September 28, 2009 – The Great Baikal Trail
|Lake Baikal Hydrofoil|
We returned to Irkutsk after our travels to Ulan-Ude for several days of meetings with the Great Baikal Trail Association (GBT) to discuss organizational development and trail construction plans for next summer. That's a big reason we are here, but long talks about trails are not the same as long hikes on trails.
When we were given a chance to scout a reroute location on a portion of the Great Baikal Trail, we jumped at the opportunity even though the weather was chilly, rainy, and showed no promise of improving. We were accompanied by Vladimir Khidekel — "Volodya" — from the staff of the Museum of Natural History in Irkutsk and a long-time member of the GBT.
It was raining hard when we climbed aboard the hydrofoil at a dock in Irkutsk. A group of schoolchildren climbed aboard the old boat, too, and several dozen people with boxes, bags, and backpacks. The schoolchildren recognized Volodya from events at the museum, and were eager to talk with him. When they discovered we were Americans, they wanted to try out their English.
"Hello, how are you?" they asked. "What is your name?"
|Borrowing a litre from Lake Baikal's 20% of the world's supply of fresh water.|
The hydrofoil made its way up the Angara River for about forty minutes. Three hundred rivers feed into Lake Baikal. Only the Angara flows out, passing Irkutsk soon after it leaves the lake.
The boat docked briefly at the town of Listvyanka where the lake and river meet. The schoolchildren and many of the other passengers got off, pulling their coats around them and their hats down tight against the wind and sleet.
Another forty minutes of travel brought us to our stop, the village of Bolshoi-Kote. With a population of about a hundred, it's a collection of small wooden houses and a few larger homes and lodges that is almost exclusively reached by boat in the summer and by ice in the winter.
Volodya led us along muddy roads to a hostel owned by a man who had been helping out with GBT activities. We got settled into simple rooms, then brewed black tea and ate a lunch of cheese, sausage, and brown bread. A large contingent of ladybugs joined us at the table.
"Here they are called god bugs," Volodya told us. He didn't know why, but I started giving them more respect.
The rain stopped, and though the afternoon was still chilly we set off to hike north of the village a few miles to a ridge where next summer's GBT crews will be replacing a very steep pitch of trail with switchbacks constructed at a reasonable grade. Volodya wanted us to see the location and consider how best the crews could proceed.
The hike there was really enjoyable. Low, dark clouds hung over the lake. At times we were hiking so close to the water that we jumped from rock to rock to keep our feet dry. In other places the trail climbed over cliffs and into the forest.
A man on a horse galloped past us, riding hard. "A park ranger," Volodya told us, reminding us we were in Prebaikalski National Park. Soon we caught up with the ranger at the site of some cabins under construction where a valley opened toward the lake. He was talking to three Russian men standing beside one of four yurts — roomy tent-like shelters traditional to the Buryat culture of Baikal.
Intended for rental to tourists, the yurts and cabins were probably illegal. Enforcement of national park regulations, though, is complicated. Despite the visit from the ranger, Russians were willing to talk with us about the fees they were charging for overnight stays, meal preparation, and stoking the fire in the banya.
|Siberians call lady bug the "god bug." Gorgeous in any language.|
We hiked on, made the climb to the top of the ridge, and analyzed the trail issues for the coming summer. From a pinnacle at the top of the ridge we could look far out over the lake, watching a brief bit of color in the west as the sun slipped out from under the clouds for a moment before dropping beyond the horizon.
Much of our hike back to Bolshoi-Kote was in the dark. We took a wrong turn on one of the first streets we reached, and found ourselves pleasantly lost for awhile. We laughed a lot as Volodya led us on a fruitless search across yards and through fences until we finally found our way back to the lake to get our bearings. When we reached the hostel we cooked a big pot of pasta and crawled into our sleeping bags for a good sleep.
Yesterday morning dawned clear. We loitered over breakfast and tea, then packed up and started hiking south, eager to cover the 15 miles of trail back to Listvyanka. As hiking days go, it was just about perfect — crisp, and breezy with magnificent scenery all the way.
The trail has been constructed over the last seven years by the GBT and is a real tribute to their determination to do good work through rugged terrain. We stayed close to the lake most of the way, though the final miles took us up a valley and over a high ridge. Snow covered the ground, the trail marked in places by the footprints of bears.
We reached Listvyanka at dusk with just enough time to buy smoked omul fish from an outdoor market and then catch the last mini-van for the hour-long ride back to Irkutsk. As we bounced along the highway we picked flakes of meat off the fish bones and smiled with the satisfaction of having enjoyed several really good days afoot on the Great Baikal Trail.