Listvyanka (Листвянка), or to be precise a place called Tyekh uchastok (Тех участок). We’ve arrived here on Friday by mini-bus from the provincial capital of Irkutsk (Иркутск) which is one of the largest cities in Siberia. We’re back to AirBnbing it and are staying in a flat overlooking the Angara River’s glorious exit into Lake Baikal; although it’s actually the other way around: Lake Baikal empties into the Angara River. Our host had advertised the place as being in Listvyanka, but it’s not really: It’s about half an hour’s walk from the outskirts of it. I’m quite glad about that, as this is a quiet non-place: no tourists; nobody trying to sell you stuff.
When we arrived we were dropped off outside of a shop, which has become our local place for provisions. The young woman running it is very nice and Alex and her chat on about this and that. The main topic, as it often the case, revolves around questions such as “How is it you can speak Russian? Tourists can’t speak Russian” and “What in hell’s name are you doing here?”. When you head a little off the beaten track, people are often both surprised that you’re in their neck of the woods, and also welcoming in that non-cynical way that people are when their business isn’t built upon the daily influx of relatively wealthy, somewhat clueless, tourists.
Having stepped off the train from Ulaanbaatar, we spent a couple of days strolling around Irkutsk before heading out here. Irkutsk is a lovely city and feels very cosmopolitan, and is surprisingly so, given that it’s located several thousand kilometres from Moscow, and, from the point of view of looking at a map of the World in a sitting room in Oxford, is the back of beyond. But of course it isn’t. People are going about their business; buying their daily provisions; working their day jobs: It’s a normal town like any other.
Our host, Alexander, was very friendly and welcoming. The flat was decorated in quite a kitsch manner, and the best thing about it was the AppleTV box and big flat screen television so that we could continue to watch season two of The 100, which thus far we’ve been following on our tiny little notebook screen. Heading out into Irkutsk we tried, and failed, to visit a church and the Museum of Siberian Communications; the first because it appeared to be impossible to find (and we suspect doesn’t actually exist), and the second because we got the opening times wrong. Oh well, as we never knew they existed before we got there, it doesn’t really matter that we didn’t get to see them. We had fun catching a tram home. We didn’t figure out that rather than going directly to where we were staying it did one enormous loop of the suburbs of the city. Shortly after getting on Alex asked the woman next to her about whether we’d eventually arrive at U. Utkina, where we were staying, and we soon had the front half of the tram involved in discussing our predicament. The conductor agreed to let us know when we were in the vicinity of our stop and we made it home.
The next day we took a walk to the Central Market, which was teething with fresh fruit and vegetables, and all other such things. Definitely a thing to do, as the fresh produce offerings of any supermarket is really very poor, and not at all fresh. Then we packed our stuff and took a bus to where we’re now staying. The buses are small 15 seater vans, the fares are very low (120 roubles, about £1.40, for a 50km journey), and they’re pretty frequent. Mike worried about how to get it, but Alex was confident about it all, and we easily picked it up. Apparently it’s an official bus that’s not actually supposed to pick anyone up where we got on, but the driver likes to make an extra few bob on the side, and what’s the point of travelling the way with empty seats? So we get on, with lots of luggage and extra bags of food supplies we’ve bought in the Central Market. People on the bus stare at us and watch us struggle, make no effort to help us, nor make room for us, and look at us with dull expressions. We get on, and both Alex and I end up in conversations with other passengers. Alex’s is Tatiana, a grandmother Irkutsk who now lives in Listvyanka, and Mike’s is Ruth, who, it turns out, is from Reading of all places. Ruth’s been travelling around the World for eleven months, starting in Canada, and is now on her way back to a wedding in the Netherlands, followed by a new job as a teacher in Staines. We swap stories about Russian trains, Mongolian food, and life in the Thames Valley. We bid our farewells, wish each other a good life, and we get off in the back of beyond.
Arriving at the apartment in Tekhuchastok (a one horse town with a busy road running through it; flats on one side, corner shop and river on the other), I experienced a wave of anticlimax that’s becoming spookily familiar as we journey from one place to another. We haven’t stayed in a thoroughly unpleasant place with no redeeming features and yet, I almost always feel my heart drop into my trainers as soon as we cross the threshold. Why is this so? Could it be my immutably optimistic expectations, all too easy to disappoint? Could it be the unconscious acknowledgement that we are one stop closer to the end of the trip? (This second option is unlikely considering the physical yearning I have to be closer to family, and the cat).
We have a balcony, where we can look out onto the Angara and Baikal. Looking directly down one sees a small and slightly worn play park; the wooden see-saw looking like it’s seen better days; the merry-go-round something that the health and safety busybodies wouldn’t tolerate in a British playground for fear it would pose a risk to our overprotected little darlings. Earlier in the afternoon some mums were playing in the minuscule sandpit with their young infants. Later, at around 4pm, the older kids came back from school. They’d found a short piece of wood painted blue from somewhere and proceeded to spend the rest of the afternoon and evening playing a version of rounders. Watching them, I found the rules slightly hard to fathom, but it was clearly a lot of fun for them; they played on until dusk, at around 9.30pm. This small scrub of a piece of land with it’s weather worn entertainments, a length of old wood, and a tennis ball kept these kids entertained all this summer evening, and every evening since we arrived.
The last couple of evenings have involved, amongst other things, knuckling down to some serious planning and booking. We discovered that the ferry we were planning to take from Sakhalin Island to Northern Hokkaido isn’t running at the moment. That’s forced us to drastically revise our route and means that we will probably cross over to Japan on the conventional ferry route from Vladivostok (Владивосто́к) via South Korea, and into the Southern part of Japan, not far from Osaka. Mike is pretty upset about this. He was relishing the idea of the shorter ferry journey to Hokkaido and the road less travelled. I’m excited at the prospect of spending six hours in South Korea and the two day ferry ride to Japan. It also means that we can pick up the Trans-Siberian at Khabarovsk (Хабаровск) and see it to its terminus in Vladivostok.
While making these adaptations to the trip we realised that we are almost half way through our journey; the end is in sight, and the travelling has become a lifestyle in itself, one that feels almost normal: the Airbnb bookings, the packing (our frugal possessions are really all we need), the daily or not Internet contact with the people we love, the scratching around for decent vegetables to cook with. Yesterday, I asked a kind and helpful lady at the tourist information whether there was a shop in the Listvyanka area where we could buy a few more veggies aside from tomatoes and cucumbers. She smilingly asked what more vegetables could I want. As I write this Mike is cooking cannellini beans with onions and carrots again, which he does rather well. I fantasise about the fruit and vegetable lanes that we take for granted back home.
Russians as a stereotypical group are puzzling. They are helpful and kind, but at the same time rather grumpy and serious. We have met some who speak excellent English, and this offers a great opportunity to make sense of their psyche. Like today, while trying to decipher a ferry timetable, we were approached by a young woman offering to help. We got into a conversation and she and her friend, it turned out, were taking the same ferry as us across the mouth of the Angara to Port Baikal (Порт Бaйкал). She’s an English teacher in Irkutsk who has spent time in America and Ireland, and was really fluent English speaker despite her reticence. She told us how much she and her husband love travelling but how hard it is given the expense of visas and tickets, especially with the rouble being worth so little against the Euro and Dollar. The average Russian earns 30,000 roubles a month (about £320). That’s not too bad when a coffee usually costs about 60p, a tram journey 15p, and a meal out for two £3.00, but it doesn’t go far when a train journey to Moscow cost roughly £400.
A word about Lake Baikal: It’s enormous. The largest freshwater lake in the World, it contains over twenty percent of all the World’s fresh water (more than all the Great Lakes combined); it’s the World’s deepest lake at 1,642m; it’s also the World’s oldest lake at 25,000,000 years. We’d like to spend some time on it, but the hydrofoil service we were thinking of taking to Olkhon Island (Ольхо́н) about half way up the lake doesn’t kick into action until later in the week, and that’s a little bit too late for us. So we’ll have to satisfy ourselves with a trip in a glass-bottomed boat, a visit to the museum, and a trip up to nearby Bolshiye Koty (Больши́е Ко́ты) in a day or two, before we head back to Irkutsk again and then catch a plane up to Yakutsk for the next major leg of our journey.