Hiking the Circum-Baikal Railway

DSC_0006It was meant to be a 14 kilometre stroll down the railroad tracks. Then we miscalculated, and it became a 40 kilometre march in a day in a half.

Our Plan: For our first ‘epic death bimble’, as Luke likes to call them, we eyed up the very flat and therefore very comfortable walk along the south west coast of Lake Baikal. Following the Circum- Baikal Railway (which contrary to its name does not go all the way around the Lake), we were going to walk from the station km 110 to the station Ulanovo (98 km). We were going to spend one evening camping on the shore, cooking with our small pot, and then get picked up by the train the next day to complete the trip to Port Baikal, and then, via Ferry, to the holiday town of Listvyanka.

Reality: This plan was rethought when we realised that it was Friday, rather than a Thursday, and that there would be no train to pick us up the next day. We quietly debated; take the train the entire way and arrive early? Take the train further and only walk the last distance? Or more than double our distance and simply add the rest of the way to Port Baikal to the walk we had already planned?

DSC_0093The first section that we had intended to do, from 110 to 98km, is described online as the most beautiful part of the railroad, with scenic views both forward and back, fields and trees, and of course, the ever present blue Baikal. We didn’t really want to miss that. Besides, walking on the flat railroad was unlikely to be that difficult. And if we pushed ahead we could do around 15km in the evening and then have a relaxed 15 the next day.

When we got off the train at 110 km, we spent a few minutes watching locals unload a large amount of food and mail, and then climbed all over an old steam engine, making up for all the others we only looked at on the Trans-Siberian journey. The train pulled away, and along with a group of Russian schoolkids and their parents we followed it through the tunnel. DSC_0058We would walk the entire journey that we had planned for the weekend in that evening, in the five hours from being dropped off to finding a camp spot and settling down for the night. On the way we passed countless types of flowers and plants, endless grasshoppers, flies and birds, and through several tunnels. We explored the light shafts and miniature caves, and didn’t stop photographing. Our bags, around 15kg heavy with all the electronics and camping gear, began to weigh down on us fairly quickly. In the evening our heads were pounding from dehydration, our hips felt bruised from the backpacks, and I avoided even thinking about my feet.

Instead I let my imagination go wild with our campsite. It was eerie. Officially a ‘tourist village’ stop on the train line, we found only abandoned buildings with caved in rooves. A little further on one house seemed intact and blasted pop music into the twilight, somewhat surreal after we had seen no one since we walked past some construction workers about 5 kilometres earlier. What had led this to be abandoned? Who used to stay here? What campfire stories did they tell?

DSC_0072The following day we woke up late. As the last ferry left sometime in the evening (but we weren’t sure when), and we had to hurry as a result. Unfortunately, we were still dehydrated. We spent two hours filtering water, filling water bottles, drinking as much as possible, and eating breakfast. It was a significantly warmer day, with clear skies and a multitude of new creatures enjoying the sun. Our walk became a trudge as we tried to ignore the blisters on our tired feet. Although the way was flat, the railroad did not make for comfortable walking. The wooden planks were not spaced out far enough to balance along and the gravel between them was uneven and sharp. By lunch everything was sore and we were soaked from perspiration. We had emptied most of our water, and definitely needed more. But first, it was time for a swim.

The waters of Lake Baikal are shockingly cold to the system. Our feet were shock-frozen into numbness, the sweat washed off, and we shivered even as our shirts were drying in the hot sun. Once we were out, the race against the bugs began. This time the insect repellent worked a dream, within seconds of spraying ourselves with the stuff we were blissfully free from the insects, but not until after I sustained two or three bites from what I think were horseflies. Chilled and bug free we relaxed in the sun, ate lunch and watched the waves. And the suddenly, right in front of us, perhaps half a kilometre away, two creatures bobbed, looking around. Seals. Definitely the fabled Baikal Seals that are apparently fairly difficult to spot in the wild. With strangely balloon-shaped bodies, they look overfed, their heads out of water like small smooth rocks. Seeing seals, while sitting on a hot rock eating lunch in the sun, a panorama of lake, mountains and beautiful forest, was exactly what I had dreamed for. I was delighted, bubbly, overflowing with energy- seals!!

DSC_0095In the final 14 kilometres of the walk we returned from the realm of the wild into a more human world. We had the honour of watching a wedding party take photographs on the shore and then swim away on their privately chartered boat. We started coming across far more people once we had passed kilometre ‘84’, people who asked us where we had been, praised our efforts, and kindly gave us the ferry schedule, assuring us that we would make it in plenty of time. We took more breaks, snoozing on the railroad tracks, (I pretended to be kidnapped in my head, like in an old Western film). And finally we arrived in Port Baikal, where a motorcycle bumped along with a sidecar, cows walked freely on the side of the road, and small children greeted us enthusiastically. We even got to see a steam train as it pulled in, heavily laden with tourists.

Yes, there was a train on that Saturday, we could have stuck to the initial plan. The irony was as bitter as the victory was sweet and the exhaustion complete.

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