On my train into Russia I shared a cabin with a Chinese girl who refused to speak to me until she found out I wasn’t American. “I hate America,” she said, “I hate war. I love China. I love Russia. I hate America.” She spoke at full volume to make sure the East-coast American slackers in the next compartment heard her. When I’d explained that I was English and also against war we came to a truce,and I spent the next five hours helping her to take photos of her pouting face.
After a protracted border crossing and a long sleep I arrived in Irkutsk,my first stop in Russia. A mile or so walk from the train station I found a bank where I could exchange some money, and a mile on from there I found a ludicrously expensive internet cafe where I was able to locate a hostel – which,it turned out, I’d walked past an hour earlier.
Irkutsk was a nice place, full of old wooden houses, and the hostel was cosy, friendly and full of interesting people, but the only real reason for my visit was to take the bus trip down to Lake Baikal, so the following afternoon I did just that. I was joined by a Japanese mother-and-daughter and a couple of Englishers who were staying at the hostel.
Lake Baikal is the deepest lake in the world, containing 20% of the world’s freshwater. In the summer you can go out in a boat and in the winter you can walk all the way over it. In April you can do neither, but though it had started to thaw, the view was still awe-inspiring.
There are no hostels in the lakeside village of Listvyanka, so instead we all spent the night in a guesthouse that smelled of old boiled mutton, run by an ancient babushka with gold teeth. After we’d seen the rooms she started talking to us and, unexpectedly, crying. With the help of a phrasebook we managed to translate the words “grandson”, “25 years”, “Irkutsk”, “English school”, “vodka”, “car” and “death”. Then she suddenly cheered up again and blessed us on the way out.
The next day, with the sights seen and the local fish digesting, we headed back to Irkutsk, and a day after that I set out on the longest train journey of this trip.
Irkutsk – a church…
…and one of the many wooden houses.