Now it was time to lean back, relax and enjoy the pretty ride. Our train was very modern (compared to what else we had been on) but lacked toilets in every carriage and built-in samovars. Hot water was instead provided by big thermos bottles. It even featured a tv where we could watch videos about the lake and it’s animals and plants. We could even open parts of the windows; a big plus for photography. Lake Baikal with all the mountains made this our most scenic breakfast we had in Russia while rattling along rather slowly. There are many villages of different sizes nestled in bays and valleys. Half the time the train goes literally along the cliff edge. Due to the many bends there are plenty of good photo oportunities. In some places we saw abandoned bridges, tunnels and sections where the tracks had been re-routed due to decay, rock fall or to acommodate longer train carriages. This route is not electrified so trains are either pulled by diesel or steam locomotives. We found a leaflet in our hostel in Irkutsk offering to do the route in two days with an overnight stay in a lovely resort at the edge of the lake but it was way above our budget. It seemed as if most of the villages are only accessible by train and a lot of the people there are fishermen.
Our train stopped four times along the way with two stops being at least half an hour. At the first stop we walked along a rocky beach while at least one of the Chinese groups marched through the village to find the toilet. Inspired by the example of some Russians, Matthias decided to be brave and go into the lake for a swim in his undies. According to local belief you add ten years to your life if you swim in the lake. As expected the water was freezing cold but he did it nonetheless. Back on dry land it became clear that the locals had planned this all along and brought vodka to warm up. Zoë, not to be outdone, overcame her reservations and decided to follow suit. After a quick change of clothes we warmed up with some nice tea and lunch.
The second stop was at a platform with a steep drop right down to the water. We walked through an old train tunnel. From our elevated position we got an beatiful view and Matthias involutarily ended up as model in a photo shoot. The train staff used a nearby stream to fill up the trains’s water supply while we enjoyed stretching our legs in the glorious sunshine.
After little over six hours we arrived in Port Baikal. We were greeted by three musicians in traditional dress who immediately captured the attention of half the passengers. Since we disn’t know how frequent the ferries sailed and as we didn’t have tickets we went straight to the harbour. There we ended up in a scrum of people pushing on the passenger boat via a single file gangway before we found out that we had to go on the car ferry. It turned out in our favour since tickets would have been 700 rubles each had we bought them on the train (sometimes it is good not to have enough cash). Instead we payed 65 rubles for the 20 min boat ride. From there it was still 4km of walking to our hostel. On the way we also managed to get our national park permits for the next days walk.
The hostel was lovely and had a big kitchen and common area but only two bathrooms. We met a Russian couple and quite a few German travellers. This was the first time we could socialise with other guests in a place we stayed. We had a great evening in our ‘little Germany’ exchanging stories, discussing plans and talking to other people than just each other. One of them was also called Matthias who had the same walking plans as us so we teamed up and decided to walk together.
Our start the next morning was delayed by an hour by the manager and her great speed in making breakfast for three people. After replenishing our food supplies at the local market we were off and into the forest. The path to Bolshie Koty is somewhere between 22 and 25km long depending on what source you read. The beginning leads away from the lake and up a hill through dense mixed forest. We had managed to time it perfectly and were walking through golden and red autumn forest in glorious sunshine.
After zig-zagging down the other side we had a nice lunch on a beach. Some German guys went in and out of the lake but we resisted this time. From there on there was only one more big incline; most of the time the path was rather flat with slow ups and downs. One section was signposted as risky where it got narrower and more eroded. Overall the walk was easy and very enjoyable. We spotted our destination over an hour before we actually got there thanks to a few bays. In the end it took us seven hours including one hour lunch break at a rather leisurely pace. Our plan of going swimming fell flat due to the time and the fact that the sun was already behind the hills.
Our host was already waiting for us and we couldn’t wait for a nice shower. In order to reduce our luggage to a small daysack we had decided to have dinner and breakfast in the guesthouse. The food was good but could have been more. The guesthouse was nice and clean and they had only just finished contruction of a separate dining shelter with kitchen in the garden. We also got to enjoy our first Russian longdrop toilets in the garden. To our surprise a couple from Hongkong who we had met on the trail earlier also stayed there so we had some friends for the evening.
After a good breakfast we met up with Matthias again and it turned out that we had made the better accommodation choice. He had to turn to the only shop for food and Russian packet size meant he was carrying more food back than he had brought the day before. At least this secured him a generous lunch.
We all had slept well and made good progress so when lunch time came we ended up on the same beach as the day before. This time we all went for a dip into the cold waters before drying clothes while eating. We were really lucky as it rained in Bolshie Koty when we woke up but we were treated to another warm and glorious day even though the wind coming over the lake was colder than the previous day.
In the end we completed the return walk in 6 hours and treated ourselves to coffee and cake by the lake before heading back to the hostel to relax. Our friend Matthias had to leave early in the morning to catch his next train in Irkutsk but we had left some extra time and therefore got a rare chance to lie in.
After a racey bus trip back to Irkustsk we went shopping in the central market before making our way to the hostel. It was called ‘Good cat’ and only 10 minutes walk from the station. It turned out to be more of a hotel than a hostel.
Our train the next morning was scheduled at 6.45 but ended up being an hour late. This was the first delay we experienced in our whole time in Russia so far and was only annoying because it postponed our breakfast too. Finally the train arrived and we were on our way to Ulan Ude along the shore of lake Baikal. This is defintely the most scenic part of the whole train journey and worthwhile seeing during the daytime.