Friday, March 28, 2008

...the Jewel of Siberia...

We had flown half way across the world and traveled thousands of km by trains to reach this famed lake in the heart of Asia and in no single way did it disappoint. Lake Baikal is the deepest lake in the world. From steep cliffs it dives deep, encompassing 20% of the world’s fresh water (more than the five great lakes of N America combined) and from top to toe curves some 500km. Asia is being ripped in two and this is the scar. Many many years from now it will form a new ocean, but for now it is a concentration of beauty at the center of Siberia.

We caught our first glimpse from the train as it passed along the southern shore. Though it looked huge, you never got a true sense of its immensity as its thin elongated shape means you can always see at least two shores (at least where we went). We hopped off at Irkutsk, stretched our legs and, via a misled attempt to catch a ferry, headed for the bus station. There we met a rather strange couple of Americans who helped us translate our needs, but alas the bus was full. A few discussions later we were squeezed into a taxi speeding off north through the increasingly empty valleys.

I slept very soundly for the majority of that journey (vodka and poker had taken its toll), but the glimpses on waking were of lightly grassed sloping hills and valleys with the occasional rocky outcrop. A land shaped by the retreating of ice. And then…we arrived. Largely ignoring some rude chaos caused by a couple of soldiers trying to arrange a car queue on to the only ferry to our destination – Olkhon Island – we climbed up the adjacent cliffs and were graced with some of the best views I have ever being lucky enough to witness. Birds and blue sky above, the ground dropped to crystal blue waters and across to the island and beyond. Dingo was rather jealous of the rest of our ease in clearing out our systems – apologies for being so crude but these little things play a big part in any such adventure – an immaculate sensation with such serenity around you as many will know but less commonly admit.

Across the bay that is frozen for much of the year (the original Trans-Siberian railway used to run a track across the ice over the winter period with the predictable nasty accident or two), we sped on again in the taxi, past the odd tiny village and cattle. We arrived at a little village about half way up the island at Nikita’s Guest House. The ex-Soviet table-tennis champion has set up one of the most delightful hostels possible. A collection of wooden buildings covered in intricate carvings and made according to local tradition. A place that genuinely gives back to the community as well as giving so much to those who stay. Peaceful and serene, you can sit in the main hut listening to stories from all round the world, sing and be merry. Not to mention the simply delicious food.

One day the four of us ventured out, across the plain and into the forest with a rough aim of finding the highest point on the island. We were quickly taught a lesson of the extremity of the climate in Siberia. After slowly climbing through the trees for a couple of hours the snow started – in blumin’ June!! As we carried on it blew harder and harder until the tracks disappeared. We ventured further attempting to use signals (knife cuts etc) to mark our path but after a while Dingo and myself decided enough is enough. If we kept on we were likely to lose the path and would need to rely on my compass leading us back to the coast…and then take an educated guess as to north or south as we had no proper map or bearings. Dave and Thilo were eventually convinced to turn round (it took some convincing with Thilo) and soon we had found our way back to the path. Some good Russian sausage cut with my Swiss Army and we trudged home arriving soaked to the bone and rather knackered. No better way to fix this than a banya followed by a hearty meal. A banya is the Russian equivalent to a sauna. A sort of steam room with birch twigs. The less said about the look in Thilo’s eye with a wet flailing branch in his hand and loads of bare flesh to beat the better… very scary.

Perhaps the best views were from the top of the island. We reached the high, sheer cliffs by jeep and my word was it worth it. Coupled with views of a magnificent beach near the village, this looked more like the Med than Siberia. The water is startling turquoise, stretching out to deep deep blue over the chasms beneath. Beyond, the water stretches to cliffs crowned with the last of the winter’s snow. Hopping round stark rock formations, watching the birds and, if you have my imagination, looking down on what just might be nerpa nerpa – the only fresh water seals in the world (OK, I admit they could have just been rocks). I love that place.

On the way back some silly boys' talk lead us to strip off and leg it into the icy cold waters (6-7 degrees C) to the amusement of the ladies who had joined us in the jeep (it is worth mentioning that Jenny was a particularly interesting and fun companion – taking a break from her studies in Irkutsk and Cambridge). I did not last long as my most intimate parts violently re-entered my body and the chills took over. I think Dave stayed in the longest and Thilo definitely came out the worse being a victim of collateral glass from locals chucking vodka bottles out from the beach, but a thoroughly fun experience, if not necessarily recommended.

On the more adventurous side we rode crazy horses along the shore (Dingo just does not get on with the beasts) and Thilo and I had an interesting experience with a bunch of drunk local soldiers. What do you do when a Russian equivalent of a VW camper van tries to run you off a cliff, stops, reverses and a couple of drunk soldiers stick their heads out ushering you to come forth. Well…of course you go over and spend the next half hour downing their vodka to scary multiple toasts, trying to refuse as politely as possible their offer of smoked omul from the floor (a local fish that apears to be the staple diet here) and doing our very best to communicate. When they started to hurtle down the hill to find more of Vodka, we insisted on our exit to their disappointment. We left with positive hugs and shakes. Nice.

Though of all of this and more, it is the Siberian sunset that will stay with me (and no doubt my friends) to times when only a couple of marbles are knocking together in the head. Each day we would climb to the top of the West facing cliff, Dave would build a fire, we’d crack open the bevvies and just stare. Stare out over the water to the far cliffs and the ever deepening reds of the sky. Truly something else, it bought tears to my eyes and left me content. I can only say thank you.
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