The Beauty of Lake Baikal
Trip Start Aug 08, 2006
36Trip End Oct 11, 2006
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The train arrived into the largest city and capital of Siberia, Irkutsk, at around 8AM. The sunrise over the Siberian steppes was an inspirational introduction to the this city founded in 1652 by Russian Cossacks. Also known as "Paris of Siberia," the architecture of this city was supposed to be very European with classical styles adorning the wide diagonal boulevards.
We were met on Platform 8 by our Russian guide, Anya, who spoke fluent English. Immediately, she took us to our tour bus outside the station where we exchanged some money ($1 US = 26.6 Rubles).
I would like to mention a little something about currency on this trip
Russian banks were very strict with US Dollars. To exclude any counterfeiting, they would only exchange US $50 or $100 denominations that were in mint condition and printed after 1997. If the conditions were not met, the Ulysses S. Grants and Benjamin Franklins were of no use!
The ride to Lake Baikal and the lake town of Listvyanka was beautiful. The terrain of taigas, or verdant forests, opened up a corridor for the national highway to pierce right through green Siberia. Lying 63km from Irkutsk, Listvyanka could be reached by bus in 40-45 minutes.
After a 40-hour journey across the arid steppes of Mongolia, the landscape of Siberia was a distinct change. It reminded me of the thick forests of Alaska, Canada, or Patagonia (Argentina) where elk, moose, brown bears, and deer ran free. Taiga, derived from the local Siberian language meaning "forest-covered mountain," was an ecological environment filled with coniferous forests of subarctic lands located just south of the tundras. In Siberia, especially in Irkutsk, winter was very long, lasting from the end of October until the end of April
Arriving on the shore of Lake Baikal, Russia, I was immediately reminded of Lake Nahuel Huapi, Argentina surrounded by the Andes Mountains. However, Lake Baikal was the deepest lake in the world, reaching a depth of 1637m (or almost 5000 feet). 336 rivers flowed out of Lake Baikal, including Russia's longest river, Yesiney River, which was the only river flowing north into the frigid Arctic Ocean.
I arrived with my Australian buddy Paul to our homestay apartment. Our hostess was Lidia, a typical fun-loving babushka, who was born in Western Russia but moved to Listvyanka many decades ago. Speaking no word of English, she communicated with us entirely in Russian. I did not have any problem speaking with her, but Paul just nodded and pretended to understand her enthusiastic conversation. I mainly served as an interpreter for Paul during our 24-hour homestay.
Lidia's apartment was very modest. According to Russian customs, all guests had to take off their shoes at the entrance and walked around the house in socks or slippers
The homestay in Listvyanka was a very beautiful experience as I was able to see how a Russian lived. Her material possessions were few, but her heart was big. In this small, modestly decorated apartment, with only one bedroom, a small living room, an antiquated kitchen with only space for 3 people around the tiny wooden dinner table, I was able to reach out and touch the daily lives of Russians. It was moving to hear how much suffering she had to endure under the Communist system, with constant food rationing. Although the markets were more plentiful now, they were pale compared to those in the US. The natives of Listvyanka were a resilient people. Trying to sport a modern fashion, they mixed and matched whatever was handed down to them and tried to imitate the style of New York, Paris, or Milan. Their resilience was a beautiful quality equally matched by the paradaisical landscape in which they dwelled.
Later in the evening, Bora, our fun-loving, party-animal tour guide, booked us a Banya experience
After our banya, we got dressed and went to a Russian bar to try some vodka. It would be a shame to be in Russia and not sample one of its 150 varieties of vodka! So I had a 50 gram shot (pyatdesyat) with the entire group, and I washed it down with cold black cherry juice. Next door was a boisterous club, where a Russian performer was singing "I Will Survive" by Gloria Gaynor. The evening passed by quickly with more drinking, laughter, and an unadulterated sense of joie de vivre.