Trip Start Jun 05, 2007
Trip End Aug 01, 2007

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Where I stayed
The City Hostel

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Saturday, June 30, 2007

We are back at our home base of Irkutsk again, after a trip to Arshan, which is a small town in the Tunka Valley.  Arshan sits just at the foot of the Sayan mountains and the Kynryga River runs through it.  Drinking and bathing in the water is supposed to be very healthy and it has been a tourist destination for Russians for a while.  We did see a bunch of Russian tourists there, but it was overall fairly quiet, though I think it gets much busier in July and August.

We took an 8:45am bus from Irkutsk (which left half an hour late) and didn't get there until early afternoon.  The bus went very slowly and there were several hills that it barely made it up (there were a couple of times when the bus, struggling up the hill at about 2 miles an hour, actually stalled).  The driver made up for these long stretches of going painfully slow by driving pretty crazily on the downhills.  We also passed the town of Kultuk, which sits right on Lake Baikal, halfway through the trip and had some great views from the mountain roads outside of that town.

Having been dropped off in Arhsan, we walked to Priyut Alpinista, the name of the place we were staying.  It was actually pretty nice, basically a hostel catering towards people making trips up the mountains near Arshan.  We barely saw any other guests there though, but we were treated very nicely and the lady running it helped us out by giving us lots of information (uncharacteristic customer service at a Russian hotel).  Almost all of the houses in the center of Arshan have signs saying that they rent rooms, but we were happy paying a bit more and having a shower and real toilet.  There was even a fireplace which we sat around one night.

One of the main attractions of Arshan is a series of waterfalls that start very close to the town itself.  After we arrived and purchased tickets to get back to Irkutsk in few days, we walked over to the first waterfall.  You follow the river from town through a street where people sell souvenirs and then it continues going up the mountain a bit as the forest also starts.  Not too tough of a hike but there are some steep steps leading to the first waterfall, which took about half an hour or so to get to.  It wasn't a huge waterfall, but it was nice and the setting was great.  Basically, you could continue going deeper into the mountains and forest and see 12 more waterfalls.  This was our plan for the next day.  One problem was there were lots of bugs (small and huge flies, bees, etc.) though interestingly it was worst on the path at the beginning where people sell souvenirs.  There's a little gate that leads from this path back to the town proper, and once you exit that gate, it seemed like the bugs went away.  Our hostel lady had told us as we were setting off the next day for the trail (she actually called out to me and I turned back as I'd already stepped outside) that we should make sure to ask the mountain, the forest, etc. for permission to enter while we were hiking around.  We did do this a few times along the trail and the bugs were definitely fewer and less annoying the next day (we attribute this to the respect we were showing nature, though the bug spray might have helped too...).

Although they didn't have too many patrons, there were a few outdoor places to eat and drink, which is where we spent our evenings in Arshan, including the first one.  We continued to eat lots of pozy, but had other good food as well.

Tom had hurt his foot a bit walking towards the waterfall on the first day, so it was just me and Benny going to the waterfalls the second day.  The lady at the hostel had explained how to get to the second waterfall from the first one, but there was some miscommunication apparently as it didn't quite work out as planned.  She had said we needed to go up this steep hill across from the steps leading down to the first waterfall and Benny and I remembered seeing a steep hill on the other side.  We started going up it -- it was really steep and we needed to basically go on all fours, grabbing rocks and roots.  It kept going up and up and finally we got to the top of the peak.  Looking over on the other side we could see there was nowhere further to go as it was just a big drop so we were confused as to how to get to the waterfall from there.  We were also really tired and sweaty so we relaxed a bit and took pictures up there.  Eventually two other people made their way up and after asking them where the second waterfall was, we realized we'd expended all of that energy going the wrong way. 

Most people just go to the first waterfall so it's not like there was a clear path or any kind of markings saying how we should get to numbers 2, 3, etc.  There were two other people who seemed to be going to the second one, so we followed them a bit, again going up another steep hill.  We kept climbing higher and higher, but then the people we were following started going back down and I asked them if they knew how to get to the second waterfall and they replied that they were as lost and confused as we were.  Eventually, luckily, we did see what looked like a path going along the river and Benny and I agreed that there would be no more climbing up mountains -- we would just try to stay as close to the river as possible.  Which also made sense since probably all the waterfalls would be part of this river.  The waterfalls again were not that big and we didn't really even count how many we saw because the lady had warned us there were lots of rapids as well and some of those could count as waterfalls.

But anyway, it was a great hike along the river, pretty challenging (definitely for "reasonable feet people").  We had one backpack that we took turns carrying and just continued going along the river.  As we went further, there wasn't even really a trail at many times, we were just climbing over and across large rocks that bordered the river.  There were some points where it really was like making your way around a climbing wall -- unfortunately if you slipped though, you'd fall into the river 10 feet below.  We eventually reached a point where we really couldn't go further without surely falling off the cliff (not high, just water level) and into the river.  We figured we would take our shoes off and walk to the other side where the trail seemed to continue.  I took off my shoes and socks, rolled up my pants and started trying to make my way across at a spot where the rapids were not too strong.  The problem was the rocks at the riverbed were really slippery and the water was freezing cold.  This method probably wasn't going to work out so we stopped and had lunch instead. 

Eventually, we saw some other people making their way to the same spot.  They stopped about 50 feet from us and started to cross the river on these logs that we had passed and had joked how maybe that was the way to cross.  They didn't seem sturdy at all (basically, you had to walk on one log, then you could stand on a big rock in the middle of the river, then walk across another log, and then you'd be on the opposite shore) but almost the whole group made it across.  One guy figured he'd fall off and just gave up and walked to where we were and just walked across the river in his shoes and socks.  We figured if they could do it, we could do it, so we did.  The logs were more sturdy than they seemed, but we were both relieved neither of us fell in, though it was a fairly difficult balancing act. 

We kept going along and eventually found a spot where it seemed like it would be hard to keep going.  So we turned back, stopping first to take a swim at one fairly calm spot.  The water was freezing, but not as cold as Lake Baikal, so it wasn't a relaxing swim or anything, just hopping in for 20 seconds or so.  The walk back went much faster and probably took about 1-1.5 hours (we'd probably walked about 2.5 hours or so after we'd figured out the proper route).  I'll post some pics of the waterfalls and trail.  There were some really beautiful places, basically surrounded by cliffs and mountains on all sides in some spots (and the weather was really great too).  We even saw what looked like a frozen mountain stream higher on the mountain.  There weren't too many people, almost none during the second half of our hike out there, but we did come across a group where one guy was walking around without a shirt but with a handgun tucked into his shorts.  We didn't ask what the gun was for.

The next day was rainy (it actually rained some every day we were there, which is supposedly unusual for Arshan) but we eventually made it out to Zhemchug, a village with hot springs.  It was approximately a 40 minute drive away on a marshrutka.  There was a place you could go which was basically a big hot tub, fed by water from the hot springs.  It was nice, but the whole village was extremely muddy (the rain the previous night didn't help) and the mud came all the way up to the pool, which made for everything being a bit messy.

The next day (yesterday) we headed back to Irkutsk on a microbus, which could actually go up hills and we made much better time getting back (though we had to dodge lots of cows on the road).  Tomorrow we fly from Irkutsk to St. Petersburg (via Moscow) and our Siberian adventure comes to an end.  It's been great fun and I highly recommend you all come out here and take a look (though you'd probably want to have someone who speaks Russian with you).
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nattlenut on

Wow, Alex!! Great pictures, and some interesting moments in the past week or so. I really love reading about your adventures in Siberia and I think you're acting as a great trailblazer for others (like me!!!) who now want to go experience this place, thanks to the detailed reports about your activities, challenges, and observations.

Have a safe trip back to St. Pete. I bet you are ready for a bit more civilization now!

looking forward to reading more...
love, Nat

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