There is nothing much to do in Irkutsk, so I decide for a day trip to Listvyanka, which is supposed to be pretty, and I want to take the journey back to town on a ferry via Angara river. Well, that’s the plan, at least.
On the way to the northern shore of Baikal I stop at Tsalsty Ethnographic Museum (an equivalent to what we call skanzen in Europe). Very charming, very full of Chinese tourist taking selfies with basically anything. It’s not particularly different from similar open air museums in Europe, but it’s worth visiting, basically because there is nothing much to do in Listvyanka to kill a whole day. Upon my arrival to the village the girl in the tourist information centre informs me that yes, there are (two) ferries that go back to Irkutsk, but there is no ticket shop in Listvyanka (why on Earth would anyone place a ticket shop somewhere where it is highly likely someone might actually want to buy a ticket, right?), and just waiting at the pier and hoping there are still free places on the ferry is highly risky. I ask her how do I get back to the city, and she tells me not worry, that there will be busses. There is no point in stressing about it anyway, so decide for a boat trip towards Circumbaikal railroad and go have something to eat before the boat leaves.
Now, russian menus translated in english (if they bother to translate it) are hilarious. This lakeside restaurant offers something with the irresistible name “carcass of omul”, which I cannot help ordering, and it’s actually delicious.
The boat takes me across the lake, we anchor at a random spot along the Circum-Baikal railway. It runs between the towns of Listvyanka (where Angara leaves Baikal) and Slyudyanka (the westernmost point of the lake), built between 1899 – 1904 with consumption of a wagon of dynamite per kilometre, it’s an astonishing piece of engineering. It used to be part of trans-siberian railway until mid-20th century, when the alternative route connecting Irkutsk and Slyudyanka was opened. Nowadays it runs roughly a train per day (not every day) and serves mainly touristic purpose. We take a little walk along the tracks through a couple of tunnels, and when we get back to the ship, there is a little time left for a swim in the lake. Having no swimsuit with me is not a problem (for me), however the Ruskies look at me as if the aliens just landed. Dear God, I thought there were no greater prudes than the English, but the Russians beat them. And I didn’t even go full monty, I managed to keep my knickers on (for a change).
We get back to the village, and the problem of “how do I get back” becomes imminent. There are busses, alright, but there is also a queue of quite a considerable length. But it all works out. Everything always does in Russia.
Transfer to Arshan in the morning takes around four hours. Again, the views are wonderful. We travel through Tonka Valley, which is about 50 km wide and the peaks of Sayan Mountains tower over it from the north. Arshan sits right beneath them. It’s boiling hot when I get there. Arshan means “sacred spring” in the language of native Buryat people, which is what the village is famous for, along with a beautiful buddhist datsan. It’s also supposed to be the best base for hiking, but no one seem to be interested in that activity. The most obvious hike is to Gora Lyubvi (The Peak of Love) and I even manage to find the start of the path, but I don’t want to wander off to the mountains on my own. I don’t think the guide is actually necessary, but still it’s better to find one, as someone should probably be aware of where I’m going in case anything happens. I don’t know the area, and after the Altai experience I am quite aware of the state the paths may be in, and last but not least, are there any bears in the area? Fortunately, after explaining all this to the girl at the reception of my hotel (in my version of Russian), she arranges for someone to pick me up on the following morning (for 500 rubles). I spend the rest of the afternoon walking to a nearby waterfall, tasting the water from the mineral springs (actually very nice, sweet and ferrous), and wandering through the local market that sells all sorts of tourist crap.
Early start – but it should have been much earlier than when we leave town at 9 am. The “guide’s” name is Slava and he’s barely 14. There is also a couple from St. Petersburg, Pavol and Irina. It’s already hot and it looks like it’s only going to get worse. The Peak of Love my arse. God only knows why they call it that way. Probably if you are a couple and don’t kill each other on the way, it’s true love. Shortly after we start the hike, a cute little dog appears out of nowhere and joins the group and follows us all the way to the summit (where I share my lunch and water with her). Later when we get near to Arshan, she disappears in the woods again. It is quite probably the most difficult hike I’ve ever done. No serpentine path that allows you to gain altitude gradually, oh no, straight up the hill, always seeing the peak in front of you, alway aware of how far it is and how slowly you are getting there. For 5 hours. We reach the peak as a thunderstorm approaches, so we are forced to leave immediately without resting, and the 3 hours descent is even worse than the way up. I manage a quick drink with Pavol and Irina, go back to the hotel, have a quick shower and fall asleep, and I wake up at 2 am starving. Oh well.
Relax much needed. The hot springs are located in nearby village of Zhemchug (about 35 km further west). Getting there is easy. Just go to the bus station and most locals offer to drive you there and back for 350 rubles (including a 2 hours stay, which is more than enough). I need to wait a short time before there are more people interested in going, but as soon as one car fills up, we leave. There are two springs in Zhemchug (entrance 250 rubles each). Actually, two pits. One with 38°C lukewarm brownish water – they call it methane bath, and looking at the colour of it, I try not to think about where may the methane come from. The other spring actually looks a bit more like a thermal spring, it has 55°C, and the water is greenish and when you immerse in it, you cannot see below your waistline, but the temperature is very pleasant for my sore muscles. I get back to the village and walk to the datsan picturesquely set against an almost alpine scenery. Actually, the whole village has the potential to become the siberian Switzerland, only it’s a bit shabbier, cheaper and way more friendly. And there are no Swiss.
8 am marshrutka to Ulan-Ude (8 hours ride). The Russians never cease to surprise me. An old man starts talking to me on the bus stop, and though I understand Russian quite well by now, he switches into an impeccable french, informs me that he is a professor of electromechanics at the university of Ulan-Ude and apologizes for not having spoken french for 30 years. It’s still better than my Russian will ever be, unless I start studying it seriously. I get to U/U in mid afternoon. Too late to visit any of the museums, but early enough to see the city and take a couple of cheeky pictures with the biggest statue of Lenin (actually, only his head), that I will not publish here, because someone may take offence. My God, the Russians certainly like their statues big. Well, that is actually unfair. The Soviet establishment did their best to suppress (read: destroy, in their best and most common habit) most of the Buryat culture, and blessed U/U with the giant Vladimir’s head instead.
My train for Mongolia leaves on the following morning. It’s time to say good-bye to Russia. The country, and more importantly the people, have exceeded my expectations. People are friendly, especially when they figure I can understand them, and always very helpful. I did not have a single bad experience. We may, at the end, have more in common than I’d like to admit. Thank you for a great trip. I will certainly be back.