Lake Baikal at Listvyanka

Saturday, September 22, 2018
Listvyanka, Irkutsk Oblast, Russian Federation
It was 6pm, more than three hours later than the scheduled arrival time, when the train pulled in into Irkutsk railway station. The bustling train station is directly across the Angara River from the main city center.  While buses and trams were plying with regularity, the routes were not easily discernible and with no official taxis in sight, we elected to re-engage with private car drivers who we had initially spurned. A gruff young man threw out a number, which when we countered by halving, and he readily accepted. Our hotel was located in a nice leafy neighborhood close to Theater Kukol (or Puppet theater), about a 15 minute walk from the historic center.  
With our late afternoon sightseeing plans thwarted (we decided to postpone Irkutsk sightseeing for when we returned to town after a day in Listvyanka), we set out to explore the immediate neighborhood and find dinner. We were directed to “130th quarter”, a lively pedestrianized zone with buskers, street performers and abuzz with restaurant goers. After failing to discern anything suitable from pictures accompanying the menu in a few places, we zeroed in on a Chinese restaurant - ever reliable to bring in the goods! 
Next morning, we boarded a marshrutka from outside the Central Bus Station for the one hour drive to the small lake-side village of Listvyanka. (Marshrutka is a term we are very familiar with from our sojourn in Central Asia a few years ago. Essentially a mini-van with a fixed route, they depart once they are full.)  Listvyanka lies on west side of Lake Baikal where the Angara river empties into the lake. It provides convenient access to activities on the lake and is also popular with day trippers from Irkutsk.
Shaped like a banana, Lake Baikal is 636km from north to south but only 60km wide.  Formed by rifting tectonic plates, evidently it is gradually becoming deeper as the plates separate and will eventually become the earth’s fifth ocean (or so they predict), splitting the Asian continent. In the meantime it is the world’s deepest lake - 1637m near the western shore. It contains nearly one-fifth of the world’s fresh, unfrozen water - more than North America’s five Great Lakes combined. 
As one might expect, 80% of the flora and fauna in the lake is endemic. Most well-known among them are - the lovable black-eyed nerpa (freshwater seal) and salmon-like omul fish (which is said to be delicious smoked).  There were two nerpariums in Listvyanka where trained nerpas were on display (we visited neither). We strolled into the local market where a large number of stalls were selling the famed smoked omul, splayed open and kept in place with toothpicks.
It was a gorgeous sunny day and we did the most touristy thing on offer first - a boat ride on the lake. The boat dropped anchor on a narrow pebbly beach a few kilometers away along the shore giving us time to stretch our legs (and fling flattened stones at the water to get them to skip).  A trail on the southern end of town climbed high up the hillside offering panoramic views, though the solar observatory (which was our destination) was not open at this time. A long pleasant walk along the lakeside promenade up to mouth of the Angara River took up most of the afternoon.  With a hotel room that had large picture windows that directly looked out into the lake, we saw no reason to venture out again in the evening.  
In Russia, hotels are required to issue “registration” to foreigners accounting for the nights spent there. We were already familiar with this practice, again from previous Central Asia experience and were meticulous about collecting these as they are checked when exiting the country. With the Cyrillic alphabet become increasing familiar to us, M immediately spotted a spelling mistake (Cyrillic!) in V’s name, sending our Uzbek host back to the computer to re-generate the documents which he did without complaint.
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