Dec. 4 – Irkutsk
Lake Baikal is a 600km long, crescent shaped gouge a mile deep. It is 30 million years old, has more water than all the Great Lakes combined (20 per cent of the world’s fresh water). It has about a thousand unique species. I simply had to see it.
I had first glimpsed the lake as the train approached Irkutsk, tracks running along its shore. We had a grand view of its dark blue waters, steam rising into the cold air. That day, I was in an impressionable mood. To me, the lake wasn’t merely deep, but profoundly wise. “Gather round”, its calm surface seemed to say, “I have many tales to tell.”
The minibus took about seventy minutes to cover the 60 kilometres to the village of Listyanka. The bus was full, a dozen of us crammed in, all furs, leathers, woolens. We had to scratch the frost off the windows to see trees and snow as we bounced along the road. Once arrived, I immediately bought my return ticket. Two hours lakeside would be enough. It was noon and sunny, but also -15C, and I still had to arrange my Novosibirsk rail ticket for tomorrow. If I missed that next bus, I’d have to wait a further two hours. Travel doesn’t free you from timetables.
Listyanka is a small collection of waterfront hotels, cottages, abandoned/unfinished buildings and camping spots on the edge of the lake. It is not particularly pretty, as if it knows people come there for nature, not civilization.
As I walked along the pebbly shore, a couple of stray dogs trotted at my heels, hoping for scraps. The light wind sent gentle waves towards the frozen pebbly beach, steam rising in the middle distance. I saw perhaps two-dozen tourists, bundled up, taking pictures. A group of young men videoed each other stepping barefoot into the water, laughing painfully. My beard was frosting over again. Even handling a camera with bare hands was unmanageable after a minute. And the locals say it’s one of the warmest winters in Baikal in a long time. Usually, the lake is frozen over by now.
Despite the lack of tourist traffic, there were many vendors, selling the usual array of trinkets and tee shirts. I only wanted one thing; a smoked Omul for lunch. The Omul is a troutlike fish found in Lake Baikal, which the locals sell from roadside stands. I approached one of these booths, paid about one dollar for a freshly-smoked fish, and headed down the road. I eyed my meal.
Warm, plump, banana-sized, with head and tail still attached, his smoked fish eyes stared back at me. I briefly considered giving him a name, but then realized I should get eating before he got completely cold. Thus began a memorable culinary experience. I had no fork, no knife, no plate, no table, no shelter from the elements. Fish in one gloved hand, other ungloved hand picking away at the flesh under the skin, I walked along the shore. My fingers stinging from the cold, I pulled white meat away from the bones easily, first one side, then the other. The smoky, sweet-salty flavor was fantastic. Seasoned with frostbite, it’s a meal I’ll never forget.
A kindly retired Swiss teacher, now married to a Russian and living in Irkutsk, helped me get my ticket to Novosibirsk. We had met briefly when I arrived, as he and his wife are friends of the lady at whose place I am staying. He invited me back to their flat for tea and some meat stew. In German and Russian, we discussed my trip, life in Irkutsk, today’s Russian election. As if the Omul wasn’t enough, I was even fed homemade strawberry cheesecake.
I’m off to Novosibirsk tomorrow (1500m, like Toronto-Winnipeg). That means one sleep on the train and arriving on Tuesday afternoon. Tomorrow, a post on the railway dining experience.