Brighton to Beijing overland part 3 – Siberia and Lake Baikal

Hitchhiking, Russia
Lake Baikal, Siberia

Lake Baikal, Siberia

We arrive in the city of Krasnoyarsk, 4098km from Moscow, and people are friendly! We visit Stolby national park and make friends with lovely people. But Krasnoyarsk, like every other city we pass on route, is as Soviet as ever. We are now as east as Mongolia, and it still feels like we’re in Europe, with the streets filled with European-looking inhabitants. I realise that I know nothing about Russia’s colonial history and the destruction of Siberia’s culture.

“It’s depressing to know that Europe stretches on and on and on, all the way to China,” Chris says.

Stolby National Park

Stolby National Park

Our train journey to Baikal is amazing. Everyone around us is happy, and their laughter fills the carriage. A young boy and his grandmother even invite us to visit them in their city. We pass pine forests, villages and abandoned factories. I finally feel like I am enjoying the Trans-Siberian. But then our train stops in the middle of the night and we all get out for fresh air. Another train pulls up next to us. Through the darkness, we see men in the train, trapped in cages. Their hands are holding the bars as they try to catch a glimpse of the outside world. A military man strides up and down the carriage, keeping guard. The sight is terrifying to me. Now I feel like I am in Siberia – the land famous for labour camps , banishment and deaths. I get back on the train and cry.

Arriving in Irkutsk the next day, it finally feels like we’re in Asia and not Europe, and there’s more diversity on the streets. However, we’re tired of the usual Lenin statues and streets named after Karl Marx, so get out of Irkutsk as fast as possible!

Lake Baikal is the world’s deepest lake: in some areas it’s one mile deep! We head to Olkhon, an island in the middle of the lake. Olkhon is a famous site for shamanism.

The entrance to Shaman Rock on Olkhon island, a sacred place for  local Buryat people

The entrance to Shaman Rock on Olkhon island, a sacred place for local Buryat people

A sacred tree, with Shaman Rock in the background

A sacred tree, with Shaman Rock in the background

Saunas on the shore of Baikal

Saunas on the shore of Baikal

A village on Olkhon island

A village on Olkhon island

It’s legal to wild camp here, and we sleep on the shores of the lake, close to the main town, Khuzhir. I am expecting a peaceful, spiritual place, but instead find hundreds of partying people, also camping on the beach. Russian tourists drive their cars right onto the beach and camp next to their vehicles: seemingly no-one is capable of walking to enjoy nature. They then blast music out as loudly as possible into the early hours. And if they’re not doing that, they’re speeding on the beaches with their quad bikes.

Camp!

Camp!

Our fire, made with dead wood!

Our fire, made with dead wood!

Just one of the hundreds of lazy tourists at Baikal, driving their cars onto the beach

Just one of the hundreds of lazy tourists at Baikal, driving their cars onto the beach

Baikal is stunning – the water shimmers a silver colour – and you can drink the water straight from the lake. At first I’m hesitant to drink the water that’s right next to partying campers, but it really does taste good. But because of Baikal’s huge rise in tourism (which we are unwittingly contributing to) there’s broken glass all over the shore of the lake, huge amounts of rubbish, and disgustingly filthy shitty toilets (“why can’t people aim their poo into the toilet?” I moan).

Rubbish!

Rubbish!

After four days of camping on the beach, I’m ready to leave. I’m upset by the lack of respect that the campers have for the nature that they have come to relax in. People are chopping down beautiful live pine trees for camp fires and I wonder how the forest will survive the summer, and how the water can stay so pure. I find it ironic that people tie ribbons to trees in appreciation of their sacredness, and yet 100 metres away, tourists are acting so disrespectfully.

We want to cross to the east side of lake Baikal, a route that no other travellers seem to take (everyone else double-backs). The boat’s a shocking 50 euros each, but amazingly, we are not asked to buy a ticket and save ourselves 100 euros!

Hitchhiking along the east shore of Baikal, down to the Mongolia border, is serene. Our Buryat driver stops at sacred shamanist sites and throws offerings of coins out of his car window. For anyone planning to visit Baikal, I recommend coming to the east side, which sees barely any tourists.

On the road

On the road

Siberia - along the east coast of Baikal

Siberia – along the east coast of Baikal

When we arrive at the border there’s a massive queue of Mongolian cars. The sound of happy laughter fills the air, and a family beckon us to cross into Mongolia in their car. The border is humiliating. The Russian guards treat Mongolian people like they’re worthless. When it’s our turn to cross, the female border guard yells closely into the face of the meek Mongolian woman that we’re hitchhiking with. It’s the most racist border that I have seen, and I’m relieved when we enter Mongolia and we’re greeted with smiles.

9 thoughts on “Brighton to Beijing overland part 3 – Siberia and Lake Baikal

  1. Wow love the nature pics.. Im already getting itchy about going there too! Soo amazing that all the ties in the trees is exactly the same in mexico tradicions which i qas just living and learning about! I eant to go there and conect.. What the hell with the people on the cages in the train?? No idea.. Where can i read about it?? Keep enjoying looove

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  2. Hi,

    that s a wodnerful blog. thanks for the feedback and the tips.
    I m preparing the same journey with Thom my husband.
    We re trying to book a transsiberian ticket.
    I had read that could get a bed in the “general” shared room for less than 100$. Do you have any info on how to buy them ? I can t find them on the English website for transsiberian tickets?
    Many thanks in advance for the response
    All the best
    Camille

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    1. Hi Camille!
      thanks for reading.
      The Seat 61 website explains how to book tickets. We used the Real Russia website to book the tickets. You have to pay for each ‘leg’ of the journey separately: you pay for a new ticket every time you stop in a city and then get onto a different train. So we booked separate tickets for:
      1) Moscow to Omsk
      2) Omsk to Krasnoyarsk
      3) Krasnoyarsk to Irkutsk

      All of our beds were 3rd class beds.

      I think it’s cheapest to stay on the train all of the way from Moscow to Vladivostok!

      Let me know if you need more information.

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  3. Hi, 3 fellow college students and I are planning a trans-siberian trip in July. We only have 32 hours in Krasnoyarsk and I was wondering what you would do with such a limited amount of time. We were hoping to see the lake. Its sad to hear that the shore line suffers so much littering, but you can be sure that we will treat the lake with respect. Thanks

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    1. hi chris, krasnoyarsk is a friendly city. if you need somewhere to stay, we thought granada hostel was really great..the couple who run it are so lovely! we only had about the same amount of time in krasnoyarsk, and we went to Stolby National Park – a beautiful forest with amazing rock formations. you can go there and come back in a few hours. (i can’t remember which bus you get).
      Lake Baikal is near İrkutsk, so you have to jump on the train again. At Baikal, if you want to go where no tourists go, then spend some time on the eastern shore. otherwise, head to the places that i wrote about. (we camped on olkhon island, which was a good few hours but ride from irkutsk, i think). in the summer you can camp on the beach anywhere, no problem.
      if you have any other questions, feel free to ask.

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      1. Oh wow, I mis-typed. I meant to say İrkutsk. Too much planning and not enough sleeping. 🙂 We are in fact going to both cities. Stolby is another destination that we are excited about. I’ve heard from many people that the rock formations are incredible. Thanks for the advice. I hope we will have time to make it to a more secluded shore on the lake. I hear that it can be pretty crowded this time of year in Listvyanka (the place we made initial reservations to stay in). Maybe we will be a little more adventurous and see where the road takes us. Thanks again for your time

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