Month: February 2016

Overdosing on Omul in Siberia

Looking at a map, Lake Baikal seems significant but its surface area is dwarfed by the Great Lakes. However, due to it’s depth, it is the largest lake in the world by volume. Baikal’s superlatives seem to have no end:

  • It is the world’s oldest lake.
  • It is the deepest at over a mile in depth in some places.
  • It contains nearly 20% of all the world’s unfrozen freshwater.
  • It contains more water than all of the Great Lakes combined, nearly twice the water volume of Lake Superior alone.
  • If all of the world’s other freshwater were to disappear, Baikal could supply the world with drinking water for 50 years.
  • It contains over 2,000 unique species of animal life, including the delicious and ubiquitous Omul fish.

I had two days in Irkutsk, the closest city to Lake Baikal and took a day trip to the lake at it’s southern tip. It was mid-November, so my tour consisted of myself, a shy Frenchman, and our informative tour guide Maxim. Maxim spoke very good English and, to my relief, was an even better driver.

The drive from Irkutsk to Listvyanka on the lake is about 90 minutes along what some locals still refer to as Eisenhower Highway.  In 1960, during a short window of improved US-Soviet relations, Eisenhower had planned a visit to the Soviet Union including Irkutsk and Lake Baikal. Up until then, the road from Irkutsk to Listvyanka was nothing more than a dirt track. Upon the announcement of Eisenhower’s visit, an arrow straight, paved road was built in just 2 months. Unfortunately, Eisenhower’s trip was canceled after the downing of the U2 spy plane flown by Gary Powers. Thankfully, the  well-maintained road remains.

The first stop on our tour was to a traditional Siberian village that had been recreated on a high bluff overlooking the Angara River. The Angara has been dammed at several spots and these buildings were moved before they were flooded by the reservoirs filling up. Among the buildings was an old church, a one-room school, the mayor’s office, a store, and, of course, several saunas.

Afterwards, we stopped at the headwaters of the Angara River which flows out of Lake Baikal and eventually heads all the way north to the Arctic Ocean. We then stopped at a small ski resort and hiked up to the top of a hill overlooking the lake and Angara River. Resort is perhaps generous as it was really just a small chair lift, and two or three ski runs. The scenery, however, was gorgeous and along the way, nuthatches would perch on our hands and eat the seeds that Maxim had provided.

#baikal

A photo posted by @henchcliffe on

We then drove into the small lakeside village of Listvyanka for lunch and a look around the market. The market consists mainly of two things: Omul fish prepared in several different ways and cheaply made tchotchkes.

The fish is what we came for and we weren’t disappointed. The three of us bought different preparations and shared with pieces of flat fried bread and boiled potatoes. My favorite was the raw salted and smoked preparations. Omul is similar to lake herring but with a sweeter flavor.

Full of fish, we then walked along the lake shore watching families finishing up their afternoon picnics and strolling along the shore. Listvyanka is a tiny, remote village but tourists do come as evidenced by the newly built hotels and guest houses.

Lake #baikal. #russia #siberia

A photo posted by @henchcliffe on

The next day, I wandered around Irkutsk. A fresh foot or so of snow made walking around somewhat difficult. It seems Russians aren’t as fastidious about plowing and shoveling as I would have thought. Either that or a foot of snow just isn’t enough to bother with.

Irkutsk’s most interesting feature is it’s well-preserved Siberian style wooden houses. Dotted around the city, it’s not uncommon to see a 10 story Soviet era concrete apartment block and a small 100+ year old wooden house standing side by side.

Siberia wooden houses in Irkutsk. #irkutsk #siberia #russia

A photo posted by @henchcliffe on

Irkutsk was a city of exiles. After the Decembrist uprising of 1825, the instigators were sentenced to hard labor in Siberia. Irkutsk was the exile’s jumping off point to the Siberian hinterland where they worked in mines, factories, or forts. Often, these exiles’ families stayed in Irkutsk and several exiles decided to stay in or around Irkutsk after their sentences were up. There is a small Decembrist Museum in Irkutsk but it offered little more than a re-creation of the house and furniture of the more prominent and rich exiles.

In addition to the Decembrists being exiled to Siberia, Poles were sent to Irkutsk and surroundings as well. In 1863, Poles began an uprising against forced conscription into the Russian Army. The instigators were either executed or deported to Siberia. Part of the legacy of these Poles in exile is a large Polish Catholic Church in Irkutsk.  All-in-all, over 20,000 Pole were sent to Siberia for punishment.

Yekaterinburg to Irkutsk

Yekaterinburg

About 1000 miles from Moscow, Yekaterinburg is on the eastern edge of Europe at the foot of the Ural Mountains. Surrounded by the iron rich Urals, Yekaterinburg was an early industrial center and gateway to Siberia to the east.

I arrived early in the morning to fresh snow and decided to walk the couple of miles from the train station to the hotel. I only had about a day and a half before moving on to Irkutsk.This was just enough time to explore the central part of the city. The Iset River runs through the city and widens to a large lake which was already half-frozen over during my visit in early November.

By the time I had gotten to Yekaterinburg I was a little burned out on museums and Russian Orthodox Churches, so I decided to just wander around the city. The river front was mostly pleasant, dotted with small quiet parks. I also took the opportunity to go to the top of Visotsky Business Center. Even at 52 stories high, the views above Yekaterinburg aren’t breathtaking by any stretch but it was interesting to see the hills of the Ural Mountains (the Urals are really low and basically just hills this far south) and the massive industrial areas surrounding the city.

Yekaterinburg with fresh snow. #yekaterinburg #russia

A photo posted by @henchcliffe on

I also visited the Cathedral on the Blood which was just recently built on the site where the Romanov family was murdered during the Russian Revolution. The site of the Romanov murders was a house that had been fenced off and neglected for most of the 20th Century until then governor Boris Yeltsin had it torn down in 1977 to prevent it becoming a shrine.

Yekaterinburg is a large enough city that it did have a more cosmopolitan feel compared to Kazan. There were definitely more franchise fast food places (Subway, McDonald’s, KFC, and a Carl’s Junior of all things) and international hotel chains. Before leaving I also went shopping at what I would imagine to be one of the fanciest grocery stores in Russia, so I was well stocked for my epic 50 hour train ride to Irkutsk.

Yekaterinburg to Irkutsk

Irkutsk is about 2,200 miles from Yekaterinburg and a 50 hour train ride. During this leg of my trip I booked a first class berth which meant I had the possibility of sharing with just one other person. The trip, however, was one of the least crowded trains I would ride. There were long stretches when I think I was the only person in my entire car.

During the trip, I was able to finish the Russian history book that I had started the week before and about a dozen Chekhov and Gogol short stories. Reading material that was a perfect fit for the Siberian scenery rushing along outside the window. As we headed further east, the dense birch forests gave way to more and more evergreen trees and the terrain became hillier. The most striking detail was, even in the most remote, tiniest village, the houses were painted in bright pastels of green, yellow, or blue.

Occasionally, the train would pull into a station where hawkers would sell everything from smoked fish to children’s books and toys on the platform; I guess you have to find some way to occupy your kids on such a long train ride.

What do you do on a 50 hour train ride?

In no particular order:

  • Sleep
  • Read
  • Drink Tea
  • Look out the window
  • Walk up and down the cars
  • Read
  • Look out the window some more, until your eyes get tired
  • Sleep
  • Drink Tea
  • Read
  • Drink Tea
  • Look out the window
  • Eat
  • Drink Tea
  • Read
  • Sleep

 

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