because that’s the only way to stay warm. Bundled in those patterned woolen sweaters and mittens that seem characteristic of all cold countries, and reading Anna Karenina while sipping hot chocolate from my stash of food that probably couldn’t be replenished until some of the snow died down. I have no idea what it’s actually like there in winter, except for that the locals we talked to said it was brutal. But the fantasy version is pretty nice.
In a long journey of smog and trains and big cities, Listvyanka was the perfect getaway, chilly but clear skied with classic Russian foods and trails to follow along the lake and through the village.
We got to the town on a dark and mist-filled morning, driven from Irkusk by our speed-loving but clearly expert driver, Sergei.
The first part of our day we spent perusing the exhibits of the Russian-language-only Baikal Limnological Museum, guided by Giuliana, our enthusiastic and similarly-aged chaperone, who translated for us about the endemic crustaceans, the Sturgeon and Omul, the Baikal Seals from the Arctic who migrated to the lake through rivers long ago. It’s the deepest lake in the world with the largest amount of fresh water, constantly self-cleaned by cold temperatures and the churning layers of organisms. The lake is so frozen so solid in the winter that the locals create highways across the ice to traffic goods to minuscule settlements scattered around the edges of the water. They’re barely reachable in summer, if you try very hard and have nice specialized off-road trucks.
We moved onto a wooden architecture museum, a partially reconstructed 1600s era Russian Fort that looks like it’s a delightful life-sized Linkin Log cabin. We wandered through the fake schoolrooms and wedding chambers and we were freezing, wearing all of our layers, in June. The place was staffed by stout and stern Russian women, wearing little but headscarfs and what I assume were era-appropriate dresses, who didn’t seem affected whatsoever by the weather.
We finally gave in and headed inside to the heated snack shop, and were introduced to the Russian love of my life — blinis with sour cream, and herbal tea. I proceeded to eat these blini every single day for the rest of my two weeks in Russia, and would probably continue to do so for the rest of my life (or at least a couple of months), until I myself grew very stout as well.
We finished the tour part of the day at the summertime version of a ski hill. An adorably cute bunny hill serviced by a single chairlift, which took us to the top of the aforementioned hill to get a view of the lake, and where Russians parties come to tie ribbons to the trees and pagodas for good luck, particularly during weddings.
The late afternoon in day one as well as day two we spent wandering around the single main street of Listvyanka, one side along the edge of the lake with the snow dusted mountains in the far background, the other dotted with small wooden cafés, a souvenir market and dozens of dried Omul stands. There was a small and very sad Nerpinary (a Baikal Seal Aquarium, as Baikal Seals proper name is a Nerpa Seal) and a man taking a baby bear on a leash around the beach to take money from tourists for pictures. A day later we saw a woman and a young girl with the bear — who knows how it changed hands and what will happen to it when it’s too old and scary to be cute anymore.
We followed along the road and past the main center square of town, with the pilaf rice and on-demand kebabs, and made our way towards a Catskills-esque hotel where Russian families come to set up picnics, blasting pop music and barbecuing along the lakeside.
The second was the day of our magnificent eight mile hike along the edge of Lake Baikal, enjoying the fresh air while snapping picture after picture of fire flowers, birch trees, and black crescent. Large swaths of the forest are illegally burned by prospective buyers, so they can get it for cheap, and large chunks of birch bark stripped from the trees for kindling on campfires. There’s only one ranger for an immense amount of land, so keeping things in order is difficult if not impossible. We ended our trek at a small campground within sight of one of the small seaside villages, and while we basked in the sun snacking on almonds, a couple of seals poked their heads out of the water, investigating us. The way back was provided for us with a fifteen minute speedboat ride, along what had taken us at least four hours to carefully hike through.
After one more cozy night’s sleep in our hotel, it was off to our next stops — Irkustk and Ekaterinburg.