By day four on the train, I was ready to jump into the nearest body of water for a quick bath. Luckily, I had scheduled in a few days in Irkutsk, a city in Siberia that is one of the most popular stops along the Trans-Siberian Railway.
Irkutsk itself has some beautiful sights, including historic churches and museums. The city's cultural legacy stretches back to the early 1800s, when military officers and nobles were exiled here for their part in the Decembrist revolt against Tsar Nicholas I. They transformed Irkutsk into a cultural and educational hub deep in Siberia, and their influence is still evident in the intricate and colorful wooden buildings scattered throughout town.
For most foreigners, Irkutsk is not the final destination, but serves as a staging ground for trips to nearby Lake Baikal. Known as the Jewel of Siberia, Baikal is the largest freshwater lake in the world (and home to an exclusively freshwater species of seal, the Baikal seal).
The nearest lakeside town to Irkutsk is Listvyanka, reachable in about 1.5 to 2 hours by bus or car. I opted for a minibus, which cost a little over 100 rubles, or $2, each way.
I arrived there in an early October afternoon. By then, the cold temperature and strong winds required a heavy coat and thick scarf, and perhaps a nip of vodka (a friend who had visited just a few weeks earlier survived -- despite only wearing a light jacket -- by downing a small bottle of spirits. I do not recommend this. Wear a coat!).
That day, Lake Baikal was an ethereal, broody blue. The water was so clear that the pebbles underneath the waves were visible near shore. It's easy to while away a few hours just walking by the lake, admiring the fishing boats bobbing along and the snow-covered mountains on the far side of Baikal.
There are plenty of hiking trails in the hills hugging Listvyanka. But simply walking through the narrow side streets will bring you closer to golden foliage (at least in fall) and the town's lovely aged wooden buildings.
You will also encounter many vendors, from restaurants to tiny roadside stands, hawking the Baikal specialty: omul, a fish endemic to the lake, most commonly smoked and trussed up with toothpicks. They are deliciously salty and meaty, especially when fresh, and perfect with a few slices of bread and a beer.
Many travelers stay a night or two in Listvyanka to enjoy the restaurants and scenery. I opted to go back after walking around for an afternoon (even with a wool coat, I was freezing by the end). However, I'm tempted to come back and stay in this charming Russian layer cake of a hotel. It's a bite-sized version of the Grand Budapest Hotel.