Sent every way to Eastern Siberia! Our Passport explorer takes the snow route to Lake Baikal in a reindeer sleigh, a train, an old bus, a ferry, and a motorbike n’ sidecar.
By Sarah Fishburn Roberts
Photographs by Simon Roberts
I have fallen out of my Reindeer sleigh. Two reindeer have just run over me. It is minus 30 degrees Celsius. I can’t hear a thing because of the two hats I’m wearing, one of them a fox skin with two fox tails hanging down around my ears. Slava, our guide and Petro, the reindeer keeper, are laughing with delight at the sight of me beached on the snow. My husband also struggles to control his laughter, “How did you manage to fall off? We’re only going at 5 miles an hour!” At least the reindeer look apologetic.
This minor melodrama took place in the middle of a forest, about three hours outside of Yakutsk, in Eastern Siberia. Yakutsk is not the first destination that springs to mind when considering where to take your winter break but that’s the beauty of it. Foreign visitors are comparatively rare and whilst there are some tourist agencies with travel itineraries, they’re quite new, which means that the trips and excursions they offer are original and exciting, if a bit rough and ready. Instead of the usual route along the Trans-Siberian railway, from East to West, we spent a month travelling from North to South within the region of Eastern Siberia. We flew to Yakutst and then moved south by road, joining the Trans-Siberian only to go to Olkhon Island, on Lake Baikal.
Slava is a Yakut, one of the groups of indigenous Northern people who traditionally live by fishing and hunting. He works as a guide for ‘Taba’ a company whose main business is reindeer breeding but which also offers reindeer safaris, as well as fishing and hunting trips.
The Yakutsk people do not believe in any single god, but in the gods of fire, land, water and so on, and we were invited to leave a talisman for the gods. It was slightly surprising, however, to find not only the traditional coloured ribbons, but also money, business cards, bullet casings, cigarettes and a half eaten cheese sandwich. These offerings to the gods were all pinned to a couple of trees.
A reindeer safari in Eastern Siberia
We spent our first day and night in the village of Magarass and at the wooden home of Fedyor and Matryona, a very hospitable Yakut family. Matryona had laid on a luncheon feast to welcome us: bread and butter, some milky tea, vodka, raw fish, cabbage, and chunks of frozen horse’s liver, which my husband tried, dipped in salt. I enthusiastically helped myself to the contents of the other unknown bowl,and mid-chew, was informed that it was horse’s intestines.
After lunch we went on a ‘cultural’ excursion to a fox farm where foxes are bred and slaughtered for their fur. A fascinating insight into a quintessentially Siberian industry, this is not, however, recommended for animal lovers. The sight of two skinned fox lying on the floor was particularly disturbing. Returning home, we found Matryona wielding a large knife and using it to chop the head off a wild duck that was laid out on the kitchen table. At least we avoided drinking the reindeer blood, which we were told is delicious and nutritious.
Apart from an American hunter and a German couple, we were the first tourists to stay in Magarass and at the reindeer farm. We had two days sledding with the reindeers, and at the end of each day we enjoyed the warmth of the small banya, with some cold beers. We slept in a tent in the snow, complete with deerskin sleeping bags and a small stove to keep us toasty. This three day ‘cultural’ and activity-filled extravaganza cost $900 in total, which,if expensive, was money well spent — fun, unique and memorable.
The rest of Eastern Siberia awaited us. We took the M56 highway which cuts a vertical swathe through tundra and forest. To reach the road, we crossed an illegal ice road across the frozen Lena River. Despite the fact that the authorities had not yet sanctioned the road (the ice was not deemed thick enough) there was a procession of jeeps and ex-Army vans lumbering across the two kilometres of river. The underbelly of our ropey Toyota scraped alarmingly against the ice, but we made it across.
We joined the Trans-Siberian train to reach Sludyanka, a small town on the southern shores of Lake Baikal. From Sludyanka you can catch the Circum-Baikal Railway, which is a visually stunning journey around part of the lake. Lake Baikal is 636km long, 1637 metres deep, and larger than Belgium; The Circum-Baikal is an excellent way of feeling that you are actually experiencing a significant section of the lake firsthand, as the train makes its way carefully through numerous tunnels and over bridges alongside the water. Looking out form your window, you understand why Lake Baikal is called the ‘Pearl of Siberia.’ Remember to sit on the right hand side of the train in order to admire the pure blue of the lake’s waters and watch the sun setting over the snow-capped mountains. Although the railway line is precariously perched, seemingly clinging to the mountainside and hanging right over the water, the ride is not of the white-knuckle variety, being slow and ponderous. The great advantage of this is the chance to spend five unadulterated hours admiring the view, which is truly spectacular.
The frozen shoreline of Lake Baikal
You can if you want just stand on the lakeshore and admire the view, but we wanted to experience more of the lake, and decided to take a trip Olkhon, the largest island on the lake.
It takes eight hours on an old bus from Irkutsk to Olkhon Island, a journey which involves crossing the lake on a modest ferry at the narrowest point between the island and the mainland. The only village of any size is Khuzhir, where Nikita Bencharov runs a hostel, made up of small cabins. This is a visual treat, because the assorted buildings look as if they have been decorated by imaginative and unconventional children: pink sunflowers are painted on one wall, life-size scarecrow-like figures with metallic eyes and ears and red hair are sitting having a tea party on another wall. The hostel only has electricity for a few hours every night (while the rest of the island is in darkness), but there’s a great banya, and the food, prepared by the very friendly locals, is delicious and includes lots of fresh fish, caught in the lake that day.
A beautiful view of Lake Baikal
Grigory Karandin is an English and German-speaking guide who works for Nikita. He moved to the island several years ago with his young family in search of peace, beauty and a slower pace of life. Olkhon has not disappointed him. Entertained by his enthusiastic commentaries, we drove along the coast to the beautiful north of the island, Cape Khoboi, where, seen from the cliffs, the lake seems more like an ocean. Next he took us to Lover’s Cove, where, according to local lore, young couples are sent “to enjoy nature” if they are having trouble conceiving children.
We also made use of Gregory’s motorbike and sidecar and chugged across the hills to an absolutely spectacular, although nameless, point on the south of the island, before returning to Khuzhir via the fairytale forests that cover about half of the island, through snowy glens and gleaming icy pools. Everything is delightfully unspoilt and rugged and being late November, we were the only foreigners on the island. During July and August, an astonishing 40,000 tourists visit Olkhon and whilst there is beauty enough for everyone, our out-of-season visit was very peaceful.
Eastern Siberia is about as far as you can get from Moscow, and still be in Russia. The trip is a long one, but the reward is that you can see unique aspects of Russian life and above all look in wonder at the natural beauty still unseen by most other travellers. And of course there are those lovely reindeer.
HOW TO GET THERE
Flights from Moscow to Yakutsk:
Domodedovo Airlines flies daily at 16.35 Cost: $200 one way
Flights from Moscow to Irkutsk:
Aeroflot and Transaero fly several times a day to and from Irkutsk Cost: $225 one way
To Olkhon Island:
Buses go daily from Irkutsk bus station at 10 am, cost 290 roubles. Eight hours journey. Minivans can also be hired, from outside the bus station, cost approximately 600 roubles per person. Five hours journey. Note. Lake Baikal freezes in January, and thaws in May. In the summer months there are ferries operating from the mainland, and in winter it is possible to drive across the ice.
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel Lena 8, Prospekt Lenina
677000 Yakutsk Tel: +7 (4112) 424807 Email: email@example.com
Natalia and Nikita Bencharov 8, Kirpichnaya Street, Khuzhir 666137 Olkhon Island www.olkhon.info
Downtown Hostel Apt 12, Building 12
Stepana Razina Street Irkutsk
Tel: +7 (3952) 684248/334597
Natasha and Sergei Arfanidi
Apt 14, 17 Lenin Street 664003 Irkutsk
Tel: +7 (3952) 334418
You have your own room in a large well-maintained apartment, owned by the above family. Price includes
a substantial breakfast.
To go on a reindeer safari, or on a hunting or fishing trip:
20, Ordjonikidze Street 677000 Yakutsk Republic of Sakha
Tel: +7 (4112) 340156
For guided tours on Olkhon Island
37 Baikalskaya Street Khuzhir 666137 Olkhon Island Tel: +7 (902) 512901