The journey to Irkutsk involved two nights on a train, a border crossing with more serious looking Russians than a Bond film and accidentally sleeping in until we literally rolled up to the platform. Luckily we were incredibly well organised and rolled out of our bunks and into five layers of thermals in record time. The temperature was hovering around the -25 degree mark and Tolya and Dimitri, our two Russian honchos had us on a bus and heading out of town before we had time to wake up. Giving the city a miss for the time being, we drove through the Siberian countryside for an hour as the sun came up over Lake Baikal. Holding about 1/5 of the world's fresh water supply and almost completely iced over, this impressive piece of water is over 600km long and home to the sleepy village of Lystvyanka. Naturally we wanted to walk on it straight away. After getting better acquainted with the chalet and a cold which rivaled even Ulaanbaatar, we skated into town after our blonde, fur covered guides. The lake ice was thick enough to wander out on and we had some fun smashing huge slabs of it - just because we could. This was followed by a casual stroll (while we all slowly froze to death) up to a look out at the top of the local ski field to see where the river meets the lake. The rest of the day was whiled away catching up on valuable Facebook time and learning Russian card games. At night things got a little weird. Traditional Russian sauna or banya involves sitting in a room at over 90 degrees for as long as you can handle before running outside and rolling around in the snow at -30 degrees. This was all well and good until our honcho produced the birch branches and spent the next hour hitting us with them - to release the toxins of course. Our second day was full of big plans starting with trying our hand at dog sledding. We rocked up to a random house up the hill and with no formal instruction were given coveralls and led out the back. We were confronted with around 40 barking dogs, three sleds and some rather bored looking locals. Not to worry, we were there to live the Siberian dream. Teams of six dogs were harnessed up to the sleds and we were shown how to push the brake down with our foot. That was it. A guy sat down on the front of the sled, yelled something unintelligible, and we were off. Four of us made it around a 10 minute circuit through the woods while one young lady was tossed from the sled by her team whilst trying to corner. Very good fun. We followed this with a lesson in forging from the local blacksmith who helped us smash some metal into shape and carve awesome runes into it. I probably would have enjoyed the experience more had I any feeling in my toes or hands. Of course, more birch whipping and hot steam followed in the evening to sort out those chilled limbs. Back to Irkutsk for some sightseeing and grocery shopping before the 4.5 day march to Moscow. The scenery looks the same the whole way but not a bad way to travel.
Rachael and Jeremy