✍️: Erin 📸: Jan & Erin
Jan turns to me the first morning we wake up on the Trans-Siberian Railway. He says he has an idea: Let’s spend two extra weeks in Russia.
He’s been researching the region around Lake Baikal, the deepest lake in the world. The train skirts the southern edge of the lake, which thanks to its mountain surroundings holds about the same amount of water as all the Great Lakes combined. It’s also a hiker’s haven and home to the Great Baikal Trail.
So we get off the train early. It’s our first official detour in our year-long journey, and it turns out to be exactly what we need. (Well, save for the unexpected 3-mile walk in the dark with our backpacks, along a highway with no lights or reliable sidewalk, to a guesthouse that rented our room to someone else. We didn’t need that.)
Great Baikal Trail
There’s a wonderful effort underway to build a trail around Lake Baikal. A full trail is far from done, but sections so far loop through rocky beaches and precarious cliffs that offer stunning views.
Our original plan was to end our Trans-Siberian Railway journey in Irkutsk, a charming and history-rich city west of the lake. But then Jan read about the village of Slyudyanka, where we could get off the train a stop early to access great hiking. From there, we could take a different train to get to a slightly bigger and more touristy lakeside town called Listvyanka, where we could hike part of the Great Baikal Trail.
The most recent idea for the long-distance trail came from a famous Russian writer and scientist who visited the Appalachian Trail in the United States. He thought something similar could help preserve Lake Baikal, according to the aptly named organization heading the project, the GBT.
The idea was formally presented at international conferences in 1999, and the years following saw forest experts from Russia and the U.S. working together. Community education followed, as did volunteers and trail-building projects in the region. Fast forward to today, and several trails exist along and near the lake.
We hoped to backpack for several days or even volunteer in trail building. But with my foot still finicky (and really hating my backpack weight), we decide on a 14-mile day hike from the lakeside town of Listvyanka to the roadless town of Bolshie Koty.
But First: A Foot Test
Before taking on the steep section of the GBT, we decide to make a day-hike from Slyudyanka along a moderate trail to nearby Chersky Peak. The goal: See how my darn foot holds up after limping through Vladivostok.
Maybe it’s the beautiful blue sky, or the softer surface — or just being back in the mountains — but my foot makes it through the 12-mile trek! Not pain free, but my foot and ankle aren’t on fire. That’s a big win.
Slyudyanka is a cute town, but there’s not much to see if you’re not interested in hiking. Unless … you obsess over old, colorful houses. If you do, stop here! And like me, be the creepy lady taking photos of all the fantastically cute local homes. Jan was so patient. I guarantee you’ll smile as you scroll through photos of all the brightly colored homes here!
Hiking (part of) the Great Baikal Trail
What I didn’t know was how narrow this darn trail would be along some cliffs. The views are fantastic, but require clinging to strong-rooted wildflowers in the mountainside before looking over one’s shoulder (don’t judge me, it was windy!). I learned later about an inland trail that avoids the sketchy cliffs. Good to know …
The trail is straight up for the first couple miles through dense trees and beautiful silence. The ground then falls into a valley equally lush in trees, flowers and shrubs. It then climbs again to lakeside cliffs.
Few people are on the trail this Tuesday afternoon, which makes the hike especially peaceful.
The way back
The hike ends along a pebble beach that takes hikers into Bolshie Koty, a town accessible only by boat or hiking (or ice in the winter). That means getting back to Listvyanka requires a hike or a taking high-speed ferry that leaves once a day in the early evening. So dally we do not during the hike.
A tourist center in Listvyanka suggests buying tickets after getting on the ferry — but the boat is sold out when we arrive thanks to tour groups that somehow bought advanced tickets. Lesson, once again: Check everything you’re told by tourist information centers in eastern Russia because something usually isn’t quite right.
Luckily, we met a friendly Russian named Sergei along the trail who was eager to practice his English. He helps us crunch to the front of the pack and talks with the ferry captain, marking our second argument in Russian over a ferry (keep reading to hear about the first). No clue what’s being said, but we get on the ferry and a few other people don’t.
Getting to the trail isn’t easy. Well, getting to the trailhead is easy (a first in Russia!) because it’s well-marked at the end of Gudina Street in Listvyanka. But getting to Listvyanka makes for a day-long test in patience.
We take a very, very slow train along the lake from Slyudyanka to Listvyanka. It maybe hits 15 miles per hour during the five-hour ride on the Circum-Baikal Railway. But it’s scenic, and we meet a very jolly Russian man when he slaps a fish on our table, pulls out a knife and happily tells us to eat. He then insists on taking a photo with Jan.
The train drops us off at the Angara River, where we need to catch a ferry to the other side before making what we thought would be a short bus trip to Listvyanka. But the ferry isn’t letting anyone on. There’s arguing in Russian as a crowd gathers.
The crowd suddenly disperses, people angrily shaking their heads. We fear the ferry is done for the evening, which wouldn’t be good because there’s nothing nearby. We soon realize, thanks to a woman who graciously understands that I’m asking a question by pointing at an imaginary watch on my wrist, that the ferry is delayed an hour.
The ferry finally comes, the sun sets, and we make the roughly 20-minute trip across the river.
Dark walk to bad news
We dock and follow the crowd up a hill to what looks like a main road along the lake. A few people are waiting at a bus stop, so we do the same. But none of the minibuses rushing by stop. Everyone leaves the bus stop.
We ask around about taxis, but none appear to be in the area this time of night. So we walk the 3 miles to our guesthouse, which my left foot isn’t pleased about because it especially dislikes asphalt — and really hates it with my fully loaded backpack.
The roadway is dark, save for the headlights of the occasional vehicle speeding by. A sidewalk appears, but we soon learn (with little to no warning) that some sections have fallen into the lake below. Other times the sidewalk just ends, apparently indicating we need to cross the highway.
We eventually find our guesthouse up a dirt road off the main road — but we’re greeted by a startled owner. He rented our room to someone else. He apparently needed a confirmation from us while we were on the world’s slowest train, even though our credit card had already been charged.
Google Translate helps Jan with discussions. I sit down on a concrete staircase outside, eating Jan’s half of a fruitcake we purchased the day before. My foot is toast and I need more fruitcake.
The guesthouse owner calls other local hotels, but none has room. So he clears a room still under construction and we stay there, in bunkbeds. We’re tired. It’s fine. Misunderstandings happen, I guess. And he shares soup with us the next day, so all is well.
Listvyanka: The tourist side
We have an extra day in Listvyanka, so we explore the lakeside town. Again, not much to see unless you plan to hike. But there’s a colorful market, more colorful homes, and a jolly (perhaps inebriated?) gentleman willing to serenade visitors picnicking by the lake. You can also take boat tours that offer some history and ecology information, which we enjoy. And you’ll likely come across some signs that missed an English copy editor.
Jan insists that if you find yourself here, buy some salted Omul, a fish only found in Lake Baikal. The fish are sold everywhere — salted or smoked — by markets or even locals with food stands in their driveways. I thought it not so good. But thanks to Sasha — our jolly Russian friend from the train — Jan loves the darn stuff.
After three nights in Listvyanka, I nearly have a heart attack thanks to a wayward passport but still make our bus to Irkutsk, the “Paris of Siberia.” Stay tuned for more about the charming city in our next post.