We all shuffled off the train, hissing like vampires in the sunlight, with some of us genuinely suffering from agoraphobia after four days in our metal and laminate wood crypt. We've arrived in Irkutsk, a place I only knew through it's strategic importance in Risk (and yes, I'm determined to wring that metaphor for all it's worth in case you're wondering), but we can't stop as we're piled onto a bus heading for Listvanyanka. Yeah, I'd never heard of it either. Listvanyanka is actually a pretty little village on the edge of Lake Baikal, the largest mass of water in the world (other than the combined oceans before anybody posts snippy comments) and the deepest lake in the world. We've checked into Nickolai's Guesthouse, and Nickolai is the first genuinely happy Russian I've met, so much so that I think he might be a little unhinged. He runs the hotel with his wife and has that kind of wheeling positivity and perma-smile that would probably be called 'eccentric' in England, but he is so friendly that you can't help but smile along. His guesthouse defied my expectations too, more akin to a massive Swiss chalet than traditional Russian houses and we've managed to score a massive room with an en-suite bathroom. It also has a double bed, which Nickolai subtly pointed out before giving me the leeriest grin/wink combo I've ever seen. Like I said, eccentric.
After a much needed shower (we had fashioned a shower device out of an old Sprite bottle on the train, but it wasn't the same) we all head out to the Lake for a quick look around the village and a hike into the surrounding hills. The temperature has dropped considerably, but the air is fresh, the skies are turquoise and it all feels like the perfect antidote to the slowly developing claustrophobia of the train. Lake Baikal itself is absolutely stunning, all deep blue with flashes of white as the wind curls over tiny waves. We can't make out the far shore as the lake is so wide, so the horizon is hemmed by ragged mountains and misty clouds. As you might have gathered, Lake Baikal is one of the most beautiful places of the tour so far.
We had some lunch at a local food market, where I had some greasy rice and what I think must have been chicken knees on sticks, but it was like eating at the Fat Duck compared to those damned noodles. Refuelled and ready to exercise, we hiked for a few minutes along the edge of the lake. Laziz had told us that a swim in the lake adds five years to your life, whereas ducking your head three times whilst swimming results in a quarter-of-a-century bonus. That proved too tempting, and about 10 of us threw ourselves in to water that was around 6degC for approximately two minutes. Hopefully the 25 years I've gained will counteract the 30 years I lost from the effects of hypothermia.
The hike was awesome, and the hillside was beautiful. Refreshed, we returned to the guesthouse where Nickolai was waiting for us with the offer of a banya - a kind of Russian bathing ritual that starts with a sauna, then a whipping with birch leaves before an icy plunge (in what the girls had really hoped was a hot tub) followed by a thorough rub down with what can only be described as a Brillo pad and another icy splash, this time courtesy of Nickolai's bucket. I have to concede that I'm relaying this second hand as I hate saunas at the best of times and when Nickolai emerged from the banya in his budgie smugglers, I beat a hasty retreat. Kate endured (and paid for) the full experience though, and has scars to prove it.
Our hosts provided dinner, the focus of which was omul, a fish unique to Baikal Lake. It was hot smoked and served whole, but was tender and quite subtle, if a little boney. We also had what Laziz described as 'the best mashed potato in the world' and if the proof is in the eating then all we proved is that Laziz obviously hasn't eaten much mashed potato before. The atmosphere was great though and Nickolai was a fine host, so we all retired to the living room for a round of 'Iron Spoons' - which worked beautifully, thanks Clare - and some of the inevitable vodka. When we finally went to bed, I think I missed the rocking of the train but I managed to drift off all the same.