We awoke late on Thursday morning after the – by this point – familiar experience of a night of sleep interrupted by officials demanding and returning our passports, foisting and retrieving customs declaration forms upon and from us, and searching our cabins. Our first stop once we crossed the border was the dreary little town of Naushki, where stray dogs roamed the platform, dissolute in the drizzle. We joked that the rain and gloom was a fitting introduction to the country.
Irkutsk to Listvyanka
The next morning we awoke in misty forests, interrupted by occasional clusters of ancient, crooked, cartoonish little wooden cottages. In Irkutsk, the hometown of my friend, veganspiration and Russian linguistic advisor Alissa, we met our new honcho Ksenia (or Xenia) on the platform and, after fulfilling the obligatory bureaucratic ritual of registration, headed straight for Listvyanka on the shores of Lake Baikal.
If you look at a decent map, Baikal is the biggest body of water you can see in Russia, just above Mongolia. It's the world's deepest and oldest lake, and it's also the largest body of freshwater on Earth. We were staying about ten minutes walk from the shore at Briz Chalet, an alpine lodge run by a Russian woman who does delicious home-cooked meals for all the guests every day.
At the lake
The first thing we did was head down to a fish 'n' chip shop (or the Russian equivalent) for some breakfast, where I made do with a bowl of chips and a disappointing plain salad. I'm not sure the little shop was equipped to deal with being inundated by twelve hungry Australians, a Briton, a Finn and a Russian all at once, so we spent a good few hours there waiting for and eating our meals. Then we planned to take a boat out on the lake, but had some time to kill, so Ksenia led us on a walk to a nearby beach, where we drank vodka in what she informed us was the traditional Russian manner: first you exhale, then shot the vodka, then inhale the scent of the pickle, then eat the pickle (see below):
After that we headed back to where the boats were waiting for us. Til got sprayed with a good dose of freezing lakewater when the motor started, and we sped over to where a small rock protrudes above the surface of the water so Ksenia could tell us the legends surrounding it. After that it was time to head to the 'warmest' part of the lake (a balmy 7 degrees Celsius) so we could all jump in.
After hastily exiting the frigid water and jumping back into our clothes Ksenia led us on a walk along the tracks we would've passed over the previous night on the train and to a little spring you could drink from, where George broke the hose and basically ruined it for everyone (haha). Then it was time to head back.
After we were all done, we met back on the beach and worked out what do to next. The boys (plus Heli) decided to go on a hike and chairlift ride up a mountain to go to a lookout over the lake, while the rest of the girls went shopping at some markets.
After stocking up on food for the impending four-day train trip to Moscow, the group split up into two for lunch. The vegetarians plus Anika and Emma went for pizza, while the other boys went to get meat dumplings. I was starving at this point, so I massively overate with a huge pizza to myself and like a litre of Pepsi. Bad choice.
After lunch we stopped off at one last souvenir shop, and while George was in the bathroom, someone stole Marshal Sanchez yet again.
Back on the train
We went and had a drink in a 'London pub-themed' bar where Ksenia gave us our tickets before heading to the station. She hugged us all goodbye on the train and left us to settle in, when somebody told George he should probably check her backpack for Marshal. Like the last scene of a terrible romcom, George went bounding to the train door to call out to Ksenia and check her bag. But they'd only been cruelly/hilariously toying with him.