My first overnight stop after Mongolia was Irkutsk, the usual jumping off point for exploring Lake Baikal, the largest freshwater lake in the world.

I toured around town on the first day. Unlike Naushki, Irkutsk is less than 50% rundown, and there are some beautiful old wood buildings still standing. Also some churches, one of which I went inside to find beautifully painted ceilings, including some paintings of bird-people: the body of a bird with a human head. Very creepy.

On my second day, I did some errands.. getting Russian train tickets is fairly complicated if you don’t speak Russian, since the station staff are really unhelpful. I finally found a way, which is to buy them online via the Russian Railways website. They give you an e-ticket number that can be exchanged for a real ticket at the station, and all you have to say is “bilet elektronika.” Visiting the pharmacy was also fun. I don’t think the pharmacist figured out I didn’t understand Russian. I think she just thought I was stupid. She sold me what I wanted though, which is all that really matters, and I’ve since learned how to say “I don’t speak Russian” in Russian.

This is all a bit of a change.. in the rest of Asia, my skin colour made it obvious that I wasn’t a local even before I opened my mouth. Here, it’s more like being in the non-English speaking parts of Europe, where you’re assumed to speak the language until proven otherwise.

Actually, it feels a lot like Europe in other ways: the products you find in supermarkets, the way traffic actually follows laws, and just the general vibe of the place. Makes sense.. Siberians are Europeans who just happen to live in Asia :)

Anyway, yesterday I set out to finally see Lake Baikal… the slow and scenic way. I took a local train (elektrishka) back along the Trans-Siberian to Sludyanka, then changed to a small diesel-powered train the locals call the “matanya”, which means dangling. The reason for this is that it serves a very small branch line dangling off the Trans-Siberian called the Circumbaikal Railway. It used to be part of the Trans-Siberian until the 50s, when a dam raised the level of the Angara River and flooded the Port Baikal to Irkutsk section. The Trans-Siberian now runs along a more direct route to Irkutsk that bypasses Port Baikal, leaving it with only a few “matanya” trains a week.

The matanya left Sludyanka at 13:30 and soon turned onto the Circumbaikal. It was a slow ride, averaging less than 10 km/h, through lots of stone tunnels built at the turn of the century. The views of Baikal were spectacular! It’s big enough that it looks like the edge of the ocean, but calmer and without tides.

6 hours after we left, the matanya poked its way into Port Baikal, the end of the line. I got off the train and discovered that the schedules I’d found online were wrong and there were no more ferries to Listvyanka. I was contemplating spending the night in Port Baikal’s only hotel, but then met a Russian named Sergei who spoke a little English and also wanted to reach Listvyanka (and then get home by road) that night. He found a local who ferried us across the Angara River in a very small inflatable boat for 200 roubles (about $7) each. I then walked for about an hour to Listvyanka proper while he looked for a ride the opposite direction to Irkutsk.

I checked into my hostel and discovered that there was nobody else staying in the dorms… so I had a cheap 5 bed private room :) I was considering going for a swim in Lake Baikal despite its water being about 5°C (it’s so big that it never really warms up) but it was cold in Listvyanka and cold in my hostel room so I left it for the next morning. Also, I had arrived too late to use the hostel’s banya (sauna).. it takes 2 hours to warm up and it was after 22:00 by the time I asked to use it.

This morning I woke up reasonably early to find it cold and pouring rain. OK, no swimming in Lake Baikal for me. I dipped my toes in (yes, definitely cold) and filled up my water bottle, then caught the bus back to Irkutsk, stopping off in Talsty to see the Museum of Wooden Architecture.

And now I’m on a train again, heading to Krasnoyarsk. Currently only 9122km to London, and I’ve passed the point of no return: even if an emergency calls me home sooner than August 2, it’s faster and cheaper to continue journeying west rather than crossing the Pacific again. Yay round the world trip!

(Entry written July 9, 2010)