“Beer!” Exclaimed the man in the information centre. I was confused, I know we have sampled a fair few beers on our trip, but was he implying we should rehydrate ourselves with beer on our hike? I would prefer water.
“Beer, beer!” He said again.
Then the penny dropped. He meant bear! Wendy who I was with made a growling noise and mimed big fierce claws. “Yes, yes!” said the man “Beer!”
We had arrived at Listvyanka after a couple of nights in Irkutsk, a pleasant enough city, but the real reason for our visit to the area was to see Lake Baikal. Lake Baikal holds something like 20% of the worlds unfrozen fresh water. It is massive.
We had our hearts set on walking the trail between Listvyanka and Bolshie Koty, a small village that is inaccessible by road where less than 100 people live. You can only hike there or catch the daily hydrofoil. This was to be our Siberian retreat for a bit of peace and quiet. We left the information centre uncertain as to whether this was still a wise idea.
We walked along the shore talking to Wendy and Richard. They had been on the same train as us from Moscow to Irkutsk, we had parted ways in Irkutsk. They had gone straight to Listvyanka whereas we wanted a couple of nights to explore the city first. When we checked into our hotel in Listvyanka they had taken us by surprise when they strolled through the door. Not only that, but they were in the neighbouring room to us! They are doing a fairly similar trip to us so we had said jokingly we would see each other again in South East Asia, just didn’t think it would happen so soon!
We went back to the information centre at 5 to speak to the lady who we were told would be there by then and that she spoke good English. I asked her the usual questions about the permits, then, hesitating slightly, I asked, “what about the bear?” She looked confused. Wendy came to the rescue again with her bear impression. “Oh!” laughed the lady. “That’s no problem, the beer is scared of the people and they stay away from the path.”
This made us feel better so the walk was back on. Next challenge was getting a permit which all the information says you must have. We asked at the information centre where to get it from. It was the forestry office across the road. They told us to knock on the door if it was shut. This we duly did. Several times in fact over the course of the next few days. No response. A lady in the neighbouring building would gaze through the window at us, but no one came to the door.
Back we went to the information centre. This time they came with us. The same woman who has been staring at us and seeing that we had been trying to talk to someone in the forestry office was the woman who issues the permits.
Anyway, we were now set to go on our hike. We reached the trail head, walked past the sign telling you that a permit was needed and started climbing up through the forest.
And it went up.
By the time we reached the top I was a sweaty mess from all this exertion on what was turning out to be a beautifully sunny day. Even so, it felt great to be outdoors breathing in the pure clean air. This was our first taste of countryside on our travels. We caught glimpses of the lake below through the trees.
Then it was time to descend the hill through a series of switchbacks which brought us down to the valley floor and walking back towards the shore of the lake. We walked through long grass and there were hundreds of dragonflies flying around us as we passed through disturbing their peace and quiet. It was almost like something out of a film. I was too busy marvelling at this to take any pictures, sorry!
After that the hike more or less followed the shore of the lake. Periodically it would rise so you would be high up above it before dropping you down to shore level at the next beach. We had read you could drink the water straight from the lake, however filling the bottle up was more tricky than we had anticipated. The lake looked and acted more like a sea. The waves meant trying to fill your bottle could land you with very wet feet!
24km and 6 hours later and we arrived in Bolshie Koty. Hot and sweaty but feeling pleased with ourselves. We had only seen 5 other people in all this time!
Our hostel had a simply idyllic location. It was set slightly up the hill giving you a view of the village and the lake. Upon our arrival we were offered a home cooked dinner which we jumped at the chance of having. It was a good move. It was the best food so far in our journey. We liked it so much we took up the offer of breakfast and lunch the following day! We had delicious soups, homemade dumplings stuffed with cabbage and potato, Georgian pancake type things stuffed with cheese. They also did a mean herbal tea using herbs from the garden. I didn’t want to leave! The warm hospitality we received there, the beautiful location and the peace and quiet the village offered were compelling reasons to stay.
Unfortunately though we had to leave. Our train ticket to China was booked for the following day. We opted for the lazy return back to Irkutsk using the Hydrofoil rather than hiking back to Listvyanka. We probably should have hiked after all that amazing food though! If I was ever in the area again I would definitely allow much longer in Bolshie Koty than the short but amazing 24 hours we had there.
P.s. No one checked our permit to hike and we didn’t see any bears. We did see a chipmunk type animal, but that wasn’t very scary!