Listvyanka and Lake Baikal

I couldn’t believe it when I looked at the clock when I woke up; it said it was 8:30 am. I almost always wake up between 5 and 6 am. I was so happy to finally get some sleep! At around 9 am, the train tracks started to run parallel to Lake Baikal. The weather forecast was gloomy, but also turned out to be incorrect. It was a sunny day! The lake reminded me of home; lots of trees overlooking an enormous lake.

We arrived in Irkutsk at 2:50 pm and were driven to Listvyanka, a small community on Lake Baikal. Our lodging was the Usadba Demidova guesthouse. The décor was lovely – wood paneled walls and best of all, a heated bathroom floor. Nice touch! There is also a sauna on site. I signed up for a banya, a traditional Russian sauna experience. Getting beaten by tree branches adds to the cost, but I figure it will be worth it! We had some free time to unpack before dinner.

Dinner (and other meals) were served in the restaurant which is a couple of blocks walk from the guesthouse, directly across the street from the lake. Too bad I didn’t bring my camera; the views were spectacular. I did take one picture with my phone:

Dinner was yummy – a Greek salad followed by a traditional Russian dish of chicken, tomatoes, onion, and potatoes covered in cheese and baked in a foil packet. Dessert was chocolate ice cream. We spent some time enjoying the company of our fellow tour mates before heading back for bed. We slept so well – finally, a comfortable bed!

I still want to know what a warm milkshake is!

Sadly, we woke up to rain the next day. It rarely rains here at Lake Baikal; the odds of it not raining are 9:1. Because of the rain, we would not be taking the boat ride that had been scheduled. We would visit the Lake Baikal Museum and then head to the Central Market for lunch, then have some free time. All of these activities were optional but everyone in the group decided to join in.

Breakfast was at the restaurant by the lake, but there was definitely no view this morning. Instead of walking to the museum (a 40 minute walk) we decided to take taxis. Excellent choice; besides the torrential rain, it was windy as well.

Fortunately, Svetlana had arranged an English-speaking tour guide for us since almost all of the displays at the museum were in Russian (makes sense!). We learned all types of interesting facts about the lake – it is the deepest in the world (about a mile deep), it is really old (25 to 30 million years), it has many species endemic to the lake, there are about 2000 earthquakes here per year (though most are small), it is still widening (due to the seismic activity), and there are some unique creatures that live in the lake including the cutest seals (Baikal nerpa) you have ever seen. There are tiny crustaceans that clean the water; each cleans about 1 cup of water per day. There are 160 distinct species of predatory flatworms. Those cute seals? They are white for the first month of their life, then their fur darkens. They are the fattest, jolliest looking seals anywhere. The milk of the seals is 60% fat; it is so fatty that it can be sliced. There are oil fish that live deep within the lake. They need water pressure to survive (most creatures can’t survive at the depths where they live). These fish are 40% fat; if they are brought to the surface of the water, they will melt.

By volume this is the second largest lake in the world, but by depth it is the deepest. If the sediment at the bottom of the lake is included, its depth increases to 12,000 km. During the winter it will freeze to a depth of 1 to 1.5 meters. The ice is so thick that cars can drive on it. As you can well imagine, ice sports are quite popular here.

We walked through an aquarium area and were able to view some of the aquatic life that lives in the lake. Then, we were taken upstairs to view some of the tiniest inhabitants underneath microscopes. Lastly, we observed a couple of those adorable seals. It was fun to watch them – they really are incredibly cute – but they are kept in a tank that is much too small for them.

Since it was still raining, we opted to get taxis to take us back to the guesthouse. From there, everyone decided to go into town to see the central marketplace and to get lunch. Taxis were called again; the marketplace was a 20 minute walk and it was still raining pretty hard. The marketplace was quite small. Besides souvenirs there was plenty of smoked fish for sale. Naturally, many of the souvenirs featured seals. A popular item, though a bit pricy, were matryoshka dolls with Putin as the smallest doll.

I wanted to get some more Rubles, as did a few others from the group, so Svetlana showed us to an ATM that was a bit of a walk from where the market was located. When I returned to town, we had lunch at a local restaurant and then decided to walk back to the guesthouse. It was cold and windy, but the rain had eased up a bit so not too bad of a walk.

We had an opportunity to try a Russian Banya (sauna) later in the afternoon. The cost would be 800 rubles with an extra 500 added cost if you would like to be ”professionally beaten”. How could I say no? In a traditional banya, nudity is the norm but for ours we would wear swimsuits (mixed company). In the changing room we were given cute little felt caps that we were to wear. The purpose is to help with the excessive heat that we would experience. We were also provided with thermal cotton skirts; we used them when sitting in the relaxation area outside the sauna.

We were lead in to the sauna by our tour manager, Svetlana. She introduced us to Aleksandr, the guesthouse owner and designated “beater”. He was a great big bear of a guy who spoke no English so it was good that we had Svetlana to interpret. When we entered the banya, the temperature was 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) but quickly climbed to 122 Fahrenheit. This was a wet sauna, Aleksandr poured water with juniper oil over hot rocks to keep the air nice and moist. We baked for about 15 minutes until the sweat was dripping off of us. It was time to cool off by taking an ice cold shower! After that, we gathered around the refreshment table to drink water to replace that which we had sweated off.

Angela, an older woman in our group, volunteered for the first beating. We returned to the sauna but the beating could not begin until we were sweaty enough. Aleksandr used two sets of silver birch branches to beat Angela with. After thoroughly beating her back side, she was instructed to flip over and he continued on the front. Beating was vigorous work; he had to take a break partway through! When Angela had been properly beaten, she went out to the shower area and stood underneath a bucket of ice cold water that was then dropped onto her. Quick cool off!

This time, after showering, rather than going directly to the refreshment area, we went to the swimming pool. The water was the perfect temperature – not too hot, not too cool – to continue our cooling off process. We then went to drink some more water and hot tea before returning to the sauna.

I was the last person to receive the “beating”. It felt rather nice – not painful at all. The only part that was uncomfortable was when he fanned me with the branches; it was intensely hot. Uncomfortably hot. Too hot. Could have easily skipped it. After being doused with water, I was sent to lie down for awhile. The process really saps your energy and if you stand up too quickly, it is very likely that you would faint. After all of that sweating, I am pretty sure that every single pore in my body had opened up!

We had a late dinner at the restaurant that night, and headed to bed after packing our suitcases. We board the train tomorrow for a 2.5 day train trip – our longest leg yet.