Pearl of Siberia
Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
235Trip End Nov 30, 2009
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This leg of the journey was a little laborious however, with a crossing of the Mongolian/Russian border and a scheduled six to eight hour delay at a small station called Naushki just inside Russian territory to wait for a new engine to transport us further into the Siberian wastes. This is all quite normal, but adds about 12 hours in total to the 24 hour travel time. Our lonely little carriage is pictured patiently waiting above.
The station at Ulan Ude is the only other major stop and as you can see, it gets a lot colder as you head further north. I don't think that time is correct, but it certainly felt like it was -28C. A final highlight of the ride was the friendly policeman who came to ask us to keep the volume of our Boxing Day celebrations down, but ended up staying for a couple of beers instead. He had a smattering of English, the Cultural Group's guide Julia facilitated conversation, so we continued on with our little party. Cheers Grei!
Anyway, on to the main event - majestic Lake Baikal. This is a monster of a lake located in the middle of Siberia and which holds about 20% of the world's fresh water supplies. It's a banana shaped lake 636km long and almost two kilometres deep in parts, although when it formed it was between five and nine kilometres deep depending on which scientist you believe. It has a rich ecology and about 80% of the animals living here are found nowhere else on Earth. As you can see, it's an absolutely beautiful place, knee deep in snow at the moment and as the water is now at about 2C and still falling, it's on the verge of freezing over.
We arrived and went for a brisk walk to the local restaurant for views over the water, some exquisitely cooked local Omul and potato (Siberian fish and chips), a Baltica beer (yum) and a game of Russian Billiards (whoever sinks the most wins, but the table pockets are tiny!). Much thanks to city guide Stas - nice intro to the region mate!
Next stop was the Baikal museum, where many of the facts and figures above came from, and which also houses a variety of water-based live animal exhibits, heaps of stuffed animals (so that's a lynx - no wonder you don't want to meet one of them in a dark alley) and a oodles of information about the lake's rich history. Definitely drop by if you're ever in the neighbourhood - the Baikal seals zooming around like torpedoes are the star attraction (and seem pretty happy).
Still wandering in the powder snow, we headed into one of the villages that has settled in the finger valleys surrounding the south western tip of the lake (only about 20km of the lakeside is inhabited I believe). The town is a jumble of wooden huts, wells and snowy lanes which make for some attractive scenery. Again, everything is under a couple of feet of snow. We stopped in at a nice church, a first of a few Russian Orthodox numbers we'll be seeing in coming weeks. The richly decorated interior which a multitude of Christ icon paintings somehow adds to the sombre atmosphere.
Heading back home in the late afternoon gave a few final photo opportunities. The steaming lake, due to the water temperature being 2C and the surrounding air -20C, is pretty amazing to witness and although this place would be pretty awesome in the summer, there is definite reasons for coming here mid winter like we did. Spectacular!
Next day Stas took us into the hills for some exercise in the form of cross country skiing. I hadn't done this before and in the knee deep powder snow it was pretty tricky, but we all mastered the flat and uphill parts by the end of an exhausting two hours, leaving only the steep downhill techniques to brush up on in future (it took Stas two years to learn downhill apparently). I would have been more comfortable on one of the snowboards I spied in the rental shop but it was good to try new things.
The Siberian countryside was picture-postcard and just what we envisaged from this huge area of forest that stretches another 1,000km northwards before it turns to barren tundra. I also learned why most Russians don't have a beard - contrary to giving you some insulation from the cold it seems to catch moisture from your breath and allows it to freeze into what I'll call frossticles there, making for a very chilly chin indeed. As you will see in upcoming entries the beard is gone once more.
A final piece of fun that day was the tube riding down a purpose-built hill, including special tube tows to get you back to the top again. You get up a lot of speed whizzing down there, and if you crashed it would be pretty nasty indeed, but none of us did during the hour of blasting down the hill in a giant donut. Excellent fun (Leigh reckons the best of their trip so far) and for a combined total of $US5 for the three hours rental, much cheaper than your average day at the snow pretty much anywhere...
Next entry -> Irkutsk (Paris of the East)
Old Rossian Proverb
Snow is great until it goes down your pants.