When we planned our year-long adventure, we had very few concrete ideas of what we wanted to see or where we wanted to go. One thing that I knew for certain was the I wanted to take the Trans-Siberian Railroad and I wanted to see Lake Baikal. I even put up a picture in my office of Lake Baikal in my office several months before quitting as inspiration to remind me of the adventure that was awaiting me!
Nestled in southern Siberia, just north of the Mongolian border, discussions of Lake Baikal often focus on its record-setting attributes. It’s the world’s deepest lake. The largest freshwater lake by volume (with more water than all of the American great lakes combined). The world’s deepest lake. The world’s cleanest lake. The world’s oldest lake.
Although the Trans-Siberian Railway spends several hours skirting Lake Baikal’s shore, there are no stops along the shore from which passengers can easily explore the lake. Instead, passengers traditionally access the lake from either the town of Irkutsk on the west or Ulan Ude on the east end of the lake (both are at least an hour from the lake shore).
Wandering in Irkutsk
We arrived in Irkutsk in the morning after a two-and-a-half day segment on the train. We quickly managed to figure out how to take the town’s tram to our hostel. Hooray for our downloaded maps.me maps and for super cheap public transportation that cost about 27 cents each! We initially played around with the idea of making a quick day trip to see the lake, but after adding up the expected transit time (about 1.5 hours each way) we decided that we should celebrate our freedom from the train by exploring Irkutsk instead.
As with the red line in Ekaterinburg, Irkutsk has painted a green line to guide tourists past its main sites. Not that there are really that many. We walked along the river front — where of course we saw a Russian bridal party that stopped for a photo opp. Unfortunately, the air seemed really hazy. We attributed this at the time to being from local industry, but later learned that it was smoke from nearby wildfires.
The sight that we were most interested in seeing in Irkutsk was “130 Kvartal,” which was supposed to be a quarter of the city with lots of local timber architecture as well as buildings transported from other locations (and was recommended by the guy we talked to at the tourist office). We had assumed that this would be like Skansen in Stockholm and were somewhat disappointed to find out that it felt a lot more like a shopping center. Oh well.
Meeting New Friends at Olkhon Island
The next morning, we caught a minivan to Olkhon Island, which is along Lake Baikal’s western shore. We had luckily asked about our transit options to the island the prior day at the tourist office, where we were told that the public bus was on a limited schedule because it was a Sunday (which our hostel had told us), the bus was sold out (which our hostel did not tell us), but that we could still catch a minivan in the morning (which our hostel had no clue about). Our five hour drive was spent meeting our fellow passengers — a Canadian woman, a couple of Aussies (traveling separately), a couple of Brits, and a couple Belgians — all of whom were on long trips.
When we arrived on the island, we managed to snag a room at the main hostel/hotel (Nikita’s Homestead) where everyone else was staying. Our plan had been to spend the next couple of days hiking around the island, but when we found out that the group was trying to put together a private tour of the island we decided to roll with it. It didn’t hurt that the tour was pretty cheap (about $15 each for the day, including lunch) or that the smoke that we’d seen in Irkutsk was even worse at Olkhon 😦
The tour the next day ended up being lots of fun. Luckily, the smoke had cleared somewhat and we were treated to better views than we had feared the previous day. The van load of us headed up to the northern tip of the island first and then made our way back down in an attempt to avoid the large Chinese tour groups headed in the opposite direction.
From what we saw on the trip, I think that the island would have been a great place to go on a multi-day hiking/camping trip earlier in the season. As it was, the nights were bitterly cold and I would not have wanted to be in a tent with rented gear. Instead, our evenings on the island were spent battling the Chinese tour groups to get food before they cleared it out (meals were included with our lodging) and staying up playing cards with our newfound Baikal buds.
On our second morning on the island, we separated from the group since they were planning on walking across the island to its east coast and we had to catch a 3pm minivan back to Irkutsk. Instead, we wandered through the small town of Khuzhir (a collection of wood-planked buildings along dirt roads reminding me of the stereotypical “wild west”) for a bit and then north along the coast. Our views were once again obscured by the wildfire smoke, which made us extra grateful for our clearer skies the previous day and reassured me that we were making the correct decision to leave the island after only two nights.
I had initially envisioned that we would spend several days hiking around the island, but between the smoke and the cold it was apparent that we needed to readjust our expectations. It simply didn’t seem like additional hiking would be that much fun under the circumstances. Instead, we decided to continue on the train to Ulan Ude, to the east of Baikal, to see if the skies were clearer for visiting Baikal’s east coast. We were also toying around with the idea of making a mad-dash to Mongolia in order to make it in time for the annual eagle festival in Western Mongolia (which we’d learned about from the Canadian in our group and which looked amazing).
Lazy Days in Ulan Ude
After a night in Irkutsk and a 7 hour train ride (much of which was along Lake Baikal’s coast) we arrived in Ulan Ude. By this time, we’d come to terms with the fact that we wouldn’t be making it to the eagle festival in Mongolia. In order to get there in time, we’d need to catch the bus to Mongolia the next morning (not the train, which would take too long) and then would still need to get a flight from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia to the western town of Olgii (since it was a three-day bus ride). Of course, the flights weren’t available online and the travel operator that we had contacted demanded a fortune for a tour and then became unresponsive when we asked about alternatives. At this point, I was exhausted and sick (again…), so a couple down days in Ulan Ude while waiting for the train sounded like a great alternative.
Ulan Ude’s main attraction is a giant statute of Lenin. Or more specifically, of Lenin’s head.
Obviously, this just asks for it…
Given the smokey skies in Ulan Ude, my need to catch up on sleep, our soon-to-expire Russian visas, and the somewhat limited options for visiting Lake Baikal’s eastern shore that weren’t a five-hour plus drive away, we opted to stay in Ulan Ude itself while we relied and regrouped.
We did make the trip out to see Ivolginsk Datsan, a Buddhist temple about an hour outside Ulan Ude. Oddly enough, the temple was built during the Stalinist era in gratitude for the sacrifices of the local Buryat people during World War II. The grounds contained a number of buildings where the monks lived and a few temples. The trip out was nice, and it was great to get out of town into the countryside, but we probably ended up spending more time in transit than we did at the datsan.
The ride back was highlighted by our conversation with a Russian woman who spoke some English and who was very concerned that we have no children. Gotta love visiting places with different cultural norms where it is apparently acceptable to ask a woman’s age and then comment on the viability of her uterus!! The woman was actually really nice though.
We also made a quick visit to the Khangalfv Museum of Buryat History. The Buryats are the local indigenous people and we were hoping to learn more about them. Unfortunately, the museum charged based on what floor you wanted to visit, the descriptions of the floors where all in Russian, and few of the exhibit descriptions were in English. We ultimately opted to visit the floor that focused on the Buryat’s Buddhist traditions, but it would have been nice to have learned a bit more during our visit to the area.
Our time in Ulan Ude was also a great example of what a small world it can be when you’re traveling. Our first night, we had dinner with an American who lives in the Mission District in SF (just a couple neighborhoods over from where we used to live). The next morning, he took the bus to Mongolia with the Canadian woman that we had met at Olkhon Island (and who, in a semi-sleep state early that morning, I heard in the common room of our Ulan Ude hostel even though we hadn’t seen her in a couple days and she wasn’t staying at the hostel). Later that day, one of the Aussies from the Baikal group showed up at our Ulan Ude hostel, to be joined the next day by the Brits. We’d even end up on the same train to Mongolia with the Aussie (in the same carriage, but that’s because we actually planned that) along with an Irishman who we’d also met at Olkhon Island. And, getting ahead of myself, we’d eventually stay in the same Ulaanbaatar hostel with the Aussie and Brits — the three of whom would join the Irishman for an 18-day tour of Mongolia. And to think that no one knew each other before Irkutsk (other than the couples of course)!!
While not my favorite town, our stay in Ulan Ude capped off a great three and a half weeks in Russia. I wish we’d had a chance to spend more time on Lake Baikal itself, but with the smoke and cold weather it wasn’t really in the cards. Nonetheless, I truly enjoyed the opportunity that we did have to visit the lake and am glad we made the effort to get to the middle of Siberia to do so!
[This post describes our trip to Irkutsk, Olkhon Island, and Ulan Ude on September 24-October 1.]