All aboard the Hydrofoil for an eight-hour ride from Severobaikalsk, down to the middle of Lake Baikal’s Olkhon Island. Snow-capped peaks resemble a ride on the Alaska Marine Highway through the Inside Passage…so does the rain. We glide along the island, watching for nerpa seals, one of only two species of freshwater seals on earth. Roughly 400 miles long, Lake Baikal contains an incredible amount of endemic animals and plants. Geologically speaking, this is the world’s next sea.
Shamanist sacred sites reveal ancient legends that cover Olkhon Island. Spirits reside in trees, posts, and rocks, referred to as obos, and are often draped in colorful rags. It is customary to place coins, cigarettes, and vodka on the ground, as gifts. I’ll take help in any form!
After an exhilarating drive from the ferry, we check-in to “Nikita’s Homestead,” a colorful, log cabin compound, which serves three organic meals daily to world travelers. Omul fish, pozy (mutton meatballs) and stuffed ear bread make tonight’s menu. Of course, we find a place that serves beer.
Wow, we have fried eggs in the morning (first since leaving USA), along with porridge. On a trek to Shaman Rock, and then along the shores of Maloe More Bay, we pass obos and a portable Russian Banya, where after a sweat, folks jump into the frigid waters. Did I mention that you can drink this water?
The Banya is an integral part of Russian culture. Sit in a wood-fueled sauna with some steam, break a sweat, have someone thrash you with a birch branch, and then douse in cold water. Okay, my first banya…I am alone. I sweat (no thrashing) and then enter a different room where there is a hose hanging from a wall. I turn it on to douse with cold water, unfortunately, it is SCALDING HOT! I run to a tub of cold water and dunk, barely escaping the banya without blisters.
Time to leave Olkhon Island, this time by land taxi, and a short ferry ride. We arrive in Irkutsk (pop 660,000) lugging those grossly overweight backpacks, and find the Baikaler Hostel. “Sorry,” the manager says, “No beds available.” We are at a loss… Until Jack, the owner, enters the room. “Don’t worry. I will accommodate you.”
Jack walks us to a place and helps us exchange our train tickets to Mongolia, as our current tickets are too late…meaning our visas will expire and we could be detained in Russia indefinitely. No thanks. Then, off we go, into Jack’s van along with another couple, Joseph from the UK, and Carrie from Boston…our first American tourist! We drive to Jack’s beautiful Baikaler Eco-Hostel in Listvyanka, a resort town on the “Baikal Riviera.”
In the morning, we hike 12-miles with Jack, Carrie and Joseph, while the sun shines in Siberia. This portion of the Great Baikal Trail takes us through thick forest, hills, and wildflowers.
We find ourselves clinging to the side of a shoreline cliff on a six-inch wide trail. Jack stops and asks, “Is anyone afraid of heights?” Too late, Jack, what if we were? Where would we go? We laugh, and carry on, to the remote village of Bolshie Koty.
Mare and I huff and puff trying to keep up with these youngsters. We only stop to check each other for ticks…a tiny creature that carries the fatal disease of tick-borne encephalitis. Once in the village, we sip a cold beer, sit on a log, and eat smoked omul fish…staring over Lake Baikal, my new holiest place on earth.
The Hydrofoil takes us back to Jack’s hostel in Listvyanka, where a shower, beer, and ibuprofen dominate our menu. Our new friends leave the next day. Mare and I decide to say here for four days. I serve dinner of smoked Omul, with buckwheat made tasty, thanks to a gift of spices from a good friend.
Hop on another ferry to the remote village of Port Baikal, where a segment of the Trans-Siberian Railway abruptly ends because of a dam, which flooded most of the once thriving town. Massive, decaying ships and barges dominate the shores, while Siberian log houses hug the hillside. A train stops here twice weekly, for tourists to ride through scenic terrain and stone-dug tunnels. We hike many miles along the deserted tracks, and then sip beer, while waiting for the only ferry that crosses the Angara River back to Listvyanka.
The next day we travel to Irkutsk, and spend the night in the crowded Baikaler Hostel. Although we know that Jack will “accommodate” us, we splurge for a few days at Hotel Irkutsk (our first private room w/private bath and shower in 6 weeks). Tonight, we will board a two-day train to wild Mongolia. Thank you Abundant Universe! Ron Mitchell