Day 27: Irkutsk to Bolshie Koty , Hiking the Great Baikal Trail (Day 1)

The lake bottom is visible through its clear waters.
Clear water.

As promised, Bolina, Simon and I bundle into their car for the drive down to Listvyanka.

A rare treat, they’ve been working hard to get the hostel up and running, but with no guests booked this weekend, they’ve elected to take some time out to unwind.

Like many of the guidebooks, Bolina gushes about Listvyanka. But when we get there, I’m surprised to find that it’s just a laid back lakeside village. To be fair, my home country of New Zealand is surrounded by water, and the vibe is pretty chilled, so I probably just take this kind of ambience for granted. From what I’ve seen of Russia to date, many people seem somewhat resigned to a difficult life, and no doubt a trip to the lake side would be the perfect antidote.

We wander through the village and into the local open-air fish market. My hosts suggest trying fish from different vendors, but I don’t want to spend too much time here, so I buy from the same stand that they do. We sit down inside a nearby cafe to eat our purchases. It feels odd to do this, but when I ask whether its kosher to eat food purchased outside, they say that everybody does it.

My fish lie quietly in their shallow polystyrene cradle. They’re Baikal natives and I have great expectations about their taste, but I’m a little disappointed when they don’t come up to my previous fishy experiences. I wonder how many locals have the luxury of travelling to the countryside just to sample the culinary treats on offer there.

After lunch, my hosts head off on their weekend getaway.

I head to the local information centre to grab another map and ask about places to stay along the way. I’m told that there are lots of accommodation options and I can just sort it out when I get there. I’m a bit worried though, as I don’t know the Russian for Do you have a bed for one? But on the other hand this is a popular tourist trail and English probably isn’t the only foreign tongue that they have to deal with.

There seems to be no shortage of beds in Listvyanka itself. But most appear to be in private residences, houses of all shapes and sizes, but with a common theme of wood, and in particular logs. Most are much nicer than the sparsely appointed shacks that I camped near in the forest. They gleam with tall roofs and stacks of sparkling windows. Fit for royalty, I wonder whether the people that live here really do that well off the tourist trade, or whether the gap between rich and poor means that these are just holiday homes for Russia’s rich and famous.

Just after 3pm, a sign for the Great Baikal Trail signals the start of my walking adventure.

The dirt track runs very close to the holiday homes and it feels like I’m trespassing into people’s backyards. But I meet no resistance, and eventually the houses give way to the forest proper, in all of its autumnal splendour.

The trail is nothing at all like what I expected when I was researching it back in New Zealand.

I’d imagined a rocky, amateur goat track, built with love but precariously clinging to the water’s edge. Foreign tourists would regularly lose their footing and plunge into the cold depths after being distracted by the view. Definitely not a place to take a fully laden touring bike.

But instead I find a mellow, inviting path. Carpeted in lovely yellow leaves, it gently guides me into a wooded forest. An army of tall yet slender trees provide the feeling of a forest embrace, without blocking out the light needed to appreciate its finer qualities. And I wonder, could I have brought my bike after all?

Soon, I come across a small group of hikers. The lead man looks like he is in his early thirties. He walks with a healthy confidence and is clearly the most experienced of the bunch. But he is concerned that I am starting my walk so late in the day, a concern which is mirrored by my own doubts.

Truth be told, I’m not especially prepared for an overnight adventure. I didn’t bring a tramping pack to Russia and I can only carry a fraction of my twenty plus kilograms of bike luggage in my green Camelbak day pack. So I’ve packed what I consider the survival basics: a head torch, a jacket and jumper, an emergency blanket and thermal liner, some water, my best camera, a lighter, and not much else.

Luckily the man is Alex, owner of the Lesnaya 7 hostel in Boshie Koty. He is ferrying tourists back to Listvyanka, and while he won’t make it back to his hostel tonight, he’s happy for me to stay there. We do the transaction in the middle of the trail and he tells me where to find the key. It is a weight off my mind, and I set off again, secure in the knowledge that I have a place to lay my head tonight.

After dawdling along the happy path, I’m unprepared for the climb that awaits.

It goes straight up, up up and up. Definitely not a place to take a fully laden touring bike! But the top brings majestic views of the lake and snow capped peaks on the distant horizon.

And then it’s down, down down and down, all the way down to a pebbled beach on the lake shore.

The trail runs through ever changing terrain, over wooden bridges, through colourful foliage, down shingle descents, and along sandy beaches.

Loosely hugging the coastline, it undulates in altitude, sometimes at water level, and sometimes far above it.

The views ahead and behind seem virtually indistinguishable, and, try as I might, I can’t make out the trail that I’ve just walked.

Every now and then the trail find a gap in the trees, and an emergency photo opportunity ensues.

Off-shore, small boats zip back and forth and I wonder if they are ferrying tourists too lazy to do the return walk. I’ve loosely planned to catch the bus back, but a speedboat ride could be fun, too!

At various points, the trail passes through idyllic camping spots.

An official sign invites campers to camp, but not cut down trees, hunt, drop rubbish, or, oddly, use bathroom cleaners.

Although I have tonight’s accommodation sorted, I really wish that I’d brought a tent.

I once dated a woman who, whenever she saw a lookout sign, would cry, Look out!

It was her standard trail joke, but it never failed to catch me off guard. So when I spot a Dangerous Trail signpost, I’m unsure what to make of it.

As it turns out, the Dangerous Trail is just a narrow section next to a steep drop. I wouldn’t want to encounter it at night, or on a bike, but on foot in broad daylight, it’s a walk in the park.

But it does pay to keep a look out on this trail. The location of signage seems a bit hit and miss, and there have been a couple of occasions where I’ve questioned my route, and missed the security of some official guidance. Perhaps this is a deliberate decision, to avoid gentrifying the route too much. I support that, but at the same time I’m not a big fan of unnecessary stress.

A memorial to someone follows and I wonder if he is a founding member of the trail, or perhaps someone who did actually succumb to its dangerous bits.

In sharp contrast to the DIY rubbish dumps in rural areas, the trail is almost spotless.

It’s especially apparent when I catch a water view. Lake Baikal sparkles away and the water is unbelievably clear. The beaches seem untouched too.

But the locals are clearly aware that building a tourist track through all of this beauty puts it at great risk. Perhaps it is intended as a lesson for the whole of Baikal – yes, this is a great resource, but it will only remain great if we leave it untouched. Nature’s dilemma challenges the logical foundations of modern civilisation.

Several bilingual signs implore hikers to keep the area in good condition, but unfortunately not everyone gets the message.

As darkness falls, I am glad of my head torch.

The forest takes on a more sinister tone at night. Undoubtedly it’s all in my perspective, tiredness and a lack of area knowledge making intimidating bedfellows. The possible seems impossible come nightfall.

After a long descent I eventually reach Bolshie Koty. The walk was much longer than I expected and I’m glad to have booked in advance, even if it was only by accident.

The lack of street lighting seems to be a feature of Russian villages, and I’d be hard pressed to distinguish hostels from private residences in the cold evening gloom.

Inside, I meet my roommate, a French man named Alist. He reads a novel while I pore over maps, before we both settle in for a well earned sleep.