I think Geoff has thrown down the gauntlet. Thus today will be the almost “All Amy All The Time” post. (It conveniently worked out this way because I took most of the great shots on my film camera, for once, and only used the digital for the silly ones.)
Today was our one and only day in Russia with a guide. We had originally hired Jack, whose house we are staying at, to give us a 5 hour tour of Listvyanka, a nearby village on the shores of Lake Baikal. I’m usually not one for tour groups, but since this was just us, and since paying $45 each to Jack was pretty much the only way to get all the way to the Lake and back in one day, I thought it was well worth the expense.
Little did I expect that I would have gladly paid twice that for the experience we had today.
Jack was heading out on an overnight tour with a larger group, so he put us in contact with his friend Leonid. Now, at the time, we basically heard “My friend Leonid” and never imagined this guy would actually be a professional in the travel industry. We expected mafia, some sort of good-for-nothing, one of the beer-for-breakfast crew that’s so popular around here, but we never expected what we got.
It turns out that Leonid manages and runs a rather professional independant tour group, Baikal Explorer, here in Irkutsk. And let me tell you, next time I’m in the area (and I will be!), I am calling Leonid.
To start with, he was an extremely fantastic driver. Had the reaction time of a cheetah. Negotiated road bumps so his car would be babied the entire time. Just amazing. And on top of that, at our first stop, the Wooden Architecture “Museum”, he proved to be a knowledgeable and fascinating narrator. When he knew some of the rooms or buildings he would tell us about them. Otherwise, he would translate what the very helpful museum curators had to say about the building.
Having never been in a “guide” situation other than in large groups, perhaps I can’t really convey how amazing it was to be able to ask questions. Just to ask questions. For example, in one of the first buildings, a display featuring a loom and what looked like knitted socks had been set up. The curator didn’t mention the socks, but I wanted to learn more about them so I just asked Leonid. Just like that. And I found out what I wanted to know.
OK, enough raving for now.
The Museum wasn’t so much a museum as it was an outdoor reconstructed village with old (17th century) and (18th century) Russian homes and buildings, as well as a Buryat camp. The Buryats are the “native” people of the area before the european Russians settled here. A non-nomadic Mongolian group, they settled in this area long ago in dwellings of similar construction to the mobile Ger camps we’ll be staying in this weekend. (yeep!!!!)
One of the highlights, aside from the huge wealth of information, is just being able to appreciate some of the craftsmanship details.
After the museum, we headed back into the car to Listvyanka and Lake Baikal. I knew in advance that Lake Baikal would be one of the largest “names” on our list of destinations. But, I wasn’t prepared for exactly how striking this largest freshwater lake would be.
Baikal is also the deepest lake in the world. At it’s greatest depth, it’s more than 1km deep, plus an additional 900m of loose sediment. It’s also the center of two of the earth’s techtonic plates, and really important geographically speaking.
We arrived just as another rain shower was clearing. The mountains in the distance were hazy and quiet and calm, and the water was crystal clear.
One interesting (the only) site in Listvyanka is this breakwater that had been… broken… just a week before by a huge wave of ice, as Leonid described it.
All in all, today was a definite highlight of our time in Russia. I’m much less skeptical about the whole “guided tour” thing. Certainly, had we tried to do this on our own, it would have taken two days and I doubt we would have gotten this much out of it.
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