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Che Lives in Baikal

Che Guevara is alive and well and living in Port Baikal, Siberia. Well, he did look a lot like the great revolutionary with the same beret, beard and combat jacket. This Che was racing alongside the railway on his motorbike with a ramshackle home made sidecar – the standard transport for the area.

Port Baikal was obviously once a thriving little town on the banks of the great lake in the middle of Siberia. The glory days are long gone however since the Trans Siberian railway was diverted around the lake and it was no longer necessary to load the train on to ferries for the trip across the water. A visit to this backwater was fascinating nonetheless.

We were staying at Listvyanka, the best known tourist spot on the lake, which holds one fifth of the world’s fresh water, and could see this other settlement across the way. After a long perusal of the ferry timetable at the local habour we decided that the ferry that left at 10.00am and returned at 3.00pm would give us plenty of time to explore the port and have something to eat.

We shared the ferry with a few other tourists, a Swiss couple (with their personal guide), some Americans and some Russian holidaymakers. The ferry ride started in the inevitable Russian fashion. Surprise and wonder gripped us when the ferry started rocking violently while it was still moored at the dock. There were only a couple of spaces for vehicles on the ferry. The rocking, we discovered, was due to half a dozen beefy guys rocking a small truck to and fro so that they could move it sideways into one spot to allow a car to drive into the one it had vacated.The trip across this corner of the lake only takes about half an hour. We were admiring the view and discussing the spectacular natural beauty of this little visited part of the world when a young Russian girl came up to my wife and asked if she minded talking to her in English. Julia was on holiday at the lake with her aunt. This brave teenager had come from Kamchatka on the far east coast of the continent and was practicing her English because she was hoping to become either an interpreter or diplomat. Amazingly my wife is now corresponding with her on a regular basis by email and we are now sure that she will achieve her dream.

Port Baikal is not a place to visit if you are expecting cafes, tourist sites or any excitement whatever. If you want to see how real Russians (including Che look-alikes) live in a traditional village atmosphere where they still collect their water from the local well then this is the place for you. The port itself consists of a couple of  small docks, a railway station and a small factory that looks like an iron foundry of some sort. There is a local store that sells basic provisions but not a cup of coffee in sight. The charm of Port Baikal is in the village.

A ten minute walk along the railway line from the port takes you into the heart of the village and possible sightings of the great revolutionary. Walking down the middle of the tracks is quite safe. The Circumbaikal Railway operates a couple of times a week and apparently is quite a scenic ride. Our only problem was dodging the cows grazing on the tracks and the motorbikes and sidecars that zipped across it at barely marked crossings. One of these bikes was transporting what looked liked a whole family of half a dozen souls – no hint of slowing down along the dirt roads.Babushkas greet you with a polite nod as you enter the village proper. I got the impression that these keepers of untold history and possibly much misery thought we were a strange curiosity. Their days seem to be spent sitting in small groups in front of one of the small wooden houses and musing on the day to day events in their simple lives. The village is made up completely of the wooden houses that are typical of this whole area of Siberia. A combination of neat, well maintained and sometimes brightly painted homes and many that seem about to fall apart completely make for a fascinating outlook and great place for photographs. There are three or four regularly used wells dotted around the village and another general store that appears to be the social centre of the area. A walk through the village takes no more that about twenty minutes but, to use and old cliché, it is like time travel. Things in Port Baikal do not change quickly. If Che Guevara were still alive he could not of found a better place to hide out in anonymity.

On returning to the port we were entertained waiting for the ferry by what could only be described as a comic attempt to demolish a building on the other side of the small harbour. The hapless workers had a large piece of metal attached to the end of a crane wire and were trying to swing it back and forth to knock the building over. The first swing nearly collected a couple of guys on the ground who had to run for their lives. It was going to be a long time before there would be any real impact on the building.

Our visit to this very interesting corner of the world ended in a very typical Russian fashion. Our ferry returned to the dock at about 2.30pm well ahead of time only for us to see a couple of well-to-do hikers jump on board and the boat then disappear into the distance. It wasn’t till well after 3.00pm that we finally realised that the ferry captain had probably got a better offer and was not returning to collect a whole ferry load of expectant passengers. The ticket seller, once she realised what had happened, was yelling and gesticulating wildly until someone on the dock appeased her with an alternative. We then ushered further down the harbour and put aboard a car ferry, charged half the usual fare and deposited on the other side of the lake about 4km from our expected destination. The walk along the lakeshore back to Listvyanka was, however, quite pleasant.Travel Details

Accommodation at Listvyanka in a homestay/hostel with meals was organised through Baikal Complex Tourist Co, Irkustk,
Travel t Irkustk was on the Trans-Siberian Railway

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