Lake Baikal, Vodka and Fear

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Baikal summer transport..

Spike and Zach return at some point in the evening and they are both asleep on Spike’s bed when I wake up. We three Australians and Lukash are up and moving before eight o’clock to get to the ferry terminal for our planned visit to the lake. I also discover my super blister has burst overnight. The gauze has absorbed the fluid, but the skin underneath is still tender, so I bandage it again anyway. We walk into the street and catch a taxi at the first intersection. We arrive at the ferry terminal about half an hour early and approach the window to see what tickets we can get. After Lukash has a long conversation with the woman at the window we discover there are just three tickets available on the next ferry. We talk for a while about what to do when a man standing near the window advises us that Lukash will have no problems getting on board if the three of us get tickets. We like the idea and, after much deliberation and changing of minds, we get tickets all the way to Bolshie Koti, then we return on the midday ferry to Listvyanka and then on the six o’clock ferry to Irkutsk. I’m mostly happy we will get to travel up the wide mouth of the Angara River and enter Lake Baikal travelling on water.

 

We have no problem getting onboard and Lukash never gets charged for the trip. The bonus is we’ve been given the front four seats on the hydrofoil ferry and enjoy a good view. It doesn’t take me long to head for the back of the boat and the viewing platform upstairs I know I will find, since these are exactly the same boats we travelled on in St Petersburg. I’m glad I do, because the morning mist is still lining the green hill ranges on either side of the river. It lifts like a curtain of smoke from the ridges of the hill lines and I become lost in the timeless beauty of the scene passing by us. Lari arrives, takes one look and then returns again with her film camera in hand. There is a breeze only from the boat’s speed, the morning is calm otherwise with an overcast sky that threatens to rain at any point. The wind cuts me to the bone. I’m wearing only one of my tie-dye t-shirts and suffer for it; I was expecting another warm, sunny day. I duck inside to buy a beer from the shop and return to my position hoping it will help warm me while I’m busy loving the journey.

 

I return downstairs shortly before we land at Listvyanka to find Lukash and Don asleep in their chairs and the man from the ticket window sitting in mine. He immediately offers it to me and I refuse, I’m only back to pick up some extra AA batteries for my camera. After changing them over, I head back to watch the landing process and see the town for the first time. Listvyanka sits at the mouth of the Angara River and I think owes most of its size to the array of hotels, hostels and cabins you can stay in there. Everything from a very new five star hotel down to backpacker dorms are available along the two hundred metre foreshore. There are more normal houses around the curve of the bay and over the steep hill that drops into the lake. We pause to drop passengers off and pick up others to complete our journey to Bolshie Koti. We now travel along the shore of Lake Baikal itself and watch as the green, forest covered hills get higher in a long line of steep ridges that stretch like fingers into the lake. Looking out across the lake there are banks of clouds that seem to be standing on the surface of the water somehow, arising from the depths like a crenellated wall. There is a curious feeling flowing across me now, like the lake is testing me, checking me for something and then testing me again. I don’t know what it’s looking for, but the rest of the day builds on this feeling.

Bolshie Koti

Hot boat action

We arrive at Bolshie Koti, a beautiful small town of wooden houses with a small river flowing through it into the lake. It exudes a preternatural peace. I can see smoke slowly coiling from a number of chimneys in the village of wooden houses. Most people on the boat are backpackers here to stay for a day or two, taking the place of everyone gathered on the shore waiting to leave. There are a large array of rustic hostel style accommodation options, mostly in wooden houses and log cabins. There is one section with very new houses, some still being built and one has a sign up announcing it is a resort. You feel like you could sit here and write, or play a musical instrument, every day without a care in the world. I’m sure meditation in the forest that rolls across the steep hills behind the township would be a fantastic experience. With the calm the place exudes, the lake to look at and the smooth, worn stones that make up the beach line to sit upon; I’m sure inspiration and introspection would build a natural symbiosis.

We start walking further inland away from the lake, following a dirt road and a sign that promises we can buy smoked Omul. The road gets worse and worse with no sign of the promised Omul vendor. Lukash’s four wheel drive skateboard is having trouble and we turn back to the main village. We pass another old wooden house when I see something move inside the window. There’s no glass in the opening, which makes it a lot easier for the horse to push its head through the window frame to watch us. I laugh out loud at the spectacle and wait for the horse to speak. This place really used to be a house, but the horses seem to have taken it over now. I wonder how they operate the door handles without opposable digits. This place is not somewhere to visit in a day, it’s somewhere to stay for a week and create something, or share time with someone special. I add it to my growing list of places to revisit on my now inevitable return.

Don and Lari take the plunge

I return with an extra 25 years on my life!

We jump the boat back to Listvyanka and hide inside as the rain gets stronger for most of the journey. We disembark and take a stroll along the shoreline away from the river mouth.
“So are we going to swim in the lake now?” Lari prompts.
“I think so”, Don confirms.
“Let’s do it”, I agree enthusiastically.
“But where?”, Lukash asks, indicating the difficulty in finding an easy spot to enter the water. There are jetties, bridges and people everywhere; all of which make it harder for us to change clothes to swim in the incredibly cold water. We climb a hill that rises alongside the shoreline and we spot a place that looks promising. It’s sheltered under a vertical cliff and behind some rusting metal cabins sitting on the edge of the water line. Don, Lari and I clamber down the hill to check it out. We end up getting carried away in the moment and soon enough we’re all changing clothes. Don dives into the water just long enough for me to take a photo, then leaps out of it swearing like a sailor and shivering uncontrollably. Lari leaps in and I make the plunge myself. It is easily the coldest water I’ve ever been immersed in, the kind of cold that cuts to your heart in a few moments while your wise old mind is screaming at you to get out before it gets any worse.
“We did it! That’s twenty-five years on all our lives now!” Don exclaims.
We’d all read that in one of the guides. Apparently dipping your foot in gives you two extra years, a foot and hand gives you five extra years, but your whole body gives you twenty-five. I’ve taken off the bandage that has been covering my blisters for the last week and I don’t need to put it back on anymore. Lake Baikal has become the end of that painful saga and I feel that I’ve somehow washed it away from me now. We are all shivering after being in the invigorating water, but are now exalting in the feeling of having conquered something else on our journey. Now we just have to swim at Vladivostok and the sequence will be complete.

As we climb to the top of the hill we realise that in our excitement we forgot Lukash was meant to swim as well. So filled with apologies, we return to tell him we need to find a new spot he can get to. We do find another one nearby, but he doesn’t have any bathers ready and asks what we think he should do. There seems only one answer and Lukash soon goes one up on the three of us with his naked dip in the lake. He emerges and uses our towels to dry off and get warm again before dressing. We are all feeling glowingly alive and head back to the main jetty in town to find some food. We randomly pick a café and open the door to discover Ryan the Irish astronomer sitting inside.

Mr Ivan!

He hugs Lari asking if she’s managed to behave since the night of the eclipse and introduces us to an American man he’s met while staying here at Listvyanka. We sit down and everyone takes the opportunity to order fresh Omul baked with vegetables and spices in a clay pot. They declare the Omul to be a fine eating fish, I have a taste and it’s very subtle; not a strong fish flavour at all. We chat for a while and have a round or two of vodka to warm us all up after the swim. Don and Lukash decide they want to drink vodka at one of the sheltered tables that we saw both on the beach and within a park sloping up the hill. Lari and I want to continue onto the Listvyanka market stalls to investigate them. I’m not feeling comfortable in this place and I really want to get back into town. We have to get on a train at seven tomorrow morning and having a late drunken night is going to make that difficult. Don is determined and Lukash is completely sold on the idea, so they wander off. They discover a tall concrete building that’s half complete with a group of Russians sitting inside it drinking vodka. They join the group and by the time Lari and I find them again, they’re fairly stonkered. I’m feeling more uncomfortable with the town as every minute passes. Don shoves food and vodka at me and I share a shot and some bread and ham with them, but my heart isn’t in it at all. So Lari and I leave them again to visit the market stalls. I feel like the place has turned on us, it wants us to stay, but not for anything good.

Each stall in the markets are run by family groups hustling together behind longs rows of trestle tables with an incredible array of craft work laid out on them. I make my way up and down all the tables a few times. There are an extensive array of trinkets made of wood and stone, fridge magnets abound next to all the jewellery. Every time I pass by the stalls in a different direction I notice something else, another curiosity. These are the best markets I’ve seen in Russia, so many different things and I end up buying quite a few pieces as presents for my family. Then I stumble across something even more amazing to me, something I’ve heard of, but never seen before. It’s made from a white stone formed into a spherical cage that contains a smaller spherical cage, that contains a smaller one again, that contains a central sphere.

In Siberia, horses have houses too..

It’s about the size of a golf ball and all the cages have the same pattern, so they can be lined up to give access to the sphere inside, or turned separately any way you like; they are not joined at all. It looks impossible and I’m sure it’s been manufactured as halves and glued together somehow. I’m examining it carefully to find the joins for a few minutes. I can’t see any, or find any way that they have been put together; it must have been carved from the stone. The layered cages still seem impossible to me and I decide I have to buy it as Lari arrives. I show it to her, asking if she can see how they’ve made it. The shop keeper is looking amused at us and then says, in Russian,

Carved Dragon Sphere

“If you like that one, look at this one”, as she hands me another one that’s larger than a grapefruit. It’s made from a beautiful green stone that sits with a calming cool in my hands. The outer shell is carved with two dragons coiling around it, facing each other and breathing fire. There are also two cockerels facing each other to complete the cage shape. There are five layers before the central piece and the centre has been drilled through and hollowed out so you can see straight through it when you line up the layers. I marvel at it for a while, turning it over and over, noticing new details in the pattern and marvelling at the construction.
“How do they make it?”, I ask the shop owner and through some charades and simple Russian I put together this story.

 

It began life as a sphere of stone and then an artist works away at the stone with an array of tools to separate the outer shell from the inner sphere. The shell is carved with patterns on the outside and forms a cage for the sphere. They then work away at the sphere to produce another shell, making two layers with a sphere left in the middle. They then repeat this for as long as the size of the stone permits; always keeping a small sphere in the centre. I buy both for a discount and she packs them in paper and wraps them in bubble wrap before I tenderly place them in my backpack.

The bridge...

The real bridge for those who can walk another 20 metres

Leaving the markets we spot Don and Lukash sitting opposite in one of the sheltered tables with two extraordinarily drunk Russian men. All four of them begin appealing to us to come and join them to share vodka, food and laughs. My discomfort in staying in this town is reaching stressful levels now. I suddenly realise we’ve missed our ferry back to Irkutsk. I’m beginning to see us stranded here after the buses finish and trying to find a taxi to avoid missing the train tomorrow. I feel like I’ve claimed my prize from this place and must now leave before it claims something from me in return. I don’t think what it wants is anything I will like. I’m telling this to Lari and asking if she’s feeling anything,
“I just want to leave and soon. I don’t want to be stuck here”.
She looks just how I feel and the pair of us refuse to sit down.
“Just sit down and be friendly, that’s why we’re in this country, to meet great people like these guys”, implores Don, gesturing wildly at the two men.
I look at them and agree they seem good enough, if I wasn’t feeling like I do, I’d probably stay.
“We have to get the bus, there’s one leaving soon, we’ve got to get out of here”, I plead with Don.
He is drunk enough to not care anymore and abuses us again for not being friendly with their new Russian comrades.
“It’s got nothing to do with that, this place is….wrong…it’s not good, something bad is coming to us if we stay. We’ve got to leave and I don’t want to leave you behind”, I entreat.
This hysteria has me completely now. The only thing I’m really sure of is that we need to be away from here and preferably back at Spike’s apartment. A huge sigh of relief escapes my lips when Don looks at my face and decides he will come and then Lukash follows. It still takes another five or ten minutes to actually stand up and move, then their new Russian friend follows us all the way to the bus and makes sure we get on the right one. They all swap email addresses as we settle onto the bus and for the first time I start to feel happier. It’s only when we’re much further away that I begin to relax.

Don and Lukash aren’t happy at all being taken away from their lively vodka session and the mood doesn’t disperse until much later the next day. We get off the bus next to a supermarket and I volunteer to cook a pasta meal for everyone. We acquire everything along with some more beer and wine, then head back to the street to find the tram to take us back across the river to Spike’s place. It’s already after eight o’clock and I’m getting nervous again.
“Let’s just get a taxi, it’ll be quicker”, I suggest,
“I can’t afford that”, Lukash says pointedly.
“I don’t care, I’ll pay the fare for everyone if we can just get in it and be home soon”, I offer.
They agree and we flag down a six seater and all pile inside. On the way I send a message to Spike asking if he’s at home. He informs me he won’t be back for another hour or two. He then tells me where he’s hidden the key so we can get inside alright. I thank him profusely and my mood lightens every minute. When we are all back inside the apartment I feel like we’re safe again and begin cooking immediately. With the wine and beer flowing, some semblance of normality is restored, but the undercurrent of darkness remains.

Spike returns in time for us to serve him dinner and wine and we all relax even more in his incredibly calm presence. He says he’s going out again and probably wont return until the next day, so we begin our goodbyes and put together our Australian souvenir gifts for him. Lukash is staying for another few days, so he will let us out and lock the door in the morning. Before he leaves Spike invites me to use his bed if I want and I take him up on the offer gratefully. The chance of having a good night’s sleep after the stress of the last few of hours is perfect timing. I show Don my new curiosities and he does agree they are very cool, but still not cool enough to drag him away from hanging out with local Russians. I sleep off the day’s emotion with a couple of crazy hairless cats to keep me company.

In the morning we leave watching Lukash fending off Lena so we can get past. He will arrive in Vladivostok on the next Wednesday morning, just in time to meet us before Lari and I get on a plane back to Moscow on Thursday morning. We walk to the corner looking for a taxi and can’t find one nearly as easily as yesterday. Feeling the urgency of getting to the station, we decide to keep moving and walk down the hill as quickly as we can. We make it with twenty minutes to spare and find our train quickly. We stock up with noodle bowls, bread and other food; knowing we are about to spend almost three straight days on the train. As we prepare our suitcases and tickets on the platform to be ready to board I look to the sky and say,
“There’s something wrong here, in this city, like a darkness that’s everywhere”. Don and Lari agree and we try to identify it.
“Probably a big drug trade coming through from South East Asia. I read somewhere there’s a lot of heroin coming through here.” I speculate.
“Probably, but the feeling in the city seems to be larger and deeper than just that”, Lari adds.
“Or, it could just be that it’s been overcast and raining the whole time we’ve been here”, adds Don, trying to bring us back to reality.
“It was a bright sunny day when we arrived, Don”, I point out. He looks very thoughtful,
“Are you sure?”
“Check your photos”. His eyebrows raise and he pulls his camera out and scans back through them.
“You’re right; it’s a beautiful sunny day. Why does it still feel overcast?” he wonders aloud, an expression of curious realisation forming on his face. I look to the sky again and say almost as a prayer,
“I don’t know what it is, but there’s a black cloud hanging over Irkutsk.”

The shores of Lake Baikal

 

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