Lake Baikal has become one of my favourite places. It is the largest freshwater lake in the world with over 20% of the world’s freshwater. It is also the deepest, a huge 1642m at its deepest point, and best of all, thanks to a unique algae floating in its waters, it is clean enough to drink.
I spent 5 days on the shores of Lake Baikal. It was stunning. Snow-capped mountains surround this beautiful blue lake and we were lucky with the weather; sunshine every day. I stayed 3 nights in the lovely Belka eco-hostel. Like most of the village, it is built from the local timber and is complete with a friendly atmosphere and plenty of interesting travelers. The village, though the most touristy place, is still a lovely place. I ate smoked ‘Omul’, fished from the lake overnight and smoked on its shores early morning. It doesn’t get fresher than that. I swam in the cold and clear waters 4 out of the 5 days.
The highlight of the week for me though, has to be my wild adventure with a new friend Stephane, from Belgium. He arrived on Tuesday evening, and over delicious polish vodka we hatched a plan to walk the 20km or so to the next village, Bolshy Koty, camp and then return the following day.
We set off (slightly later than planned) with some nerves. I had left my big bag in Irkutsk for the week, so had only a handful of clothes and a thin summer sleeping bag, borrowed from the hostel. There was, we had been told, an unusual threat of bears in the woods. Normally they are settling down fro hibernation about now, but this year has been hot, and there have been forest fires recently, driving the bears out of their normal territories looking for food before their big sleep. Being from the UK and Belgium, neither me nor Stephane were particularly used to hiking in bear-frequented areas. All we knew was that we would have to make a lot of noise as we walked, so the bears were scared off before we met them. If we met one, well.. it would be too late then.
Thankfully there was a lot to talk about, so we didn’t struggle to make noise as we walked. Before we had gone far we had a Russian friend, a guy who had come on a day trip from Irkutsk to walk. He joined us until we stopped for lunch on the top of the hill and then made his way back to the village, whilst we continued to the next.
The trail, though steep in places, was relatively easy and there was no doubt which way it went, it was the only trail around. It cut away from the lake for a time and over a mountain, but soon we were back on the lakeside. We stopped for a swim on the way. It felt like a tropical island, not the heart of Siberia!
We made it to the edge of Bolshy Koty unharmed by bears (much to our joint relief) and set up camp on a beach on the edge of the village. The village itself is only accessible by water or foot. Perhaps we would have camped further away if we had not been afraid of the bears, but it was still a beautiful place and we had no complaints. We collected wood and lit a fire with a steel and flint. We cooked in old tin cans reused as saucepans and tea cups. We drank plenty of tea, laughed, stoked the fire and ate well. Despite the cold night air closing in around us, we were warm and comfortable in each others company.
We fell asleep in cloud. I woke up in the night to stars. the most beautiful stars, so many, and so bright against the dark sky. I kept the fire stoked and I stayed quite warm. It was worth a slight chill anyway, to be beneath such a beautiful sky. Stephane woke me in the morning to see the sunrise above the lake. It was beautiful. I felt peaceful, content and like I never wanted to leave.
We re-stoked the fire, toasted bread and ate eggs and tea. It was a good breakfast and soon we were on our way, walking back to Listvyanka village. Once more we had amazing sunshine and the lake was turquoise beneath our feet. We stopped and swam again and built a small fire on which to cook our lunch.
Afterwards, we took a different and more difficult route back, sticking to the lake side at all times. This time there was a myriad of paths and we had to make decisions about which way to go, without knowing where they led. We ended up on trails barely a foot wide, cut into dizzyingly high and steep slopes. I barely dared looked down.
There were some rock scrambles, which I felt at home on, and some steep dirt tracks which Stephane had to encourage me on. Together, we made it around the mountain this time, instead of over it. It felt like soloing in climbing. Though nothing was too technical and the risks were low, had one of us fallen, the result would have been disastrous. As it was, we made it, and we celebrated back in Listvyanka with a delicious smoked ‘Omul’ each. It was an amazing journey, and an experience I will never forget.
Lake Baikal is, for me, a perfect place.