Listvyanka - not Irkutsk
We are on the move again - in the air flying Aeroflot Airline from Irkutsk to Moscow and then to St Petersburg. Imagine this: it will take us six hours to reach Moscow and we will change five time zones. It is only four time zones between Halifax and Vancouver!! Wow!
I thought we were staying in Irkutsk and that it was on Lake Baikal - wrong on both counts. We were picked up at Irkutsk train station (all of our pick-ups have been super efficient to date) and driven for an hour on a very good road to the tourist village of Listvyanka on the shore of Lake Baikal. The road was built because US President Eisenhower was supposed to visit Lake Baikal (a bit like the road intersection built for Queen Elizabeth when she went to Yellowknife). Just before the visit, American pilot Gary Powers and his U2 aircraft were shot down as they were spying near Yekaterinburg. Remember Yekaterinburg and its secret military factories - we were in that city just last week. Anyway, the President's tour was cancelled but the great road remains.
Listvyanka, located where the Angara River flows out of Lake Baikal, is an unattractive strip of tourist facilities with a narrow gravel beach right on Lake Baikal. It has about 2000 inhabitants. Nevertheless, there are some great attractions in the area.
The first is Lake Baikal. Here are some facts about the lake that I nabbed from a World Wildlife Fund website: "Lake Baikal is the largest freshwater lake in the world by volume, containing 20% of the world's fresh water. [It is supposed to have as much water as all the Great Lakes together] At 1,637m, it is the deepest freshwater lake in the world; the average depth is 758m. It is 636km long and 81km wide; the surface area is 31,494km2. The lake is estimated to be 25 million years old, making it one of the most ancient lakes in geological history. More than 330 rivers flow into the lake but only one, the Angara, flows out."
We went out on a two hour boat trip one day when it was perfectly calm and 25 degrees Celsius. The Sayan Mountains on the far shore were spectacularly huge and snow-covered. We stopped for a one hour hike on the Lake Baikal Railway with a bilingual guide who told us about the building of the railway in the early 1900s. The story sounded familiar with the indentured workers, terrible working conditions, snows, disease, dangerous tunnels. She could have been talking about the Canadian Rockies. We were so lucky to go that day as it was windy, cloudy and cooler the next day.
We also visited the Lake Baikal Museum. Although there was little information in English, we were able to see that the exhibits were good and that the museum has an on-going role in lake research. There were excellent animations of each geological period showing plants and animals zooming around at the different times. There was also an intriguing and simple twelve month animation showing the freeze-thaw cycle of the lake, lake temperatures, fish distribution and seal activity. Yes seals! The Lake Baikal seals, or nerpa, are the only freshwater seals in the world. There were three swimming in a tank in the the museum and the adult looked as though she has been overinflated with an air pump. She looked like a blimp!
Lake Baikal is a World Heritage area and is home to more than 2,000 species of plants and animals, two-thirds of which can be found nowhere else in the world. One of the rare species is the Baikal omul fish. For two evenings in a row, we feasted on hot smoked Baikal omul washed down with Russian beer (and cranberry juice for me). It was yummy.
One day we took local mini buses and went to the Taltsy outdoor architecture museum. (we thought we were going there the first day but ended up at the Lake Baikal museum!). In this place, wooden buildings have been brought together from all over the region. It is the largest collection of historic wooden buildings in Russia. We had a great time wandering slowly around, looking at everything from the camps of nomads, to a cossack farm house, Buryat yurts, a church, a schoolroom, a 17th century fort, a 20th century house and even a potter's studio. As usual, Grammar spent way too much time talking with pictures and her hands with the potter. She bought some things; he gave her a little gift; she took his email so she could show him her sawdust pots. She also interacted with a Mongolian salesman in a yurt. They talked so wildly with single words about hockey and Canada and Russia that he knocked down a whole display with his waving hands. She bought some curly-toed slippers; he gave her a gift and kissed her hand. I was so embarrassed by all this!