Siberian Hospitality and Father Baikal – Irkutsk and Lake Baikal

Via Ekaterienburg I finally reached Siberia – and was amazed about the hospitality of it’s people and it’s natural wonder: Lake Baikal.

From Kazan the overnight train reached Ekaterienburg the following morning. Having heard nothing special about the city, I decided to stay mere five hours and then take the next train to Irkutsk.

First thing I did in Ekaterienburg (yet in the station) was to take a shower after my just finished sauna experience. After having restored myself, I spent the rest of the layover time walking into the citys’ center. Coming to the Military Museum (where there are exponats of the famous U2-incident which took place in the hottest times of the Cold War), I was bitterly disappointed when I realized it was Monday and all museums were closed. So I decided to stroll through the city center and visit the memorial church that was erected to honor last tsar Nikolaus II and his family, who were murdered following the 1917/18 revolution in Ekaterienburg. Some years ago, they were declared martyrs, since then not only monarchists seem to be in their favor.

Saying that, it is an interesting fact that all statues of Stalin long have been removed but you find statues of Lenin everywhere in Russia. No Russian could really explain to me why this is so, not even guides who knew Russian history quite well. Maybe because even in today’s times getting rid of the monarchy is considered a good thing (besides all the evil he started).

I only spend five hours in Ekaterienburg, then I hopped into the “Rossia”, train no. 2 from Moscow to Vladivostok. This one can surely be described as the best one I rode on the Trans-Siberian: This 2nd-class kupé compartment was very luxurious, including a LCD-TV (terrible idea to put one up in a shared compartment). And most important: I was lucky again with my travel comanions, Oleg and Alex, two Russians in their late 40’s/early 50’s. I had booked the upcoming 48-hour trip including meals and was quite disappointed to learn that it obviously only included lunch, nothing else. However, Alex started to take care of me and we talked a lot about his family and him being a communication engineer – putting up antennas all around Russia. Expeting full board, I did not bring much food on this train, so Alex helped me out: The first night by offering me one of his instant meals, the next morning he shared his platform food with me: fish and freshly cooked potatoes he bought off a babushka. After Alex left the train in Novosibirsk, Oleg took over his part watching out for me.

After I arrived in Irkutsk, I hit the local markets, museums, and some sights. Quite interesting was the mansion of the Russian nobleman Volkonsky who was exiled to Siberia because he had taken part in a revolution (which goal it was to abandon serfdom). After serving his time in the mines, he built up a new life in Irkutsk before getting a full pardon and moving back to Moscow in his late days. Also the great number of old wooden houses was surprising – most of them in a poor condition however. But here lays the true richdom of Irkutsk for tourists – let’s hope they preserve it well (right now it does not see so, I saw many burned down wood houses – the way locals avoid the legal obligations to preserve them).

On that first evening I boarded a local train to Baikalsk where I had been invited by Vitaly, a seemingly nice couchsurfer. He prooved it right away for I got off the train one station too early. I called him and after figuring out where I was he called a taxi and was on his way to pick me up. While I waited I had time to carefully assess my situation: There I was, in the middle of nowhere in Siberia. It got cold, there was barely any light. Behind me some small houses and a well (which was in use!). I thought a little worried “Here I stand, in the middle of dark Siberia.” Then I started smiling, thinking “Here I stand, in the middle of dark Siberia!”

Vitaly came. A huge guy, like a bear, greeted me once the taxi came to a stop after jolting over a rocky road to the station. He took me to his apartment which was quite cosy and we talked for many hours.

Next day, Vitaly took me to finally meet him: Father Baikal. Great he was, mysterious, gentle, and cold. But smiling! Finally the sun wasn’t hiding any more after two weeks of rain, snow, and cold. I enjoyed it greatly and it contributed a lot to my travelling mood!

Vitaly offered me to go to the local theatre with him this evening. Being a manager there, he organized a ticket for me. Of course I went and although I didn’t understand anything, it was quite interesting. The theatre was filled up to the last seat – with a good reason: famous actor (at least in Soviet times) Vladimir Konkin played the main character. When the play was finished, there were standing ovations and (mostly elderly) women rushed to the stage, presenting huge amounts of flowers to the star. After his lenghty thank-you speech was finished, Vladimir and I went backstage, introducing me to the two accompanying actors. Finally I ended up in Mr. Konkin wardrobe, were he held a press conference. After his first answer took more than 20 minutes, I felt the urge to leave however…

The next day, I left early for Irkutsk, this time by minibus (Marshrutka, a word actually derived from German “Marschroute”, marching route, meaning going from one point to the other). There I met up with couchsurfer Tanya. We had previously decided to go to Lake Baikal together to do some hiking. After spending the night close to the lake, she lead me a small trail along the shore. It was very beautiful but turned out to be quite dangerous as well (leading over very steep cliffs and narrow passages). Tanya jumped like a mountain goat over all obstacles while I followed like an old dog missing a leg… We tried to use a boat on the way as a kind of shortcut, but it’s crew was on its way to get drunk on the shore and had no intention to leave soon…

When we finally arrived after four hours at the intersection where our path met with the regular (and safe) hiking trail, I was so happy that I took a sip of Vodka and sprang into the lake for a (very short) swim. We hiked back to Listvijanka through beautiful birch woods. Going up into the hills, I was amazed to suddenly find myself inmidst snow fields only half an hour after my swim in the lake.

Take the Baikalcircular Railway was on the following day. Being an old part of the original Trans-Siberian route not longer used by long-distance trains it leads from Port Baikal along the shore to Sludyanka on its southern side and was very renown for its scenic views, running over many bridges and through several tunnels. I decided to go with the local train instead of the tourist one (3.5 vs. 44 Euro) which meant more risk but also more fun. Upon my arrival in Sludyanka I was very happy to find that the local train was a brand new German train by Siemens, warm, cosy, and comfortable and any better train had probably to be equipped with a rolling spa…

The Baikalcircular train runs with an average speed of about 2km/h (okay, maybe 8) along the shore, basically stopping at every watery can (as we say in German). Sometimes there are only 500m between stopps, giving the gentle traveller all the time in the world to admire the beautiful landscape he passes through. After five hours, we finally arrived in Port Baikal at breaking dawn. I had met a group of four Russians who just came from moutaineering. One of them, Andrew, spoke decent English and I was allowed to join them on the search for accommodation. Two hours later, we had settled in a local apartment (toilet outside, ca. 200m away) for a very cheap price. I was offered the only bed for myself and on top of that I was invited to dinner. The two girls cooked a great meal and along came some Russian beer. Although few English was understood whenever Andrew did not translate,  I got along well with hand and feet and the bunch of us celebrated and talked until quite late that night.

Very, very early we got up again and after a quick clean-up in the kitchen sink, we stepped outside in the cold and boarded the ferry that crossed the river mouth between Port Baikal and Listvijanka. There we wandered along the shore and watched a show in the local aquarium with (sweet water!) seals. Subsequently we took a marshrutka and went to the open-air museum of Taltsy, where we spent some hours checking out historical wooden houses, farms, villages and forts. Not bad but surely not the best open-air museum I have seen (Hungary’s museum in Szentendre has that top-1 rank as far as I can tell).

My new Russian friends and I departed upon our arrival in Irkutsk after bidding a warm farewell to each other. And four hours later, I boarded the Trans-Siberian once again. Next stop: Ulan Bator, Mongolia.

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