Irkutsk: Launching the Baikal Expedition

On Saturday morning, David and I boarded a bus with the expedition research team: biochemist Dima Sherbakov, four Limnological Institute graduate students, two divers and Professor Judith Smith of the University of Leeds, who'd come to collect tiny shrimp-like amphipods for her research.

The bus set off from Irkutsk at about 9:30 a.m., and an hour later we pulled into the parking lot of a big roadside supermarket. Everyone went in to stock up on snacks for the 12-day expedition, and after I'd bought some potato chips and dried fruit, I stood by the bus waiting for the others. That's when I had the second weird "small world" moment of this trip (the first being Alexei in Vladivostok).

Formerly a quiet fishing village, Listvyanka has blossomed into something of a tourist destination.(David Hillegas)

I looked up to see Alyosha, Oleg and Sveta's son from Ulan Ude, strolling toward me. I knew he'd gone to Irkutsk on business for two weeks, and that he'd be near Lake Baikal for part of that time -- but really, what was the likelihood we'd run into him in this supermarket parking lot? He was as surprised as I was, but we barely had time to shriek, "Wow! Can you believe this?!" at each other before my bus coughed to life for the trip to Listvyanka, the village on Baikal's shore where the G. Titov research vessel was docked.

In 1995, Listvyanka consisted of a smattering of cottages and one blocky Soviet-style building that housed Limnological Institute labs and a small museum. Now, as the bus chugged into town, I saw that Listvyanka had a new landmark: a gigantic pink castle. This was no pastel pink, either, but electric pink, even down to the turrets.

An outdoor market with fish and souvenirs has sprouted near Listvyanka's docks, on the shores of Lake Baikal.(David Hillegas)

This, Dima informed me, was a private home being built by a wealthy Russian. And as I soon saw, the pink castle was not the only new structure in little Listvyanka. Several hotels have been built since 1995, and the village now has the feel of a tourist destination. Even the museum has gone upscale, with an impressive new aquarium housing fish, seals and other aquatic life.

The bus wheezed to a stop at the docks, and everybody pitched in to cart the gear down to the G. Titov. Then Dima, the expedition leader, said, "Okay, now we must go down to get some important supplies. We need some fish and some beer."

Dima is a world-class freshwater scientist with a rock-n-roll heart. He recently cut off his graying ponytail, though he still favors purple-tinted sunglasses. One key piece of equipment he brought for the expedition was a pair of speakers for his laptop, so he could blast Guns 'n Roses in the tiny sleeping compartment below decks while he worked.

We walked to the outdoor fish market, which has grown from a couple of vendors in '95 to a bustling bazaar, and bought 10 omul, a Baikal delicacy. David and I had been warned by several people that it was dangerous to buy fish from these vendors, but I figured Dima must know what he was doing. When I asked him about the warnings we'd heard, he shrugged and said, "Eh, I think it's probably okay." Not exactly the ringing endorsement I'd hoped for.

After buying the fish, we browsed other vendors' tables, laden with carved wooden boxes, prayer beads, Soviet-era souvenirs and postcards, then made our way back to the G. Titov. It was time to set out on the lake.

By Lisa Dickey |  October 5, 2005; 3:21 AM ET
Previous: Irkutsk: The Research Institute Has Survived | Next: Irkutsk: Pulling Worms From the World's Deepest Lake


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Hi Lisa,

somehow I came across your blog a little while ago and I have been following your journey with great interest since then. Finally, you arrived in Irkutsk and now all the way at Lake Baikal - this brings back memories! I was born in Irkutsk and I have been to Lake Baikal once - a beautiful place! Actually, I think it was Listvyanka where we stayed (I was only 7 or 8 at that time).
Well, I hope you enjoy your tour there. Eat some extra "Omul" for me while you are there - I love it!!
Will you be in Irkutsk for a while after that? I would love to see some pictures from the places I grew up in.. I haven't been back since we moved to Germany in 1992. If you have time in Irkutsk and don't mind stopping by there - we lived at "Uliza Lomonosowa 11" and there are still some neighbors that my parents are in touch with. Unfortunately, I lost contact with my friends from there since I was still quite young but some of them still live in that area I believe.
Enjoy the rest of your journey!

Greetings from Kentucky,


Posted by: Anna | October 5, 2005 10:12 AM

Hi, Anna - Sorry we didn't get a chance to photograph your old family home! We did enjoy wandering around Irkutsk, which is the most charming city we've been in yet. And we did enjoy the omul, even though I secretly feared getting botulism, as several people had warned us about!

Posted by: Lisa Dickey | October 13, 2005 07:36 AM

Im a 14 year old from russia. I live in Washington DC and go to dc public schools, so im deep in american culture, but i also hav strong ties with russia because my moms whole family lives in moscow, and i try to go there every summer and travel as much as possible. I approve of your articles, because i agree that life for the average russian has gotten fairly better over the last ten years, because there is actually money now. Crime is starting to slowing decrease but one thing that everyone agrees on is that the political situation is changing for the worser and more like it used to be back way when. I have been many russian cities such as Kazan', St. Petersburg, Yaroslavl, Pybinsk, Tver', ... and so on. On these trips i have noticed the large contrast between places. My most powerful memory is Kimry, a city in the Tver' oblast. To make it short it is like Baghdad, except without a war around. I apprediate your writing and if you would like to write to me my email is


Posted by: Alex Altskan | October 18, 2005 10:48 PM

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