We were greeted early on the morning of May 10 on the platform of Irkutsk railway station by Lena, local Irkutskian (I may be creating a new noun there) and tourist guide and Kseniya, her trainee and were taken to an MPV driven, to my great delight, by a quietly polite gentleman called Igor.
Our day was to start with a brief tour of the city, followed by a late breakfast in Listvyanka, a small village an hour outside Irkutsk where we would be staying two nights.
At this point I should explain why we were even in Irkutsk at all. Besides being a key city on the Siberian railway, Irkutsk lies a few kilometers from the banks of Lake Baikal. If you have never heard of it, fear not, nor had I a few months ago, however, (impressive stat alert) at 363km long and 80km wide at its widest point, it is the world’s largest freshwater lake and contains 23000 cubic km of water – that’s three times as much as Lake Superior and constitutes 20% of the world’s fresh water!!
Back to our narrative: we were shown a number of impressive old Russian orthodox churches and the aftermath of the V-day celebrations which was a poignant moment. Igor then drove us to Listvyanka along the banks of Lake Baikal for breakfast.
If you have never had Russian potato pancakes with sour cream, stop reading this immediately, run outside, seek the nearest Russian restaurant or Russian person you can find and implore them to make you this dish.
You’re back? It was delicious, wasn’t it? You’re welcome.
Breakfast bliss achieved, we headed to the Lake Baikal museum to learn about some of the endemic species. I’ll spare you the details but have to mention the Baikal seals. Given the lake can freeze up to 2m thick at the height of winter, these seals can only survive the bitter temperatures with the aid of blubber. As a result, they are comically fat.
On our way back to our guesthouse, I noticed a billboard advertising quad-biking. With several hours to kill before our evening meal, it seemed a great idea and it took me very little time to persuade Ophelia and American Dan (see previous post) to join.
30 mins later we are led into a shed by the quad-bike owners, Alek and, as Dan was later to name him, Denis the crazy Russian. We were provided with waterproofs, boots and helmets and led out to the machines. What followed was gloriously Russian: Denis, who spoke very limited English, pointed at the accelerator said “Go”. He then indicated the brake and said “Stop”. He looked up as if to say, “Any questions?” and, when none came, our health and safety briefing was complete and, having signed no disclaimer nor paid anything away we went.
The track was heavily rutted and waterlogged in places, which increased both the fun and the difficulty factors. On one of the more difficult corners in the early stages, Ophelia decided that “off-road” was insufficient and that she wanted to go “off-track” as well. This proved marginally detrimental both to her quad bike and to a young pine tree. She confided in me after the event that she had failed her driving test. For crashing into a taxi.
This incident aside, much fun was had by all.
We finished the day eating a variety of dishes made with Omul, a fish peculiar to Lake Baikal. It tasted like a less fishy version of mackerel and was lip-smackingly good.
And so to bed.