I’m in Irkutsk, the alternative capital of Siberia, which celebrated its 350th anniversary last year. I arrived mid-evening off the boat from Port Baikal after a change from the hydrofoil I’d been in all day since 08:00. In Serverobaykal’sk the haze and smoke (I suspect) from last night continued. And the warm northerly continued to surprise me. The northern part of the lake, where we started in the hydrofoil was very choppy from the northerly wind coming down. Visibility was poor. But as the boat kept to the western shore line I could marvel at the mountains plummeting into the lake. From the confines of the boat I followed the route I’d walked under a baking sun (when not under the shade of the taiga that is) only the day before yesterday on part of th Great Baikal Trail. I spied some kayakers through the binoculars. And I thought I saw the heads of the ‘nerpa’ – the endemic freshwater seal here. But I can’t be sure. The further south we went the wind diminished and soon under the haze and mist the surface of Baikal was almost a millpond. Absolutely stunning. But with the wind and the lake’s cooling effect, standing outside on the observation cockpit mid-ship was prohibitive due to the wind chill. The boat was quite empty and I was able to stretch out and sleep when low visibility and our trajectory away from the western shoreline meant I couldn’t see much.
We came in to drop off and pick up passengers on the western shore of Olkoln Island and I was amazed at the treeless landscapes and the cliff-lined edges. Spied some sheep way up on a rocky parapet. In some ways it reminded me of the Faroe Islands, except the latter is much greener and more precipitous.
Soon after leaving on the boat this morning I realised that I’d left behind a silver ring on the floor beside my bed at Baikal Trail Hostel that I’d bought in Novgorod, the ancient Viking village between SPb and Moscow. I asked a German guy who I met at the Hostel who was travelling south on the boat as well today to send Yevgeny the wonderful host at the hostel a text message for me. I’ll see if there is some way I can recover it.
For twelve hours the western shoreline of Baikal went by. It was by turns precipitous and rocky with scree tearing through taiga with occasional alluvial fans and deltas where meltwaters from the higher peak’s snow and mini-glaciers coursed through the mountain valleys to join the icy depths of Baikal. I enjoyed scanning the terrain with my binoculars (actually kindly on loan from Mike – thanks mate I know you wished you were here) imagining a bear traversing those steep forested slopes and emerging onto the grassy patches to forage for berries. But alas I saw none. Hard though to fix a point with the boat’s vibrations.
The haze and the mist and maybe smoke from some unknown Siberian taiga fire, continued all day across the entire Baikal land and sea (lake) scape. And the southern portion of the lake remained remarkably calm.
I couldn’t understand the instructions of the two young girls’, who’d been the kiosk attendents on the hydrofoil, when we approached Port Baikal. It was two hours before we were due to arrive in Irkutsk but I didn’t know about this stop. It seemed everyone was getting off. So I quickly got my things and did the same. It was a ramshackle decrepit old wharf almost falling into the clear cold waters. I soon picked up what was happening as I saw another boat, not a hydrofoil, arriving from the village near the outlet of the Angara River. Port Baikal is also on the hed og th outlet of the Angara River. Here the waters of Baikal drain west but not before being slightly detained by the Angara Dam at Irkutsk. The boat change may have been because it had a smaller draught – I’d noticed the shallow waters at the head of the outlet as we sped downstream through this now narrower channel heading towards the top of the dam. I could see large rocks clearly. The forest was right up to the edge of this channel and the land became flatter as we approached the Irkutsk river port. The air off this water was too cold to stand outside in. Amazing the temperature changes I’ve experienced around the Lake.
There were no taxis around at the river port, strangely. And with some strategic questions I soon was harnessing the good will of the Irkutsk locals and I was on board the right marshrutka heading hopefully in the right direction, with my packs and guitar squeezed into the impossibly tiny mini van. The distinctly asian looking ladies on the bus (Irkutsk had a decidely asiatic look to its populace – not that I hadn’t seen this already throughout Siberia, but it seemed more prominent here) helped me by advising which stop to get off at when number 9 Lenin Street approched – the address of Baikaler Hostel, where I am tonight on this in house internet access.
Tomorrow I board the train for just over three full days through to Vladivostok. I bought some useful provisions tonight in Irkutsk. And I wonder what new adventures await aboard this next travelling slice of Russian life?