Baikal: chipmunks in jungles.

The deepest lake in the world (1642 m) had been flurrying my imagination since I first heard its name. According to Mongolian language, Baikal means ”big lake’, so no wonder everyone here call it ”sea”. It has a smell and a scale of a sea, also impressive waves, but its waters are surprisingly fresh. While backpacking we found that out, quenched in the largest natural reservoir of fresh water.

Having a bit of experience in wild Russian places, my boyfriend and I started to prepare for this trip 2 months prior. And it was such a smart idea! It helped to find a place in hotels, plain and train, but also we had just enough of time to make a vaccination against tick-borne Encephalitis. Without it you may get a lot of troubles, especially being in nature. And of course this is what everyone coming here for. The vaccination must be proceeded in 2 steps: first one must be done minimum 45 days before the trip and the second – 2 weeks before the trip. Mind to have 1 month between both vaccinations, as our body needs to get used to this serious prick. Another difficult part of preparation for me was contacting all natural reserves for getting a permission for visiting they protected lands. Being a georgaphers we wanted to see what normally tourists can’t see. Baikal is much more than overcrowded island Olhon or towns Listvyanka and Sludyanka. It’s all about nature!

Passing more than 5000 km from Moscow, we landed in future. At least people in Irkutsk and surrounding area live 5 hours earlier than in Russian capital. A lot of tourists prefer to come here by train, using a legendary Trans-Siberian Railway. I would say, that after spending 36 hours in a train few times, I prefer to fly 6 hours instead of to shake 3 days in a vagon with boring view from the window. Believe me, the most impressive panorama starts from Angasolka – a city close to Sludyanka on the south tip of the lake. That part of trail is used mostly for touristic trains (several per week), that going 11 hours for historical Circum-Baikal Railway, 89 km–long branch covering the route Slyudyanka-2–Kultuk–Maritui–Baikal. Only there you will find those famous tunnels, bridges and aqueducts.

But not only west part of Baikal railway will give you views to die for. Eastern part of it, which is quite busy indeed, will face the lake on the most of the places, if you are not going at night of course. It was 10 minutes to departure (5 p.m.), but non of dispatchers announced our train. At the information desk they looked at us and smiled. We were not the first ones (and not the last), who didn’t know that in tickets they write Moscow time. Because of this weird system we had to wait 5 hours more for our train.

Arriving to Tanhoj at 3 a.m. I noticed that the sky here reminds astronomy book with constellations perfectly pictured. I never saw such a clear night sky with such ammount of stars! Instead of big city lights there was impressive Milky Way. In 5 hours we had to get up and go hiking to local mountain range called Khamar-Daban through taiga. Once I read that entering such jungles you will face a fear. This is inevitably when you step into lush forest, where ferns can reach your shoulders. With our inspectors we hiked to one of the peaks, from where Baikal appeared from far away. It was a long neverending ribbon, laying between hilly banks.

Next time we saw its waters from very close. We reached the half of Baikal on its biggest peninsula called Svyatoj Nos (=Saint nouse). Its quite a popular place among locals, but not anyone can get here. The reason is distant location and awful road. Taxi drivers not even dare to crush their cars by driving in a 40 km dirt road, which is connect the peninsula with the land. The National Park picked us there for 3 000 RUB one way (around 100 $) and provided us with tents.

We came to this far place to see Baikal seals – they rest on Ushkani Islands, which are situated on north-west of peninsula. But we were not lucky. Our boat could not go there because of a storm. The captain droped us somewhere near Zmeinaya Bay (Snake Bay) and we had to find a place to arrange our tent. I remember that this is quite a wild place, so bears are quite ordinary guests here. Trees were alive – birds, squirrels and chipmunks shaked the forest. When you loose you attention they still your food.

Suddenly a strong wind blow and lifted the sand. I had a feeling that our tent will never survive in such a storm, as it was shaken dramatically. That day we had to learn how to survive in unpredictable environment: to set a fire was difficult ‘cos of rain, to get a water was complicated, as we have to go to cold stormy Baikal waist-deep. The next day was more clear and the view got even better – mountains Barguzin were covered with snow.

For calling to our captain we had to go some 7 km to the civilization in face of one barge and ship-hotel. This place is quite touristic due to hot springs. Every ship make a stop and passangers create a long lines for trying medical effect of 2 hot bathes. Its better to come here in the very morning for having a guaranteed place in a small warm holl in the ground. A bit later we found 3rd spring – less warm and less touristic due to its far location. There are no people, you can even take a bath naked looking at cold Baikal.

In the end we couldn’t go to Ushkani Islands. They told us that after a storm Baikal seals normally dissapear, leaving bold stones for those, who could manage to sail there. By the way, if you decide to go here one day, mind that most likely you will not find seals in 2-7 days after a storm. And August is quite a stormy month, but also the most comfortable for hiking – mosquitoes and midges do not attak, flares do not bite, sun don’t make you sweat. After 2 weeks of traveling we were like local chipmunks – spoiled with numerous berries and mushrooms in the taiga-jungles, but were never tired of the lake views. Baikal is like Malevich’s black square – more you look at it, more it suck you in to its deep abyss.

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