In late October, after years of dreaming and a few frenzied weeks of planning, my friend and I went to Irkutsk. Our primary target was Lake Baikal, the deepest and most ancient lake in the world—to better appreciate it, we took a personalized tour of the lake and Olkhon, the largest island in it.
We got to see a lot of the beautiful Siberian landscape on our way to the lake. Here we stopped in a valley surrounded by mountains. Valley isn’t quite the right word, but the phrase our guide mentioned exists only in the language: a flat space encircled by mountains. Either way, it was beautiful and worth the climb up for this view.
We made it to the lake just in time to watch the sun set on the horizon. This area is one of the most famous tourist attractions on the island, as the large rock formations are thought to be spirits. Here we learned that Baikal has the second-cleanest natural water in the world (the first is Crater Lake), in part because the nearest city, Irkutsk, sits on the river Angara, the only river to flow from rather than into Baikal.
It was too cold to go swimming, but we at least put our fingers in. I accidentally did more than that—the waves lapped at the shore and soaked one of my shoes. Our guide assured us that swimming in Baikal was lucky, so in fact it was good I had submerged my foot. He was right: later that night we played Durak, the most famous Russian card game, and I tapped out first every time.
For our full day on Island Olkhon, we were driven around in a cute, old fashioned van. “A Russian car,” our driver told us, which meant we needed to slam the doors shut as hard as we could. We were grateful for its sturdiness: the “roads” on the island were the bumpiest we had ever experienced. We regularly smacked our heads on the sides and were tossed off our seats. The aesthetic of the van itself entranced us, and when they saw us taking pictures, both our driver and our guide suggested we stand on top.
To clarify: in this picture, my friend is “smoking” a chocolate wafer. Much to our amusement, we were frequently mistaken for husband and wife in Irkutsk, but on the island we faced no such scrutiny, because no one was there. Peak tourism season for Baikal is dead of winter and summer—late October and early November meant we were alone on the island. Even the permanent residents were on vacation. In some instances this was great: no crowds! In other instances, it meant we couldn’t get hot chocolate anywhere, either because the cafes were closed or because, as in one instance, they “didn’t want to work.”
We got lucky: the temperature hovered around freezing our whole trip. On our drive back into Irkutsk, snow flurries began to fall. The wind blew snow directly into our windshield, like we were driving into stars. Our time on the lake already began to feel very far away, but very close at the same time. I could still remember the water’s chill and the sandy beaches in which we wrote our names—a little mark on Baikal in honor of the mark it left on us.
By: Samantha Parrish
Program: Advanced Russian Language & Area Studies Program, Vladimir, Russia
Term: Fall 2019