Sunday, December 4, 2011

Listvyanka, Port Baikal, and How the Whole Dive Shop Got the Flu

On the shores of Lake Baikal, in Listvynka.
After stuffing our faces, and then our bags, with a final dose of Nikita’s amazing pancakes we steeled ourselves for another 7-hour marshrutky (you know, a Russian, fixed-route, minibus supplementing government bus service that we wrote about here) back to Irkustk, where we planned to find another marshrutky to the closest lakeside village, Listvyanka.
Originally a fishing town, Listvyanka spent decades as a weekend destination for Communist party members, but is now open to all who can afford it. It is a strange blend of very large, and very gaudy, mansions with high gates and gold tinted windows next to cute wooden cottages, exactly as one imagines traditional Siberian homes.  And stuffed bears, duh. The main attraction in Listvyankia: see and swim in Lake Baikal. As we had already spent the past few days doing just that (and the Lake was more stunning and beautiful on Olkhon Island), we focused on the town’s second most popular activity: eating fresh-smoked omul fish; dried omul fish, and various combinations thereof. And the fish was pretty good.
The Listvyankia beach
Tens of stalls, with identical Russian babushkas selling identifcal Omul fishes.
How to choose?
Hello my little friends.
We thought this guy looked especially delicious...
Our second day we spent with our new friend Nick, who we met a week earlier on the UB-Irkutsk train ride and then coincidentally sat down next to at breakfast in our hotel. Small world. We spent the morning cruising Listvyankia by foot. After a delightful outdoor lunch at Baikal Dream we decided to focus our efforts on getting across the sound to Port Baikal.
There's Port Baikal across the water.
Supposedly there was a ferry, but we couldn't find it.
Port Baikal used to be a stop on the Trans-Siberian rail line. Then in the 1950s the Russian government decided to dam the Angara river. The result was that the tracks were flooded, the trains were re-routed, and many of the large ships on the lake-side of the dam were trapped – because the dam had no locks to allow ships to pass! So much for centralized planning.

We hired a small boatman, with the most impressive gold teeth I’ve ever seen, to take us across the Angara. Once across we had free reign to fully explore all the abandoned trains, ships, and tracks throughout the town. [JLM: Traveling with two boys, you can imagine that we explored the abandoned trains, ships and tracks for an excessive amount of time.] We hiked along the tracks, had a picnic along the beach, and even missed our ferry ride home. Allowing us to flag and hire another small fishing boat to take us home. And it was great fun.
Me and Alex, our boatman.
Its a real shame he is not showing his gold teeth
Some ferry...
Jesse and Nick ride in the
back of the boat heading to Port Baikal
As soon as we stepped onto Port Baikal, we had a giant locomotive to play on.
  Then we saw the Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express, a train far nicer, and far more expensive than ours.   
We weren't ready to spend the nearly $15,000 to ride on the Golden Eagle, but we did crush some Ruble coins under it...
After playing in and around the train station we headed to the Port, where we explored abandoned (and stranded) cargo and dry-dock ships.  Cool!
And, of course, we didn't want to be caught, so we traveled in stealth mode:
Then we decided to do some time-lapse jumping photos.  This was not as stealth:
But it was really fun.  The jumping, and loud thuds when we landed, blew our cover, and after an exchange with some dockworkers that included a lot of pointing, foot stamping, and a loud flurry of Russian that we did not understand, we hightailed it off the ship and down the train tracks.
It seemed like such a clever photo at the time.  Now, not as much.
Jesse has a real Stand By Me moment.
We made it to the town of Port Baikal, fashioned some picnic supplies, and headed to the shore to enjoy the rest of the afternoon.
The shops look just like the houses.
Love those shutters.
Zucchini, onions, tomatoes, and beer. 
And delicious Russian gingerbread biscuits.
Sounds like the makings of a picnic!
The communist dream of brown picket fences
The shores of Lake Baikal
It wasn't the easiest path down the beach
But we survived.
Nick stops to smell the roses (and evaluate the descent to the beach).
We spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing on the shores the lake, warmed by the sun and our fire, drinking Balticka 3 beers, and snacking on cookies and fresh roasted veggies.  Eventually, we realized that we had about an hour's walk back to the pier to catch the ferry back to Listvynka.  But the ferry left in about 45 minutes.  Oops.  Time to hire another private boat-man. 
Here we locked in our return ferry price of 800 Rubles ($25 USD) to get back to town.
It was a fun ride.  Plus we got to wear water-skiing life-jackets.  Jesse proclaimed that if she went in she'd rather just go down quickly then bob in the nearly freezing cold water.  Nick and I weren't so sure.  Dropped off at the beach, we had some more omul fish, roast pork, and beers watching the kids play in the lake as the sun set.
The next morning Nick and I made a concerted effort to scuba dive in the freezing cold, but amazingly clear, lake. With his peer pressure I was sure to brave the 8 degree (48-50 F) water for a full dive. Sadly (sort of) the entire Listvynkia diving community, including all dive shops, had the flu. Actually, they all had some sort of diving conference and none of them were open for business. It would have been really cool, actually it would have been really cold, to dive Lake Baikal, and though we were a bit bummed out, it was still a good two days in town.
The view of Lake Baikal from the top of the fanciest hotel in town.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Nobody F&*%s with the Jesus

You know who else walks on water?
Lake Baikal is over 70 kilometers (43 miles) long. It plunges to 1.6 kilometers deep. It holds 25% of the earth’s freshwater. And it holds it at a numbing 9° C (48° F). So when we arrived on Olkhon island the prospect of swimming was low.
Decidedly uninviting.
Beautiful?  Yes
Icy?  Yes

You want me to swim? There?
But we'd heard a rumor about a bayna on a nearby beach. A banya is a traditional Russian bathhouse. Its like a steamroom, but typically lined with aromatic woods, and includes a bundle of birch sprigs and leaves that you beat yourself (or your friends) with.
The bayna
Preparing the bayna
Despite it being a cold rainy day we headed down to the beach to seek out this alleged bayna, its 100+ degree heat, and possibly overheat so thoroughly that we would consider diving into Lake Baikal. Well, we found it. With its cheery beach umbrella and tiny wooden benches. But no one had thought it could be real, so no one had a bathing suit on. Fearing that this would be our only chance, and despite the sub-50 degree farenheit weather, we stripped down to our unders, and hopped into the hot, steamy banya. Meanwhile the girls sat outside the bayna drinking beer. I may have even given the whole beach a show when I ‘accidentally’ yanked down Brian’s boxers as he was heading into the banya. Ooops.
What the hell?  Probably not going to get another chance to swim off Olkhon Island again...
Plus, what a festive umbrella!
So, while I stripped down, Erin and Natalie cracked open the 2-liter plastic bottle of Zatecky Gus,
you know, the fine Russian beer.  Jesse was busy with her single ruble bills.  It was my finest Chip'n'Dale moment.
And after that, well, it was time to get in!  Once inside we (me, Brian, and JJ) poured some water over the hot rocks, slapped each other with the birch switches, and waited until we were unbearably hot. It didn't take long.
The bayna, ready for action (exterior).
The bayna, ready for action (interior).
Our veniks, switches of birch we hit each other with to improve circulation and fully experience the banya ritual.
Brian hits the rocks with some more water.  The steam was sooooo hot.  It was unbearable near the stove.
1) You can see why Jesse was so busy with her single ruble bills;
2) You can see the sheen of sweat and steam from the incredibly hot bayna; and
3) You can see how cool CZ and his water-proofing is!

OMG.  So hot, so hot, so hot, so hot.  Let me out.
Within minutes we were completely overheated, dizzy, delirious, and dreaming of an ice bath.  Counting to 3, we threw the door open and made a run for it. Into the icy Baikal waters. And it felt great. For a moment, And then it felt cold. Deeply cold. Dunking your head was like putting your entire body into a vice, the water surrounding and suffocating you. And so, almost as fast as we ran into the water, we ran out.

Out the door.
The air was cold.  But felt great.
And then, it was time to take the plunge:
Here, I explain the finer points of the running dive to Brian and JJ.
Brian is clearly just thinking about his next Chippendale moment. Is that magnum?  Blue steel?
And JJ's internal monologue: "Ich bin zu sexy für mein Hemd"
Once out of the water the core heat built up in the bayna kept you warm for 5-10 minutes, after which, it was right back into the bayna for another round. Each 150 Ruble ($5) session allowed for three bayna sessions (and accordingly, three dives into the lake). After a few more runs, we were done for the day.
Gearing up for the walk back to Nikitas.
50 degrees, overcast, and white-caps.  Pretty much your perfect beach day.
The banya-Lake Baikal experience was so fun that a few days later we went back for a second round. But this time we brought our swimsuits (and for me, my tiny little swimsuit) and, even better the sun came out!  And with the sun on our faces, we convinced Jesse to get in the water!  The banya-Lake Baikal experience should not be missed.  Fantastic.
Despite the unfortunate placement of the water droplet, no one would could doubt that this is me and J in Lake Baikal.
In 48 degree Lake Baikal.
Our runs into the water.  Or almost into the water!
Run, run, run, ooooh, cold, cold cold, run run run away!
Warming up after the first dip.
And, if you've made it this far, of course you get some (expected) pics of sunsets and (unexpected) me in my tiny-bathers:
Look at that form.
Gorgeous.
And this form? Double gorgeous. Thanks.
But, even if you don't think the tiny bathers are beautiful, the sunsets on Olkhon Island undeniably are.