Bolshoe Goloustnoe is a village on the shores of Lake Baikal, about two hours outside of Irkutsk, the main stop on the railroad line. We had arranged two nights in a home stay through our tour company (Monkey Shrine), thinking this would be the best way to see the world’s oldest and deepest lake up close and personal.
Lake Baikal is immense, and it’s really hard to get a sense of scale standing on the shore. There is enough water in this lake to supply the world’s population in drinking water for forty years. Amazingly, it holds 20% of the world’s freshwater supply. Formed by an ancient valley rift, it reaches depths of over a mile.
Ringed by mountain ranges, and isolated except for settlements along the southern shoreline, its waters are constantly replenished by melting snow and frequent storms. In fact, for the two days we were there, it pretty much drizzled and rained the entire time. They say you can drink directly from the lake, although with a lot of litter and piles of cow dung along the shore, I wouldn’t.
We shared the home stay with four other Westerners, with meals provided by the owner of the house. With a population of fewer than 1,000 year-round residents, this isn’t the the kind of village that caters to tourists. But if you want to experience life on the lake with the locals, you’ve come to the right place.
A sauna in the back of the property is shared by the guests, and serves as both a relaxation and bathing area (we were each allocated thirty minutes). Next to the sauna was the bathroom – an old-fashioned outhouse with the familiar smell of sewage.
This is a very small and very local village with not much to do, so two nights here was plenty (the liquor store next door is open until 3:00 AM). The local people did not impress us with their friendliness, while everyone seemed to pass the time by drinking. Especially disturbing were all the discarded liquor bottles along the streets and the shore of the lake.
One of the days, we went on a wet five-hour hike up along the shoreline to have lunch at a fisherman’s hut, where we sat around and sampled local Siberian fish stew and pan fried pike (that’s what it looked like to me). Honestly, if you’ve seen the Great Lakes, you’ve seen Lake Baikal (and Lake Tahoe is certainly more dramatic).
I can’t imagine what winters are like in this remote forsaken part of the world. Just trekking to the outhouse out back could kill you with extreme temperatures well below zero (even in the summer, it barely clears sixty degrees). It is interesting for its wooden houses, the couple of orthodox churches, a walkabout up the lake and a hike up the hill for an overview. This is life in Siberia.
You would need several weeks to investigate the farthest reaches of the lake – it gets rugged and isolated rather quickly in this neck of the woods. For us, Bolshoe Goloustnoe was enough.
After two nights, we were glad to be back in Irkutsk.
From Irkutsk, train #9 transports you 5,000 miles to Moscow in three nights and four days. Is Siberia a worthwhile stop? It does break up an otherwise long journey, although it seems just a tad over-rated.
Nonetheless, it is interesting to see first-hand how these hardy people survive – and to touch a toe in the world’s oldest lake.