Lake Baikal is the deepest lake in the world. It is also home to the Baikal seal, or Nerpa, and the delicious Baikal fish known as Omul.
The Nerpa is one of only three species of exclusively freshwater seal, so was high on our list of must-sees. Equally high up on our must-eat list was Omul.
We had read that there was a campsite in Listvyanka and we hoped for a spot on the shore of the lake. As is the way in Russia it was proving difficult to find. Eventually we discovered the ‘campsite’ was actually the back yard of a hostel on a hill, owned by an easy-going local with a ferocious black dog. We parked Betty in the potato plot next door and settled into our ‘campsite’. If you stood on your toes you got a hint of a lake view! Despite our disappointment at not being right on the lake, spirits were high at the prospect of seals, delicious fish, a hot shower and staying put for two nights in a row!
That evening we were joined by two more travellers, a Russian woman named Daria and her French boyfriend, Simon. It’s always interesting meeting other travellers in this not so travelled part of the world, and Daria’s Russian proved to be most useful whilst exploring the town of Listvyanka. She took us to the information centre to find out where we could see nerpa seals and to enquire about scuba diving in the lake. Unfortunately they informed us that the seals were not common in that area and that the dive centre was only open on Saturdays. With seals and diving out and feeling a little disappointed we headed to the market to try and at least feast on the other famous species of the lake: Omul fish.
Smoked fish feast
Here our Lake Baikal expectations were exceeded. The market was filled with stalls selling souvenirs and mountains of delicious smelling smoked Omul. You can purchase Omul in various forms; uncooked, cooked, cold smoked, and hot smoked.
We bought hot and cold smoked and took them to a Kafe – a Russian eatery – and ordered some Pozi (meat filled dumplings) and salad to accompany them. Both kinds of fish were delicious but my favourite was the cold smoked. It tasted just like cold smoked trout and reminded me of home.
That evening after some pre-dinner vodkas we headed down to the lake side where a number of stalls were filling the air with the enticing smell of Uzbek delicacies such as shashlyk (flame grilled meat on a skewer) and Plov (fried rice with meat, carrot and onion). There were many stalls all selling the same thing so we chose one at random, ordered our food and chatted to the Uzbek man cooking our shashlyk.
Daria acted as our translator throughout the conversation and we told him of our adventure from Japan to England. He might just be the friendliest man in the world with the most incredible blue eyes. “You should stay with my family in Uzbekistan”, he insisted. “We own a farm in the south and grow cherries and cotton and keep bees.”
After a quick phone call he gave us the address and telephone number so we can arrange our stay when we arrive in Uzbekistan. What fun it will be, we might even get to wear bee keeper suits!
The seal quest
We definitely didn’t want to leave the area without seeing any seals. Daria and Simon told us they had spent a week out at Olkhon Island, the largest island on Lake Baikal. There they had seen the nerpa seals, so Phil and I decided we should leave Listvyanka and head to the island. Chuck decided he needed some city time so we dropped him off in Irkutsk, made arrangements to meet him in two days time and set off a few hundred kilometres north-east to get the ferry across to Olkhon Island.
We arrived at the ferry at around 3pm and joined a large queue of vehicles. There were two ferries going back and forth, one slightly smaller than the other for local vehicles, and the larger one able to carry about 15 tourist vehicles. There was maybe 40 vehicles ahead of us and the channel between the mainland and the island was approximately 1km so we thought it shouldn’t take too long to get through the queue. We were wrong. Four hours later we made it onto the island!
As we drove off the ferry we were stopped for registration. They found someone who spoke English and he informed us that we must pay for a camping permit, permit for the car, and a fee per person per night. He said we could pay everything there or pay when we got to a campsite, we opted for the latter. He gave us a map and showed us which campsite to go to, it looked simple enough, fourth campsite along the road just before you reach the town. We set off on the dirt road across the barren grass hills, occasionally catching a glimpse of a ground squirrel scurrying across the road. We were excited by this small amount of critter activity, so far Russia has seemed devoid of wildlife.
It seemed there were no particular campsites as such, just tents dotted around the edge of the lake. We took a turn that looked like it could lead to the campsite we were aiming for. No, it was a horse riding school. We carried on and suddenly we were in the main town where the sandy dirt roads all just seemed to mash together and there was no ‘right’ side to drive on as such. It was getting late so after a quick solyanka (sausage and vegetable soup) we decided to just drive to the lake edge and pick a spot. Again not quite what we had imagined, camping in the town with hundreds of other people, but never mind, we were by the lake.
Boiling Russian sauna by the lake
The next day brought rain, no seal sightings, and no indication of scuba diving opportunities. To lift our spirits we went to the lake for a banya. A banya is like a steam sauna, with a stove heating to around 90°C on which you spill water to produce steam. There were a couple of temporary wooden banyas on the lake edge so once you were sufficiently roasted you could run out and into the lake, a balmy 9°C, cool down and then go back in for another scalding. Traditionally you take a branch of white birch in with you, dip it in hot water and whip each other with it to improve circulation. This was nice for a couple of minutes but as the heat intensifies the whipping circulates the hot air and it feels as if you are on fire. We couldn’t stay in for much longer than five minutes at a time, the heat was far too intense. However it meant our bodies were then numb to the cold of the lake so we were able to comfortably swim in the deepest lake in the world! The woman running the banya was from Uzbekistan. Many Uzbeks travel to Lake Baikal to work for the summer. She served us herbal tea from a traditional urn and we ate delicious apple filled pastries between our banya sessions. We took about four turns in and out of the banya until we couldn’t take the heat anymore.
Due to the horrible weather we decided to leave the island and camp somewhere along the way back to Irkutsk. The ferry back off took six long hours. Luckily we met a nice French family in the queue, who told us there was a good spot to camp in the town next to the port. They were correct; we found a quaint, if not slightly sloped, spot halfway up a cliff side with a stunning view of the lake. Of course, now that we had left the island, we woke to a brilliantly sunny day! While we were disappointed not to have seen any Nerpas, we enjoyed a relaxing morning reading by this beautiful lake, before heading back to be reunited with Chuck in Irkutsk. Soon we would be on our way to Novossibirsk, the last Russian town before Kazakhstan.