Finally I have reached Severo-Baikalsk (a settlement at the northern end of Lake Baikal) after my loooooong trek.
Actually I am leaving again tonight, since I have done what I came to do. And I can report that Lake Baikal is truly amazing.
Here is the scoop.
I step off the train, 103 hours after getting on (give or take a few days waiting for trains to leave, and a few hours queueing for tickets – and I am leaving out the ferry journey), and a woman walks up to me.
She tells me her sad story. But I could not help but laugh. Turns out she has come here (all the way from Tynda – 40 hours) to visit a boyfriend who invited her on Friday to come say hello (this is Monday).
And when you go visit a Russian apparently they pay for everything, give you a place to stay, feed you, show you around and all that stuff. So she hardly brought any money (she works for the railroad so tickets are free).
But imagine her dismay when she gets to Severo-Baikalsk to be met by her “boyfriend’s” mother who tells her than boyfriend is now married and it is inappropriate for her to be here, so why does she not just go home. There are tears, and recriminations, even with one of the train conductors telling her that everything will be okay.
So, more composed, she decides to wait for me to get off the train (she espied me at an earlier station – not that that is hard to do, since I don’t exactly merge into the background), and to suggest we share a room. Now I am thinking the same thing you are. Can you trust this woman as far as you can throw her (which would not be far)?
But travelling is sometimes about going with the roll of the dice, and rooms are usually much cheaper for two (and with twin beds), so I decide to go along and see what happens.
We rock up to the train station hotel (always the cheapest rooms for people who just need a few hours rest before the train), and sort out to stay there. It does not make any difference to the price that we are in the same room. In fact, we share it with six other people. She goes off to get a ticket home, and I wait for her to come back (so we can go explore a little).
Anyway, a very good thing happens. A guy wanders in, sees me reading my Lonely Planet guidebook, and starts talking to me in English. I hardly know what to say after three weeks without speaking a word of it.
Turns out he works for Lonely Planet and he is taking a boat trip tomorrow. Would I like to come along, and we can talk about how I found my journey? He is researching a book on the trans-Siberian route. So I say “is the pope catholic?” and the deal is done.
Next morning, 5:30am, off we set. Everything is organised already. I just sit around and look pretty (which is a challenge after 13 days without showering (or shaving) I must say).
Dawn over the lake is amazing as the boat putters across the water, a gentle south-westerly swell breaking on the bow. There is something vaguely magical about that time of day (not that I love to get up then, but still). It makes for good photos too.
First stop is the Bay of Ayaya, where we meet several reindeer (god only knows what they are doing there), and the two guys who camp there to look after them (much clearer why they are here).
Next stop, oh blessed relief, is a hot springs where, for $8, I can begin the process of getting clean. With 13 days of accumulated diesel fumes, cigarette smoke, and general grime it takes more than one wash to get back to clean again.
Stop number 3 (and these are separated by long periods of just cruising in the boat and eating smoked omul – the local fish) is the “absurdly picturesque” (Lonely Planet’s words) village of Baikalskoye. And it is. Amazing views. Dead quiet. Interesting people (the local taxi driver seems to be drunk, and also seems to have some difficulty talking. Not quite sure if these two things are connected or not. His friend, who may also be drunk, is not much better).
The local collective fishery is called Victory, which seems a little strange, given the only enemy is the fish. And if you ever were victorious over them then you would have to close down the fishery.
Then again, maybe the carvings of seals on the shop sign give a clue as to the real enemy (there are seals – Nerpa – that are native to Baikal, although no one knows where they came from).
And I went for a swim. Extremely pleasant. I could not convince the man from Lonely Planet (sounds like the man from UNCLE – perhaps he was Napoleon Solo in disguise) to join me. I can confirm that Baikal is cold. And I can also confirm that I seem to have overcome my fear of jumping into cold water (no worries about things hidden under the surface, Baikal’s water is perfectly clear).
Then a trip back to town, a trip to a local restaurant (decidedly average – but it is an interesting experience to go out with a guidebook researcher who looks at everything with a critical eye. I never asked him, but I guess it must spoil your enjoyment at some level. Certainly it means you don’t get a holiday, even if being a travel writer sounds like one big holiday to you guys at home.
And I spent the night at a flat owned by the tour guide for the day, who lets it out to tourists. I even had both a shave and a shower. Those who met me in the last few days would hardly recognise me.
Speaking of which, I ran into my Russian friend again (you remember the woman with the boyfriend problems). Turns out she has met some nice Russian people during the day (she did not come along on the boat trip – being unable to convince herself to get up at 5 in the morning), and has had a great time. So it has all just worked out fine.
The 10 hour hydro-foil only goes on the weekend. I can’t wait that long. The catch is that the train takes 30 hours. Oh well, if there is one thing I am good at now it is waiting.