After a welcome shower in the Baikal Plaza hotel I was ready for an early night in crisp white sheets. The next morning it was straight to the bus station for the 11.00 to Goryachinsk, a village on the east coast of the lake opposite Olkhon Island in the Buryatia region.
The minibus for Goryachinsk was already pretty full. The passengers onboard directed me to the ‘cassa’ to get a ticket so off I hurried. By now I was little concerned whether there would be space, but there was no need. I was issued with a ticket and my name added to the passenger list. It turned out that I had won the seat lottery. I was sitting next to the driver – the prime seat with a perfect view.
We soon left the sprawl of Ulan Ude and were out into the gently undulating taiga. The sky was blue. It was a beautiful day. It was exciting to catch my first glimpse of the lake. The driver turned to me and, with some pride, smiled and said ‘Baikal’.
Lake Baikal is the world’s deepest freshwater lake (5000 feet) and curves for nearly 400 miles. It’s the beginning of a future ocean, in many millions of years to come, as the continent of Asia splits and moves apart. It’s certainly very beautiful with pristine sandy beaches, rocky promontories and the forests sweeping down to the shoreline.
In Goryachinsk I was picked up from the square by Anna from my guesthouse and , once installed, set off to explore the lake and get some food. With guidance on the menu from Helena, on holiday with her family from Chitta, I had my first taste of ‘buuzy ‘. It’s a Buryat dish of meat and vegetables cooked in a dough of flour and eggs, followed by ‘blini’ (pancakes) with jam and a compot of cranberries. The technique to eating buuzy is to first suck out the hot juice before biting into it – something to be recommended.
The next day I had booked onto an excursion. I knew that it was from 07.00 to 19.00, it would involve driving north, food would be provided and to bring a swimsuit and towel. Beyond that, it was a mystery tour.
After a breakfast of nuts and an apple I walked throuh a deserted Goryachinsk to the square and joined the others in the minibus. Off we went, sure enough driving north along the lake. A few more people were picked up along the way and there was the usual subdued atmosphere when a group of strangers are thrown together. We entered the Zabaykalsky national park area and crossed the isthmus to area of tree covered mountains protruding into the lake. Shortly afterwards we got on a boat. The ice was broken as people started feeding the seagulls.
We arrived at a thermal area with instructions to first swim in the lake, then the 20c pool and finally the 40c one for a maximum of 5 minutes. Also, to be on the look out for snakes.
It was too good to bother about snakes.
We swam and enjoyed the pools. Then it was time to get back onboard for lunch. Deema, the driver and guide, had turned into the cook and produced delicious omul soup, the fish unique to Lake Baikal. I was introduced to vodka and bitter lemon, then neat vodka and finally gum from the bark of pine trees. There were lots of toasts, as is the Russian way. The subdued atmosphere had morphed into warmth and lots of laughter. Stories were told, most of which were lost in translation. But I do know that Deema once saw a bear.
Onwards to more swimming, climbing up to a view point and drinking from crystal clear streams before heading back. It had been a lovely day.
I’m a convert to the magic of Lake Baikal. The next day was grey and raining but it was still beautiful, just very different.
Goryachinsk is a village of wooden chalet-type houses; many look quite old. The roads are mostly unmade. Cows roam at will. There are plenty of food shops and cafes and little else. People were very friendly. I got the sense that maybe in a few years the east side of the lake will become much more developed. I like Goryachinsk as it is now.
After three nights it was time to head back to Ulan Ude.