This place has been on Greg’s ‘Must See’ list for a long time. It possibly wasn’t on his ‘Must Swim In’ list, but he can tick it off that one too. More on that later.
Listvyanka on Lake Baikal is just down the Angara river a bit from Irkutsk. It takes an hour or so to get there by car, bus or ferry (hydrofoil). We took the hydrofoil – it seemed appropriate that we reach the world’s oldest, largest, deepest unfrozen freshwater lake by water transport. We hopped on the No. 16 bus in Irkutsk, drove through the suburbs past the Angara dam (which has raised the water level on Lake Baikal by over 1 metre, there’s now almost no margin between the water and the lake wall, although there are sandy beaches on the eastern shore) to the Raketa ferry terminal to catch the afternoon ferry. We were lucky that it was a clear day on the lake, although we never did manage to see across to the other side. At its widest point, the lake is almost 80kms across.
We walked the 2kms from the ferry terminal to Deveranka, a ‘family hotel’ which offers accommodation in individual cabins with en-suite toilet and handbasin with hot & cold water, and tent camping in the field next door. Breakfast is included. In summer, there’s a shower room, but I guess it’s too freezing in winter for the little electric water heater to even take the chill off. There’s a banya – bathhouse, sort of like a sauna – which they probably use in winter.
So, we were there for a day and a half, and we walked, ate Mongolian barbecue by the lake, had dinner at the same restaurant both nights, and went for a swim. In water that was probably no warmer than 5C. Yes, we probably were crazy, but it was one of those things that we just had to do, or risk regretting not doing it for the rest of our lives. Certain parts of Greg’s body are possibly regretting that he actually did it, but that’s okay, he’d already decided he doesn’t want more children. It was so, so cold. ‘Swim’ is probably not quite the right word to describe what we did – we raced in wearing swimsuits and sandals (to avoid any broken glass), gasped at how cold it was, and ran out again.The Russian guy sunbaking near us gave us a ‘thumbs up’, and the look on his face implied that he wouldn’t have been so stupid, but then he might not have finished having children yet.
Yesterday we went on the Circum-Baikal Railway, which goes along the lake, on the original Trans-Siberian tracks from Port Baikal, on the other side of the Angara River from Listvyanka, to Slyudyanka. It’s a full, long day that starts with a short ferry trip across to Pork Baikal, then the train trip that stops 5 times along the way at places of historical or scenic significance (I think – all the commentary was in Russian, and there was a large Chinese group with their own guide). The train was pulled by a diesel engine, then when we got to Slyudyanka they uncoupled the diesel engine and used an electric engine to take us back to Irkutsk on the regular train line. We’ll go on that same section tomorrow night on the Trans-Siberian train