Clouded Out

Lake Baikal is an idyllic palette of wildflowers and butterflies in the sunshine in August. In the rain, it’s gray and muddy and the trails have treacherous footing in some places you very much want trails to be built to American National Park ADA standards.

The afternoon that we we posted last, we got onto train 005 from Ulaan Baatar to Moscow, bound for Irkutsk. There were, as always, a batch of interesting travelers in adjacent compartments: a writer for the Economist who is starting work on a book about the Amur River, a Swedish couple who were returning home after three years in Hong Kong and were having endless visa trouble, most of which seemed to come down to having the Russian Visa in a different passport than the one they were using. This is not specifically a problem Americans would have. In America when you run out of space in your passport, the Passport Office gives you extra pages. The Swedes seem to issue you a new passport and all the other ones stay valid, as far as Sweden is concerned. There was an issue of the expiration date. The moral is to make sure you have a passport that’s valid for 6 months after the last date you’ll be using your passport for anything.

Let’s see, what else, Nikita is the cutest Russian baby living in Ulaan Baatar and possibly the universe and his grandparents in Irkutsk will be thrilled to see him walking around and being curious about everything in the world. His mom is nice, too.

There is not a dining car on the Mongolian train when it leaves Ulaan Baatar! We ate only raisins and Mongolian dried cheese. The raisins were in a forged Sunmaid bag but they were OK. I hope I remembered to save the bag.

Siberia starts about 50 km north of Ulaan Baatar. Suddenly instead of grasslands, you are traveling through spindly birch forests (all forests are spindly out here, they haven’t done “old growth” since the Iron Age.) along the the Selenga River, which takes Mongolian pollution north to Lake Baikal. Then there are a couple of hundred of kilometers of Mongolia again but you know you are entering another country when at sundown the train parks for 6 hours without even the excuse of changing railroad gauges and Russians and Mongolians poke their heads in every hour and a half or so because they are looking for something more interesting than two oldish men and their Lonely Planet guidebooks to Russia and Mongolia.

The Swedes got into Russia, we noted the next morning.

One of the things that happens at midnight on the border is that a Russian dining car is hooked up. The relative liberty of the Trans-Siberian family of trains is new. A French man we met had been on it in 1987, and said that he was confined for the entire trip in a car holding only Europeans, and was not even permitted to get out at station stops. There were other cars holding only Mongolians and only Russians and only Chinese, and nobody could move about, not even to eat. You brought five days of food with you. Now it’s an ordinary train with a dining car that wants too much for too little, but what you really want to do, Anna (mother of the baby) informed us, is step onto the platform at Sludyanka and buy smoked fish, still warm, from the women selling them on the platform. The fish cost about $1 apiece and one and a half of them feed even travelers who have only eaten raisins and cheese for half a day.

In the afternoon, about 3:30, the train pulls into Irkutsk and you say your farewells to all the people whose email addresses you may or may not have put into your iPhone and the taxi gauntlet is ready to charge you triple to go to your hotel. Anna said a taxi should be 200 rubles and we paid 300 rubles which is only 50% more, it’s all you can hope for the first time you step off an international transport in a new country with a new language and a new alphabet.

The Victory Hotel seemed nice enough. The Internet connections are a little silly: with an Ethernet cable you connect via PPPoE; they somehow use the same architecture for Wi-Fi, which isn’t supported on the PowerBook and iPhone. They charge by the megabyte for the Internet which makes browsing inadvisable. You have no idea how much you’re downloading. We walked around town and bought fruit at the market and ate it all before we got back to the hotel.

I don’t know what has changed, but I never even think any more about the admonitions every traveler used to get about how poisonous everyone’s food and water is to Americans. We still use our water filter, but defeat entirely the purpose by eating food on cruise ships. Rural Mongolian mayonnaise and raw vegetable salads have had no effect on me so far, but I got pretty classically sick for a day from something I ate on the Costa Classica. It was the night of the chemically contaminated or perhaps just sour kiwi soup, but I don’t know that it was that.

We went to an “upscale” restaurant the night we arrived in Irkutsk, in a walking street about two blocks from the Hotel Victory.

I should correlate and list all the occasions I have been the only customer in a restaurant. It’s a funny feeling. You have to leave off the times when you are a tourist eating at 9 PM in Madrid and the crowd doesn’t gather until you leave. In Bombay in 1980 when the musician entertained only me; in the restaurant with actual stars as I recall in Santiago de Compostela in 2007, and in Perpignan on an election night a very nice lonely place, and here at Arbatski Dvorik in Irkutsk, why isn’t anybody here? We had a very nice mushroom assortment, including some that had been something like brined to a very unusual effect; we had Baikal whitefish and “juicy meat bits”.

In the morning, our guide and his driver arrived at the hotel. We supposed that we’d be issued backpacks to hold our share of everything, but the guide had an enormous backpack and asked us to carry only sleeping bags in addition to our personal items, which we did with our day packs. He carried all the food and tents and cooking equipment (and given our lameness, it was a good thing). We dropped off the luggage at the Hotel Zvezda, where we would be staying when we got back. They charged us 600 rubles for the service of putting our suitcases behind the desk for two days. Then the four of us drove three hours to Bolshoi Goloustnoye, a little village on Lake Baikal. The driver returned to Irkutsk and we began our walk.

Lake Baikal is beautiful — it’s deep like Lake Tahoe, but much, much larger: it holds about a fifth of the world’s freshwater, and is 670 km from one end to the other (we saw about 22 km of that, though we walked probably about 32 km). We walked, sometimes on the gravel beach along the shore, sometimes on a trail in the forest above. After ninety minutes or so, we discovered that this trip included breakfast, lunch, and dinner, each of which required building a fire, making soup and tea, and having lots of Russian snacks. (The best snacks were Pryanik, had the flavor of molasses, the consistency and sugar of pfeffernusse, and the shape of donuts.) Given our late start, we arrived at the first night’s camp around 9 pm, shortly before sunset.

Our guide Alex has an interesting life.  (Actually, he’s our substitute — Valery, who does this all the time had a larger trip to host.)  He spends most of his time these days as a newspaper photographer, and has taught English and French and chess in the years before.  Now he helps out guiding trips when needed.

We had supposed it might rain the first night, but it didn’t, and stayed merely cloudy during the entire walk of the second day. At one point we missed a spot on the trail where we were supposed to go straight up the hill, and instead continued to follow along the cliffs above the shore: this walking got harder and harder and eventually reached a sheer dropoff, and we had to go back. I’d noticed the little rocks indicating that the path we took wasn’t the trail, but it’s always a question when being led by a guide whether to follow him wherever, or to participate in the navigation. We eventually reached our second camp spot, which seemed to have been abandoned by someone else or just wasn’t used that night — there was a blue tarp over a little table next to a cooking pit. After all the tents got set up, it began to rain, a drizzle which didn’t stop all night long. We ran into some folks we’d met on the train to Ulaan Baatar who were spending a couple weeks at Lake Baikal improving the trails.

In the morning we had only a few km to walk to get to Bolshoi Koti, and got off to another questionable start. The trail-builders had gone to the village starting off on the beach. Our guide was sure we had to walk above, on the cliff. This walk had some extremely difficult spots, including walking across a landslide which had gotten even more washed out by the previous night’s rain. In this case, the guide didn’t know that the trail builders had just built a new staircase from the beach only days before. Oh well — next time. The village is quite cute, and there we caught a hovercraft which took us back to Irkutsk. (The guide also didn’t know where the dock was at Bolshoi Koty, but a guy in a Fish Colorado t-shirt did. He was studying Chinese in China and pretty cosmopolitan just generally for living in a village accessible only by boat in the summer. In the wintertime, the lake freezes and between February and April, you drive on the lake. But here we drift into Global Warming Speak: Baikal didn’t freeze last winter.)

On our arrival in Irkutsk we bought a map that is too large to carry and Alexander dropped his pack off at his mother-in-law’s apartment and guided us on microbus and macrobus back to the Hotel Zvezda.

Hotel Zvezda is a really nice hunter-themed hotel. It has somewhat more straightforward Internet service.

The restaurant is really good, but because there was a wedding in the main room, and a big birthday party in the bar, we had to sit out on the terrace, which was a little bit windy and cold. So we wore jackets. The food was awesome: fresh raw Baikal fish (“sig”) served freezing on a bed of ice cubes (with saran wrap on top of them to keep the fish dry); an incredibly tasty borscht which wasn’t as beety as it was meaty, with a nice layer of tasty fat on top; and a Manchurian deer steak so rich it tasted like the liver of any other animal, served with a mysterious red conserve which turned out to be tomatoes that had been processed somehow with tons of sugar. And tiramisu, Irkutsky style. The birthday and a wedding party provided in the usual number of people wandering over for photos and to find out why we had beards. My favorite is Alex, in his Red Hot Chili Peppers t-shirt.

And so to the train. After we post this we pack up all of our bags to put in Left Luggage at the train station, and wander around town until our train leaves this evening. Train schedules are all on Moscow Time and Lonely Planet doesn’t agree with local custom as to how far off from Irkutsk that is. We’ll get there early.