We are in the Baikal village of Balshiye Koty, population 50. No roads come here, and there are only two ways to reach it. One is to take the hydrofoil upriver from Irkutsk, which runs once a day. The other is to walk the 25km from Listvyanka, the ‘gateway to Baikal’ town, itself an hour and a half by bus from Irkutsk. In the winter, there’s a third way; to drive to the village across the solidly frozen lake.
Our journey here did run into a few slight snags. Our initial plan was to take an early-morning bus to Listvyanka and to do the walk, which at the time we wrongly thought to be a mere 18km. But after a sleepless night in our hostel, we reverted to Plan B, which was to take the hydrofoil. But after a struggle to find and book a taxi to get us out to the ferry dock, the hydrofoil staff refused to sell us a ticket – allegedly full up. We retreated, caught an afternoon bus to Listvyanka, and set off on the walk the next morning.
Lake Baikal is, indeed, stunningly, absurdly beautiful, especially on the flawless 27º day that we did the walk. The reason no road runs along the coast of Baikal up to Balshiye Koty is that the area is a national park – a huge number of the animals and plants in the area are found only around Baikal. The water itself is so pure and clear that you can see up to forty metres straight down, and completely drinkable, thanks in part to the many indigenous species of sponge that ‘clean’ it. Swimming in the lake itself is like swimming in pure Evian. We had been recommended the walk, and the hostel we were headed for, by an Australian couple in St. Petersburg who had just taken the Trans-Siberian in the opposite direction. It consists of individual wooden cabins, a simple kitchen, and a Russian banya, or sauna, where you can be beaten with birch twigs for refreshment and cleanliness. (I didn’t partake, but Aleksey the hostel manager, administered it to one-half of the couple, Martin and Courtney, who were staying with us.). It’s a fantastic retreat; with no light pollution, the stars are overwhelming and the Milky Way stretches in a glowing band right down to the horizon. Wild horses wander around the village, and there is one tiny shop. The walk was hard and long, though, taking us seven hours while carrying all of our gear, and we arrived blistered, sweaty, and sore. The weather took a distinct turn on the next day, however, dropping to around 14º and rainy, and we made the difficult decision to do the walk again the next day, as there was no hydrofoil running, to get back to civilisation and be able to see a few things in Listvyanka before we need to pick up our train to Mongolia on Wednesday.
Baikal boasts its own series of freshwater seal, the charmingly named and frolicsome nerpa. Naturally, I have fallen in love with them and plan to refuse to leave until I see one, so our plans for the next few days include a visit to the Nerpinarium in Listvyanka. Wish me luck.