Baikal Explorer - Autumn Siberia - lake Baikal tour in September
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Autumn tour to Siberia, Lake Baikal and Buryatia
September 2006

Travel in Autumn - Siberia, Baikal, Buryatia  by Louise van Alenburg & Hans van Elk, Nederlands

Louise van Alenburg & Hans van Elk

A long time dream of us was to cross Siberia by train. Finally it became reality. We booked a flight to Khabarovsk. I read a book about it when I was 15 or so, but now finally the dream became reality. We booked a flight to Khabarovsk. The taxi driver who took us to the hotel for the night drove like a true Russian: like an idiot and there were no seatbelts in de car. Quite funny is that the Russian translation for "go on" is "Idiot" (it almost sounds the same anyway). God punished immediately because soon we stood along the side of the road with two punctured tires on the right side of the car! Luckily there was another taxi across the road and within a minute we continued our nerve wrecking trip through Khabarovsk as this driver was as crazy as the other one. Khabarovsk is a lovely city built on hills. The beautiful Amur River, the well maintained old buildings, coffee terraces and the nice weather made us feel like we were in Europe. It's a nice alternative for Hakodate for a couple of days.

The next day our real journey was about to begin. We boarded the 'Amur' train from Khabarovsk to Moscow. Our first stop however would be Ulan Ude and our final destination Irkutsk as we wanted to spend more time at Lake Baikal than the average Trans Siberian Train traveller. The train that is generally called the Trans-Siberia Express is the 'Rossiya' train. That one runs from Moscow to Vladiwostok and back, and is White, Blue and Red, like the Russian flag. It would be more correct to name the route Trans-Siberia Railway and there are many trains on this route. Ours, the Amur, was army green and had lovely young provodnitsa's (wagon attendants). Not many foreigners take this train as the provodnitsa was puzzled by our passports. But we were finally allowed on board. Her name was Nadia and she was very curious, so occasionally she would come to our Kupe to chat and so did a Russian guy who already had too much vodka. We had the Kupe all to ourselves, although it had 4 berths, which was great. We let the Siberian landscape pass, not wanting to miss anything we kept looking outside taking turns getting hot water from the Samovar for tea, coffee, "shall we make cup noodles now, or do you prefer pizza from the trolley, or shall we go to the "Restoran", again more coffee, ah why bother: let's open this bottle of vodka. The landscape is pretty impressing and sometimes utterly boring: taiga taiga taiga in the most stunning autumn colours. But that gave a real feeling for this vast piece of earth called Siberia. We slept well on the monotonous sound and movement of the train, but we woke up early to make sure to see the sun rise over the misty plains dotted with little villages and haystacks.

A hunting scene during a one day bicycle trip in Olkhon

The third day we reached Ulan Ude where our red headed guides, the brothers Konstantin (Kostya) and Pavel (Pasha) waited for us on the platform. They took us for dinner we strolled through Ulan Ude Centre admiring the well kept old buildings and houses. The next day we visited the biggest Buddhist temple in Russia: the Ivolginsky Datsan and we enjoyed a traditional Buryat lunch prepared by a lovely lady by the name of Gelya who shared my love for gardening. I had to promise her to send her some seeds of Dutch produce. Then Kostya and Pasha took turns to drive the long way (260 kms) to the North. We went to the village of Ust-Barguzin on the east side of Lake Baikal. On the pass through the mountains we had snow and it was cold! It was the 6th of September! The advantage was that our backpacks became much lighter as we needed to wear all the layers we brought! We paid our respects to the spirits by sprinkling vodka in the 4 wind directions at a holy tree. Lake Baikal is part of the Buryat Republic which is known as a centre for Siberian Buddhism and Shamanism and you will find many sacred places where all energy seems to flow together. In Ust-Barguzin we stayed with a local family who gave us a warm welcome by heating up the Banya and by preparing a great meal not hindered at all by a power cut. The smell of Blinis the next morning woke us up.

We drove to the Zaibaikalskii National Park where we headed for the Sacred Nose Peninsula, a piece of land stretching inward to Lake Baikal resembling a nose. As it was considered too cold for putting up the tent, a winter hut was found more suitable for 3 nights. It was equipped with 3 tables (2 for sleeping) and a fire place that kept the hut warm even long after the fire went out because of the thick walls that kept the heat. A good design! This expression was used by the boys continuously. When finally the fog cleared on the mountain that we climbed, they said: "Good design", when someone won the game with the homemade dices from bread, they said: "Good design. When we saw a fox roaming around the winter hutů good design. But when the front light fell off the car because of the bad Siberian roads they were in doubt: was this a good design?

Anyway the nature was definitely a good design! We did a lot of hiking, we went by boat on Lake Baikal, took a hot mineral bath, visited the strange Barguzin Valley further up North that left us a long lasting impression. Vast steppes, beautiful golden fields, strange rock formations. A heaven for an artist! Our guides were fantastic cooks and managed to prepare hot breakfast, lunch and dinner on the open fire every day, amazing and ochen vkuzna! They were very knowledgeable about the nature and the Buryat culture. We felt sad to leave, but our train to Irkutsk was waiting; the last stretch of our Trans-Siberia express.

In Irkutsk we met up with Leonid who took us to a typical Russian Stalinistic apartment of a local family where we stayed the night. Irkutsk is also a pleasant city to spend a few days. We admired the old Siberian houses with the wonderful wood crafted window frames. The next destination was Olkhon Island, the biggest island in Lake Baikal on the west side. Again a complete change of landscape: hardly any trees, only golden steppe with roaming horses, cows and sheep. The contrast with the dark blue water of serene Lake Baikal was truly inspiring. We stayed in the village of Khuzir with Olga and her family who were very hospitable and stuffed us with their great cooking. They had a banya of course and an outdoor bathroom. The toilets were in the garden behind the potato plants. Imagine in winter!

Louise van Alenburg & Hans van Elk - Olkhon island

Khuzir village life was great to watch. People were preparing for winter by cutting fire wood and getting the hay indoors. Everyone owns a cow that grazes with other cows during the day in the fields and as soon as the sun sets, seems to know the way home all by itself. The cows wait in front of the house until the owner lets them in. Very odd.

The Northern tip of the island is very rocky and you can have magnificent views over the lake. Leonid also was a great guide and shared a lot of his knowledge and we could feel the Shamanist energy around us. It sure has a calming effect. The last day the two of us rented mountain bikes and crisscrossed the hills watching the cattle and the hawks that were hunting rodents. Fantastic!

Then our time was up, Leonid took us back to Irkutsk where we accidentally found a great restaurant in a wine cellar where we danced the night away and drank our last vodka's of the trip before we caught our plane back to Khabarovsk and Yuzhno.

Olkhon island northern point - September 2006
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