I was initially a bit nervous about arriving in Beijing and trying to buy a trans Siberian ticket with only 4 days notice – this train is supposed to full up quickly, and while there are loads of local trains once you get into Russia, there’s only one trans Manchurian per week. (Two if you include the trans Mongolian as well, but I didn’t have time to stop in Mongolia and didn’t fancy buying a visa just to pass through.)
As it turns out barely anyone rides east to west so it was ridiculously easy to get a ticket, and I was surprised to find I had the entire compartment to myself for the whole three days. Actually up until the Russian border I nearly had the whole carriage to myself – so so far no stories of sharing vodka at 7 in the morning. Of course this meant that I had no one to help explain what was going on at the border crossing, which started at 3 in the morning and took about 12 hours. This involved the bleary eyed panic of having my passport taken away by a Chinese border guard and the train moving away from the platform before I got it back (it’s ok, the train went back and forth a bit before my passport reappeared), followed by the same thing happening at the Russian border, followed by being bustled off the train in Russia only to watch the train disappear with my luggage – that one came back eventually as well, but it would have been nice to have some advance warning that I was going to be waiting at the station for 7 hours without my belongings.
Two more days of endless brown later and the landscape finally stated to look interesting, with mountains on one side and the icy Lake Baikal on the other.
Late on my third day of train travel, I arrived in Irkutsk, my first stop in Russia. I’m pretty sure I had my watch wrong for the whole day as this had to be the most confusing border crossing ever in terms of time zones. Russia, being huge, sensibly has nine time zones, while China stubbornly has only one so there’s a difference of several hours on the same latitude. At the same time, while I was setting my watch to what I thought was Irkutsk local time, all the trains and therefore the clocks in the stations in Russia are set to Moscow time. All of which means that I travelled West, set my clock East, and got off the train at 2 just in time for dinner at 7. No wonder I was a bit disoriented.
I didn’t spend very much time in Irkutsk, but I got to wander around looking at the Russian churches (Russia does good churches – if you thought Catholics were fancy they’ve got nothing on Orthodox)
This is also the home of the Angara, an ice breaker which used to ferry passengers across the lake before the train tracks were built around it.
There may not be much to do here, but Irkutsk is the jumping off point for visiting Lake Baikal. Unfortunately I had a bit of a bad experience with the minibus to the village of Listvyanka. The bus costs 120 roubles and I handed over 200 and waited for change. In the time it took me to put my coat back on the driver had conveniently forgotten that I had given him money and started asking for more (miraculously, he remembered taking payment from all the Russians on the bus). When I took change myself from the pile of money on the front seat he started shouting and when I walked off actually pushed me back into the van. Maybe he expected the meek delicate little English girl to fold at that point and give the scary Russian con man all her money. Maybe he hadn’t noticed I was wielding a large umbrella. I hope he has some bruises to make him reconsider next time.
Happily, I can report that the rest of my time in Listvyanka was lovely, if a little cold. I don’t think I can ever complain about how fickle the weather in England is after experiencing a Russian spring. When I arrived in Irkutsk it was 27 degrees and I was sweating by the time I got to the hostel. Two days later by the lake I had this.
By that afternoon it was hot again and turning all the snow to slush. Barmy. I had hoped to do a bit of hiking around the Circum-Baikal trail, but the snow and subsequent two days of melting slush hampered me a bit as the only shoes I had found to fit my huge clown feet in Japan were canvas tennis shoes. Just walking up and down the roads was hard enough when my feet were getting soaked in the first 5 metres.
There’s still plenty to do in the village though, including diving, if you’re insane. Thus isn’t just for the middle of summer, I actually saw someone coming up from a dive. I didn’t take a photo though. He looked cold and grumpy. I imagine there’s lots to see if you are impervious to the cold though, Lake Baikal being the biggest lake in the world! Before any Americans get their knickers in a twist, Lake Superior is far bigger by surface area, but because Baikal is so deep, it has more water volume than all 5 Great Lakes put together. In fact, it’s getting deeper all the time as the tectonic plates shift apart and in the distant future when humans have made way for the newly dominant cockroaches it will be the next ocean.
One thing I know for sure is in there are delightfully pudgy Nerpa seals. You can visit one rather lonely looking one in the small aquarium section of the Baikal museum, or you can go and see the seal show in the Nerpinarium. I admit, I did this purely because I liked the name, although even without that it’s always fun to see seals playing saxophones, painting pictures and blowing raspberries at their trainers.
Although the snow on the trails still hadn’t completely melted by my last day, it was dry enough for me to hike up to the viewpoint behind the museum (you can take a cable car up if you’re feeling lazy). The trees in the way meant I couldn’t get a decent picture sadly, but just round the corner from here the air was so clear that you could see the mountains on the other side of the lake – absolutely stunning.
And with that, all the snow was gone. It seems my winter this year lasted all of three days. I bet karma’s gonna pay me back for that by bringing the polar vortex over to the UK this year.