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.

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