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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA


Jeremy Marsden

I do believe that there is nothing quite in the world which compares to travelling within Russia. It is something that all of us should do more of.

The idea of travelling to Siberia always filled me with a kind of schoolboy excitement, brought on by the mystique which is associated with the region. Exiles, dissidents, prisoners and traders all found their way here, and I am the latest to join them in this melting pot of culture. Exciting times were indeed ahead... This is a record of my Siberian adventure.

The flight to Irkutsk took 5.5 hours, time went quickly, as I was emerged in conversation with a pleasant Russian who fired vodka-fuelled conversations toward me. I was booked in at the Hotel Baikal. This hotel, lying on the bank of the river Angara, a large tributary to lake Baikal, is a renovated Intourist hotel, catering for over 400 guests in fine style. Smoothly checked in by pleasant reception staff, I shied wearily off to my room, looking forward to breakfast and a shower.

After two rounds at the buffet breakfast the next morning, I was outside on the promenade exploring the local area. The first thing I came to was a large memorial to Alexander III, gazing sternly over toward the lake Baikal. Not wanting to miss my appointment with the rest of my group, I returned to the hotel and the planned trip to the Decembrists Museum.

The Volkonsky House Museum is the preserved house of the Decembrist Count Sergey Volkonsky. This mansion is set in a courtyard with renovated stables, barn and servants quarters. The ground floor consists of several rooms, the largest and grandest of which is the piano room. Upstairs is a photo exhibition including portraits of 1820s women who romantically followed their husbands into exile. I was very surprised to find in a small conservatory, complete with a lemon tree. In Siberia?

A church at the Taltsy Museum of Wooden Architecture

The outside of the museum is currently under renovation, but once finished, it should reflect the hard work and dedication which was undertaken inside the premises. Mid-afternoon saw us return to the hotel for a small reception lunch, consisting of a rather agreeable meal, and an even more agreeable introduction speech. Fortified by Mr V. Odka and co. we wobbled off for an orientational tour of Irkustk, led by our very capable guide Sergei. Irkustk, a bustling city with a population just short of 600,000, has one of the highest student populations in Russia 20% of the population. The town has been very successful in dragging itself out of post-Soviet decay, which is evident in many other towns in Russia. What was perfectly evident here was the friendliness of its citizens. I evengot caught up in a wedding, when the happy couple toasted their new lives with champagne and cemented their eternal bonds with the traditional over the shoulder toss of the glass.

During a meal later that evening, I became acquainted with the excellent staff of the Baikal Hotel Travel Company, namely, Irina, Anastasia, Alexandra and last but by no means least, the incomparable Maxim, toastmaster extraordinaire! This meal transformed itself in a natural way into a feast of speeches, fuelled once again by Mr. V Odka, who was to feature fairly strongly during the course of the trip.

We awoke the next morning to a very clear blue sky and beautiful birdsong. A short breakfast and off on the bus to visit the Taltsy Museum of Wooden Architecture. Situated about 47km southeast of Irkutsk, 23km before Listvyanka, Taltsy is an impressive collection of old Siberian buildings set in a delightful riverside setting. There are two chapels, a church, some Tungusi graves and the eye-catching 17th century Ostrog Watchtower. Abounding with vendors, the museum is well planned and laid out, just enough for a few hours visit when travelling between Irkutsk and Listvyanka.

Omul fish being smoked

Continuing our journey south, we arrived in the small village of Listvyanka, which was introduced to us in the form of the Hotel Baikal, the sister hotel of the parent company in Irkutsk. Used mainly for package tours, the hotel is situated a few minutes walk from the Limnological Institute. The terrace on the front of the hotel offers fine views to the west of the Angara river, and to the south, Lake Baikal.

Lunch came in the form of schashlik and salad, fortified once again for those who could, by Mr. V. During the long winter months, the company offers alpine and cross country skiing for all ages. A recently installed Austrian ski lift, lifts you effortlessly to the observation platform at the peak, offering wonderful views of the lake and surrounding area.

A much needed walk back down the hill reunited us with our magical bus which whisked us away to the Limnological Institute in Listvyanka village. This consisted of a few rooms of marine exhibits and information pertaining to the lake Baikal. A small aquarium held two fairly bored and shabby looking nerpa seals.

The group was then given the chance to explore Listvyanka. One might expect that this small village nestling on the shores of lake Baikal to be overwhelmed with tourists, but for now it remains quainter than one dares to expect. Its main road, Ulitsa Gorkogo is the main road from Irkutsk; but its quiet enough to double as a strolling promenade. This links Listvyankas picturesque concentrations of old wooden cottages that tumble down three valleys, and the dachas of the local rich and famous. We settled ourselves on the beach to sample some of the local omul fish, smoked by one of the many vendors, intertwined with souvenir stalls. Washed down by beer, this local delicacy deserves to be found on any bill of international cuisine.

The next day we took a ferry to Listvyanka Port Baikal, where our boat, the Nikolay Eroschenko, waited patiently to take us on the second stage of our trip. We were welcomed aboard by Neptunis Maximus, assisted by his wonderful trio of mermaids, Irina, Alexandra and Anastasia, bearing forth gifts of champagne and chocolate truffles.

The Shaman Rock

The boat glided into Kadilny Cape. With a short wait, we all disembarked to explore this pretty bay. A brief climb brought most of the party onto a precipice with a wonderful panoramic view of the lake and its surrounding area. This bay has a slight holiday-camp atmosphere about it. Here, the group made its way upwards towards the Bolshoi Kolokolny Rock, which gave one and all a glorious view of the bay.

Back on board, showered, changed and groomed ready for the nights entertainment, we settled down to a rather wonderful meal consisting of Siberian delicacies with fine wine. Personally, this was the climax of the trip, what with the heady atmosphere, evening dancing and a perfectly clear starlit Siberian night on the lake Baikal. This burned an indelible mark that I shall never forget as long as I am able to draw breath. The next morning, unfortunately, saw a part of our party depart early for the mainland.

This was a shame, as we had only been together for a very short time, we had formed a bond of companionship and I was sad to see them go. A few more hours of steaming brought us to Olkhon Island. We transferred to the landing pier in Khuzhir village via the ships lifeboat and moved ashore. Olkhon Island is a long undulating island, one of subtle beauty, and is considered to be one of five global poles of Shamanic energy. Expertly guided by Sergei, and accompanied by both Anastasia and Alexandria, we swiftly visited the village museum, a motley collection of objects found on the island by the motorcycle-riding school teacher and his bicycling pupils.

A short walk brought us to the complex of wooden huts, banyas and outdoor museum pieces which go by the name of Nikitas Guest House. This is very near the Shaman Rock. The rooms are attractive if somewhat basic, but at $15 for full board, a bargain not to be missed by any hardy traveller. Next on the agenda was one of the trips highlights, the Shaman Rock. This has become a real landmark of the area and is indeed photogenic given the correct amount of sunlight. Photos taken, fresh air taken into the lungs, we descended to the pier once more to the transfer via the ships lifeboat to the Nicolay, waiting patiently for us, anchored off shore.

Shaman heads

Later that day, the weather changed for the worse. Torrential rain, a clap of thunder, and hail, all added to the dramatic landscape to provide another memorable part of this trip.

A late breakfast the next day and return to my cabin brought forth a rush of frantic knocking at my door with pleads of help. Gallantly opening my door, I was confronted by one female: Anastasia, pretending to be the maiden in distress. More like an Iron Maiden. A stranger met me on deck and asked me in perfect English complete with a London accent if I would care to participate in a dive in the lake. This appealed to me. Liking nothing better than a good challenge, I agreed. Accompanied by another willing volunteer named Denis, we transferred to the mainland by offshore boat and were soon wrapped in neoprene, sucking on life giving oxygen at 25 metres down, mother Baikal all around us at only 8 degrees.

After years of leaping out of aircraft, this diving proved to be a very relaxing affair, which looks like a good excuse to return to this area very shortly to complete the course offered to us!! Dried, clothed and warmed in the sun, my fellow diver and I, complete with a few souvenirs from the depths for the lucky few, back to the boat to a non-deserved heroes return of Scotch Whiskey. Should I catch up with the organisers of this, I would shake their hands warmly! Thank you!

Aqualung diving

Now to the very last supper. We were honoured indeed to be joined by the captain, who accepted a toast offered by his humble guests. Last suppers quite often prove to be fairly depressing affairs, but this was quite the opposite. This trip proved to be full of surprises, and although it was drawing to a close, the surprises were far from over. One by one, the guests were presented with rather good certificates, handed out for their merits obtained on this tour. Mine, for example, was for some rather illuminating dancing, vodka playing a major choreographical rule.

The end was indeed nigh. Landing swiftly at Port Baikal, we transferred quickly at Lisvyanka and off once again to the fine hotel in Irkutsk. One more last visit to the fine staff of the Baikal Hotel Travel Co., and off to bed for another sleepless night, punctuated only by the early morning wake up call at 5 am.

The journey home was made bearable by my new travelling companion and trusty friend Bad Honnefer from Germany, and the estimable Vladimir, who accompanied me all the way to Moscow.

The trip was organized by Astravel. Tel.: (+7495) 781 2702, 781 2700

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