From Russia with love

Trip Start Dec 14, 2007
Trip End Mar 16, 2009

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Flag of Russian Federation  , Siberia,
Friday, June 13, 2008

We were woken just after 6am by the cabin attendants as our train neared the station in Irkutsk. Everyone hurriedly begun packing their bags to ensure neither they nor their belongings were not left behind on the train. The packing wasn't made any easier by the Mongolian vodka and the beers that were consumed the night before.
On the platform we were met by our tour guide Tatiana, who led us to the minivan that drove us the 45km to the tiny village of Listvyanka on the shores of Lake Baikal, where we would spend the next three nights at a home stay. A home stay, as it suggests, is where a family make a room or rooms available in their home for a little extra income and in return provide accommodation for visitors who also get a chance to experience the local way of life.
After we'd dropped off Jill, Kate and Ruth at their home-stay (now officially named 'our little Aussie sisters') we were taken to our house where we were introduced to Olga, our surrogate mother for the next few days. Olga did not waste any time getting us fed and we settled in for a hearty breakfast of bread, cheese, fried bread dough (something similar to which we know as "vetkoek" in South Africa) and home made jams, just the breakfast we needed after a long hard night on the train. Olga did not speak much English but enough for us to understand what she meant. She often spoke long sentences in animated Russian which left us all staring at each other wondering what she was trying to say, but what we enjoyed most about Olga was that she was always smiling and laughing which really gave the stay a homely feel and made us feel very comfortable.
We shared the house for the first night with an Australian couple, Ian and Aerley from Sydney who were both Physiotherapists and were returning home after a few years of working in the UK. We had some great conversations with them and we were entertained with some very amusing stories of their experiences working for the NHS. (Thanks Ian, I think I have the image of the "movie man" stuck in my head forever...)
The highlight of the village of course is the beautiful lake that the village is situated on. We were very lucky in that the day we arrived the weather was superb after a few rainy days before. The sky was a clear blue and there was not a single cloud in sight. When we arrived in the village it was still early morning and where ever you looked there was mist rising into the cool crisp morning air. The lake was as flat as glass and due to the clear air we had a spectacular view all the way across the lake and a full view of the distant mountain ranges still capped in snow.
Lake Baikal, which holds approximately twenty percent of the world's total surface fresh water is also the world's deepest fresh water lake at 1637 m and its crystal clear waters have an average visibility of 40 m. From a volume point of view it is only the Caspian Sea has more water and if you had to empty Lake Baikal onto Australia the continent would be in 4 meters of water. All this we discovered during our fascinating tour of the Lake Baikal Museum. IMH: 'fascinating' might be a bit strong.
The water temperature however was not as spectacular as the stats above, current temperatures were between 4 and 6 degrees Celsius, bbbrrrrrrr. So a swim was out of the question even though there was a myth that claimed that people who swam in the lake would live an extra 25 years. I managed to go in up to my knees before the pain was too severe and I'll be happy to take the extra 5 years!
One of our highlight of the Homestay was a Siberian bath called a Banya situated out in the garden. It a similar to a sauna but without the steam and after building up a good sweat you fill buckets with hot water for a thorough wash. This was a real treat especially after the long train journey. Since the home was all simple wooden structures, no plumbing was built into the houses which meant that the toilet (long drop) was outdoors and there was no running water indoors - must make running to the loo in winter, when the temperature gets below minus 40, very interesting.
After dinner the first evenin we decided to take a walk along shoreline and watch the sunset. At 9pm the sun was still high a long way from setting and after a long walk we wondered if the sun would ever set. We hung around for a long time and eventually the sun dipped behind the mountains at just after 10pm. Sun rise was only a few hours later at 4am making for some long Siberian days.
On our second day we met our trek guide, Sasha who led us on a hike of the shores and nearby mountains surrounding the lake. Some of the ascents left us a little breathless but not half as breathless as the beautiful scenery. The spring flowers were out in full force and combined with the dense pine and cedar forests, this made a day to remember. We descended from the mountain climb to a beautiful little pebble beach were Sasha prepared us a massive lunch of sausages, mash potatoes, salami, cheese and yummy Russian cakes. The only catch to the super day was that we had to constantly be on tick alert as their breading season had just started.
Olga did and excellent job of keeping us well fed (IMH: there was a little bit of force feeding also involved with the boys always having to empty the bowls if there's any leftovers) and we were woken each morning by the delicious aromas drifting out of the kitchen and the daily breakfast call of "hello my friends, wake up, breakfast time".
On our second night in town we planned to meet 'The little sisters' and their house mates, Alan and Andrea to join us for drinks at one of the local pubs. Coincidently our new Irish house mates, Simon and Olga (not our home stay mom) knew Alan and Andrea too (they met on a train), so we invited them to join as well. Inge-Marie, myself, Simon and Olga were the first to arrive at the bar which was more of a restaurant than bar. After standing around confused we were told to sit at a table by one of the waitresses. The table next to us was occupied by a group of lively Russian, five woman, one stocky guy and a baby. The guy did not take his eyes off us from the minute we walked in and had a very unhappy constipated look on his face. He was dressed in the typical wealthy Russian style of a tight fitting designer t-shirt with the brand name printed all over the t-shit and black trousers. He must of thought we were either from space or about to rob them.
Trying to ignore him we worked through the Russian and English menu and decided to order the girls a bottle of local 'Champaign' (IMH: really the only option apart from beer on the menu, but it wasn't half bad and quite affordable) and beers for Simon and I. The waitresses were showing no intentions of coming to our table so we had to go up to the bar and order. By pointing at the drinks we wanted we finally made a breakthrough and got some drinks. The little sisters, Alan and Andrea arrived a little later and we were moved to a larger table. Our Russian friend started looking even more constipated. We ended up have a lovely evening and even had a round or two of locally produced vodka. Everyone had a chance of taking some group pictures (some are attached) and a few more drinks until the bar closed at midnight.
We woke the following morning to cold overcast weather which gave us the perfect excuse to spend some time indoors and catch-up on some reading and movies. Sadly our house mates were not that lucky as they had to partake in their planned excursions of scuba diving the lake and trekking.
Lake Baikal is beautiful; we had loads of fun as well as some quiet time and is one of the highlights of our trip thus far!
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