The citroen – a beast with panache!
Unlike the quick border entry into Mongolia, the exit takes 2.5 hours – most of this time is spent running around to different officials, getting stamps, having our name recorded in multiple logbooks and having our car inspected multiple times. We even get recorded twice in one log book by two different officials, once as Stani Bohac, and three lines down as Bohac Stani. Once we have completed all the tasks, we still wait, for what I’m not sure, but the official says we can’t leave. We keep asking, and she finally says we can go. When we reach the Russian side, it’s like a breath of fresh efficient air. The officials are very thorough and check our passports and visas numerous times, but after completing their checks, we are allowed to enter Russia. We buy liability insurance at a bank in Kyakhta, a town near the border since it’s not available at the border crossing.
Then it’s on to the city of Ulan-Ude which we reach after about 250 km on decent roads and stay at Hotel Ayan a few km outside of the downtown area. It’s so great being back in civilization! We celebrate by eating a nice dinner at an Irish Pub in the city. Unfortunately the next day, Stani has stomach problems so we stay an extra night in Ulan-Ude so he can recover.
With Stani feeling a little better, we decide to head out of the city and on to our main attraction, Lake Baikal – the largest freshwater lake in the world. Before leaving the city, we can’t pass up the opportunity to see the world’s largest Lenin head statue in the center of town.
After leaving the city, we come to an unexpected ferry crossing. While we’re waiting, we witness a tractor pulling a car out of the water – hopefully our car will not see a similar fate – and meet two Germans who are also travelling with their own vehicle, a 1984 Toyota Land Cruiser. Sandra and Holger had been living in Perth, Australia and are now driving back home to a small town near Hannover, Germany. How cool! They could have just packed up and flown home, but instead they’re taking the long way home. We’re thrilled hearing their experiences of driving from Vladivostok to Ulan-Ude since we will be travelling that way and that we can share our experiences of Mongolia since they’re headed that way. We’re doing some of the same route, just in reverse! We decide to caravan at least to the first town on the eastern shore of Lake Baikal, Gremyachinsk.
The road is great and we’re happy to have new travelling companions. We stop for Sandra and Holger to fill up with gas. A few hundred meters after the gas station, their vehicle putters to a stop. Holger tries to start it without success. After much discussion and examination, Stani and Holger think that the problem is bad gas. Stani tows Holger back to the gas station and incredibly, Holger just happens to have a siphoning tube which he uses to remove about 60 liters of the bad stuff into the station’s containers. He exchanges the 92 octane gas for 95 octane and we all hope the result will be different. At first it doesn’t want to start, but after quite a bit of revving the engine, it finally does. Yeah…Lake Baikal here we come!
We continue to drive on so-so roads to Gremyachinsk and find a great spot past the town nestled in the trees on the shore of Lake Baikal. What a day! We make a fire and enjoy the sunset over Lake Baikal with our new friends.
Unfortunately several young locals who have consumed too much vodka decide that our campfire looks cozy too and nestle up and overextend their welcome. They finally leave, and we go to bed only to be woken up from a near sleep with their shouts of “Russian vodka? ” and “Kristina!” How did I become so lucky for them to remember my name? We waited in our tents and eventually they went away.
The next morning we were thrilled to discover a nerpa seal resting on a rock nearby our camp. I was really surprised to see the seal since I thought they lived further north and west, but here it was. So cute! These seals are unique because they are one of only two types of seals in the world that live in fresh water.
The nerpa seal taking a rest
View of Lake Baikal from our first campsite
We are enjoying being in such a beautiful location that we decide to stay a little longer and continue further north to Svyatoy Nos Peninsula. We had heard that it is one of Baikal’s most impressive sights with rocks jutting up from the water. The road to the peninsula is pretty bad – a lot of washboards, rocks, and construction - but we’re all still in good spirits when we reach our second ferry crossing. Next to the loading area, there are stalls with different kinds of local treats. One of the most common is a smoked fish called omul. Although we passed on sampling it, supposedly it tastes a lot like salmon.
Vendor selling omul
The second ferry ride
After more off-road tracks, we reach a stretch of campsites all beautifully positioned right on the water. We select one of the few remaining sites and set up our tents. Holger and Sandra do some vehicle maintenance, and Stani and I take a nice walk to scope out a possible hike for Stani for the next morning. The mosquitoes come out in full force, and I wonder what pest I’d rather be with, mosquitoes or drunk young Russians?
The next day, at the wee hours of the morning, Stani sets off for a hike to the highest point on the peninsula. Below is his description of the hike.
My alarm goes off at 4:00 a.m., I start walking from the tent at 4:35 and reach the trailhead that we found the night before at 5:00, where I start up the trail.
The trailhead is at the level of Lake Baikal (1500 feet) and the top, called Makarova, at 6100 feet. It is about a 4 mile hike from the trailhead to the top. For the first 30 minutes it climbs gradually in a nice forest path.
At about 5:30 the mosquitoes wake up but just as they get bad I rise to a higher elevation where the underbrush and trees are less dense and the mosquitoes are gone. Just about now the sun also rises and I can see some of the sunrise through the trees. It was chilly until now but now the temperature is perfect and there is a clear blue sky. The trail climbs steeply for the next hour. There is a trail sign that says 50% grade. I don’t know if this is accurate but the trail does just go right up the mountain.
After about 2 hours from the trailhead I reach a beautiful cross on a small peak. After this the trail is less clear but mostly still ok to follow. It either follows the ridge or the ridges right side. A couple of times it gets scary because the way becomes a boulder path with a pretty steep grade on one side and it isn’t clear if this is really the path or not. This photo shows the ridge and the lake behind it, looking back.
After a couple hours on the ridge (four hours total) I get to the top. I can see the sand bar, the lake in the sand bar, the bay where we camped on, much of Lake Baikal, the shoreline, even the shoreline on the other side of the lake. I also have a nice view of the plateau that I’m on. The weather is really nice.
After a short while I meet Tom and Marina. Tom is an American from Cincinnati and Marina is a Russian from Irkusk. They climbed the peak together yesterday, camped on top and are now coming back down. Tom came to Lake Baikal by the Trans Siberian Railway and did a 2-week trail building program on the northeast side of the lake. We hike down together and it is fun talking to Tom. It makes the descent seem to go much faster. Route finding is also much easier going down because you can see where the trail is for some distance ahead. We get down in 3 hours and after a quick swim in Lake Baikal I jump in the car and we hit the road.
While Stani is hiking, I sleep in. Sandra and Holger pack up and leave in the late morning and I relax on the beach reading my book, “The Life of Pi”. After Stani gets back, he jumps in the lake to cool off and then we start the drive back. We have to wait at the ferry crossing for 2.5 hours and end up camping near the lake again. The next day is our last glimpse of the beautiful “Blue Pearl”. We soak it in with a picnic lunch and then it’s back to the first ferry crossing and the city of Ulan-Ude for one more night. We enjoy the evening at a cozy restaurant on the main walking street where I try my first bowl of borsch in Russia – yummy and devour a delicious Greek salad.