Lake Baikal was an unexpected favourite on my trip! I didn’t know anything about it before I got there and had never heard of it before I booked my trip. We left the Transiberian at Irtursk and had a 2 hour journey in a mini bus on a bumpy dirt road to our homestay. Our hosts, a Buryat family (Gena, Mikael and Fayina) had lived in their house for 25 years and recently added an extension with a huge kitchen dining room and bedrooms upstairs so they could start hosting people. And what amazing hosts they were. In addition to our building, in their garden they had a wooden stable for their cows, sheep and chickens, an outdoor long drop and a banya. A banya is a traditional Russian outdoor steam room where you wash. The whole place smelt of fresh pine.
Bolshoye Goloustnoye is a sleepy town set between a hill and the lake. The houses are built with wood and painted in beautiful colours. It is a community of people who work together through hard winters. As you walk through the town you can see signs with different symbols outside peoples houses that show the community tools or equipment they keep that others can borrow. There are horses and sheep wandering the streets grazing during the day before they are taken into their garden stables at night. The local shop/ post office is a single small room with a counter and shelves on the walls. One wall is completely taken up with bottles of vodka and there is a bucket of fresh fish from the lake for sale on the counter. It is totally different to Western Russia, the people look more like Mongolians, and there are statues of Lenin in back gardens.
We dropped our bags and set out exploring. Starting with White Mountain for a view of the town and lake. Down to the Russian Orthodox church where people stand for 2 hour sermons. A quick dip in the -11 deg lake. It was icy but refreshing after nearly 5 days without a shower. Fayina made us a hearty lunch of soup, pasta and meatballs. In the afternoon we tried out the banya, alternating between sweating in the steam room and cooling off outside over a few hours. It was such a luxury. Though I can’t imagine traipsing through the snow for a wash in the middle of a Russian winter. Dinner was Omol fish patties with mashed potato and a salad with sour cream and dill. Omol is from the lake. We played cards, and Gene sang and played guitar before bed.
Our second day started with sweet rice porridge, homemade berry jam and tea with fresh milk from the cow. A peaceful morning on a boat on the lake and a walk to a tiny little church. The church was a single room in the middle of nowhere. We walked across fields with cows and horses grazing, wild thyme, lavender and edelweiss, and waded through a stream before we came to the little wooden hut of worship. Lunch was back at our homestay - homemade soup and meatballs with buckwheat. A rainy afternoon walk to Dry Lake. We were told the lake was full a couple of weeks earlier, but all we saw was a grassy field with a dip in it. Apparently it fills and empties really quickly, hence the name - there were photos of the full lake in the local arty coffee shop.
Everyone chipped in to prepare our final dinner. Fried omol, mashed potato and a typical dill salad with lettuce, cabbage, cucumber, tomato, garlic and sour cream. For breakfast we made pancakes outside in the morning sun. Our guide and host argued about the correct way to make pancakes. Russians are passionate about pancakes! We said our farewells and got back on the bumpy dirt road to Irkutsk.
Last Stop: Transiberian Railway
Next Stop: Irkutsk and Ulan Ude