Irkutsk is the best base from which to start any adventure to Lake Baikal, according to the guide books. It’s a transport hub but also a little more interesting than the other Siberian cities we have stopped in. Although modernisation is slowly taking place, the city still has many traditional wooden houses, which seem to be quite stubborn to stay as they are rather than be replaced by modern tower blocks. Interestingly, we read that many of these old houses are not connected to running water or the sewage system as their owners are not able to afford this or the renovation.
Our primary reason for a stop at Irkutsk was to get Zoë a Mongolian visa from the Mongolian Consulate. Having read a lot about other people’s experiences of obtaining a Mongolian visa, we were a little worried. The consulate appeared to suddenly stop issuing visas to foreign passport holders in 2016 but thankfully this was only for a few months. Other travellers have also had problems with consulate opening hours, proof of insurance, proof of residence and travel itineraries. We expected some difficulties and tried to prepare as much as possible. We thought we had to wait until the following morning to apply but decided to find the building that afternoon. We were a litte surprised that the visa centre was open so went in to ask about applying. The friendly lady behind the counter said it would only take around 10 minutes and we could do it that afternoon. Fantastic. Back to the hostel we went and within an hour Zoë had a Mongolian visa in her passport. The only thing Zoë had forgotten was to put a phone number of the guesthouse but this was quickly fixed using the consulates wifi. We were both so relieved and happy that we can go to Mongolia :).
Our next stop in Irkutsk was the central market, which is full to the brim of fish, meat, bread, fruit and vegetables. It was great place to do some food shopping and due to our visa success we treated ourselves to a steak dinner and cake for dessert. Russians definitely like their cake. We tried a tort skaska which was chocolate sponge covered in chocolate, hazelnuts and sour cream icing. Back at our hostel cooking dinner was pretty interesting. The only other guests were a Chinese tour group, and they were fascinated by how Matthias cooked a steak and made a salad. Most of the time he had at least 3 spectators and one lady in particular who kept asking about adding salt to everything. She only stopped when the tour guide told her to leave us alone while we ate.
Up till now we didn’t have a plan for lake Baikal. We wanted to do some hiking and also take a journey on the circumbaikal railway. Finally we had a reliable weather forecast and could make a plan. We chose a circular route from Irkutsk to Slyudyanka then to Listvyanka before returning to Irkutsk. It seemed the easiest way to see everything and not spend half the week on the bus or train. So our first stop was set to be Sludyanka to board the circumbaikal railway.
Sludyanka is a small town on the lake shore at the southern end and most tourists miss it out completely. We booked a night here in giesthouse Delight with the plan of getting the train the next morning. The circumbaikal railway was originally part of the transiberian route and was built in 1911. It was an engineering feat as the route along the western side of Lake baikal required many bridges and tunnels to be built. Today it is open for tourists and locals but all of the transiberian trains go along a new line. There are two options for trains either the tourist train or a local elektrichka train. Due to this line only being a single set of tracks, trains run in one direction from Slyudyanka to Port Baikak during the day and returning at night. We looked up the trains and chose the best train for our plan leaving at 9:10am on Wednesday. When we arrived at Slyudyanka we tried to buy tickets but were promptly told the were none and there was no train the next day. Totally confused we checked into our guesthouse and hoped to figure it out. Our hosts for the night were lovely and very helpful although they didn’t think there was a train either. We looked it up online and returned to the station armed with the train number. Our Russian is still very basic and luckily we met a Polish lady who spoke Russian, English and German, and coincidentally wanted a ticket for the same train. After about 30 minutes, it transpired that the train does exist but is run privately and is purely for tourists. Normally, tourists board at Irkutsk and return there via a ferry and bus. The whole round trip costs 7000 rubles, not exactly budget friendly. We couldn’t buy tickets from the ticket office so our only chance was to try and board the train in at the platform in the morning and hope it wasn’t too expensive.
Slightly less panicked we had a walk along the lakeshore and returned to our lodgings for dinner. We were presented with a fabulous spread of food including goulash, potatoes, salted omul, salted herring and homegrown salad. All of the food was delicious and made even better by our hosts tales of skating across lake Baikal, hiking around the mountains and skiing through snowy valleys. Dessert was even more interesting. We tasted pollen, lingonberries, sea buckthorn berries, local honey and also found out where pine nuts come from. Perhaps this is quite obvious considering the name pine nuts. We hadn’t ever thought about how they are harvested or preserved, but now when we see someone in the forest with a 3m long wooden hammer we will know what they are doing. We also acquired a new skill for our C.V.s, shelling pine nuts with our teeth, although I think we both need a lot of practice. We had a great evening learning about Siberia and forgot our worries about the train.
The next morning we woke early but our hosts insisted on some coffee before taking us to the train station. We tried some golden root extract in our coffee and also some more berries. At the train station we found a group of German tourists and found out the train does exist! Once it pulled into the station we found someone to sell us a ticket for the second class carriage and couldn’t have been happier with our lakeside seats and almost empty carriage. The tourist train cost 3400 rubles per person from Slyudyanka to Port Baikal, which put a decent hole in the budget. Had we had time to wait until the next day and get the local train we would have paid just 200 rubles per person, but we may only be at lake Baikal once and has all our accomodation booked for the following nights so we had to make the most of our time. We would probably recommend anyone else to get the local train which currently runs on Thursdays and Fridays as far as we know.
That said we were on the train…