Valeri was our guide for the walk at the lake. He’s a part-time research biologist, some time university lecturer, and most often, a guide for walkers and adventurers at Lake Baikal in Siberia. His recent big tour was taking a group of Germans on a 35 kilometre a day hike across the ice between lodges on the lake shore. Jenny and I would be doing a mere 10 kilometre round trip from Port Baikal to the last tunnel of the old Transiberian railway to the lake.
The small car ferry from Listvyanka to the port crossed at the edge of the ice where the frozen lake becomes the Angara River. On board, Jenny chatted with “the woman in pink” who’d sold us smoked fish (omul) at the market the day before. She asked if we’d liked it. Unfortunately, I had thrown it out after we overdosed on fish at a ridiculously large restaurant lunch following our market visit. We couldn’t face more. She didn’t need to know that.
Our walk started under cold grey clouds with a hint of rain and Jenny worried she hadn’t worn the right jacket. Fishing boats and abandoned hulls were frozen at berth in the port. A factory pumped the lake’s fresh water for bottling. Greenhouses and fish smoking sheds took up the yards of a handful of small cottages.
The four kilometre track to the tunnel passed an old village, now mostly used as summer holiday homes or ‘dacha’. The rail track from Irkutsk to the small port was finished in 1945. It took five years of ‘slave labour’. Local trains use it now, taking five hours to travel 90 kilometres for fear of rock slips. Another track was built at the same time on the other side with rail ferries connecting them. A shortcut across land eventually replaced them as important routes.
We lunched in a small clearing above the tunnel overlooking the lake. The skies had cleared and the sun was out. Valeri toasted potato-stuffed bread by a fire and laid out cheese and cakes on a picnic blanket of newspaper. He passed around chicken noodle soup and hot berry tea and told us about the now-protected animals in the park; boar, brown bears, three sizes of elk, lynx and wolves. He pointed to the mountain range 40 kilometres across the water, a narrow point on Baikal, and trotted out the many impressive statistics of the world’s largest natural reserve of fresh water. The actual quality of the water is in debate.
Coming back we climbed a steep stream-like path to visit a new Orthodox Church sitting above the village. A hilltop track then took us past an old lighthouse and the dent in the hillside of a former military lookout full of broken beer bottles. Valeri led us back through an icy forest of birch and cedar to walk alongside the river before returning to the port. In two weeks, he said, the hills would be pink with rhododendrons.
At the port, a hospital train had stopped for the week bringing medical care to the village.
Valeri took us into the port museum and talked through the model railway display and old photos. One black and white picture showed horses pulling wagons across rail tracks laid over the ice in the year the ferries couldn’t run.
The museum staff weren’t interested in hosting us at the end of their work day. Something about the shrug and smirk on one woman’s face convinced Jenny she’d deliberately turned the loo light off while Jen was in there. We decided we couldn’t ask them to open the small shop to buy the heroic Putin fridge magnets.
I hung outside on the return ferry trip to watch the hovercraft on the ice while Jenny sought warmth in the small ‘salon’. Valeri and a couple of German hikers teased her as we disembarked. Apparently, a local man in high spirits and beer in hand had taken a liking to my travel buddy.