In which we get whipped with birch leaves
Starring the Decembrist’s wives
We got off the train with a fair amount of relief at Irkutsk and set off for Port Baikal, a tiny little town on the south western shore of Lake Baikal. It is no more than handful of little wooden houses, a library (which blares out music for some reason – today Natalie Imbrulia) and a rough harbour the walls of which have been built out of rusting ships. People go about on motorbikes that have had little side cars added to them and there’s only one miniature shop.
It the first stop on the Circumbaikal Railway which was built around the turn of the century and still runs (steam only as its unelectrified).
We hired a boat for a bit of a trip round the Lake. It’s bitterly cold – even in the September. By January the lake will be frozen solid to two meters and they’ll dispense with the ferry nonsense and just drive straight over the top. The Lake is over 1,600 m deep and contains 20% of the world’s fresh drinking water plus some very tasty fish which we enjoyed smoked and still hot on the beach.
A swim in the 8C water is obligatory (screaming allowed) followed by a banya which really is a getting-to-know-you experience. You all sit in the wooden sauna chucking water onto the stove and when you can’t take it anymore you go into the adjacent room where someone throws a bucket of iced water on you, then back in you go to be beaten all over with a bunch of birch leaves.
Back in Irkutsk we went to the Decembrists museum which was fascinating. It is set up in the home of one of eleven wives who followed their husbands to Siberia when they were exiled for a failed and all but forgotten revolution attempt against Tsar Nicholas I. The revolution itself was insignificant in Russian history and had no marked impact on politics but they are remembered because of the transformation their wives produced in Siberia. They voluntarily followed their husbands despite being forced to leave behind their money, titles and children. More incredibly some of these women spoke almost no Russian and had never had to even comb their own hair. Yet in Irkutsk they set up home, grew vegetables, put on plays and concerts, hosted dinner parties that anyone could attend and taught local children Russian and English.
More pictures (you don't have to be on Facebook to see them): http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10150303176736058.343703.532581057&type=3&l=054394402f