Lake Baikal, Listvyanka and Irkutsk (proper Siberia!)

November 2001

Lake Baikal and Listvyanka

The next stop for me was the Siberian city of Irkutsk, an incredible 48 hours away. The train was just as comfortable and cosy as the previous ones, and for the first 24 hours I had delightful companions – Sveti, a 10-year-old girl, and her mother. Sveti was learning English at school, so we could communicate a little; enough, anyway, for her to ask me to write out the words to “Old MacDonald Had a Farm”. Sveti was extremely polite and had lovely manners, although I think she tried her mother’s patience a little. But then being confined on a train for a whole day and night can’t be easy when you’re just 10 years old.

A guide met me at the station in Irkutsk and took me from there to Listvyanka, a village on the shore of Lake Baikal.

Z, my host in Listvyanka, had a red-velvet-padded-toilet seat! Her cottage was compact and very pretty – lots of bright coloured textiles everywhere. It was one of those log cabins that Siberia is so famous for. You’d expect to feel like you were roughing it, that a log-cabin would be like a glorified tent or whatever, but this actually wasn’t. It was like being in a brick-built house, and it was only when I went outside that I remembered that I wasn’t. All the walls inside were finished properly, just like brick walls, so no draughts could get in through the tree-trunks. I guess the first pioneers in Siberia had to work with what they had – trees – and have perfected the design over centuries. However, probably the biggest structure inside Z’s home was a brick cube maybe four feet square and the full height of the room, which housed the wood-fuelled fire and oven. (A coalman in the UK told me once that houses with coal fires are so warm because the heat doesn’t come from just the fire itself, but the chimney acts as a massive storage heater.) Z was very welcoming, although she did seem to be a bit flummoxed by the prospect of catering for a vegetarian. In fact, vegetarianism was something of a novelty in Russia; I’d been asked about it umpteen times since St Petersburg.

A novel experience for me was a session in Z’s banya, or traditional Siberian sauna. It wasn’t much different to a conventional sauna, although would a traditional sauna be hot enough to have my plastic soap bag on the verge of melting, I wonder? It was lovely to feel deep-clean again, after my days on the train.

View over Lake Baikal on a grey November day.

Lake Baikal, Siberia, on a dark November afternoon.

My guide, T, showed me some of the ‘sights’ of Listvyanka – such as the church (timber, of course) and an ‘art gallery’ displaying some rather trippy paintings. We also took a ride on the ferry to Port Baikal and back. It was not unlike practically every other ferry ride I’ve taken, only during this one my mind was being persistently blown by thoughts of the size and age of the expanse of water I was passing over. Baikal is the world’s largest freshwater lake by volume – ie when you consider the length, width and depth of water. Oh, and it’s the world’s deepest, too – nearly five and a half thousand feet or over 1,500 metres at its deepest. It’s also supposed to be the oldest – the rift valley it lies in was sealed around 25 million years ago. It’s home to goodness knows how many species of plants and animals, and some of them are unique to the lake. No wonder it was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 1996. This lake is nearly 400 miles long and (in places) nearly 50 miles wide. There are whole countries that are smaller than that!

However, just talking to T was as interesting as seeing the sights. She told me, for example, that in the 1970s she was refused permission to take a job that would have used her English language skills, because her then-boyfriend was a black marketer and considered “unreliable” by the authorities. During the 1980s she had the chance to work overseas for a year. She had to be “vetted” by the KGB and during the interview she was asked if she would spy on her colleagues. She refused, and so wasn’t allowed to take the job.

T was of an age that meant she could remember how shocked people were when they discovered the extent of the things done by the State under the Soviet system, such as the work camps and the interpretations placed on events. However, in 2001, she was worried about her son not being able to get a job when he left university. In Soviet times, graduates were guaranteed a job. But then, the previous day she had told me how her mother, a native of St Petersburg, had been sent to work in Ulan-Ude (my next stop) whether she liked it or not. K in Yekaterinburg had told me something similar about his relatives – they had been assigned to jobs all over the Soviet Union, and there had been nothing they could do about it.

During Soviet times St Petersburg was renamed Leningrad. The siege of Leningrad is one of the most notorious and horrific episodes of World War II. The city was besieged by the German Army for around three years, during which time around 630,000 residents died – many from starvation or cold. T said that, as a daughter of Leningrad, the authorities would pay for her mother and T and her sister to make a return trip from Siberia to Leningrad every year. That entailed T’s poor mother trying to keep two small children entertained for five days – each way – on the train; no easy task. Mind you, if T’s mother had survived around 1,000 days of being starved and frozen I guess she could handle anything.

After three days in tranquil Listvyanka, it was back to Irkutsk. I had a day to explore before I caught the train on to Ulan-Ude. I had a ‘host family’ – a history teacher and her daughter – but they were happy to let me just dump my bags in their apartment and, after a brief orientation tour, explore the city on my own. Irkustsk, with a population of over half-a-million, is like the capital of Eastern Siberia. There didn’t seem to be many tourist sites in Irkutsk – or if there were, the city didn’t (at the time) seem particularly geared up to being shared with tourists, but it was good just to wander around and soak up the atmosphere. I found the Irkutsk art gallery, which wasn’t dissimilar to an art gallery at home, only at home I’m not followed around by a posse of older ladies who switch off the lights in each room as I leave.

Wooden former home of Prince Sergei Trubetskoy, now a Decembrist museum.

Decembrist Museum in the former home of Prince Sergei Trubetskoy, Irkutsk

I also happened upon the Decembrists Museum, in what was once the home of Prince Sergei Trubetskoy. The Decembrists were a group of mainly well-to-do people who in 1825 set up a revolt against the then Tsar, Nicholas I. (Nicholas was clearly not a good name to have if you were a tsar!) The revolt failed and the Decembrists were exiled to Siberia. The house was surprisingly grand for someone “in exile” but it was very woody; it wasn’t obvious whether it was made entirely of wood, but with the interior walls lined with plaster or mortar or something, or if it was mainly stone but with the exterior clad in wood. It’s not the only house of this type in Irkutsk – the Decembrists created their own little colony in the city, an area of ornate wooden homes.

Shopping centre in Irkutsk, Siberia, on a postcard copyrighted 1986

Shopping centre in Irkutsk, Siberia, on a postcard copyrighted 1986 (possibly by a company called Plakat

Next stop was the waterfront of the River Angara, which flows through Irkutsk. The prime sight there was probably a group of teenagers and men lounging around swigging from bottles of alcohol. Clearly, drinking on the street in the middle of the day isn’t a purely British phenomenon.