Reaching for Baikal
This is the second article from our new “Travel Russia Stories” series. We talk to people who explore different corners of this diverse country and ask them to share their adventures. After exploring South Siberia, let’s move to one of the most beautiful natural sights in Russia – lake Baikal.
Dear reader, have you ever heard about a lake called Baikal? It is considered the world’s deepest and oldest lake and is on UNESCO World Heritage Site list. It’s absolutely stunning and totally worth visiting. However, organizing a trip there could be quite a challenge. To help you with this, we’ve talked to Sasha, who had made a trip to Baikal and has kindly agreed to share his experience with us.
Hello, Sasha! First could you tell me what was your route for this trip?
Hey! We started from Saint Petersburg and Irkutsk was our final destination. We also stopped in several other cities on our way, such as Moscow, Kazan, Ufa, Kurgan, Omsk, Novosibirsk, and Krasnoyarsk. In the Baikal region, our way led through Maloe More, Olkhon Island, mountains in a city called Slyudyanka and Tunkinsky valley. We followed the same route on our way back, but with a small addition – we stopped at the city of Meleuz to visit our friends. As for the means of transportation, we opted for a car, Mitsubishi L200. The whole trip took 30 days. By the way, I can honestly say that this kind of trip can be done by anybody. Well, maybe except for those who love luxury life or really hate long trips. However, the second issue could be easily solved – one can just get a plane ticket directly to Irkutsk or Ulan-Ude and rent a car there to go to Baikal, like most of the tourists do.
Yes, taking a plane sounds much easier. Did you plan everything step by step in advance or was it a spontaneous trip?
Most of the things were planned in advance of course. If one week prior to the departure counts as “in advance” in your book :) We calculated the number of kilometers we need to cover and booked the accommodation, mostly flats. We also planned what we wished to see in the Baikal region and came to terms with what we didn’t have time to see – these things we put on hold until the next trip. But of course, not everything went as we planned. We spent more time in some places, others we didn’t see at all, and the order in which we visited places changed a lot. In short, everything went according to the plan, but the plan adapted to the current situation :) It’s always easier to decide on the spot.
Of all the places that you’ve seen, which ones did you like the most?
I really liked the city of Kazan although let’s face it – if you start from Saint Petersburg, you are not easily impressed by any other city in Russia. You just label them as “ok to live in” or “well, I wouldn’t like to stay here”. However, there are beautiful and interesting places in every region. I was pleasantly surprised by the city of Kemerovo, for example. Krasnoyarsk and river Yenisei are also totally stunning scenically, and I have good memories of the evening view of Novosibirsk’s center. But Kazan is a totally different level of awesomeness – it’s the only city among those we visited where I could live. It’s very beautiful and comfortable.
Speaking about living… Where did you stay while traveling to Baikal?
On our way to Irkutsk, we stayed in rented apartments. On Baikal lake, we mostly camped and a couple of times we rented a house. On our way back we lived at our friends’ places and hostels. We decided it’s best to make a lot of friends in different cities so that you always have a friendly hearth anywhere you go!
Was renting very expensive?
No, but it’s just way cooler to stay with friends. You drop by, listen to their stories about the city and tell them what you just saw on your way.
And how did you book the apartments? Which service would you advise?
Nothing unusual. We just used booking.com.
I heard horrible stories about accommodation on Baikal lake. Did you experience something like this?
I guess it depends on which locations you go to. For example, where we stopped on the shore of Maloe More, on Olkhon Island and in Tunkinsky valley, there were no official camping spots. But you can put up a tent anywhere you want in this area, and this is a huge advantage. I don’t believe we’ve seen any private or restricted zones.
Judging by tourist guidebooks, there are dozens of tourist hosting houses on Baikal. I guess conditions there are pretty different. Locals have told us about one pretty comfortable place, but I am afraid staying there costs a fortune. There are also plenty of guest houses which have a different level of comfort. Our friends whom we met on Baikal paid the same amount of money for an awful place on Olkhon Island and great spacious house in a village called Listvyanka.
And in general, how is the situation with shops, transport, hospitals and so on in the Baikal area? Is there anything or is it more like a wild-wild place?
I would say that there is not too much infrastructure. It’s actually nearly absent. Of course, it’s not a completely wild place, but you don’t see much civilization around. I am not sure if it’s an advantage or a disadvantage. For us it was rather fortunate – we could enjoy nature without anything getting in the way. Obviously, for those who love comfort, it would be a great minus in such a trip.
So, I guess, there is also not too much hope for assistance in English?
The chances of meeting somebody who speaks English are quite low, so foreigners coming to this area should better have a Russian phrasebook with them. Besides, it’s also best to think in advance is you might need any special medicine or nutrition as it might be difficult to obtain it there. Ah, and don’t forget to exchange money and bring it in cash. The nearest ATM or currency exchange office is in Irkutsk!
But how to cope with unwanted situations in such conditions? I mean, if something gets broken and there is no one around to fix it, like a car in your case, it could be pretty upsetting.
Luckily, we managed to avoid such accidents. Once the brakes got broken and we had to repair them, but it happened in Kazan, not in the taiga, so we got them fixed immediately in a car service.
Being in the wild means not only the lack of security but also the lack of options. For example, there is only one way to get to Olkhon Island – on a ferry. And the queue is ginormous! It took us one day of waiting to get there and one day to get back. Some people were even less lucky – they were waiting 2-3 days.
You are mentioning this Olkhon Island pretty often. What is there to see?
It’s the biggest island on Baikal and it’s famous for its nature: it has everything – steppes, forests, sand dunes, cliffs, and mountains. We managed to travel across the whole island, and every part of it is totally different from the others
Sounds amazing! And now.. my favorite question – what did you eat during this trip? Was there only camp style food available or was there any chance to dine out?
We had a little bit of everything – cooking on a campfire, kebab, and dining out. We ate tinned meat with pozy, a traditional Buryat meal. And then pozy with tinned meat… Diversity, you know :) But well, now we know where the tastiest pozy on this planet is cooked!
All photos courtesy of Sasha.