My buddy Graham and I just spent 8 days and 7 nights trekking around Irkutsk and Lake Baikal. It was a blast. A handful of surpirsing things.
Irkutsk is really, really nice.
Against all expectations, the city we stayed in in Siberia was probably the most shiny and well-kept city either of us had seen in Russia. There was a Sephora, for goodness’ sake. The place just reeks of effectively distributed city money and a consistent level of development. And weirdly western— there was some suburban America-style outdoor store and restaurant clusters, plus some American operations I was pretty much shocked to find there, i.e. Papa Johns. They remembered Graham’s name the second time we went there, much to our embarrassment.
Russia is huge, you guys.
This shouldn’t have been a surprise, but DAMN is there a lotta space in this country. Even supposedly touristy areas surrounding Lake Baikal were virtually empty. Now, granted, it is off-season still, so the ghost town vibe that we encountered in Listvyanka (the “resort” city by Baikal) makes some sense. But seeing so much empty space for miles and miles in every direction, knowing it only gets emptier the farther out you go, is just wild.
Olkhon Island is the weirdest place I’ve been and probably will ever be.
This island is the largest in Lake Baikal, and we stayed there 2 nights. The island is covered with nothing and cow poop and the occasional batch of wild horses, except for a shanty town-type operation taking up one side of it. We crossed the lake on a hovercraft (it was COOL) since the ice is a little melty. Once we arrived, we had our jaws dropped for a good 3 hours trying to figure out where the hell we’d been dropped. There were almost no people, even though there were lots of wooden homes. Also no roads no signs of any business or any money or maintenance or anything. The “roads” were like car graveyards, as there were tons of old stripped cars lying around. Garbage was dropped all over the place. The first night was a toughie, especially since my travel bud fell to some gas station food poisoning (whoops). But by the second day, after romping around the cliffs along the lake on a truly great excursion, we loved it. We met a lovely German couple there, but travelers included, we still met more dogs and cows than people there by a longshot. Now, that being said, the stray dogs and (maybe stray?) cows were pretty great.
Meeting travelers is fun.
I’ve never been in a place with so much traveller comradery. Most people we met were crossing Russia on the trans-Siberian. We met a solid mix of solo adventurers, some of them kind and fun, a couple youngsters working to develop a superior-world-traveler-vibe to take home, and we also met some lovely friends, students on break, couples on a big getaway, people travelling for work. In a place like that, there’s a smaller group of tourists at any given time it seems, so there’s a good amount of overlap. We met a few folks on a similar itinerary to ours, and sometimes bumped into them in more than one place. We hung out with Germans, a Finnish dude by way of Switzerland, a Ukranian girl by way of Norway, a good handful of French folk, a Dutch couple, met a South African and some British kids, a few British adults, some Thai girls, one other American, and one Canadian. For once, since Graham’s fluent and my Russian’s not so bad, we weren’t in the usual American-jerk-who-only-speaks-english-in-Europe role, and actually had a leg up between English, which basically everyone spoke, and Russian, which, you know, Russians speak.
I like hiking.
Never thought the day would come when I’d genuinely enjoy an outdoor aerobic activity.
Getting the suitcase feeling (чемоданное настроение). It’s just about the end of the semester, which means
a) I’ve started feeling waves of freak-out and emotion about leaving come July, and…
b) …more importantly and immediately, I’m going to Lake Baikal for a week on Sundayyyyy!