Irkutsk and Lake Baikal
Only when we arrived in the Irkutsk area did the scenery start to change. The wide, flat vistas were replaced by rolling, green hills. When we got off the train in Irkutsk, we had quite a time finding a cheap place to stay. After buying food in the market, we left for Lake Baikal. We had heard so much about the lake, especially about its deep, exceptionally clear waters. At Listvyanka, the main town on the western side, babushkas smoke fresh fish right on the docks. The hot, tasty fish has a wonderful nutty taste that is light and not at all fishy. Anne and Dave went crazy for it. They wanted smoked fish all the time: for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We walked up the road to the Lake Baikal museum, then decided to climb the nearby hill for a view of the lake. On the way up we met some other tourists. Two of them, Rachel and Teva, were French and were also traveling eastwards. At the top of the hill Eric checked his clothes, and found several red-bellied ticks climbing up his pants.
After getting our camping gear together, we took the ferry across the lake's outlet for a 4-day walk along an old, little-used section of the railway. We followed the tracks running along the lakeside cliffs for four days, walking 20-25 km a day. It was enough to get sore feet with big blisters pretty quick! We know the smell of “cresote”, a chemical used to preserve wood, as the track's sleepers are impregnated with it, and they gave off a noxious smell in the shimmering heat. Along the way is a series of tunnels constructed by Italian stonemasons. Although more than 100 years old, the beautifully arched entries and gently curving tunnels are still in good condition today. We passed beautiful lakeside resorts for rich vacationers, still closed for the winter. Ice floated in the lake along the shore.
Everyone says that you can safely drink the water straight out of the lake, but we always dropped purifying tabs in our bottles after filling up. No need to risk getting sick! It has a strange taste, different from river or spring water, probably because the oxygen-saturated water has a high pH. Air pollution from the large factory at Baikalsk, on opposite side, was plainly visible. We could clearly see that the smoke plume obscured long-distance views. In fact, just about everywhere in Russia was hazy, probably due to the many smoking factories in Siberia. It was hard to see far in the distance from the train. With the railway being an important industrial and agricultural corridor, the landscapes hardly looked pristine.
After four days of steady walking, we limped on our blistered feet into Kultuk, the junction with the main Trans-Siberian line. We bought some beer and chips to celebrate, then boarded the slow train back to the starting point of the trek at Port Baikal. There were some noisy German tourists on the train, and Anne wanted to tell them to shut up. Luckily, she didn't. When we arrived after eight hours at the end of the line, they allowed us to ride on their chartered boat back to Listvyanka. Otherwise it might have been another night in the tent! Unfortunately, we couldn't find a cheap place to stay in Listvyanka, nor a safe-looking spot to camp. After knocking on a few doors, we ended up sleeping in the house of a local folk painter who had a few extra beds in her hovel. She kept chickens under the kitchen table because she was afraid they would freeze outside, even in the warm spring weather. Her paintings were dream-like, kind of like a childish Chagall, often depicting oversized Saints.