It had rained the night before and the rouge pathways that serve as roads on Lake Baikal’s largest island were a sloppy, muddy mess.
A van in front of us filled with Chinese tourists — one of a dozen or so we saw during this early September Siberian tour — was stuck in a wheel-deep rut, teetering like a sailboat just a gravity-second from tipping. My husband and I sat smugly in a Russian jeep as hefty as our driver, Alexander, who gunned past the van with ease, determined to show us Okhlon Island, where stunning scenery intersects with graveyards and gulag ruins.
“Mr. Putin was here in October,” our guide Max explained as we gripped the roll bars, our bodies jerking like rag dolls along the bumpy trails. The Russian president arrived via helicopter, of course, skipping the dirt roads and ferry ride that brought us to the 270-square-mile island the day before.
“He promised to pave the roads, ” Max added.
And, with that, my heart sank.
Paved roads would bring more tourists to help the local economy, but if they could drive themselves, they would no longer need to hire local drivers, guides or four-wheeled vehicle. Also, civilized roads would remove some of the wildness of this Siberian gem, Lake Baikal, the world’s oldest and largest lake, so enormous that it has sponges, fish, and even seals, found nowhere else.
In the height of summer, there are traffic jams to catch the ferry, but the lack of tourists in early September made it easy for us to book this last-minute trip I have had on my list for years. Lake Baikal is too gigantic to capture in a single frame or thought. It holds one-fifth of the world’s fresh water, stretches 400 miles and has 1,300 miles of coastline. In the winter — yes, you can take this tour in the sub-zero temperatures Siberia is notorious for — the lake can freeze solid enough to drive across. Long ago, someone had the idea to take a train across. That did not work out so well.
Max, who was born in Irkutsk, the “Paris of Siberia,” picked us up in the city in a comfortable van a day earlier from the incredibly affordable, four-star Sayen International Hotel where we stayed. At the hotel, we indulged in a massage and sauna ($50 per person), the Russian babushkas shyly giggling as they guided us from place to place.
A 30-something guy with a bowl haircut and piercing blue eyes, Max made us feel safe immediately, as we drove off with this stranger as our Facebook friends made snarky comments about disappearing in Siberia, and the like.
Though he has traveled the route many times — lunch at a roadside cafe with soup and dumplings, photo op at the towering statue of the traveling man — he maintained a boyish enthusiasm. He shot photos with us of colorful prayer flags blowing in the stiff winds at nearly every stop, and gave us coins to leave for the spirits to bless our three-day, two-night trip to the island.
He was thrilled when I emerged swim-ready from behind the playfully painted bath house and jumped in the lake, despite the 60-degree air temperature. It was the bluest of blue sky days, and the equally blue water was chilly. Legend says that by taking a dip in Baikal, I added 25 years to my life.
I try to imagine how dull it would be driving down Putin’s paved road in a rental car with no guide to add perspective to the place.
We would not have found the secret cave, nor the window-shaped rock below a precarious knife’s edge rock, high above the lake where we posed for a photo and risked becoming one of those tourist statistics.
Nor would we have lingered as Max waxed philosophical while we looked across the expanse of water and mountains. He told us that some people choose to disappear into the vast Taiga surrounding much of the lake, finding their own piece of forest to dwell.
The highlight of the full-day island drive was when Alexander set up a folding table and stools in a meadow, and ladled out servings of fish soup. The government limits fishing for the endemic omul; though the whitefish is a staple for locals and delicacy for others, it is considered an endangered species.
Even so, it is not uncommon for fishermen take a risk to whet the appetite of tourists. We asked no questions as we indulged on tasty chunks of unnamed fish. The salad of cucumbers, tomatoes and dill came from the garden of Alexander, who spoke no English, his face creased with time. He topped off the meal with tea made from wild thyme picked from the meadow, and chocolate cookies.
It was the kind of moment when you feel you have been transported to a different place and time; these kinds of experiences are becoming rare these days as technology and travel seems to make the world smaller.
Some of the Russians we came upon were like Alexander — not unfriendly, but they rarely smiled. (Still, in Irkutsk, the young makers at a craft fair were thrilled to have Americans visit their booths, and they posed for Instagram photos, wearing big grins.)
“Why don’t Russians smile?” our guide asked, verbalizing the gruff, Russian stereotype. Life is hard. Temperatures drop to well below zero. “Winter is coming,’’ he said.
Locals found ways to communicate with us. At one point, Max translated as a tipsy stranger outside a countryside cafe kissed my hand and said that making connections between countries is about people, not politics.
Other times no translation was needed. The hurt was obvious on the face of the 70-something matriarch of our guesthouse when she saw we had left her eggplant salad untouched.
The next morning, she took me by the hand and walked me through her gorgeous backyard greenhouse. The tomatoes were voluptuous, and the eggplants a deep, shiny purple. She squeezed my hand. All was forgiven.
At one point during our tour, we sat on a rock by the lake, a spot near where Max takes tourists onto the ice, which often sparkles like blue diamonds in the sun. Though sub-zero temperatures can kill the unprepared, mountains around the lake protect the island from the snowiest of storms, and the sun shines frequently in the winter.
On our last night, we walked up the dusty road to the humble grocery store and bought a bottle of red wine for dinner. When the corkscrew broke, my husband struggled to uncork it with a screwdriver. A local man, the only other person dining there, did not need to understand English to sense the trouble. He walked over, and held the bottle, bracing his feet hard against the floor as my husband tugged. Success!
Sipping the wine from coffee cups, we toasted our good fortune and hoped Vladimir Putin would find other ways to keep busy rather than pave the roads of this special island. IF
IF YOU GO
The three-day excursion to the island, including everything: meals, transportation, accommodations and a guide was $323 per person. Contact Max Oksyutik at his website: https://baikalmajestic.com/en/ or on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/max.oxyutik
He is a knowledgeable, good-natured guide, and after the trip, he sent several Instagram-worthy photographs of me and my husband.
Excursions to the island and of Irkutsk (which is worth a day of sightseeing) can also be arranged through the modern, upscale Sayen International Hotel in Irkutsk: www.sayen.ru
There are daily direct flights from Moscow to Irkutsk International Airport. Full disclosure: An AirBus crashed there in 2006, killing 125 people. It was not the first deadly crash at the airport.
Book ahead. There are plenty of shops and restaurants in Irkutsk, but the accommodations and cafes are extremely limited on Okhlon Island. Don’t follow my bad example by waiting until two weeks prior. We were lucky.