Baikal was incredible I managed to miss the good, clear, blue-skied weather, but it didn’t matter. It was so cold I could barely stay outside for more than 10 or 15 minutes, but it didn’t matter. The lake wasn’t frozen like I’d hoped it would be, but it DIDN’T MATTER.
Because guys, I jumped in that lake. 3 times. Yes I did.
I arrived late in Irkutsk and met Ming from Singapore who’s doing this trip before he has to go into the military (mandatory for 2 years in Singapore). I convinced him to split the cost of a driver guide to get to Listvyanka the next day and he convinced me to book the hostel he’d just come from in Ulan Ude instead of a hotel (he was traveling the opposite direction).
In the morning, we packed up and got in our guide Julia’s car. We got a brief drive-through of Irkutsk and then started the very snowy drive to Listvyanka. We stopped at the open air museum which was pretty nice, but enormous and half closed because not many people are trudging around in the snow like us to see these things. My toes started to freeze pretty fast. I did hit up one of the big ice slides they had set up around the place, but I got too excited when I went to get up at the end and completely wiped out because I stepped in the middle of the ice rather than to the side. Bashed my knee up, but luckily no one was around to see me faceplant and attempt to scramble back up properly.
We had some Omul (fish from the lake) soup in a cafe in Listvyanka and checked out a church, but didn’t go up to any of the good viewpoints because the weather wasn’t clear enough to see very far. I picked up some fish and postcards at the market then we headed up the hill to Belka hostel to drop our stuff and see who else might be about.
The hostel was lovely and cosy, just quite a hike away from the lake. When we got there, we met Felix from Germany and Alice and Jimmy from France. Felix told us about hiring the Banya at the hotel by the water in town and jumping into the lake the night before with some South Africans who were there, and we all decided we MUST do the same. I was slightly terrified of this because A: I don’t generally like Saunas (although this was more like the Finnish Sauna which I can handle, unlike the Turkish Baths in Budapest) and B: SO COLD OUT, ALSO SO COLD IN THE LAKE, ALSO JUST SO COLD.
On the other hand, how many chances do you get to jump into the world’s biggest, deepest freshwater lake in the middle of winter? Especially when you thought it was gonna be frozen already?
So we suited up and walked down to the hotel at the lakeside and steamed ourselves til we couldn’t take it anymore. Then we steeled ourselves, grabbed Alice’s waterproof camera, ran upstairs, through the lobby, across the road, past some locals laughing at us (they knew enough English for ‘crazy’), and straight into the lake. And then darted right back out. The water was unbelieveably freezing, but the minute you step out into the -11C air, you feel bizarrely warm and absolutely incredible. And your hair freezes all crunchy immediately because it’s wet. (The boys were all like, ‘can I touch your hair?’ because it’s even cooler with long hair.)
So naturally we did it all two more times. We also went the whole hog and beat each other with birch branches in the Banya in true Russian fashion. And it looks kind of violent, but it’s actually pretty pleasant. I could have stayed another hour, but we decided to be reasonable. Alice and Jimmy went to a restaurant because it was their last night in Russia, and Felix, Ming and I took a taxi back up to the hostel to make pasta and drink beer.
Up to that point, it was definitely the best night of this trip.
In the morning, I walked back down to town with Ming to send some postcards and get a drink from the lake with the wooden mug Kristina gave me before I left Edinburgh (the water was lovely, of course). And later on, Felix and I caught the bus back to Irkutsk and kicked around drinking beers at a German themed bar til he had to get a train to UB and I had to go back to my hostel. But this is not the last you (or I) will see of Felix, as he convinced me to join him in checking out the ice festival in Harbin once we’d met back up on the New Year train, and that turns into a whole new madcap adventure.