Together with it’s sister ship the Baikal, they were commissioned as the Lake Baikal section of the Trans-Siberian Railway before the lines that run south of the lake were constructed. While passengers boarded the smaller Angara, the train boarded the much larger Baikal – yep, you read that correctly – the top deck of the Baikal was kitted out with 3 sections of track to take the full train in one crossing.
Sadly, the Baikal is now in the Baikal as it sank some time ago, but the Angara, which had partially sank too, is now restored and moored in the Angara river and is a hidden gem of a museum, especially for us because both ships were designed and their hulls manufactured in my home town of Newcastle upon Tyne, England!
Wey-aye man, bilt on the toon! We wa geet prood!
The museum’s exhibition is a treasure-trove one-room affair, chocked full of maps, diagrams and news-story clippings charting the sister ships’ inception, transportation to and assembly in Listvyanka, their use as transport ships and ice-breakers, to their sinking and the subsequent resurrection of the Angara.
The single-room exhibition on the steam-ship Angara
The route of the hulls from Newcastle to Listvyanka, accompanied by 5 ship-workers from Newcastle, where the ships were assembled. Everything arrived, but there were delays.
After we’d absorbed as much of the exhibition as we had rain in walking there, we excitedly tried to explain to the curator that we were from Newcastle too, but his nonchalant response gave us the impression that every other visitor he sees is a Geordie.
Mr “Toon-Army” curator then locked up the exhibition and led us to the back of the ship, took us down some stairs inside, and pointed to a maintenance ladder that led further down.. leaving us to explore the engine room on our own! sweet!
The “small” forward engine, used to drive a bow-screw that displaced the water underneath the ice, making it easier to break
Julie climbing through the various maintenance levels between the two huge main boilers
Dials, knobs and levers aplenty
Me posing next to one of the two huge boilers
An awful day weather-wise, brightened by a previously unbeknownst tie to where our two year trip started :o)
If you haven’t been to Russia then you might have a preconception about how Russian people are. Cold? Reserved? Rude and unhelpful? That was along the lines of what we thought before we came here.
Admittedly, there is sometimes a lack of awareness of other people – we’ve learnt not to follow too closely when going through swing doors because people don’t look behind themselves and just let go, so if you’re not careful you get a door in your face… But when we’ve had contact with individuals, we’ve been constantly amazed at the level of generosity and friendliness.
The most recent example was on Wednesday in Ulan Ude. Andrew needed the knee of his trousers mending (don’t laugh, but he fell off his bike!) so we found a small clothing repair shop. We explained to Nadya, the seamstress, that we don’t speak Russian, but it was fairly obvious what needed to be done and, to our surprise, she started straightaway. She spoke a little English and asked us some questions as we waited, but pretty soon she wanted help to interrogate us, and enlisted Nikolay, a used mobile phone salesman who shares the same unit, and speaks excellent English (although he claims to be a bit rusty). We chatted for about 15 minutes while Nadya stitched up the tear at the same time as chipping in with the conversation. When it was all fixed, Andrew asked how much and was told that it was a present for us. So, we got to have a chat with lovely, interesting people, the trousers were expertly mended straightaway (we expected to drop them off and collect them in a few days), and she didn’t want us to pay for the repair. I can’t imagine that happening in the UK.
Julie, Nikolay, Nadya and the mended trouser leg, and Andrew
Another great experience happened in our hostel in Krasnoyarsk, we were waiting in the common room to use the kitchen after a Russian guy who was making a large pan of amazingly aromatic soup. Moving around him as he was finishing, I indicated that I thought it smelt great and before we knew it he had dished us up a bowl each! His English was about as good as our Russian which made conversation very limited but he told us it was Solyanka and I managed to work out all the ingredients so I might have a go at recreating it when we get home.
EDWARD’S SOLYANKA RECIPE
Russian sausage – something like a Matteson’s sausage
All diced and cooked in stock (?). Serve topped with a dollop of mayonnaise.
We’ve had several nice experiences on the train. Andrew had a long, sign language assisted discussion in a mixture of broken English, Russian, and German with Vasily, a salesman. And on the train from Krasnoyarsk to Severobaikalsk, we watched the woman in the next compartment expertly crochet and stitch together a small toy. We were very pleased with ourselves when we worked out that it was an owl, and absolutely gobsmacked when, on finishing, she got up and presented it to Julie. We hardly exchanged a sentence with her, and still don’t know whether she intended to give us it from the start, or gave it because she saw our interest. His name is Sova (Russian for owl), and he now lives in my backpack.
Andrew and Vasily
Sova and his creator
These are just a very few of the many kindnesses that we’ve experienced over the last 10 weeks of travel through Russia. Not many Russians speak English, many not even a few words and so without their patience, generosity and good humour over our mangled attempts at Russian and creative sign language, our journey would not have been nearly as easy or as pleasant.
Six hours from Irkutsk by local bus and a small ferry ride is Olkhon, the largest island on Lake Baikal. Tell anyone your plans include visiting Olkhon and they’ll ask if you’re staying at Nikita’s Homestead – it seems the two are synonymous – and with good reason as Nikita is widely credited for almost singlehandedly establishing Olkhon as a destination for visitors.
Nikita’s Homestead is on the outskirts of the main Olkhon town of Khuzhir, near the Shaman Rock, which sounds idyllic, and in many ways it is – for us, it was so nice not to have to think about shopping, cooking and washing up as all the meals are included, plentiful and tasty. Our spacious room was cosy and quiet, and there was always someone eager to strike up a conversation and share their wonderful (and sometimes scary!) travelling tales.
The food at Nikita’s. Clockwise: Breakfast of pancakes, porridge, fried eggs and tea; Lunch of two courses, soup or salad with grilled or fried fish (and this time with spaghetti), and tea; Dinner of beetroot and carrot salad with fish, pasta with giant meatball and lots more tea
Unfortunately, and it may just be that we were there early in the season and the cogs of tourism had yet to start turning, we felt Nikita’s suffered from a lack of organisation and openness. Literally in some instances – timetables said things should be open and they weren’t. Sadly, there was little orientation, description or explanation upon arrival, and while the excellent staff on reception answered our questions, sometimes you just don’t know to ask. For example, we didn’t know there were laundry services until 3 days in, and even after asking 2 different people we still couldn’t find the library! Minor criticisms aside, we had a great time there.
Excursion to the northern tip of Olkhon
Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads
We thought the bus to get to Olkhon was bumpy, but that was just the prelude to what we later nicknamed the “Russian Rollercoaster” – the trip from Khuzir to the northern tip of Olkhon island in a UAZ-452 Russian van.
The day trip takes in a number of stops up the western coast of the island, including Crocodile Rock, a human-like face in the cliffs of the mainland, and the site of an old fish processing gulag that continued to operate after prisoners stopped serving time there.
Western coastline of Olkhon. Clockwise: “Crocodile Rock”, The “Face of the Island” on the opposite shore, Old jetty outside a now dismantled gulag fish processing factory, Julie and “The 3 Brothers”, the view south from “The Three Brothers”, and Andrew testing his nerves on a natural window in the rock
At Khoboy Peninsular, the most northerly point, you’re afforded wonderful views from the cliff-tops of the lake and the coves below.
Shamanism prayer ribbons at Khoboy Peninsular – the northern-most tip of Olkhon Island, Lake Baikal, Siberia.
While we were taking in the views, our driver had been setting fire to a bucket of fish-soup. Mmm, lunch too!
Olkhon delicacy, “Ukha” (fish soup), server up with cheese sarnies, tea, and lots of sweet biscuits
The return journey takes in the little village of Uzury which is the only village on the east coast, has only solar power, and is home to weather and seismic stations, and Mount Zhima, the highest point on the island at 1274m.
A trek and a dip
It is said that swimming in Lake Baikal adds 5 years to your life. Given that at the height of summer, the lake reaches a temperature of just 9C, and it wasn’t the height of summer, it took determination and willpower / complete disregard for personal safety* (delete as appropriate) for us to venture into waters that felt like 3 or 4 degrees..
Braving the cold water of Lake Baikal in June – I don’t know why I’m smiling, I can’t feel my feet anymore..
We both waded in, Julie got up to her thighs, and I made the quickest dunk I could to get my head wet. It. Was. Cold.
Good thing it was a lovely day, we had plenty of time to warm through as we trekked back to Khuzir.
Clockwise: One of the many sandy/pebbly beaches on the western shoreline, cows stopping for a drink in the lake, the beach we took a dip from, view through the forest on the way home
Cycling (with a bit of pushing)
One of the guides had recommended taking bikes through the forest to the eastern coast of the island, and we thought that would be a good idea – we’ve already cycled around lake Shartash when we were in Yekaterinburg.
We hired our bikes in Khuzir instead of from Nikitas (as they were almost half the price), but they were insistent we took a southerly looping route via small lakeside lake (!) on the western coast. Armed with a small laminated satellite map with our route clearly marked in fluorescent yellow, we headed off in the prescribed south-easterly direction to the inconspicuously named ‘view point’. Now, had we stopped to think what that meant, we would have realised that view points typically look out over a vista, which implies height. Starting from the village, that meant uphill. A lot of uphill..
Even in the lowest gear, some parts were tough going. In the end we both resorted to getting off and pushing.
We made it to the viewpoint, and stopped for a much needed rest. The view wasn’t too bad either..
Panorama of Khuzir, Olkhon island, Lake Baikal, Siberia
The next section was uphill too and we started to think we wouldn’t make it round in the described 6 hours, but shortly thereafter we hit a lengthy downhill section and the fun began – yeehaw!
Not quite brave enough to freewheel it all..
The lake was just past the halfway point, and the last part consisted of the undulating main ferry road back to Khuzir. Despite it being the main road, the traffic was sparse which meant we could use the smoothest part, but at times the smoothest part was bumpier than a cattle grid designed for elephants.
Spotting a marmot-like creature in the verge, I tried to stop my bike to take a closer look, and forgetting that the front brake was a lot better than the back, I locked up the front wheel on the sandy-gravel road, which immediately skidded out from under me, sending me knee-first into the ground. With a small tear in my trousers and and a smaller scrape on my knee, I dusted myself off more embarrassed than injured, how long have I been riding bikes?!
Despite my little stumble, the bikes passed an impressive multi-point inspection by a young version of the censoring twins from the movie Good Morning Vietnam. We checked our watch – we’d made good time, 5 hours and 30 minutes. Probably not the fastest, but not the slowest either :o)
Severobaikalsk is at the northern tip of Lake Baikal – the oldest and deepest lake in the World. Our guidebook says that if all the rest of the world’s drinking water ran out tomorrow, Lake Baikal could supply the entire population of the planet for the next 40 years.
Our feet in Lake Baikal. The water is safe to drink, but maybe not the bit we’ve just stepped in..
The town itself is just a little older than us, as it was established to support the construction of the Baikal Amur Mainline (BAM), which is a second, parallel northern line to the Trans-Siberian railway. The town is quite a small place, not particularly pretty to look at, but its dominating, uniform, tiled apartment blocks are specially designed to withstand both permafrost and earthquakes up to 9 on the Richter scale.
Top of the recommendations in our guidebook for staying in Severobaikalsk is the Baikal Trail Hostel, run by the “ultra-helpful, English-speaking Anya” – and their description is spot on. Anya also has quite a connection to Severobaikalsk as we later found out – her parents helped build it and she grew up here: her Mother, Rada, was a bridge engineer, and her Father, Evgeny, worked on the apartment blocks.
Day trip to Baikalskoe
The apartment blocks long complete, Evgeny is now working on a series of trails and walks with the help of volunteers towards the lofty aim of someday encircling the entirety of Lake Baikal.
The little wooden village of Baikalskoe is a 1 hour, bumpy local bus-ride south from Severobaikalsk, and is home to a small jetty and a 14km trail along the undulating western coastline of Lake Baikal.
A cow crosses the main road in Baikalskoe village. The trail heads up the hill beyond the church
The trail contains some lovely wooden sculptures of animals; a cow, reindeer, fox, and after recognising a sable, we thought they were getting quite exotic and we wondered what might be next, a woolly mammoth or dinosaur perhaps? The very next sculpture, I kid you not, was a pterodactyl.
The trail took us up and down, through open field and forest, cliff-top and pebbled beach, each with spectacular views of the countryside and the lake
Us on Cape Ludar, just north of Baikalskoe village
The water is clean enough to drink, and the air must be the cleanest we’ve ever seen as the forest floor is carpeted in various flavours of lichen. I specifically said flavours because there’s a moss-like lichen that reindeer find very tasty!
One of the many lichens
Before we got the return bus, Anya had arranged a traditional fish meal for us with the locally famous Gertrude and her family. Gertrude makes little fish pies that are a lot like pasties, and sells them in the village. They were so good that we think this is the reason she’s so well known. Dinner consisted of freshly made fish soup, fish pie, and homemade berry crumble fingers. Yum. Gertrude and her granddaughter Anya made us feel so welcome in their home.
Cows waiting patiently for the bus back to Severobaikalsk
Trek to the Gulag mica mining camp
Close by Severobaikalsk are a couple of abandoned gulag mining camps. En-route to the northern one, and accompanied by Pavel who discovered it, our guide Rada stopped frequently to point out many of the local monuments to the construction of the town and the railway. After a team of tunnel-builders completed each of the 4 BAM tunnels nearby, they constructed a monument to their achievement and threw a party.
BAM Tunnel monuments, and Julie, Anya and I making silly shapes..
The trek to the gulag camp was overgrown but very pleasant. While the body treks forward, the mind wanders backward, imagining what it must have have felt like to be one of the 200 bourgeoise exiled to Siberian manual labour, walking this very path a lifetime ago.
Only foundations remain of this former mica mining gulag camp
Only foundations remain of the camp’s buildings, the odd pan and mining wagons lie scattered about the place, as if the camp was suddenly liberated, leaving the forest to slowly reclaim what was once a man-made clearing.
Remains of the kitchen building, containing giant pots
After a spot of lunch, the climb continued albeit at a steeper gradient to the mica mines themselves. We visited the entrance to 3 mines, all of them flooded, their entrances collapsed and strewn with small trolleys used to transport the mica.
Mica mine entrances, at one of the gulag camps near Severobaikalsk
Geothermal hot springs
Because of the seismic activity in the area, there are a number of geothermal hot springs and given Julie’s love of saunas, banyas and all things hot, we had to check them out..
Enjoying the (very) hot springs in Goudzhekit
We really enjoyed the springs. The friendly attendant topped up the waters from the source until it got almost too hot to sit in them!
And so to our Severobaikalsk round up..
What photo takes you right back to Severobaikalsk?
When Lake Baikal starts to thaw, it does so in icicle-like shards, which make a distinctive glassy sound as they chink together with movement of the water and the wind.
A couple of weeks before we arrived, a suspected earthquake created a large wave on the lake, which deposited these icicles on the northern shore. It is a very rare spectacle, and one which all the locals came to see and climb!
Us on the ice crystals at the top of Lake Baikal. Photo credit: Rada ;)
Summarise Severobaikalsk in three words.
Deceptive – at first glance, there doesn’t seem a lot to occupy your time with, but after a cup of tea with Anya you will be wishing you had budgeted more days in Severobaikalsk because there are so many varied and interesting things to do
Unspoiled – it’s a small place, with great views of the lake from trails, beaches and cliff-top forests in and around. We didn’t see any other tourists, nor much in the way specifically for them
Railway – built in Soviet times to support the construction of the BAM, the town has that functional, built-to-last quality about it. The only building that stands apart, strangely, is the very modern looking train station!
You really know you’re in Severobaikalsk when…
You think you’ve walked two or three blocks, but really you’ve only walked one – the apartment blocks are numerous and well spaced out.
What one item should you definitely pack when going to Severobaikalsk?
We were there in tick season (May-June), and even if you’ve had the vaccinations, you’re still not 100% safe from catching encephalitis, so anti-tick spray and vigilance are essential if you intend to go trekking.
On Thursday, after a slightly stressful morning and a very long and bumpy ride in a minibus, we arrived at Nikita’s Homestead on Olkhon Island just in time for dinner. After a tasty meal surrounded by more tourists than we’ve seen in the last two months we decided to go for a walk. Just behind the complex of guest rooms we found a clifftop path and an incredible view…
Shaman rock in the bay at Khuzir, Olkhon Island
We sat on the cliffs watching the sun set, and were rewarded with beautiful clouds