The Russian lady is shouting at us and pointing and shouting some more. Six of us are sitting open mouthed like a bunch of market traded fish, as her incomprehensible words spill into our train carriage. Then she suddenly pounces, snatching a bottle of vodka from the hand of our Brazilian companion and huffing away again. She’s the train stewardess, and the impression I get is that she doesn’t approve of our post-10pm vodka-fuelled card game.
The following morning, when we’re roused at 6am ready for our arrival in Irkutsk, I take a moment to mentally thank her for her intervention.
Oh hi Russia
It’s a little surreal getting our land legs back after two nights on the trans-Siberian, emerging blinking into the car park where battered vehicles pick up polyester clad ladies with bottle bleached hair. Families hug and disperse, we gather in a little huddle round our backpacks, the spectre of our first Russian taxi journey before us. We’re not expecting drivers to speak a great deal of English which is of course fair enough, but we should have spent less time on card-playing and more revising our Russian.
Matt and me have gained a companion from the train. He’s a French fellow in his early twenties with a manicured moustache curled up at the ends and a striped t-shirt. It’s not clear if he’s going for irony with his style or not. Either way he’s thoroughly pleasant and polite but seems a little lost since he had most of his clothes and all his cash cards stolen at a music festival in Cambodia. He reports this with nonchalance, kind of as an aside, the same way he drops in the fact he got bitten by a stray dog in Southeast Asia and had to be rushed to the hospital in case of rabies. I can’t help but marvel at both the way he shrugs this all off, and the way he’s actually made it this far.
We invite him to jump in the back of our cab to town which he gratefully accepts. Our driver zig zags through back streets hard on the accelator, heavy on the brakes, past battered wooden houses and dismal concrete flats. We don’t seem to be approaching anything like a city centre and it suddenly occurs to me that the Frenchman’s run of bad luck might be about to rub off on us – our driver is taking us to some backstreet to relieve us of our possessions perhaps. But suddenly we emerge onto a shambling main street lined with minivans and screech to a halt. The bus station is before us. Phew.
Our companion says goodbye, fixing us with a pair of large, dark, doleful eyes – he better get to the tourist information where hopefully his credit card is waiting for him. I’m seized by the urge to go with him and make sure he’s alright. Matt, however, has dispensed with any maternal instincts and is already beelining for the ticket queue at the bus station, so I give a quick wave and trot after him, turning to see the Frenchman’s backpack retreating into the distance with an air of sadness. That’s when it hits me that this is how he’s got this far – he really has an uncanny knack for making you want to take care of him. I do hope he’s not still in Irkutsk, rocking up to Tourist Information every morning, although I daresay if he is he’s been taken in by a Russian family and is living like a king.
Guest house? What guest house?
We get our tickets and board a small white minivan to Listvyanka. I’m sat beside a pretty Russian girl in a uniform. She’s listening to 80’s power ballads by the likes of Queen and Europe on her mobile phone.
I sleep awhile, then awaken to one of the most terrifying drives of my life. The minivan is flying along a hilly single carriageway road virtually one-wheeled round corners and hitting blind summits as if it plans to take off from the other side. Matt is passed out next to me oblivious and I’m so jealous I almost want to pinch him awake.
We disembark at Listvyanka, and once I’ve stopped trembling we go off in search of our guest house Devyaty Val. Listvyanka is a very small town with one main road fringing Lake Baikal and lots of small side roads creeping off it, up into the hillsides which are peppered liberally with wooden shuttered houses.
It’s up one of these side roads we venture, and after a few laps up and down the street of our supposed hostel we find a house with a garden gate that seems to be in the right place. We squeak the gate open and wander along the path, to be met by the steely gaze of a Russian lady. Matt approaches her and tries telling her we’re looking for the guest house. She looks contemptuous and barks back at us in Russian as if she’s never heard of this guest house of which we speak.
Whilst Matt is embroiled in this altercation a man comes out of a greenhouse next to me and smiles. Are you here to stay at the guest house? He asks politely. I nod, he says something to the lady and next thing she’s suddenly remembered that this is indeed a guest house and fetches the keys to our room.
We creak up a wooden staircase to the first floor, and the woman throws open the door to a lounge which appears to be a large, under-the-sea themed dance hall, complete with seaweed mural and disco balls (the explanation for which remains a mystery). We pass through this to our room, a wooden cabin with one wall carpeted in brown crushed velvet. I cannot say I’ve ever stayed anywhere like it before, but it was clean and comfortable enough, with a rickety balcony looking out over town.
Great Yarmouth, is that you?
Down at the shores of the lake families in tracksuits mill around, eating ice creams. Techno music thuds from a moored boat, whose occupants are barbecuing meat and swigging beer. We go to one of the lakefront hotels for lunch where an unsmiling but ruthlessly efficient blue-eyed waiter in jeans and a Nike t-shirt serves us salmon pancakes and smoked omul which we eat to the soundtrack of more techno. He then marches off to help his friend erect a human gyroscope on the hotel verandah. Before long a family appears and pays to insert their 11 year old daughter into it. After what seems to be 15 minutes spinning she’s gone the colour of cheese mould.
Other than the stunning natural wonder of Lake Baikal, the world’s largest freshwater lake stretching to the horizon, and everyone speaking Russian, it feels pretty much like I’m back in one of my childhood holidays in the UK, like when we went to Great Yarmouth or Barry Island. Having been away from home for nearly 8 months, it gives me a fuzzy glow but I’m unsure how other, more refined visitors might react.
Lakes and lovers
We poke about the little market selling precious stone jewellery and Russian dolls, Putin memorabilia and nose-wrinkling dried fish. Then we decide to take a trip out on the lake. We queue in the tourist office but the blushing attendant is fully occupied chatting to an Ashton Kutcher lookalike. His friend sits in the corner staring into space and I can immediately sense this is a regular pattern for their human interactions. But then Ashton(ish) turns the full force of his charm on us, who are we, where are we from – oh we’re heading out onto the lake too? He will sort our tickets for us since he speaks Russian (he’s German and his English is impeccable too). Would we like to join them for lunch? We decline as we’ve eaten already. Turns out he and his friend live in Moscow and are away on a little trip. When they hear we’re headed there they insist on taking our contact details and sending us information about what to do. I make a little karma note to be this friendly and helpful to people we meet too (not that I shun people normally. That often).
The boat trip is short and sweet and we learn some pretty awesome facts about Lake Baikal from a very beautiful tour guide. It’s more than a mile deep and holds 20% of the world’s freshwater. It’s got quite a few of its own species including the only freshwater seal (rather cutely named the ‘nerpa’), which feeds on these weird little transparent fish called golomyanka which give birth to live young. As we get off the boat the guide turns to Ashton(ish) and gives him a hug goodbye and a coquettish request to stay in touch. It seems they know each other from the day before…
A walk in the woods
The morning sees us hiking out of town towards the Great Baikal Trail. We pass little wooden houses with peeling paint and big gardens alive with butterflies warming their wings in the sun. Dogs scratch in the dirt outside and dusty cars rumble by. The trees thicken as we reach the trail head, the houses disappear and suddenly we’re surrounded by birdsong and wildflowers. Beams of sunlight lance through the leaves above.
Matt suddenly stops and bends abruptly, examining a patch of mud next to the path.
“Bear.” He says, pointing to a very large pawprint. Whilst I know he has no idea what he’s talking about, it throws me off kilter for much of the walk – every time we’re at a blind corner I’m preparing to throw myself off the path, or push Matt in the waiting arms of angry Winnie and run.
Still, it’s a really lovely path. It feels a bit like being back in the wilds of Canada again. Stretches of it are really incredibly steep and we have to haul ourselves up them, drenched in sweat, stopping every few metres. Two young hikers with full sized backpacks greet us warmly as they overtake and disappear up the hill, practically skipping. I gaze after them fondly a bit like this:
We walk along the shoreline to the Listvyanka Club where we spend a long drawn out evening devouring more amazing food – rosemary roasted potatoes, beetroot salad and fish dumpling soup to a soundtrack of, you guessed it, techno slash Europop. In fact, if you read this post with Darude playing loudly in the background the entire time you’ll pretty much be there with us.
We’re tucking into homemade apple pie when a rotund Russian man with a mullet and giant black chunk of moustache appears by our table. He reaches out a gold-ringed hand to Matt and introduces himself, asking where we’re from.
“Ah England!” He exclaims “Brexit! Why you vote leave EU? Bad decision, very bad!”
He carries on talking incomprehensibly in his thick accent before handing Matt a business card.
Then one more dramatic wave of the arms “Brexit! TRAGICAL!” And he’s gone, like some sort of momentary hallucination. We both blink repeatedly.
The walk home along the lake brings with it one of the most glorious views I’ve ever seen. A goose-pimple inducing voluminous sky of grey and blue and lilac reflected back in the silvery waters of the lake.
And just as a final, magic little treat a nerpa pops its sleek black head out of the water, gazes at us, then vanishes back into the mysterious depths.
Details on booking the Trans-Siberian can be found on my previous post here.
To get from Irkutsk to Listvyanka we asked at the ticket booth at the bus station – you are allocated a seat on one of the regular minibuses, running every half hour approx and shouldn’t set you back more than 150 rubles. Coming back you can buy your ticket from Tourist information in the centre of town and get the bus outside there.
We booked our accommodation at Devyaty Val on booking.com a couple of weeks before we arrived at Listvyanka.
We did struggle to find it with no 3G and no spoken Russian. You can buy cheap Russian sim cards with 3G and it’s probably worth it – MTC was recommended to us as a good, cheap, widely available service provider.