We are rattling through the seasons this trip.
In the (comparatively) brief time it took to reach Krasnoyarsk from Yekatarinburg, autumn had become winter.
We stepped on to the platform at 6:40am (brief moment of horror when our tickets said arrival at 3:40am until we realised that was Moscow time; by comparison a lie-in until 6am seemed positively luxurious) and with horrified grasping of frozen extremities, headed speedily into the station to stow our bags.
Cold to the bone, awoken early, having endured a 34-hour journey with only pot noodles for sustenance, we were starving; so took ourselves off on the bus to find a café open at that hour.
Post-33hr train, I'm channeling my inner hobbit & eating my second breakfast in an hour. The cafe staff are astonished but I feel no shame.
— The Flashpacker (@RobynJankel) October 25, 2015
My friend Mark had recommended seeing more nature from the Trans-Siberian, rather than sticking solely to cities, so I had chosen Krasnoyarsk as a stop because of the Stolby; a national park filled with dramatic limestone forms, or something like that. It was reachable from the city and bingo, I thought, that’s nature, right? There were two options: bus to the start of the national park, then chairlift to the top, or 7km hike. I was vaguely assuming we could do the latter (voluntarily engaging in exercise is a rarity I’ll admit, but it does occasionally happen) but of course hadn’t really factored in the unseasonably cold weather. We stepped outside the cafe to discover temperatures significantly below zero and snow falling really quite rapidly, and instantly settled on the chairlift.
Did you know that there’s a ski resort in Siberia? It’s called Bobrovy Log and its existence came as something of a surprise to us, not least because the landscape prior to Krasnoyarsk was so incredibly flat. Flat plains with patchy trees and rivers, occasionally, but above all . . . flat. And suddenly here were mountains. Well . . . rather large hills. It wasn’t a very old resort and I couldn’t comment on the quality of the skiing (although they claim it’s world-class), but they have two chairlifts, of which one was operational, so we paid our £2.70 each and on we hopped.
This was one of the more surreal experiences of our trip so far if only because it was entirely unexpected and in a place I hadn’t known existed before that morning. I’d wanted to see rocks and instead here I was with my feet dangling 20m above ground, heading silently into the snow, through towering fir trees, above a small Alpine village, nowhere near the Alps. At the top we disembarked onto the snow-blanketed mountaintop (hilltop) and marched off through the trees and up a path which led to the observation deck.
Here, the snowclouds hung too low for us to make out much of the rocks themselves, but what we did see was the incredible taiga. As far as the eye could see, the hills and mountains were entirely covered with these dense Siberian forests.
Our cabin-mate on the previous train had been entirely correct; the wispy trees we had been observing next to the tracks could hardly be described as a forest. This was forest: endless, dense, entirely covering every inch of the landscape we saw spread out before us, save the occasional rock tentatively poking up its head. It’s impossible to imagine just how much of this vast country is covered with these trees; completely unlike anything we have back home.
It was pretty bloody cold up on the mountainside which meant just about enough time for a few comedy photos and some unashamed selfies, and then it was back down on the chairlift again, floating down towards the (not-actually-)Alpine village.
Back in Krasnoyarsk, we spent our afternoon warming up with hot chocolate (chairlifts, views and apres-ski, without having to actually ski; it’s a dream come true) before heading back to the station for another overnighter. Having been without a shower for several days at this point, we were gratified to discover that the person sharing our compartment spoke no English whatsoever which meant no stilted conversations or enthusiastic offers of assistance, and somehow lessened the mortification of our stink. The psychological studies are true: when you don’t develop an emotional connection with the person suffering at your hands (or feet), one’s guilt is not nearly so forthcoming.
Irkutsk is the unofficial capital of Eastern Siberia and it has a very different feel to the other cities, due almost entirely to its architecture. The houses here are wooden, sometimes brightly-painted, often covered with intricate shutters and fretwork, and almost all ramshackle to the point of imminent self-destruction.
The buildings are representative of traditional Siberian architecture and I loved them; so atmospheric and steeped in history. But again, this realisation that here was a city in the middle of Siberia with buildings which in the UK or America would be protected by law, and instead they’re falling into disrepair; and more than that, in a city which, bar those who’ve taken the Trans-Siberian (on which it’s the most popular stop), few westerners even know exists.
But we weren’t staying in Irkutsk. Its other main attraction is as the gateway to Lake Baikal: the largest freshwater lake in the world. A few facts: Lake Baikal holds approximately 20% of the world’s non-frozen freshwater, is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and lies on top of the deepest continental rift on earth. In Earth’s hotly-contested lake rankings, it’s both the oldest (25 million years), and deepest (1,642m), but lags at number seven in terms of surface area. That’s a B-, Lake Baikal, must try harder.
Despite these incredible accolades, I, er, hadn’t heard of Lake Baikal before starting my Trans-Siberian research. Perhaps you’re more geographically inclined than I am (yes yes, I did geography A-Level, but they don’t teach you about places, damnit) but for all of its superlatives and record-breaking achievements, Baikal looks pretty inconsequential on a map.
Eventually I realised that this is because I was looking at it within the impossibly oversized context of Russia as a region, by which everything – and I do mean everything – comes across as puny. In reality the banana-shaped Lake Baikal is on average 30 miles wide (the Dover Strait is just 21 miles) and a staggering 395 miles in length. England, by comparison, is only seven miles longer.
Put it that way and not only does the size of Lake Baikal become desperately apparent, but so does that of Russia itself.
We were heading to Listvyanka on the shores of Lake Baikal and the former home of the icebreaking ships which originally carried the Trans-Siberian trains from one shore to the other. The surrounding terrain is so mountainous that it had proved impossible to continue the railway along the lake’s perimeter when it was first built. A ship was the only alternative. (Well, that and optimistically laying track across the ice during the winter which, since it hides unpredictable hot springs bubbling up underneath, rarely ended well).
Listvyanka today is a tiny town, long and thin, pressed up hard against the lake. Whereas once the railway had gone there directly, now the only option is the bus. And although our research had led us to believe there were regular departures of a full-sized coach, we arrived at the bus station to be pointed with some derision towards the minibus stand outside instead. And after being switched from one minibus to yet another (trying very hard not to lose our respective rags), we finally set off along the single road which led to the lake.
The journey, not to put too fine a point on it, was horrendous, due entirely to the maniacal driver who bombed down the icy road at speeds approaching those needed for take-off, zooming towards bends and braking only as we swung around them. The undulating twilit road was continuously hilly, cutting a slash through the taiga, with constant blind bends and sub-zero temperatures outside, and I genuinely thought we might die.
Happily, we arrived at Listvyanka in one piece, although after minimal sleep and three consecutive nights on trains, what shreds remained of our nerves were shot to pieces.
In the summer Listvyanka is a popular destination for Trans-Siberian tourists and Russians alike, but in this inbetweeny season, we were once again the only non-Russians in town. We had the entire guesthouse to ourselves (and ceremoniously flung our belongings over every surface). The owner came to give us the key and an introduction. She was lovely, if a little puzzled by why we were, you know . . . there. More or less everything was closed, it seemed. “It’s very cold outside!” she told us cheerfully as we nodded whilst peeling off twelve layers between us. “Three days ago, it was warm and sunny! And the day before yesterday – the snow comes down. I say to my husband: winter is here now! And yes, now it is winter!”
Indeed, the next morning we ventured outside into a veritable blizzard. We made our way to the market at the end of the road and found a dozen or so women each selling identical offerings of omul, a fish found only in Lake Baikal. After perusing the options (they really were all identical), we did our bit for the local economy, buying two fish and two pieces of stale bread, and taking them home to eat. A bit like mackerel. Not exactly noteworthy but I doubt we’ll ever have the opportunity to eat it again.
The lake itself was, like every other geographical element in Russia, mind-bendingly vast. On the first day, clouds hung so low that we couldn’t see the other side of it, although the following day was sunny and mountains reared majestically and easily visible on the opposite shore. I could only imagine explorers arriving here in days of yore, speculating excitedly that they must have found the Pacific, only for it to emerge that they were barely half-way across the continent. It’s the size of a sea. Some scientists even suggest that it’s the source of the planet’s future fifth ocean . . . in a few hundred millennia or so.
It felt incredibly good to stay for two whole nights in one place that wasn’t on rails. Our need to relax combined with temperatures of -7°C and the blizzard which blew throughout our first day meant we spent most of our time inside the lovely warm guesthouse. Occasionally we ventured outside for brief periods of time, only to scurry back indoors when our faces started to feel like they were developing frostbite. Despite the weather, it was actually an incredibly calming place to be, and I can imagine in the summer it must be pleasantly bustling, although that could be said for most of the places we’ve been. For all my extrovert ways I am actually thoroughly enjoying this dearth of people (western tourists or otherwise) and have been happy to share most of it with nobody besides Peter.
The journey back to Irkutsk was considerably less fraught than the way out (thank god). As we approached, I realised that despite having only been away for two days, I was having something of a “bright lights big city!” moment. Irkutsk is, of course, the “big smoke” for Listvyanka and the surrounding villages, but it still only has a population of 600,000. It’s all relative.
Back on the hipster coffee trail (even in Irkutsk!) we found an underground (literally) cafe called Belaya Vorona, or White Raven, which was filled with books we couldn’t read, and a piano which the more musically inclined patrons played on rotation throughout the afternoon.
For the first time on the trip so far, we wimped out and took a taxi to the station. Thanks to a rip-off merchant driving the bus on our arrival in Irkutsk, we actually paid less for this personal service than we had on the number 20 two days previously. Vindication. And at a grand total of £2 for a 15-minute journey, it strongly suggests just how cheap fuel must be in Russia. Has anyone ever got a cab in London for less than a fiver, even just down the road?!
Perhaps we should be embracing the Flashpacker lifestyle and start taking taxis more often. But when buses cost just 16p, it’s hard to shake the budget habit . . .