I didn’t have much prior knowledge of Siberia other than having heard the term “Social Siberia” used by Oliver James in the chick flick ‘What a Girl Wants’ co starring Amanda Bynes and referring to a place so far removed from the world that you may as well be isolated on your own planet, as was the fate of unfortunate twins Peach and Pear Orwood. Oh and lets not forget Rasputin, the infamous monk that charmed his way into the lives of the Tsar and Tsarina in the early 1900’s, arguably contributing to the escalation of social unrest causing the Russian Revolution…well he was from Siberia. Other mentions of the place as closely accompanied by the words FREEZING COLD and infamous Russian Winter. So you’ll imagine my surprise when I arrived in the capital Irkutsk, on a sunny day in July, and was driven to Lake Baikal as part of a Vodka Train tour and the first thing I saw was an inviting pebble stone beach sprawled with locals! The last thing I expected was to put on my new bikini, grab my book and towel and head down to the waters edge. Okay sorry I told a lie because the very last thing I was expecting to see were baby grizzly bear cubs at the beach! So here I was lying on a beach in Siberia and thinking ‘well this was unexpected’.
Despite the lovely weather I have never seen a beach where the water was as unoccupied as it was at Baikal. This is because as the deepest and most voluminous lake in the world it is freezing cold! On that day we were lucky enough to have a shore temperature of about 10°C – which might not sound too bad but being submerged in water isn’t like experiencing 10°C on your average day outdoors. Exposed to icy water such as Baikal has the power to kill you faster than you may expect. Despite the uncomfortable cold it can be quite refreshing, it goes like this; first step “Ouch these pebbles hurt my feet!” a few steps in and the immediate shock of the temperature that splashed over your toes and up your ankles has ebbed away, progressively being replaced with a toe numbing frost that shoots up your legs as you wade deeper…now about 10 seconds in its painful, icy water turns numbness to searing, stinging pain as feeling rushes back to your legs…bare it just a little longer, long enough to drop to your neck and lift your feet up off the pebbles long enough to say you saw in Lake Baikal (all the while awkwardly holding your hair high above your head to avoid getting that wet because god knows once I’m out of here I’ll be too cold to deal with dripping icy cold hair)…then the quick dash out, back up the pebbles, painfully, slowly the intensity of discomfort fades away as quickly as it came 1, 2, 3, 4 …a refreshment like you would never believe. Legend says that for every swim in Baikal you extend your life time by 5 years, by my count thats 15 extra years to me!
There isn’t much in Irkutsk and if you aren’t there to see the lake you may as well not go. But what is at Listvyanka, which is the section of the lake that I visited, is the Great Baikal Museum; telling one all about the lake in comparison to other lakes around the world, an insight into the incredible variety of animal species inhabiting the lake and the ecosystem as well as, cruelly in my opinion, home to three seals which are boxed up in a boring plain blue tank. Secondly there is a lookout that offers a spectacular view of the lake. Finally the start of the Great Baikal Trail, a walking track that treks along the edge of the lake – I don’t actually know how far it stretches, there are many walking trails along the lake, but we hiked this one for 20km. Our guide Dennis was a passionate hiker and seeing as we chose not to partake in any of the other activities such as fishing, motorbike riding and scuba diving – primarily because of the cost of each – he suggested this. We hiked for 10km had a rest at a secluded sandy beach where he cooked us a lunch of buckwheat and meat on a stone fire on the sand. The boys swam, all of whom put their heads under whilst I still refused, and then continued on with our hike. Phil and Pierce have a habit of dawdling which stressed Dennis out as we had a ferry to catch back to Listvyanka! The final 10 km were very fast, but I wasn’t complaining as it was now flat, as opposed to the up and down rainforest hilly coastline that we had been walking through. Arriving in time we finally got our wish to set out on the lake. We didn’t care how it happened we just wanted the opportunity to take a boat out on the water. Never have I ever seen a body of water so still, or a horizon so invisible. Siberia was nothing like I thought it would be. That being said I got to see a lot more of it during the next stage of my journey on the Trans Siberian Railway. I loved Lake Baikal, and I will be back, next time in Winter to see the Turquoise Ice.