Irkutsk & Lake Baikal
My last stop on this trip in Russia is Irkutsk. I visit Lake Baikal, but she’s hiding in fog and smoke.
“120 Rubles”, the woman yelled at me just before I boarded the old Toyota van. She had just pointed me to the bus for Listvyanka. I crawled to the back of the minivan and found myself a place on the back seat. With now all 16 seats taken, the driver made his way on the roads between Irkutsk and Lake Baikal. A bus ride of an hour and a half, for about $2, that’s not too bad.
The arrival yesterday
When the train arrived in Irkutsk yesterday evening and I got ready to step on the platform, I saw some familiar faces ready to board the train. The three Swedish couples I met on the first leg, between Moscow and Yekaterinburg were ready for their next journey, on to Vladivostok. We quickly said hello, and I was on my way to find transportation.
Especially if you take into consideration an illegal taxicab that brought me to my hotel yesterday. A ten-minute ride, I knew that before I arrived at the station. With my luggage, I also knew that walking this distance in this case wasn’t an option. But it was 800 rubles or no ride. Uber, please add Irkutsk to the list! I slept well in the Matresjka hotel here. Jumped out of bed this morning and was now on my way to the shores of Lake Baikal.
My destination today is Listvyanka, a small town on the shore of Lake Baikal. Lake Baikal is big. And I mean really big. Bigger than the great lakes in the USA. The lake holds about one-fifth (that’s 20% indeed) of the drinkable water in the world. Many travelers on the Trans Siberian railroad have only one stop on their trajectory, often they choose Irkutsk and go to Lake Baikal for a couple of days. But when I look around me in the van, I’m the only tourist. Most other passengers are Russian women, who went to the market in the city and are taking back their groceries home. Most tourists rather pay 3000 to 5000 rubles for a taxi. Agreed, they might have a bit more space than I do to put their backpack!
On most days, I seem to be pretty comfortable starting a conversation in most places where I go, whether I speak the language or not. But today was not my day. Woke up with some troubling news, and that must have sent me out the door with the wrong energy today. I don’t manage to start a conversation with anyone this morning. It makes the ride seems a bit longer than I anticipated. So it’ll be a more introverted day than I expected. I’m not the first digital nomad who feels some isolation being far away from his trusted friends and family.
After a wild ride that even crosses a national park, our van makes it to Listvyanka. I’m in urgent need for a coffee, so walk in the first place I see that has the Russian word for coffee on the door. Bad luck, however, as soon as I order my coffee, the lady in her smooth and friendly Russian customer services smile tells me they’re out of coffee. I eventually find another place, where after ordering a coffee, the store clerk shows me a pack of instant coffee, so I can choose the one I like. And here is me, hoping for a good espresso after days of instant coffee on the train. I accept the instant coffee (hey, 50 rubles for a coffee AND a candy bar, this must be my cheapest snack so far in Russia!)
While the lake is big, there’s no way of seeing any of the other shores today. A cloud of thick smoke hangs over the lake, making this a day that feels a bit depressing. The town is primarily a fishing and tourist town. A small local market has half of the vendors selling dried fish, the other half has the same souvenirs. Pretty much to my surprise, I see many souvenirs with Harp Seals on them. Since I spent some time on the ice in 2014 to photograph these cute animals, I’m happy to see they can be found here as well. I should have known that when I saw the fur stores in Irkutsk earlier today.
The thick smoke that hangs over the lake seems, after a bit of investigation, to come from a fire 50 kilometers out of Irkutsk. A large pile of sawdust has been burning for many years. According to Greenpeace, the fire has been going for years and is expected to go for many years to come. And every day, sawdust is being added to that pile.
The Trans Siberian railways and Baikal Lake
In earlier days, the Trans Siberian train crossed Lake Baikal. Not with a bridge, but by building a ferry with rails on it, so the train could actually be broken up in pieces and loaded on the ferry. The ferry wasn’t strong enough to break the ice in the winter and had to delay its departure often for the storms on the lake. That made the Russians decide to create a passage for the train around the lake. That winter, the Russian Army built temporary tracks on the ice. And all went well till the first locomotive cracked through it. So I’m happy that tomorrow when I’ll be boarding the train I’ll be passing in the mountains over many bridges and countless passes, rather than over this lake.
Return to Irkutsk
With every person that got on the bus, more bags of goods were loaded under the seats. While on the way down here, all people entered in Irkutsk, and get of in the last 2 stops in Listvyanka, the way back has much more entering and leaving of the bus. No bell in this bus, people just yell at the driver where they will get off, and new people wave the bus down. At every stop, people have to be rearranged, luggage shifted a bit aside, to accommodate the new setting. If you ever travel here, set a gopro or osmo on stop motion and you’ll have a hilarious stop motion video. The kids who came from school and seem to be riding these busses for free (is that correct, anyone can let me know?) made for a very loud atmosphere on the way back.
Travelers Coffee Irkutsk
Picking up laptop to get some work done. Hotel not best place to work, find coffee, find a travelers coffee, no wifi. I understand that waiters aren’t technicians (oh yes, I do!) but if you’re a chain who asks twice the price of a coffee as a local shop, AND you promote that you have ultrafast wifi, you have to work so you can keep that promise. Yeah, after a grey day like today I feel like ranting a bit.
Koen Blanquart is a strategy consultant, journalist, and author.
Wanderlust is one of his driving factors, and he shares his travels here on Boarding Today. Koen is also the skipper of SV Bagabonda, a sailing vessel making a slow circumvention of the globe..
Koen recently published a book on how to manage a remote team: The Suitcase Office.