If you are one with an adventurous mind and love pushing your limits then this one is for you. I don't recommend this travel with kids. But as a solo traveller visiting this Superstar of all Lakes is completely safe and lesser known! Breaking the limits set by stereotypes, and unfounded fears of the Russian language and misconceptions regarding reluctance of the locals to make it easy on you will leave you immensely satisfied with what you accomplish on this adventure. Russia is completely safe, absolutely beautiful, has everything from "easy to visit -to the harshest to experience cities", and the warmth and patience of the local people with a shot of Vodka is all the armour you need against the dreaded "Russian Winter".
So here is an invitation to visit Irkutsk, Siberia for Lake Baikal. The oldest (25million yrs old) deepest lake in the world surrounded by a network of hiking paths known as the Great Baikal Trail. It surely is the superstar of all lakes! It is best to tie up with a tour agency in advance. On landing at Irkutsk Airport you will be picked up by the Tour agency, in a mini bus that starts from Irkutsk bus stand to Olkhon Island(The largest and only inhabited one ). On the way to the island there was a lone Uzbek shop with only meat options. However, packaged foods like chocolates and chips were available.
This trip was undertaken on 12 Mar 22. Ferries run from the mainland to this island but owing to the hard freeze the bus rode over the frozen water body (minimum depth of ice should be 0.6 mt for transport vehicles to safely move). There are many villages on the way to this island. Another approach to the Baikal lake is through Ulan Ude, another Russian city on the Russia- Mongolia border. The region surrounding the lake is a confluence of religions. The ancient native Mongol tribes considered the lake sacred. The region is a confluence of Orthodoxism, Buddhism and Shamanism. There are interesting myths linked to the lake. The guide shared that the 14th Dalai Lama also visited the lake in the 90's.
Returning to the trip details - the accommodation "Lada Guest House", was in the village Khuzir (biggest one on the Olkhon island, ).
After 'food and rest' followed a walk to the lake. The guide shared some interesting stories about the mysticism surrounding the lake. The Shaman rock a symbol of Irkutsk stands proud and striking near the lake. The Shamans used to perform rituals at the Shaman rock. Women are not allowed to approach it.
Legend says that the rock symbolises the The brave and revered Baikal who had a daughter beautiful Angara (the river that flows out of the Lake). Baikal decided to marry her off to Irkutk but Angara ran away with Yenisie . (both Irkutk and Yenesie are tributaries of Angara)
Returning to the Accommodation for dinner and a happy end to the day. Vegetarianism or Veganism is not originally part of the Russian culture and it is not something they are able to execute well enough to completely satiate the Indian palate. But knowing the guest's vegetarian preference they catered well and prepared a tasty meal.
The mini bus Bukhanka picked me up from the guest house. Today I was going to be with a Russian group of tourists. We visited the Northern part of the island - Cape Khoboy.
Kiss of Baikal (-18/-20 degrees) The friendly Russians drilled holes in the ice (with the hand drill they were carrying) and filled it up with Vodka. All of us drank up the vodka shots. This fun event was the Kiss of Baikal.
On the last day we went to the south part of the - Ogoy island. This island houses a Buddhist Stoopa - The stoopa of Enlightenment which is visited by believers from all over the world. It was even visited by the Dalai Lama.
Walking around you can't miss the Snow White stalagmite.
The striking Eagle rock is an interesting structure - The associated story that was shared by our Shaman guide was of 2 brothers who ate food without permission and were turned into eagles, she gave further details that I am not able to recount at present.
It is beautiful to look at the frozen waters of the lake. Sometimes you will find fish or bubbles trapped.
Today I was to leave Irkutsk . Spent time walking around the Irkutsk city and till the airport to return home through Moscow. I had lunch at the Indian Restaurant Ganga.
It is heart warming to find 'India' and 'Indians' in such far off reaches of the world. Sitting somewhere in Siberia I am speaking to Indian medical students and eating naan and paneer. This is a gem and it doesn't feel the same when you eat at an Indian restaurant or meet Indians in Europe or other popular destinations of the the world. Here you are in SIBERIA!
NOTE : The trip cost excludes price of travel tickets to and from India.