Travellers Report from Lake Baikal
"Scuba Dive Siberia" may sound like an implausible slogan for tourists, but it happened to me! To begin from the beginning, or where I left you last, the Grand Ol' Train #263 took me from Ulan-Bataar to Irkutsk, Siberia, with only several hiccups or annoyances along the way: firstly, the extended 11 hour wait at the Russia-Mongolia border (the Russians seem to do things like this purely for maintaining the stereotype of boundless bureaucratic timewasting), and the conversely clipped wait at Naushky, just over the border. This second wait was, by my understanding, to be 3 hours, But the driver had other ideas, leaving the platform and me after 2 and a half hours. To be fair to the Russian transport system, I'd gone for a second helping of sausage at the station "Foodstuffs" store, so whilst I maintain the train left early, I must admit that gluttony led me astray. Anyway, after a breathtaking ride through Siberian forest-land (which I must admit became somewhat blurry at 120km from a Soviet era taxi window) I managed to catch the train 150km later, and muscle my way on past the reluctant carriage attendant. So in short, I had my sausage & ate it too, with accompanying vodka provided by my Mongolian travelmates, so pleased were they to have me back. And regained all my luggage, which had been on the runaway locomotive.
Thus I arrived in Irkutsk, now sausageless (this was very soon to be remedied) but alive and relaxed. Irkutsk, the sort-of capital of Eastern Siberia, is funny old town with a mixture of 2 large, central 19th century European - style boulevards, buildings all arches and cast iron painted in bright pastels, and quaint, shambling wooden houses with carved, decorative window shutters. So if you were to view it through a kaleidoscope, this city would be a spiky blaze of aqua, yellow and pale blue in the centre, and a grimy but geometrically fantastical ring of greys & browns on the periphery. As I've just found out, the reason for this layout was the Great Fire of 1850-something; the town used to be completely filled with wooden houses, making it picturesque but flammable. So after the bulk of the city was burned to the ground, the government proclaimed that no wooden building would be built in the city centre. Hence the boulevards & pastels. The city now is quite beautiful to look at, cold and sunny, and possessing a wonderful central market with an incredible chamber of meat. As you can imagine I spent quite some time nibbling lamb pelmeni (dumplings) and dribbling eagerly all over the fleshly displays. Also buying more sausage.
Irkutsk lies on the Angara river, which is one of many flowing into the awe-inspiring Lake Baikal, a massive, statistically staggering (largest freshwater lake ever, possessing one sixth of Earth's freshwater and thousands of species found nowhere else in the universe. Including special Baikal seals!) body of water many consider to be the heart of Siberia. To reach the lake I headed first to Listvyanka, a pretty if touristy (God forbid!) village on the lakeside, from I attempted, and eventually completed, the six-hour hike to Bolshie Koty. Bolshie Koty is a tiny fishing village accessible only by boat or the aforementioned cliffside (that is, frequently crumbling cliffside) walk. And despite the name it's one of the least Soviet places I've seen yet. I reckon about 250 people live there, all in these traditional log cabins and wooden huts. The location is quite spectacular, with the lake on one side a narrow & narrowing valley opposite, and steep slopes on the other two sides. It is Autumn here, so the pine, larch and birch (which I was later to encounter in a more intimate form) was really in superb colour. Also I was lucky enough to meet Asti, a Swiss forest engineer who explained to me in great detail the differences between the pine, birch and larch of the taiga (Siberian forest) (oh Asti! Dreamy gaze and exquisite nose, you stole my heart and went to Vladivostock!).
Anyway, upon arriving, I managed in my mangled phrasebook Russian to ask a toothless, moustachioed fisherman a blue & white stripey shirt on. With a boat neck!) for some accommodation. And he led me to the dwelling of Devard Stom, or old One-Eye, as the villagers called him. In case you wondered, he has a glass eye. And is crooked and eccentric, and a professor of Toxicology & Marine Invertebrates, Valued Worker of the Russian Federation (that last bit was printed on his business card). Now meeting the excitable One Eye in this remote village of fish and lake mist (it was like something from Dylan Thomas) was overwhelming enough for me. But there was more. First of all, he is the Only Jew in the Village (apologies to Little Britain, though see later text for Aaron's Guide to Homoerotic Siberia, the "banya"section) that my arrival in Bolshie Koty had changed this to One of Two Jews, we had a little moment together. I had only planned to spend one night there, but after this I knew I'd be there for longer. And lucky I was, for after a couple of days of relative peace, spent eating delicious olmul (fish unique to Baikal) in warm smoked, cold smoked, grilled, salted and raw form, long walks in the taiga, and marveling in that childish, antipodean manner at freshly fallen snow, I had several fortuitous meetings. First was Sasha, a carpenter & microbiologist also staying at Devard's. Sasha was there with his trusty partner Sasha (this is becoming a pattern; in Irkutsk I shared a room with the Belgian pair Isabelle & Isabelle. In accordance with my long held Tintin fantasies, I can only hope Thompson and Thompson are next. Or should that be Thompson & Thomson?) to build a house, with these massive chunks of wood they use for everything here. Basically, like many Russian academics & scientists, he earns a pittance in microbiology, so survives on building work (for the same reasons, Devard Stom, a Professor highly sought after abroad, has to run his ramshackle guesthouse). Upon seeing me in the communal kitchen, he immediately invited me to his room to share dinner, and so I and this broad-faced, solemn Siberian with enormous hands & only 4 and a half fingers on the right one, sat down in the poky timber room. Now I was all ready to rip into the salty fatty feast we had prepared, but he calmly motioned for me to wait, bowed his head, reached for the bible beneath his pillow, and said (from what I could understand) Grace. Now all this was predictable enough for Russia, but what I hadn't reckoned with was his particular creed: through our combined bilingual attempts, I managed to ascertain that I was in fact dining with one of Mother Russia's few thousand Jehovah's Witnesses! Yes, all you Ragers, the J-Ho's had found me even in farthest Siberia! However, apart from a few references to all the "brothers & sisters" the meal passed pleasantly, and we maintained our friendship over tea, vodka and yummy Russian lollies on the building site over the next few days.
My other lucky meeting and consequent friendship occurred when a boatload of Irkutsk Region Underwater Workers rolled, or should I say floated, into town. Led by the brawny, squint-eyed and square-jawed Stepan Mikhailovich and his plump, Vietnam Vet, underwater filmmaker prodigy father Mikhail Stepanich, these young men & woman (Artiom, Nikita, Roman, Nastya, and the English-speaking, Minimal-Trance-loving Maxim) had arrived on Mikhail Stepanich's boat to take their final
diving examination. The Father & Son team, both Master Divers, were to test them. As I later found, this was to be no ordinary diving; rather, full-on brass helmet Jacques Cousteau heavy-duty equipment, which is apparently, despite it's archaic experience, still used at great depths. Now as often happens with underwater workers (I'm still not exactly sure what work they were to do; I think a combination of Baikal search & rescue, and aquarium cleaning), one thing led to another, and I was coaxed into a complimentary scuba lesson with Stepan (or Styopa, as his diver mates affectionately referred to him. The Russians have such a lovely way with diminutives - just chant that softly to yourself: Styopa, Styopa...). So this, my friends, is how I found myself in a gigantic suit and airtank, scuba diving in the frigid Lake Baikal in the middle of October. I was wonderful, and after passing the age-old (Russian) ritual of the diving initiate - drinking vodka from a scuba mask - we settled down to a night of jolly celebration and of course, olmul, on the good ship Mikhail Stepanich. At the end of which I was treated to some hours of his special underwater cinematography, replete with bubble noise and ambient soundtrack.
So it was with some sadness that I left Bolshie Koty, this miniscule Hamlet full of surprises, but I was lucky enough to leave the walking trail this time, arriving back in Listvyanka on the Underwater Workers' boat. After saying my goodbyes to the team, I trudged for several hours through the frozen, snowy early-evening, looking for accomodation. But none was to be found. Demoralised, and lacking sausage, I was all ready to take the last bus back to Irkutsk, when I saw a toothless man in head-to-toe camouflage print. Yes! It's aways the toothless ones! He of course knew the perfect place to spend the night - a cosy room in a wooden cottage onsite the lake, run by homely Tanya & Vasily. Just about to plunge into sleep, I was roused by a strange grunting from the adjoining room, punctuated with snippets from daggy Rock'n'Roll
Classics sung in a thick Russian accent. I went to explore, and thus met Alexander (the grunter, an enormous businessman from Kamchatka) and his Elvis-loving companion, Galina. From what I could gather they were having some sort of secret tryst, as they each referred to having different children in different cities, yet behaved somewhat amorously toward each other. However, they seemed unconcerned at me knowing, and invited me in to dine with them on olmul, and of course, vodka. This dinner-time generosity seems to be a Russian trait, and is really wonderful for a traveller and glutton such as myself, extended as it is to absolute strangers in such a warm and welcoming manner. There's a special inclusiveness here which makes it a very rewarding place to travel in. Anyway, after dinner, I was invited to enjoy the banya, a sort of traditional Russian sauna which is still very popular today. So it was that I found myself, on an icy Siberian night, lying on a birchwood bench, my head and lungs filled with birch-flavoured steam, sweating like a bastard and being flayed with leafy birchwood branches by my potbellied companion. The routine of the banya goes as such: you strip to your dacks, enter the steam room, one person lies down, the other pours water on the heated rocks and first strokes, then whips, the former's back and front with the branches.
When it gets too hot to handle, so to speak (the thermometer read 60 degrees Celsius at one stage), you retreat to an annex, pour cold water over each other, retreat to another annex, and sit to down to relax of snacks & drinks. Then when the time is ripe, return to the steamroom! Apparently it's incredibly popular amongst young & old, particularly men. It is, I suspect, this apparently very homophobic country's safety valve of male intimacy, and had me wondering whether it would take off in Australia! But it's also a very pleasant social atmosphere. So we had a grand old time, taking turns at lashing each other, then retiring to the relaxation room. It was a refreshing if at first overwhelming way to spend a Sunday evening. So, whipped & steam-cleaned, I returned to Irkutsk, which is where I find myself now. Tomorrow, the 3 day train-trek to Moscow begins, but for now I must leave as the trance music in this internet cafe is far from Minimal, and the building seems to be flea-infested. But thank you again to all those who've emailed - it's excellent to hear of your goings on.