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Trip 18 -- Northeast Asia

Part 3: Playing it safe around Lake Baikal
28 June 2016

I could barely see Irkutsk through the poplar fluff. From what I made out, it was a sprawling city made up of wooden homes with decorative geometric fringes. The homes had a cozy, rustic look, and some had settled to the point of being slightly sunken, their walls sloping inward and their shutters not quite straight. The long train station, however, was polished and glorious; so taken was I that I spent most of an hour admiring the building from its boring interior as I attempted to buy train tickets.

I had two to procure: one around the western shore of Lake Baikal from Port Baikal to Slyudyanka, and the other around the south and to the east overnight from Slyudyanka to Ulan-Ude. The latter is on the main Trans-Siberian line and was easily obtained.

The stretch from Port Baikal to Slyudyanka is half of what's optimistically called the Circumbaikal Railway -- it doesn't come close to going all the way around the lake. There are only a few branch trains per week, plus a few tourist trains. Because of my schedule, I had to take a tourist train, which meant I'd have commentary about the line (more than I bargained for), but I had to buy a ticket from the tour operator.

"Go to entrance three, second floor," said the woman who sold me Slyudyanka to Ulan-Ude.

I walked along the long building to the third entrance. I found the office for the tour operator, but a sign said it was no longer there; it was at a new address. "Three tram stops from the train station," said the sign.

But which tram? And in which direction? Google Maps helped me out.

The tram would have gotten me there before it opened, and it was a beautiful morning, so I walked it. I headed east along the bridge to the main part of town -- the train station is west of the Angara River, the city center east -- and over the graffiti-marked embankment, where people paint each other birthday wishes and love proclamations. It was sort of sweet, I thought.

I bought the ticket and had a couple of hours to wander the town before taking the ferry down the Angara to Lake Baikal itself. Besides the beautiful homes were a pedestrian shopping street; lots of museums and theatres; a purpose-built mall with gleaming new copies of the wood houses called the 130th Quarter; and an enormous central food market that even included halal and Vietnamese sections. If only I hadn't had to focus on avoiding the poplar flutter.

I spread out my repast of Kamchatka crab and caviar on the two-hour hydrofoil ride. Behind me I heard American English; it was a missionary living in Novosibirsk and visiting Baikal on a business trip. I told her I was a musician. "Go upstairs," she said. "There's a voice teacher from Australia."

I found him with his wife. "I'm told you're a voice teacher," I said. "I'm a pianist."

"I saw you downstairs enjoying something that smelled fishy," his wife said.

"I'm sorry. I hope it didn't bother you."

"Oh, no, it looked good."

The ferry made a brief stop in the holiday town of Listvyanka, at the mouth of the Angara, before continuing to the much smaller village of Bolshiye Koty. There it waited a few hours before heading back to Listvyanka and Irkutsk. My plan was to spend the night at Bolshiye Koty and then hike the 13-mile trail back to Listvyanka, where a ferry would bring me to Port Baikal to catch the first of the two trains.

Most passengers got off at Listvyanka; I was surprised when the Australians didn't.

"Are you staying in Bolshiye Koty?" I asked.

"No, we're just going to stop there until the ferry goes back to Listvyanka," the voice teacher said.

"Are you sure? We could hike the trail back together." I would have liked company on the walk.

"I thought about it. But we're not prepared to do it now. And you have to check for ticks every half hour." I had read that as well. "Someday I'd like to, but we can't this time."

Bolshiye Koty means either "big cats," "big boots," "big handcuffs," or "big fishnets," depending on whether you're being literal (cats) or focusing on its position on the lake or the kind of shoes worn by prisoners in exile. It's a cluster of wooden homes scattered around dirt roads, housing no more than a hundred people. I was greeted by a handsome pair of stray horses.

I walked until I found an obvious hotel at the far end of town: the ambitiously named Baza Otdikha Mayak -- Lighthouse Base of Rest. These "bases of rest" were built around the lake as mini-resorts, supposedly offering more activities than your average hotel. The sign at the Mayak promised well-constructed rooms, complex meals, and a sauna. Several other offerings had been painted over, along with the adjective describing the sauna. I later found out that the sauna cost extra and also wasn't working.

I went inside the restaurant and faced a stout, no-nonsense man whom I definitely wanted on my good side. He looked at me expressionlessly. He wasn't menacing, but it was clear he thought his opinions were always the correct ones. I called him Mr. Right.

"Hello," I said.


"Do you have a room for one person, for one night?"

"How much do you want to pay?"

"How much are the rooms?"

"There are different prices: six hundred, seven hundred, eight hundred, a thousand."

A thousand rubles was about $15. He was talking good numbers; I was afraid they'd be much more.

"May I see one in the middle?"

He had a woman show me room 44, in another building. It was accessed through room 45 and was a dorm room with four beds and no toilet.

"I can have the whole room?" I asked her.


"How much is it?"

"I don't know. You'll have to ask him."

"Where is the toilet?"

"Downstairs. It's a pay toilet. But you only have to pay once." She shouted to a woman in room 43, also accessed via 45. "May I have the bathroom key?" She brought me downstairs and opened the door to the squat toilet and shower. "They are leaving tonight, so you can have the key then," she told me.

So at this tourist base boasting all sorts of amenities, I have to pay to use the squat toilet, and I don't get the key until the evening?

"May I see another room?"

She took me back to the restaurant and upstairs, to room 18. It had its own bathroom and a balcony with a view of the lake. We went back to Mr. Right.

"How much is the first room?"

"Six hundred."

"And the second?"

"Two thousand."

That wasn't on his original list. "Would you let me have it for fifteen hundred?"

"It's usually three thousand for two people. But you are alone. And you are going to be here until the ferry leaves in the evening."

"No, I'm not. I'm leaving in the morning on foot, for Listvyanka."

"I see."

It occurred to me that he might provide good safety information. "Do you think I'll be OK if I go alone?"

"If a grandmother can do it, you can." The only word I understood was "grandmother," but I wanted to believe that's what he said.

"What about bears?"

"They've already eaten."

We stared at each other for a moment.

"OK, go ahead. Fifteen hundred," he said.

I paid up.

"Will you have lunch?"

"I've already eaten."


The restaurant looked inviting, and there were actually people in it. "Sure, I said."

"What will you have?" He showed me a menu. I hadn't expected to commit right then.

"Fish soup," I said. "A half portion." That was listed as an available amount.

"No, no. You should have a whole portion."

It wasn't that much more. "OK," I said. "And then, grilled fish with kasha."

"And bread?"

"I don't need it."

"And what will you drink? At Lake Baikal you must drink vodka."

"Good," I said. "A hundred grams." Every item on every restaurant menu in Russia states how many grams it contains. Drinks are usually ordered by the gram or milliliter.

"Two hundred," he said. "And what time do you want to eat?"


"Eight would be better, so the staff can go to bed."

"All right, eight."

I had a walk around town. Back near the ferry dock was a museum. What could a museum in this tiny town show me? I had to find out.

"We have two halls. The first hall is about the lake. The second hall is about the land."

I entered the first. In the center were Baikal fish preserved in jars, such as sturgeon, pike, the catfish-like sculpin, and the ubiquitous omul, a salmon relative that tastes more like trout and accounts for 70% of all fish caught in the lake. In back was a display case with a wild-looking "Ommatogammarus," which looked like a wild green combination of a lobster, a fish, a scorpion, and Edward Scissorhands. Off to the side were various mollusks along with caption that had helpfully been thrown with reckless abandon into a computerized translator; otherwise I'd never know that "Central on an abundance of kinds and originality by group from among radical habitats the family Baicaliidae is."

Over in the "land" room were stuffed kabarga (sort of like a white antelope), snakes, hawks, gulls, and an ezubr, a kind of deer and my new favorite Scrabble non-word. Plus zillions of rocks and the minerals they contained. How could I remember them all?

On the way back to the hotel, I stopped at Bolshiye Koty's one market to stock up for the next day's hike and buy a pre-dinner beer. I knew Mr. Right would say something when he saw me heading up to my room.

"We have beer here."

I was, of course, the only one at dinner. Everything came out at once -- the peril of ordering in advance. The soup contained an entire grayling, and the grilled fish was mackerel. There was bread anyway, and the carafe seemed to contain more than 200 grams of vodka. But the whole meal came to only the equivalent of $10. I tried to give a little extra when I paid Mr. Right.

"Not allowed," he said. Then he showed me his phone. "Tomorrow it will be sunny."

It didn't quite start out that way. I wanted to get out by 8 a.m., as the hike would take about six hours and there were things I wanted to see in Listvyanka. When I woke up, the horizontal layers of clouds were fizzing together, like a kaleidoscope.

But they went away and it became perfect hiking weather: slightly cool and dry. For a while the trail merged into and out of the dirt road that led...where? I knew it didn't connect with anything. There were slight ups and downs, but it was generally wide and peaceful, undulating maybe twenty feet above the lake on a steep slope.

After 45 minutes I reached a campsite. A tent was guarded by a white dog, which eyed me but didn't move.

The path had descended to a rocky beach. I tried to find the path's continuation, set back from the beach, and startled the dog when I searched for a way across a stream. The dog barked but didn't go after me.

On the other side, the path was much narrower. It started up steeply and then leveled off, and then started twists and curves and ups and downs. I walked for a few minutes and it wasn't hard, but I was walking along a cliff and the path was barely wide enough.

I decided I didn't need to do it. The beach was a perfect, sunny picnic place, and there was a ferry back to Listvyanka at 3 p.m. The path wasn't bad here, but any higher, narrower, or steeper and the acrophobia might kick in. I didn't want to go five hours only to come to a stretch I felt I couldn't handle.

So I went back to the shore, and I gradually enjoyed my food and listened to the gentle lapping of the water. The fist-sized rocks were various shades of pink, grey, white, and black. I tried to remember the geology lesson from the museum, but all I could think of was "fluorite."

I took a sip from the lake, which is clean enough to drink from except near the bigger settlements. It was cool and sweet. Mr. Right had tried to get me to go swimming. "You must, when you're at Lake Baikal. The water is five degrees" (Celsius). And he emphasized how warm that was. "Plus five!"

"Well, if it's plus five...," I'd said. But I didn't go in.

The line where the water met the shore was littered with what looked like tiny dead shrimp and the carcasses of little moths. There was also the occasional glove-shaped sponge. It was a little buggy but very pleasant. I stayed there a couple of hours and then walked back to the village to get the Listvyanka ferry.

Listvyanka is mainly one three-mile road hugging the shore, with a few perpendicular streets shooting off briefly toward the hills. The ferry brought me to the center of town, but the following morning I had to be a couple of miles toward the mouth of the Angara to meet the boat that would bring me to the Circumbaikal Railway. So I based myself there, at the warm Guesthouse Malina, where a friendly, scruffy dog welcomed me into the courtyard and I secured a room facing the lake.

Nearby, the Baikal Museum focused on the lake's superlatives and its residents. It's the largest and deepest lake, with a fifth of the world's flowing fresh water; it's twice the volume of Lake Superior. The museum's aquaria, with direct water exchange from the lake, contained a variety of its specimens, such as dace, stone sculpin, sturgeon, omul, and an amphipod (a kind of crustacean) called Gammarid Carinogammarus of Wag, which sounded to me like something out of a science-fiction movie. It had 26 legs, was about a finger's length, and looked like a cross between a spider and a shrimp. And of course there were the cute, stout nerpa seals, with trim whiskers and five inches of fat to keep them warm.

Upstairs at the museum was a microscope room, where I examined the area's tinier creatures. I found out that those cocoons I'd seen at my picnic site were from the caddisfly, which hatch in spring. And the shrimp-like critters were another kind of gammarus. I also peered at a sponge and a flatworm, the latter of which can grow to be a foot long and is made up mostly of bowels.

The Malina was near a wooden restaurant called Proshly Vek ("the last century"). It had lots of old Russian memorabilia -- Soviet money, musical instruments, tools, and photographs. But above all, it had other diners: three tables' worth, in fact. I sat upstairs and felt very Siberian with my pine-nut vodka, frozen raw reindeer meat, and whitefish baked in foil with cheese and eggs.

In the morning I crossed the river and joined the Circumbaikal Railway tour, half a train car's worth of sightseers and our ebullient guide. She talked nonstop from the time we arrived in Port Baikal to the time we arrived in Slyudyanka eight hours later, except for when she played videos of Lake Baikal in the train carriage. She described every inch of the railway's construction -- the material of every bridge, the builder of every tunnel -- and had the cheeriest attitude. "Dear passengers, I wish you the most wonderful journey, and health, prosperity, and happiness in life!"

Her young son ran up and down the carriage all day until he fell asleep. As we boarded, we were given brochures in English that I hoped would have some historical information, but all they did was promise that we would see "vintage steam train (and travel on it), railway construction of the last century, the beautiful nature of Lake Baikal, and another interesting things." Her son helpfully handed them out in Chinese as well.

The vintage steam train was pulled by a 1954 locomotive that hissed and sputtered its way along the 60 or so miles from Port Baikal to Slyudyanka. Built from 1901 to 1904, the route was an engineering feat that involved boring through cliffs and laying track on steep slopes.

The original cross-country railway headed east to Irkutsk and then down along the Angara River to Port Baikal, where two icebreaker ferries carried passengers across the lake to Mysovaya (now Babushkin) for their onward journey: one ferry for the train and lower-class passengers, and the other, with more amenities, for upper-class passengers. If the ice was too thick for the icebreakers, they laid temporary tracks across.

This clumsy arrangement lasted only a few years, until the building of a rail link around the lake's southern point was approved. The eastern shore, from Slyudyanka to Mysovaya, was not so difficult, but the western shore required boring through cliffs and laying track on steep slopes. It was built from 1901 to 1904 and had 13,500 workers in its final year. Many of these were ex-convicts, who earned one ruble per 16-hour day and tied themselves to the cliffs with rope for support. In all, the western section, from Port Baikal to Kultuk (just before Slyudyanka), has 39 tunnels, 16 galleries (protective structures to guard against rockslide), and about 470 water-spanning constructions. Some of these are hybrid iron-concrete bridges or aqueducts with beautiful arches.

In 1956, the construction of the Angara Dam flooded the track along the river, and a new line was built from Irkutsk to Slyudyanka. The Port Baikal-Slyudyanka section became a dead end, and traffic thinned out. But starting in the 1970s the area's beauty drew builders of resorts -- bases of rest such as the Mayak, ideally with more to offer -- and it became a popular holiday destination. It still is, with wonderful views and a tranquil atmosphere. We took several stops throughout the day and walked over bridges and through tunnels and galleries. The lake was deep-blue and almost impossibly clear.

Slyudyanka seemed proud of its status as a railway junction. In addition to the mind-boggling row of passenger and freight tracks, with great views from the pedestrian bridge, there were a train museum (sadly closed before I arrived), a random rail car amidst some apartment buildings, and a locomotive on display in the main square, along with a memorial to those who contributed to building the railway. Next to the locomotive was a fountain that provided a welcome cool mist as I walked by.

What Slyudyanka didn't have was a restaurant. Not a single one. I had six hours to have a leisurely dinner and there was no establishment to take my money. I hopefully approached each "Cafe" sign, maybe a dozen in all, and all were firmly closed despite posted hours to the contrary. So I headed to the lakefront with sausage, cheese, and a beer, and watched the sun set with everyone else.

Mysterious-sounding Ulan-Ude, called Verkhneudinsk until 1934, takes its name from "ulan," meaning "red" -- a tribute to communism -- and the Uda River. It's a gateway to Mongolia, and the city contains Buddhist temples and Buryat people speaking their gutteral, staccato language.

I arrived in the early-morning hours and gaped at the giant Lenin head that dominates the main square, an enormous Soviet-style plaza bordered by stately buildings and the obligatory imposing hotel. It was virtually silent, except for the occasional bus rounding the corner. I walked down Lenin Street to its pedestrianized stretch, with its old mansion houses, new clothing shops, and people opening up their ice-cream stands for the day. One mansion now houses a local-history museum, part of which is a "random stuff from years past" section filled with ancient cameras, adding machines, and a horsehead fiddle donated by residents. My tour guide was a noisy kitten, who followed me up the spiral staircase.

I arrived at the main food market and got to see and sniff all the Buryat exotica: larch chewing gum, cranberries, lingonberries, and rosehips. Tongues, stomachs, and intestines of every animal. Dill, turmeric, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, and sumac. Fresh goat's milk and honey. I went upstairs for a breakfast of buuzy (large Buryat dumplings) and walked around the hill next to the market, with its grand war memorial. With an extra hour, I could have made it to lunch on the outskirts of town for some traditional "raw cow's liver in horse stomach fat," as my guidebook promised, but I had to fly to Novosibirsk and then on to Yakutsk.

On takeoff from Ulan-Ude, we accelerated for a small eternity and then banked upward at a steeper-than-usual angle.

"Whee!" said the woman next to me, or the equivalent exclamation in Buryat. "First time."

"It's normal," I reassured her.

Her name was Aryuna; she was about twenty years old and headed for Sochi to join the hotel service industry. Delighted with the novel experience of flying, she gripped her phone tightly and leaned over me to take pictures throughout the flight. It was a clear day and the scenery was varied.

"Baikal." Click. "Taiga." Click. We flew over Listvyanka and I could almost make out the Great Baikal Trail. "Angara River."

"Is that snow on the mountains?" she asked.

"Marble," I said, recognizing the peaks I'd seen on the Circumbaikal Railway and remembering the tour guide's energetic explanation ("Everyone thinks it's snow, but it's marble!").

"Irkutsk," she said. Click.

She paused when they served us juice and little chicken sandwiches that barely held together. "Cheers," we toasted. We approached a few clouds and the plane shook, but she seemed unperturbed.

"The clouds are so pretty," she said. They were: those big, puffy, calm, pure-white ones. The plane went around the clouds, just missing them, as if the pilot were playing a video game.

We started descending into Novosibirsk and the landscape of the giant city took over. "There's a long train," I said. Click.

"And a highway under construction."

"Really?" she asked.

"Yes. See? No cars yet." It was the pristine dirt foundation for a new highway, complete with a flattened cloverleaf interchange. A beautiful thing to see from the air, even I thought.


I probably should have given her the window seat.

Aryuna had a couple of hours before her plane to Sochi. I had a couple more before flying on to Yakutsk, so I took the bus into town. Novosibirsk sprawls, with grand Soviet avenues with parallel asphalt pedestrian lanes -- broader than sidewalks -- containing food kiosks and separated from the cars by grass. It was the closest thing I'd seen to Moscow the whole trip.

I walked up Lenin Street (it's always Lenin Street), past the "gastro-theater" and a very swanky lounge (for next time), and got on the subway. There are just thirteen stations in Novosibirsk, and they form a cross, more or less. I didn't really need to take the subway, but I missed traveling that way in Russia. Russian subways all have the same factory smell, the cost is cheap (the equivalent of about 60 cents in Novosibirsk), the trains are fast, and the doors start opening just before the trains stop.

I went two stops with the intent of walking back. There seemed to be a long time between stations, and I was hoping to have dinner before getting on the bus back to the airport. Had I gone too far? I got off at the second stop and hastened back, but it was only about ten minutes before I arrived at the previous one, where I turned and headed for the bus stop in front of the main train station. I had time for dinner after all, and I settled in for some tongue pelmeni (Russian dumplings, smaller than buuzy) and a beer and watched the activity in front of the train station.

Novosibirsk has appalling traffic and lacks a proper highway to its airport 20 miles out of town. The bus is marked as an express but stops every few hundred feet. I'd allowed an extra hour to get back to the airport and more than half of that leeway got used. I rushed inside and had a few minutes to spare before we boarded.

This was one of those times when I wouldn't have minded a delay. Our arrival was scheduled for 3:15 a.m. and we were a half-hour early. Summer sunrise in Yakutsk. But I wasn't ready to greet the sun, so I stretched out on a row of chairs and went to sleep.

Go on to part 4: Ysyakh with khomus and kumiss