The Irkutsk and Baikal areas abound in locations that highlight its cultural and environmental heritage. Below are a sampling of some of the trips that SRAS groups have taken in the past as part the cultural package offered with SRAS Programs in Irkutsk. Note that not all trips are taken each session and not all trips that may be taken are listed here. This is only a sampling of past travels.
Ulan Ude: Buryat and Old Believer Cultures
By Katya Grigerman (Fall, 2019)
As part of our SRAS program in Irkutsk, our group took a trip to Ulan Ude, a city about an eight hour train ride east, on the other side of Lake Baikal. Ulan Ude is the center of Buryatia, a republic within Russia that is the homeland of the Buryat people. The Buryats are native Siberians with a culture with deep Mongolian, Buddhist, and Shamanistic roots.
After leaving Irkutsk at 1am on Saturday morning, we spent the night on the train. We were all in coupe (compartments of four each), and my friends and I stayed up talking and playing cards (in the true Russian fashion). After getting a few hours of sleep, we arrived in Ulan Ude, and went straight to breakfast and our first excursion.
We drove about 40 minutes outside the city to the Ivolginky Datsan, one of Russia’ most important Buddhist monasteries. The entire compound has seven temples, a Buddhist university, houses, and an art museum. We were fed a really tasty meal that included pozy (Buryat dumping’s), plov, cucumber tomato salad, and really tasty sweet crackers inside a yurt made by the people who live at the monastery compound. After lunch, we headed back to the city, and had some free time for dinner and relaxing.
We were staying at a hostel called Clean Hostel that was right next to the train station, and about a 15 minute walk to the center. As the name says, the hostel was very clean and comfortable! The girls all stayed in one room, and the boys were in a different part of the hostel.
The next day, we drove about an hour away from Ulan-Ude, and we climbed up to a beautiful viewpoint. After this, we drove another 15 minutes to a small, local museum that features many of the everyday items that people have used in Siberia. Our tour guide was incredibly funny and passionate about the information.
We then drove about another 20 minutes to an Old Believers village. The Old Believers are an Orthodox faith that broke away from the Russian Orthodox Church to maintain the liturgy and rituals of the Church as practiced before reforms put into place during the 1600s. Many immigrated to Siberia or even to other countries to find the freedom to continue practicing their religion as they thought proper.
The small village is called Za Baikalom (which literally means “on the other side of Baikal” or “behind Baikal”). There, we were greeted by older woman in traditional dress who showed us around their little village. We saw how people used to live, and how they spent their daily lives today. We first saw a church. It was fairly small, but the inside featured a lot of beautiful, original artwork and icons. Photography was not allowed, and the girls had to cover themselves before entering, like in most Orthodox churches. The older woman was joined by several others and they fed us probably one of the most amazing lunches I have ever had. There were blini, scones, veggie salad, Olivier salad, eggs, and a potato and beef stew. There was also halva (a nut butter dessert), but instead of being hard and flakey like it usually is, it was like a jam spread. I must have eaten half the bowl, it was so good! During lunch we were poured a pink liquid in a small glass, which I quickly discovered was cамогон (samogon), a traditional Russian homebrewed alcohol. This one was made with berries – so just imagine drinking a small glass of berry flavored vodka, and there you go.
After lunch came what has become one of my favorite memories. The women of the village, all in traditional dress, performed traditional songs, and even pulled some of us up to dance. Then they asked if anyone wanted to volunteer to dress up. I did and they had me put on a traditional dress like theirs. Then, they brought up a guy from the program, and had him also dress up.
Very quickly I realized that this was going to be a mock wedding. Following old customs, the guy had to pay a dowry and then we would be married. If anyone is curious, I am apparently worth only 100 rubles (about $1.50), (in reality I would have been worth more, but the guy probably didn’t want to give more for the spontaneous donation than this). Even so, I would be considered an old bride in the old days – since most girls got married around 14, and might have around 20 children during their lives, the women told us. The whole event was incredibly comical and I couldn’t stop grinning the entire time. We danced, we sang, and all was merry!
After getting back to the city, we had some time to walk around the center before we went to get dinner. I was able to see the giant head of Lenin, which was one of the things I was most excited for as it is perhaps the one landmark that Ulan Ude is really famous for! The head stands at 7.7 meters (25 feet), and is the largest head of Lenin in Russia!
As our Ulan Ude trip came to a close, we watched the sunset as we started to head back to the train for our journey back to Irkutsk.
Bolshoe Goloustnoe: A Rustic Side to Lake Baikal
By Julie Hersh (Spring, 2017)
Bolshoe Goloustnoe (Большое Голоустное) is a very small town approximately two hours outside Irkutsk by car. It’s right on Lake Baikal—as in, you can wake up, leave your hotel, and walk directly onto the lake. (Or into the lake, if it’s not winter.)
I did just that my first morning in Bolshoe Goloustnoe—breakfast wasn’t ready yet, so I walked onto the frozen lake and just stood there for a while, looking at the tiny Orthodox church a few meters off, the mountains in the distance, and the lake stretching out forever and ever. It had snowed in the night, so I cleared a patch of ice to look through, hoping to see a nerpa (seal) face looking back at me, but it seemed empty. I lay down on the ice for a few minutes, taking in the Baikal air and the silence. It’s a good way to start a day.
The main (and I think only) attraction in this town is Lake Baikal, but it’s quite an attraction. Our coordinator had a bunch of local connections, so we were able to go ice fishing (no one caught anything, but we all enjoyed peering down into the depths of the lake, past the meters of ice) and then make ukha (уха, a traditional Russian fish soup) and drink samogon (самогон, a Russian home-brew) right next to the lake. (If you do go ice fishing, insist on taking part in the local tradition of having a shot of berry liqueur right there on the ice. Several of us missed out!) Our host made the soup over a bonfire outside, and when it was done, he stuck the end of one of the pieces of firewood right into the soup; it gave it a smoky, surprising taste.
Later, we hiked up a small mountain/large hill and got a panorama of the town and lake, and then spent some time wandering on a different patch of ice. It may not sound interesting, but somehow the ice of Lake Baikal constantly changes colors, and it’s endlessly fascinating and mysterious. You feel like you’re on a different planet.
The next day, we had a trip over the ice to Sandy Bay (Бухта Песчаная), well known in particular for its trees whose roots have slowly become visible as the sand falls away. We were driving over the ice for three or four hours on the way there, stopping to look at the ice, jump around, climb a giant rock. (We also had to get out of the car several times so it could drive over giant crevices—our driver would rev up the engine and drive over at full speed, I guess to decrease the likelihood of falling through the ice.)
The beach itself is lovely, of course, with its alien-like trees, but it’s the journey there that’s really extraordinary—being on the middle of the lake with absolutely nothing visible in any direction except ice, mountains, and more ice.
Bolshoe Goloustnoe is everything I imagined when I thought of coming to Siberia (and more; I could never have pictured frozen Lake Baikal as it actually is). It’s definitely, definitely worth a visit.
Bolshie Koty: Environmental History Up Close
By Alaina DeLeo (Fall, 2017)
Bolshie Koty is a village located on the Western shore of Lake Baikal about 12.5 miles North of Listvyanka. There are several ways to reach it by either boat, train, or on foot from Listvyanka. As a part of the SRAS fall cultural package we went by boat to this stunning village. We took a small boat along the Angara River and Lake Baikal while learning about some of the environmental history of the former Trans-Siberian railway, Listvyanka, and Port Baikal.
What I found very interesting is that, despite Lake Baikal becoming a nature preserve in 1916 and enjoying state protections since then, it is now overfished; some of its endemic species, which are particularly valued delicacies, are now endangered.
As someone who knows little to nothing about Russian environmental history, this trip was not only fun but also was a hands-on way to learn. The boat ride was about two hours long which was the perfect amount of time to brave the wind and stand on the side of the boat. From there we could observe the array of fall colors from the trees. I may be partial, but I totally recommend going by boat. Not only is it the fastest route, but something about being on a boat in Lake Baikal is just surreal.
When we arrived to Bolshie Koty we began our hike to the overlook in the Pribaikalsky national park. We packed a small picnic and ate in the fresh air taking in all the breathtaking scenery and talking about Russian folklore, legends, and заповедники (nature reserves). I am a big fan of anything to do with folklore and legends so hearing it first hand from locals was such a treat. Something that also shocked me was the silence. I have never been somewhere with no noise pollution but here, you can stand in complete silence. It took me aback at first, but sitting in pure silence and hearing nothing but the crunch of leaves beneath my feet was such a unique and soothing feeling.
After lunch, we walked around the town looking at the old wooden houses and found a sign for goat’s milk. Goat’s milk is a remedy for the locals and is believed to be very good for one’s health so naturally we called to try some. When we got to the seller’s house they exhibited that traditionally Russian hospitality and invited us into their property to see their chickens, goats, and giant garden. They even let us try the berries from their tree.
Since we had about two hours before departing on the boat we walked a few miles along the Great Baikal Trail which was one thing I can cross off my bucket list. We even got to drink some of the water directly from the shore of Lake Baikal! All in all, the trip was fantastic. The whole trip was only about 7 hours so it is perfect for a weekend getaway but didn’t take up all of our time off. The pictures honestly don’t do it justice, if you are in Irkutsk, Bolshie Koty is a must!
Listvyanka: A Festive Side of Lake Baikal
By Julie Hersh (Spring, 2017)
Listvyanka (Листвянка) is a small town approximately 50 miles from Irkutsk. It is the closest point to Irkutsk that’s directly on Lake Baikal. It’s a perfect day trip from Irkutsk.
In the middle of winter, Listvyanka is an absolutely astounding site. On the drive up, the lake suddenly appears, and as you drive toward the town, you can see the point at which it changes from free-flowing to completely frozen over. Around the town, the frozen-over lake is full of activity: a skating rink, rides on fluffy camels and reindeer (!), cars driving around, drunk men playing with blocks of ice, fire-jugglers, people simply sliding around and enjoying the ice. In spots where the snow is cleared away, you can see straight down into the lake, though it’s mostly just black down there. The ice is several feet thick—we watched several workers drilling down into it to make more blocks of ice for their mysterious purposes, and there was still more and more ice underneath.
If you can manage to tear yourself away from the frozen lake, there are a few other things worth seeing in and around Listvyanka. I loved the fish market—stalls and stalls of people selling omul (омуль), the hyperlocal popular Lake Baikal fish. It’s available in hot and cold-smoked varieties; you can just buy a whole fish and tear it apart with your fingers and eat it right outside the market. (It’s delicious enough that it’s pretty easy to forget your squeamishness, even when you’re tearing off the head.) People also walk around selling fresh-baked lavash (a fluffy round/flat bread, just like the Central Asian lepyoshka) to go with it. And you can get souvenirs there as well—the warm Mongolian socks looked particularly appealing in mid-February.
While outdoor activities are definitely the main draw in Listvyanka, even when it’s too cold to want to stay out for long, the ecological museum (Akademicheskaya Street 1; open until 7)—or, more correctly, limnological, meaning “study of the lake”—may also be worth a visit. You can see live omul, which is a bit upsetting after you’ve eaten a bunch of them. More exciting, you can see live nerpy (нерпы; singular nerpa, нерпа; also known as the Baikal seal). There are two of them swimming around in their little tank; they are adorable and ridiculous-looking.
It’s probably not possible to go to Irkutsk without stopping by Listvyanka, since Lake Baikal is the main draw for those heading to Irkutsk. However, in case you were concerned, it does live up to the hype, even in winter.
Taltsy Museum: Architecture and Ethnography
By Katya Grigerman (Fall, 2019)
A few days after arriving in Irkutsk, SRAS took us on a day trip that went first to the Taltsy Architecture and Ethnography Museum, and then to Listvyanka, a small town on Lake Baikal.
Located about an hour drive away from the city towards the lake, Taltsy is an open-air museum that features different types of wooden buildings brought in from all over Siberia. Our guide took us across the museum, which looks like a little village, explaining how people used to live during the 16-18th centuries in Siberia.
The whole area is divided into three sections. The first shows buildings built by the native Buryat people who still live in the Irkutsk area. The second features log structures from the Ilim area which was inhabited by the Cossacks in the 17th century. The third is dedicated to the native Evenk, an indigenous nomadic people who, again, are still living across a wide swath of Siberia. We saw homes and food storage buildings. We then saw a church, school, and government building common to Cossack settlements. There is even an old swing that a friend and I swung on for a while, and almost fell off! Read more about Taltsy on Museum Studies Abroad here.
Getting back on the bus, we drove another twenty minutes to the Baikal Limnological Museum, in Listvyanka. Our guide took us around the museum and explained the entire history of the lake and surrounding area. The museum featured different types of rocks and soils from the area, as well as the different types of fish found in the lake, and even two absolutely adorable nerpas (seals found only in Lake Baikal).
After a tasty lunch in the village, we walked over to the main market to look at beautiful jewelry, fun knick-knacks, and of course, the famous Baikal fish, omul. They had a bountiful and diverse selection of fish in the market to choose from: warm, cold, salted, spiced, and dried. I got a whole warm omul, and sat on the docks of the lake, and ate my fish with my new friends.
Even in the fog we had that day, Lake Baikal was a magical place, and by the end of the day, the fog lifted, and the sun came out, making a perfect end to a wonderful day!