LISTVYANKA || RUSSIA
We’d heard good things about Listvyanka when planning our trip – a lot of guides recommend going there and describe it as a ‘sleepy fishing village’ and a great chance to spend time at Lake Baikal, without trekking too far from Irkutsk. We loved Olkhon Island so much that we discussed staying an extra two days and forgetting about Listvyanka, but unfortunately we realised our (rather expensive) accommodation was non-refundable, so we decided to go.
Minivans leave from Irkutsk to Listvyanka every 10 minutes or so from the bus station, so when we walked down in the early afternoon, we were bundled straight in to a van which left almost immediately. It’s took about 1.5hrs to get there and we were dropped off a short walk from our accommodation, in the middle of Listvyanka’s strip. To say we were a little underwhelmed would be an understatement – it’s basically a Russian Great Yarmouth! There were hoards of Russian holidaymakers filling up the tiny strip of pebbled ‘beach’, screaming children, old and peeling coca-cola adverts everywhere, drunk men with their beer bellies dangling, jumping off tiny verandas into the freezing lake and little booths selling soft drinks and shashlik (kebabs) every few metres.
Our accommodation was OK – we stayed in a huge log cabin in a tiny room just off the reception/ lounge which meant we couldn’t sleep until everyone else went to bed – especially as the door had frosted glass panelling which let all the light in!
After dropping our bags off, we walked the length of the strip, stopping at the market which was conveniently right next door to our guesthouse. There was a small stall selling fruit, vegetables and pine nuts but the majority of the stalls were rows of smoked fish, Lake Baikal stone jewellery and generally souvenir tat! We had seen people buying and selling pine cones before but had no idea what they were for… On asking the guy at the market, he showed me how to break apart the fronds to find the nuts in their shells, so I bought a pinecone and a cup of shells to try when I got home.
Apart from smoked fish, the only other food you can buy on the strip is Shashlik – basically a meat kebab – so we walked a bit further down to try and find a half decent restaurant to grab a veggie dinner! We found somewhere right at the very end, away from the hubbub of the centre, and I tucked into to a huge portion of stewed veggies and fried potatoes.
On our second day, we chose to walk to a viewpoint we’d read about which was listed as one of the best things to do in Listvyanka. It took us a while to reach our destination as we got lost a couple of times on the way as we were using a maps app which didn’t seem to know the route, and there were no signposts anywhere! The walk took us along the beach, before turning up a large hill, through small neighbourhoods and forest paths before arriving at a ski lift. We used the lift to reach the top of the hill, where we walked to a view point and had lunch on the hill. The views were pretty, but when you’ve been to Olkhon Island, everything else just seems a little underwhelming!
The afternoon was spent doing travel admin – Gary was researching how easy it is to buy camper vans in New Zealand (as we worked out we could probably afford to go down that route now, woo!), whereas I worked on the blog.
In the evening, a group of five Russian tourists joined us around the dining room table, drinking their way through beer, vodka and tequila whilst one of them cooked dinner for everyone. Everyone was kind of just ignoring each other as their group didn’t speak English and we didn’t speak Russian, so the communication went as far as a smile but that was it. When it got to 11pm, we realised they weren’t going to bed any time soon, so figured we may as well join them as we weren’t going to get any sleep whilst they were still awake!
We walked down to the closest shop and bought a couple of Russian beers to take back with us. The mood instantly changed as soon as they saw we had bought beers and they whacked out their Google translate app to try and initiate a conversation, asking where we had been in Russia and whether we liked it. We ended up spending a couple of hours chatting to everyone, drinking beer and laughing at some of the mis-translations generated by the translation app. They were telling us how they were from a place in Northern Siberia and how the weather reaches minus 50!! They were really keen to show us photos and videos of their hometown – including a music video filmed there. A few tequilas later, and one of the guys kept saying to Gary, ‘Swim! Baikal! Tomorrow??’ and gesturing jumping in the water. We just assumed he was asking whether Gary would jump in with them all tomorrow, off one of the small verandas dotted along the beach. Gary took up the offer and before heading to bed, we agreed we’d go to the lake at 1pm.
After a lazy morning, everyone started getting ready to leave just before 1pm. The group were now saying ‘Rusky Banya!’ (Russian Bath) and it became clear they were asking Gary to go to a Russian Bath, not just jump in the lake! I’m not a fan of saunas and it seemed like it was just the guys going anyway, so I decided to stay and try and catch up on some work.
They called a taxi for all but one of the group to go to the Russian Bath and refused to take any money from Gary for the ride. Around 15 minutes later, I got an excited phone call from Gary telling me to scrap my work and that I HAD to come down to the bath. It turns out the group had hired the whole bath, which was actually a floating building on the lake, complete with lounge room with log fire, sunbathing terrace and sauna. Due to the fact the bath was floating on the lake, you could open the sauna door and jump straight out into the icy lake!!
I hopped in a taxi and we spent three hours there, the boys all rotating between the sauna and the lake as well as taking it in turns to whack each other with birch leaves… The girls spent most of the time chilling in the lounge with a few beers, although one of the Russian girls did eventually pluck up the courage to go into the sauna and jump in the lake! I didn’t have my swim stuff with me, so that’s my excuse….!!
The group were so welcoming – not only did they refuse any offering of money for the bath, they also paid for us to get a taxi there and back and bought us lunch from a neighbouring restaurant which was delivered to the floating lounge. Despite the language barrier, we all had a great time – it was one of our best (and definitely most memorable) moments out of our three weeks in Russia! 🙂
When it was time for us to get the bus back to Irkutsk, they explained to us that in Russia it was a tradition to have a minute of silence before people left. So, we all sat in our little log cabin for a minute in complete silence before saying goodbye! They then insisted on all walking the 10 minutes with us to the bus station, before hugging us and waving us on.
Once back in Irkutsk, we had a good few hours to kill before we caught our 1am train to Ulan Ude. After dropping our big bags into storage at the train station, we went back to the shopping centre to buy some warmer clothes for Mongolia and spent the rest of the evening chilling out in a brewery/ restaurant in the 130th district. Listvyanka wasn’t so bad afterall!