Our next stop was Irkutsk, the gateway to the amazing Lake Baikal, the largest freshwater lake in the world. We only had one full day so we wanted to make the most of it…
We rolled on into Irkutsk late in the evening and made our way off the train into more lovely sub zero weather (What my dad had told us about inside of your nose freezing up, really does happen)
After the trouble we had in Yekaterinburg we had booked a pickup from the station with our hostel. Luckily there was a girl with Greg’s name on a sign, so we followed her, hopped into the car, to then find that our hostel was literally a 5-10 minute walk from the station!
Our first thought of the hostel was that we had booked a double room, and we got a twin! Then we saw signs everywhere that it was called Nerpa Backpackers, when we were supposed to be staying at the Trans-Sib Hostel! We questioned this, to find that they were twinned with the other hostel, and the other room had been booked up, even though we had booked this room a fair while in advance. It wasn’t the greatest first impression, especially as we were both tired and hungry.
We decided to go on a little walk to find some food and an ATM as we were starving and broke. But what we found was a locked up cash machine and a shop that looked like a petrol station kiosk window, where it would have been impossible to tell them what we wanted as no one speaks English! With nothing else around (the hostel was out of town), we walked back to the hostel frustrated and empty handed.
The next morning we woke early, our guide arrived at our hostel and introduced herself as Tanya, she was a native Asian Russian. I had organised our tour with Baikaler whilst in Yekaterinburg via email, they had a great reputation and although expensive it was a great tour especially for us as we only really had a full day and a half in Irkutsk. We had our own private tour guide and driver for the day, which was great.
We arrived in Listvyanka after an hour long drive from Irkutsk, along the only road from there to Lake Baikal, during which Tanya filled us in on loads of information about the area. Our first stop was the dog sledding, which was so much fun! We arrived to a small shack where we were told to put on over-trousers, meanwhile our dogs were prepared. The dogs barks were so loud until we set off, they obviously wanted to get chosen to race!
We had chosen the shortest 5km route, purely because of the price – it was an additional 1500 roubles (£25) each just for that, but once we got going it was worth every penny. It was amazing being pulled through the forest by the dogs and you really did feel like you were in control. The dogs of course did the acceleration, there was a pedal to brake and you just had to lean to turn! Someone from the centre sat down on the sled and thankfully assisted with the steering and kept the dogs in check!
Below is a video of Greg’s sledding, one of the first with my GoPro! Hopefully it shows just how cool it was.
We’d definitely recommend it, as it was a great experience, despite the bitterly cold weather – even after a 10 minute run our fingers and toes were stinging from the cold!
Afterwards we headed towards the market, where Greg contemplated buying the smoked fish, they didn’t look too appetising in my opinion! Then we walked out onto the frozen lake, although I could see people walking on it, and Tanya mentioning the ice thickness to be around 1.50m, it was still frightening! Especially when we heard a massive rumble and crack beneath our feet at one point! We got off the ice pretty quickly after that.
Tanya directed our driver to a ski resort, where we took a ski lift up to see the incredible view over the lake, it was so beautiful.
We then had a choice to make – either see some museums or have a city tour of Irkutsk – we chose the latter as it was easier on our wallets! So we made our way back down and headed back towards the city. Tanya showed us the main sights of Irkutsk and all the major sites before we were dropped back at our hostel, exhausted but very satisfied.
On our final day in Irkutsk we spent the day exploring the city on our own, before catching our first Trans-Mongolian train to Ulaanbaatar.