Day 28: Bolshie Koty to Bolshie Kadil , Hiking the Great Baikal Trail (Day 2)

Looking down over rocky outcrops and forested hills, to the coastline far below.
View from the top of Skriper Rock.

In the morning light, I take the time to explore the hostel.

It has a really nice vibe, basic but very cosy. There are friendly touches wherever I look, from the the smiling sun coat hook, to the plastic ocean lining inside the hot shower, ancient scripts, and the all-seeing-eye watch dog. The travel photos on the walls are full of beaming smiles, and I wonder if the owner is a retired international traveller, or if any of these people are him or his partner.

My roommate Alista had somehow managed to stay the night without any payment, so I call Alex the owner on his behalf to help facilitate this. He says that the track onwards to Bolshoy Goloustnoy is nice, but muddy.

After reading the highly informative A dozen questions about Estonia brochure cover-to-cover, I spend several hours deciding how to spend my last 10 days in Russia.

Finally, at midday, I head off.

But finding my way out of town proves to be less than easy.

A back street heads up the hill to a wooded area featuring a large cellphone tower, but if there’s a trail here amongst the trees, it’s not obvious.

An investigatory loop around the township reveals no path, but photo opportunities galore.

New houses rise up next door to abandoned ones, rusted huts provide token protection from brutal winters, DIY projects compete with big budget builds for the perfect roof, and a tiny church nestles in between it all.

I’d expect a coastal walk to continue around the coast, but the port area seems to terminate in a large black fence.

It looks like a private port set up for someone important, and I wonder how I’m supposed to get through. Perhaps I’m not supposed to and this is in fact part of the plan for repopulating this formerly thriving gold mining town.

But get through I must, and so I pluck up the courage to investigate more closely and am happy to find that a flashy concrete path, which looked like part of the property, actually heads up the hill and terminates in a dirt track, lined with grass munching cows.

Back into the forest and at times the trail feels fantastical.

An empty CCCP packet, former rubbish of the Russia formerly known as the USSR is discarded in the trees. Surely it can’t have been sitting here all this time?

And there are fire warning signs, strange reminders in an area covered in trees, but gridlocked by lake waters and sometimes lake ice.

Descending to the shore, the signage and stairways are constructed from natural elements. They give the trail a Fantasy Island feel, though you’d be hard pressed to get a golf cart down here.

And someone has been busy editing all of the printed signs, removing all references to trail permits. Thick black spray paint oozes down the boards, as if it’s still wet to the touch. Bullet holes puncture some of the signs, repeating the message I’ve seen over and over. Don’t tell us what to do!

And then, suddenly, I’m confronted with a rather disconcerting glitch in the matrix.

A three meter wide section of elevated track has simply vanished down a steep drop. No way!

I back track, hunting around for the correct path. It’s entirely possible that this easily distracted hiker has missed a turn-off or two and wandered into a lake-side no-man’s land. But no alternate route presents itself, and so, seeing no other option, I return to the washout and prepare to make my traversal.

Paranoid about tipping off the steep slip, I get down on my hands and knees, facing uphill, to maximise my surface contact and mitigate the risk of falling. It seems risky at the beginning, and downright foolish at the point of no return, but as luck would have it I make it to the other side without losing my footing. Dan 1 GBT 0. Phew.

Once safely back on terra firma, I conclude that this was one of the highlights of the trip. It’s all about perspective.

The trail continues through lush foliage, and a little further on I come upon a wooden signpost.

The rustic bilingual sign reads DANGEROUS TRAIL. Ha! In black vivid, someone has added NO JOKE!!! Guess I wasn’t the only one! I’m still unsure where the alternate route is, but perhaps they should look into erecting a sign on the other side too..

The track runs back down to the shoreline, where a fire pit and white gravestone dot the raised grass.

The gravestone is decorated with the faces of two men, 19 and 22 years old at the time of their passing. They gaze out across the pretty shoreline, to the lake beyond.

A bit further on, I meet an English speaking boat captain.

He reminds me of someone from the movies and recommends that I climb up to a nearby rocky peak.

It is slightly inland, and a detour off the main trail, but well worth it, he says. I’m slightly worried about the time it might add to my already tardy start, but it seems like it’s now or never.

It’s a good hike up and the peak provides awesome views down the coast.

But I’m paranoid about being caught out in the dark again, and I quickly descend after a few shots from the top.

While the changing terrain and endless photo opportunities are great, they do eventually start to get old.

Maybe it’s the curse of the computer revolution, people always expecting something new and shiny, and developers tethered to their machines making sure that it happens. It all seems far less important now, but I can’t deny that I still get bored easily.

And when I get bored, unfortunately, I reach for food. Today that’s cow biscuits and they are deeeeelicious!

But the best solution for boredom? It’s not food, nor is it technology, but close contact with nature’s amazing creatures. And today that’s beautiful horses.

A group of three, they walk gently past me, but stop suddenly, after hearing something in the trees. I try to tell them that it is just a bird, but they aren’t convinced. So I sit down and we wait for the all-clear together, the horses and I, the second and third horses blocking me in anyway. After a few minutes the horse at the back walks forward a little and gives me a wave of his head. It’s ok to leave now.

It happened earlier, and it was a real highlight. Better than ocean vistas, better than zen hostels, better than autumnal colourscapes. Better than all of that, quality time with horses.

And now, I’ve met another group. Keen to keep horse-human relations rosy, I give one of them my last, best, shortbreaddy cow biscuit. The horse agrees, these biscuits are deeeelicious!

Suddenly the whole group are my best horse friends in the whole wide world! Everyone is very curious and another one tries his best to get his big head inside of my small backpack. I scold him, but not before I have shared my bread as well. Hungry horses.

With one thing and another, I don’t reach the Devil’s bridge until after 6pm.

I’m worried about traversing the narrow cliffside path in the dark, but thankfully the sketchy section is short.

Then it’s a ninety minute walk by torch light, through grassy fields to Bolshoy Kadil.

There are no scary illuminated eyes in the forest tonight, only flocks of very loud bassy and flappy birds and a weird grunting noise which I chose to ignore!

When I reach Bolshoy Kadil at 7.30pm, it’s dark and cold.

Having no clear idea of where the National Hostel is, I snoop around the largest group of buildings. A light in a window signals life but as I approach the house a watchdog starts barking loudly and before long the porch light snaps on.

A woman appears and ushers me in, out of the cold. My cover blown, I sheepishly accept, wondering if the barking dog will follow us into the warm glow, but she orders him to stay in the shed.

She’s an older lady, though I can’t really be sure of her age. She says that her name is Natasha and I can see that this is her home.

I wonder if she runs the hostel, and if the other buildings are dormitories, shut up for the winter. But when I try to ask her about this, she explains in no uncertain terms that she doesn’t speak English, and I don’t speak Russian, and so we should just forget about it. Deciding it best not to annoy my host, I sit down obediently, just as the dog had done.

Like the man in FanSport she sighs as she takes care of me, as if I am both a burden and a pleasure. She serves me a dinner of meat, sauerkraut and potatoes, a cup of milk with rye bread, and finishes the meal off with a chewy caramel sweet and a hot cup of earl grey tea to wash it down. Royal service indeed, considering that I just blew in on the wind.

Having met only a handful of people since leaving Listvyanka, I’m keen to make conversation, on whatever level. But, grateful of her hospitality, and fearing another telling off, I decide it best to eat up and shut up.

After dinner, she points me to the spare bed, with clean sheets, and we go our separate ways shortly thereafter. Natasha, Marta the cat, the dog that stayed in the cold shed, and I.