Listvyanka and Bolshie Koty

Trip Start Jun 05, 2007
Trip End Aug 01, 2007

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Friday, June 15, 2007

Hey all, get ready for a long blog entry.  So today (June 14) I just got back from quite a trip hiking by Lake Baikal.  We left Tuesday morning from Irkutsk in a van (which became pretty uncomforable when 4 of us had to squeeze into the back seat) to Listvyanka, which is a town right on the shores of Lake Baikal and about an hour away from Irkutsk.  We got there at about noon and took a boat ride on the lake for an hour.  Actually, it was closer to two hours because we stopped on the way back at the Listvyanka Lake Baikal Museum for half an hour, which wasn't that exciting except for a tank containing two nerpa seals, which are seals that are only found in Lake Baikal.  They are very cute creatures, they are extremely fat, seemingly almost round, but at the same time manage to look like torpedos flying through the water.  I got a good video of one in the tank but hopefully we might see one in the wild during our time on Olkhon Island.  The boat ride itself was nice, getting good views of the shoreline of Lake Baikal.

We still had some time before we were supposed to meet our guide for the next three days (Valera) so we went to the fish market.  There were probably 40 stalls selling various Baikal fish, smoked, salted, dried, etc. (and some other stalls as well).  I tried a couple of smoked omul fish -- quite tasty.  It was not too hard to peel off the meat of the fish, but your hands smell a lot after eating it.

When we met Valera at a local hotel, we found out that the five of us would also be joined by two other tourists on this trip, an elderly German couple.  The trip involved hiking to Bolshie Koty, a small village on the shore of Lake Baikal, north of Listvyanka, spending the day in the B. Koty area, and then hiking back to Listvyanka on the third day.  The hike to B. Koty would be 18km and turned out to be quite eventful.  We started walking through the town of Listvyanka towards the forest and hills/mountains.  We started going uphill and the group started separating a bit -- while initially our guide Valera led the way, he dropped back a bit to be in the middle of the group.  The German couple and Tom were at the back (Tom speaks German and was practicing with them), while Benny, Jeni, Melissa and I were in the lead.  The Germans had already mentioned once or twice that they needed to slow down the pace, so we just went ahead and figured we would just wait for them at various points -- Valera was OK with this as apparently we would be able to figure out where to go

The beginning part of the hike was quite difficult actually, ascending up the forested mountain rather quickly until we reached the point where we started winding our way down the mountain, when it became much easier.  It was a fairly heavy forest, full of birch and other trees, and then was also interspersed with some meadows as we got a bit further away from the mountain.  We were looking for a good place to stop to wait for the others but none really seemed to come up.  We eventually followed a path through a meadow with tons of wildflowers to a small clearing that was right at a rock beach on Lake Baikal, our first up-close encounter with the lake since the hike started.  We figured now that we had reached the lake, this would be a good place to stop, since (a) we hadn't seen Valera or the others in a while and (b) there were some logs to sit on and a table.  This was approximately a couple of hours into the hike.

We waited for a while and were surprised that we hadn't seen the others yet.  But we figured that the Germans had been going fairly slowly and we might have put more distance between us than we thought.  We were just thinking whether a couple of us should go back a bit to see where the others were, when Tom came down the trail towards us in a bit of a panic.  It turned out that, while he had been talking to the German man, the German collapsed suddenly, from what seemed like heat stroke or a heart attack.  Tom had run up to Valera, who was slightly ahead, and as Valera and the German's wife tended to the gentleman, Valera asked Tom to go ahead on the trail, find us, and have me give Valera a call on his cell phone.  It took Tom a while to reach us (he had gone down the wrong path at one point where there was a fork before Valera found him and pointed him in the right direction, which probably added 45 minutes or so to his search) and when he did, the incident with the German had happened probably 2 hours beforehand or so.

I couldn't call Valera as he had instructed because I had no cell phone reception so we weren't really sure what to do.  One possibility was to go back the way we had come.  But we figured that at this point we wouldn't be any help to the German man -- Tom said Valera had called the town for help and someone would be on the way to help him.  We weren't sure if Valera would be going with the German or not or what he would be doing -- he hadn't made it clear to Tom (he spoke a bit of English but not much -- I served as translator during those three days) what he was doing, just that I should call him.  But that unfortunately was impossible.  Another issue was that we hadn't actually started the hike until about 3:30pm and since a few hours had already passed, at some point it would start getting dark (though we figured it would be light till about 10:30 based on our experience in Irkutsk).  There probably wouldn't be enough time to backtrack and still make it to Bolshie Koty before dark.

Of course, we also knew nothing about B. Koty and weren't really sure what to do once we got there if we were without Valera.  But we (mistakenly, it turned out) thought we were already closer to B. Koty than Listvyanka and that we would be able to call Valera sooner if we made it to B. Koty, also not realizing (as we later found out) that there's only one phone in B. Koty and cell phone reception is possible only on top of the mountain overlooking the village -- which we went to the next day.

Anyway, Benny and I quickly hiked back the way we had come for 10-15 minutes without our packs just to see if we could see Valera.  We got to the base of the mountain, which would have been a large effort to climb back up (the downhill bit had been so easy though on the way down!), and didn't see him, nor did we hear any answer to our shouts.  So we headed back to the others who were waiting at the lake and continued on towards Bolshie Koty.  Very quickly we came to a fork, with one path going inland a bit and the other continuing along the shore.  The one continuing along the shore had a sign that said, "Dangerous Trail."  Benny walked up the former for a bit and thought it seemed not to be the one that we wanted.  Also, the Lonely Planet had described the hike to Bolshie Koty as "hair-raising but spectacular" (or something like that) so we thought the Dangerous Trail might be the one we needed to go down (it turns out the two later reconnect).

As we went down this trail, I went ahead of the others in hope that I could get to Bolshie Koty faster.  I wasn't sure what would happen if we got there too late -- would anyone be around?  Would we be able to find a person who knows Valera or who would give us a place to stay?  I also wanted to be able to call Valera as soon as possible so that we could figure out what was going on.  Every once in a while I came to small forks but it seemed fairly evident which direction to go.  Even so, I left markers for the others so they knew which direction I'd gone:  drawing arrows in the dirt and on logs that were serving as bridges over small streams.  Once I even wrote a small note and stuck it under a sign on a tree.

Anyway, I continued along for a while and then noticed I had cell phone reception.  I stopped to call Valera but of course now he had no reception.  I called Jack, the owner of our hostel in Irkutsk, who had set us up on this tour with Valera to see if Valera had contacted him.  He had not.  Jack also recommended we continue to Bolshie Koty and he gave me the name of the one person he knew in the village, saying he would probably be able to put us up for the night (the name was Stomm).  So this was good that we had someone's name, but I was still worried about getting to the village and seeing no one around, as it would be late by the time we got there.  Also, at this point, I had seen the others coming around further down the trail, so I waited for them and we discussed what was going on.  We continued ahead and I again started going a bit faster to get to the village sooner.

After hiking for a while and leaving more markers, I heard someone shouting my name and Benny was running down the trail after me.  Valera had caught up with them and the group had stopped a little bit further back and was having a bit of food.  So the two of us went back and met up with everyone else.  It was definitely a relief to find our guide, who had been walking this trail for the past 15 years and was quite the mountain man.  The six of us continued our hike as it started getting dark and we didn't actually reach the village till 11pm (we thought where we had been waiting by the lake was approximately the halfway point, but it was more like a quarter of the way...).  Of course, no one was home at the house where we were supposed to be staying so we waited around a bit, then Valera opened the back door and we waited inside while he went to look for the lady who lived there.  Eventually he came back and said dinner was ready downstairs and we all ate.  The house was fine, not the most comfortable beds we've slept on, but not too bad.  The toilet was an outhouse and there was of course no shower, but we were going to have a Russian banya at the end of the next day.

The next day, after breakfast, we hiked up a steep mountain right on the edge of the village for great views of Bolshie Koty.  Then we set off for an easier 6km hike to a beach further north along the shore.  This hike was almost entirely along the shoreline and had amazing scenery.  Along the way Valera would show us various plants and what they could be used for (to put on wounds, to make tea, etc.).  We got to the rock beach, and Valera started a fire and began to prepare lunch.  The rest of us relaxed a bit.  The lunch was really good actually -- after the three days were over, we were all in agreement that Valera would do really well on a cooking show where contestants were dropped onto an island and had to make a fire and a meal with simple ingredients.  He even found some blackberry plants to put into the tea he was brewing.  After lunch, our trip took an unexpected twist.  Tom set off first because his foot was hurting and he needed to walk a bit slower.  The rest of us left a little while later and Valera was going to catch up with us after he finished cleaning up after lunch.

Benny and I were walking along one of the rock beaches when we saw Tom up ahead, seemingly leaning against the cliff that made up the inland side of the beach.  As we got closer we could see something was wrong -- it turned out that Tom had taken the trail that went above the beach instead of walking on the beach and he had slipped on a rock and slid down the cliff (which was probably at least 45 degrees or so in terms of steepness) which was probably about 40 feet high.  He had scraped up his fingers and had a large set of scrapes on his right side, but it seemed like nothing was broken or too serious.  He was of course in a lot of pain though (but at least now he could say he had fallen down a cliff in Siberia and lived to tell about it).  Valera said we should wait until that night's banya to clean the wounds so we headed back to Bolshie Koty, going slowly and helping Tom along.

When we got back, Valera showed us where the banya was and then left us, saying to come back to the house in about an hour or hour and a half.  We were surprised that he had left us alone in the banya, where you could burn yourself quite badly if you bumped into its steaming hot rocks, after he had already experienced someone collapsing on the trail (the German) and someone else falling down a cliff -- both firsts for him as a guide by the way.  Other than worrying about Tom's injury, the banya was a great experience.  It was a small building with two rooms.  The first room was the changing room and the second was the actual steam room.  We would take, with a big ladle, hot water from a pot next to the stones and fireplace and throw some water on the stones to create more steam and make the room hot.  We would then sit on the benches until it became too hot to bear and then walk into the changing room or even go outside.  There were also buckets of cold water with which we could wash off soap and shampoo.  We cleaned ourselves up a bit and also hit ourselves and each other with birch branches, as is the Russian tradition.

The next day, we were meant to hike back to Listvyanka, this time on a different trail (20km) which Valera said would be easier than the one we took to get to Bolshie Koty.  He said it's usually very easy, except when it rains (of course, we had already learned that Valera's definitions of "very easy" and "not far" were quite different than ours).  Unfortunately, it had rained the night before and seemed like it might rain during this day as well.  Luckily, as we started to head out of the village we saw a boat coming to dock at Bolshie Koty (carrying French tourists) and they agreed to take Tom back to Listvyanka for 1,000 rubles on their way back, as it would have been very slow going for him down the trail.  Actually, we realized afterwards that there were many spots along the trail where we weren't sure how Tom would have gotten across.  The normally easy trail had turned into a series of large puddles and even streams and getting back was not as easy as we had hoped.  There were several log bridges to walk across and when we stopped for lunch a downpour of rain started (though that didn't prevent us from finishing the great lunch Valera had made for us and having our cups of tea).  Towards the beginning of the hike back, before we entered the woods, we stopped at an ant hill and Valera instruced us to pat down the ant hill (which had ants all over it) with our hands and then rub our legs and arms as tick repellent (some ticks in Siberia can give you encephalitis). 

Anyway, we finally made it to Listvyanka at 8pm (having left at 12:15pm from Bolshie Koty), extremely wet and tired.  It felt great to get back to our hostel in Irkutsk, get out of our wet shoes and take a shower.  We were taking a bus to Olkhon Island the next morning.
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