Published: June 6th 2010May 5th 2010
The tiny, rickety old bus ground to a halt after a 40km spin on a bumpy, pot-holed road that wound its way through taiga forests and in between mountains to the fishing village of Baikalskoe on the northern shores of Baikal, the world's largest freshwater lake. Only myself, two babushkas and a teenage girl had been on the bus that had left Severobaikalsk at 8am. A few more people seemed to be getting on here for the return journey but it would still be far from full.
The inhabitants' faces were noticeably more weathered by alcohol and the elements than people in Severobaikalsk, their clothes plainer and older. I got off the bus and stepped around a burly man in terminally faded camouflage gear, his perhaps half-Buryat face red, lined and covered in stubble, who was waving goodbye to people on the bus. I wandered down the dirt street lined with a mixture of pretty, traditional wooden houses with colourful carved windows and tumbledown shacks that I dreaded to imagine people spending a Siberian winter in. Cockerels crowed as they patrolled the side streets with their gangs and a pair of cows grunted lazily as they plodded down the track
ahead of me. A lone toddler in filthy, home-sewn, yellow-brown rags stumbled past me in the other direction, his inquisitive eyes staring straight into mine as he passed.
I had eight hours to kill in this tiny place before the next and last bus of the day back to Severobaikalsk. I reached the boat-studded shore of the vast, frozen lake and looked around me. On either side there were promontories jutting out into the impenetrable whiteness of the ice but the one to my left was closer so I decided to climb it. I went up a slope and passed a small wooden church overlooking the lake then followed the gradually rising promontory past a graveyard strewn with almost psychedelically colourful wreaths and offerings. A wood closed in and I was left following a fairly narrow open strip of land for twenty minutes or so until I arrived at the end and top of the promontory. I sat down on a rock and gazed around. To my right the jangle of cattle bells drifted from somewhere in the forests and valleys that stretched away to the horizon; straight ahead the brown, wooden sprawl of the village lay at the
foot of a line of snow-capped mountains; to my right the dazzling expanse of whiteness that was the lake stretched away and met the sky and an undefinable point. I heard the growl of an engine from the village and a few moments later spotted an old Soviet motorcycle driving out onto the frozen lake. I followed its progress for several minutes until it disappeared over the horizon.
I was getting cold sitting on this high, windy point so I set off back towards the village, noticing as I did so a figure climbing uphill towards me. A minute later we met; he was a chubby man in camouflage gear, about my age with a simple but kind face.
"What are you doing here, are you working?" he asked me.
"No, I'm just walking around," I answered.
"Ah, you're a foreigner!" he told me, smiling.
"Yes, I'm from England," I said. "What about you, you live here in the village?"
"No, I'm from Severobaikalsk. Me and two friends are just working here. We're the fish police."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"Well we have to check the documents of anyone arriving
from the lake, to see if they have permission to hunt and fish there, make sure they're not poachers."
"Aah, I get it," I said.
"Would you like to come and drink tea with us?" he offered.
"That'd be great," I accepted.
"How come you speak Russian?" he asked as we walked downhill.
"I live in Moscow," I replied.
"Ah," he commented. "You know, we Russians don't really like Muscovites."
"Have you ever been to Moscow?" I asked.
"Just once, for six hours. I took the train there, met my sister and took the train back. I just hung around the train station area - there's nothing interesting for me in Moscow."
"So how long were you on the train for in total?"
"About eight days," he answered.
We reached the pebbly shore and the fish policeman, whose name had turned out to be Dima, took me to a camouflage-painted military truck parked right on the edge of the ice next to a long wooden jetty that protruded some hundred feet or so into the lake. He walked up some steps that led to a door in the back
of the vehicle and opened it. Inside was a table covered in all sorts of tins, wrappers mugs, scraps of bread, boiled eggs, and vegetables at which sat the other two members of the fish police. Behind the table was a wooden surface raised a few feet above the floor on which were strewn a few blankets and pillows.
"Come in, come in," Dima told me as he entered. I did as told.
"I've found a foreigner!" he said to his colleagues. "Where is it you're from again?"
"England," I answered.
"Ed, this is Vanya," Dima said, pointing at a huge, muscular, shaven-headed guy in camouflage gear.
"Nice to meet you," I said, shaking his hand.
"And this is Sasha," Dima introduced me to the third fish policeman, a well-built (though not excessively so), intelligent-faced man with longer than average fair hair. All three appeared to be about my age, twenty six.
"So what are you doing here?" Sasha asked.
"Just traveling," I replied. "I live in Moscow and I have twelve days of holiday now."
"You know, in Russia Muscovites are considered to be faggots," Sasha informed me.
Vanya agreed, nodding.
"Faggots," Dima explained, in case I had not understood.
"Come on," I said, "I've lived there for three years, they're not..."
"Faggots," Sasha said, holding up his hand and cutting me off.
"Faggots," Vanya seconded him.
"Faggots," Dima reminded me, in case I had forgotten.
I was silent, unsure what to say. Suddenly a bloodcurdling roar came from somewhere nearby.
"What the hell was that?" I asked.
"That's a bear waking up in the forest, you know, where we met each other," Dima told me.
"Seriously? So isn't it dangerous to walk around there?"
"No, it's fine. A bear will only attack you if it's tasted human flesh before. Or if you swear at it."
I laughed. "If you swear at it?"
"Yes, who was it that happened to?" Dima asked Sasha but then remembered and answered his own question: "ah yes, Vasily, he was out fishing on the lake and saw a bear. The bear turned to walk away but then Vasily told it to f**k off and it came back and ran at him!"
"What happened?" I asked.
"I can't remember,"
Dima replied, "Maybe he shot it or maybe he got in his truck and drove off."
"Are people ever killed by bears around here?" I asked.
"Sometimes, but when it happens it's almost always a drunk fisherman. You know, they're out there catching fish, the bears are too, they get jealous of each other, the fisherman's drunk..."
"Speaking of fishermen," Vanya said, holding up a finger for silence and listening. In the distance the faint hum of an engine could be heard coming from the lake. Sasha popped his head out of the door.
"Someone's coming, get ready," he told his colleagues. "Ed, stay inside."
Sasha and Dima each grabbed a clip board and some forms. Vanya put his hand down the side of the bed and pulled out a Kalshnikov machine gun which he hid somewhere in the folds of his enormous camouflage jacket. The three of them went and stood on the edge of the lake. Moments later, watching through the window of the fish police's vehicle, I saw a pickup truck arrive from the lake, the back containing some dead seals. Three men clamboured out of the vehicle and shook hands with
the fish police. Two I suspected of being brothers - both had spiky fair hair, wore sunglasses, were extremely muscular with not an ounce of fat between them and had faces deeply reddened and weathered, presumably by lifetimes spent out on the lake in the sun, wind and cold. The third man was older and looked less healthy, with ashen skin, greying hair and a hunched back.
"Documents and permits, please," Dima said to the smaller of the two brothers. The man croaked something that was to me unintelligible and handed Dima his papers. He had the sort of rasping, airy voice that, barely more than a tortured, gasping whisper, reminded me of a dying lifelong chain smoker who had featured in an anti-smoking film we had been shown at primary school.
"Name?" Dima asked politely.
"How long have you been on the lake?"
"Do you smoke?" he enquired pleasantly.
Dima attentively noted down the man's answers. Sasha took some documents from his brother, came back inside the vehicle and started copying information from them onto some of his forms. The silent giant Vanya
stood by watching the goings on with arms folded over his chest.
Soon the affair was over without incident, the truck was disappearing off into the village and the fish police were back inside with me.
"So where are you staying in Severobaikalsk?" Dima asked me.
"I'm staying at a babushka's house," I replied.
"No, not mine," I said. I wondered whether I should tell them the story of how I had met Galina and decided why not, I was pretty sure they were not teetotalers themselves. "I had been drinking vodka with people on the train from Krasnoyarsk. I don't remember arriving in Severobaikalsk but I woke up in her house. She had found me and invited me to stay with her."
For a split second they stared at me in silence before first Sasha then Dima and finally even Vanya burst into laughter. It went on for so long that tears began to form in the corners of their eyes, their faces turned first red then purple, they gasped and swore as they tried to get themselves under control.
"I'll drink to that," Sasha managed when it had finally
all subsided, pulling a bottle of vodka out from a box on the floor. He opened it, found four shot glasses and filled them up before uncovering a plate with a few boiled eggs and slices of onion.
"You see, Ed," he said, holding up his glass, "we were all a bit apprehensive at first because, you know, you're an Englishman, so we all thought you must be a highly cultured person. But now it's plain you're just a normal guy like us. To our meeting!"
We knocked back our drinks after his tost then each grabbed an egg and some onion.
"So did the babushka tell you what you were doing when she found you?" Dima asked.
"No, she just said I was drunk and swearing," I replied.
"You were probably swearing incorrectly," he told me. "You know swearing in Russian is like a science, an art. There are whole books written using only swear words. I can say to Sasha 'paraf**k the f**king antif**kery by the pref**kenated f**khole or it'll f**kilate us around f**king f**kshits' and he'll understand me."
Sasha nodded in agreement.
"You know," Dima said, talking to everyone now
and not just me, "the person I ever knew who swore the best was this 88-year old babushka who lived down the road from me when I was growing up. She pretty much only spoke in swear words and she knew how to use them so well! It was beautiful, she just swore so beautifully! She lived in a little wooden shack and she never locked the door. Everyone was always welcome to pop in for a tea, stay the night if they'd been thrown out of home, but never once was anything ever stolen from her house. Everyone loved her so much and she could swear just beautifully!" I was sure I heard a tremor of emotion in his voice and half expected to see a tear trickle down his cheek.
"Hey, let's have one more shot of vodka then start making lunch," Sasha said. "Are you staying with us for lunch, Ed?"
"That'd be nice, if you don't mind," I said. "The next bus is at five o'clock."
"Of course, stay and have lunch. If you want I've got some stuff to do in Severobaikalsk so I'm going to drive there at two, you can
come with me if you want."
"Thanks, that'd be great," I answered.
The shots were done, water boiled on a portable gas stove, an assortment of vegetables sliced and thrown in along with some tinned meat and salt. When the soup was ready we ate it with chunks of bread and the contents of our shot glasses which we took it in turns to refill. After the meal Sasha and I swapped smokes, one of my Marlboros for a lung-blackeningly strong papirosa cigarette with a hollow cardboard tube instead of a filter.
Shortly after the meal another car was heard out on the lake and approaching.
"Quickly, hide the vodka," Dima said, jumping up. Bottle stowed away, clipboards and machine gun at the ready, they waited on the shore.
When the car arrived it turned out to be an ancient Lada containing someone they knew so they invited him in to the vehicle. "Look, we've got an Englishman visiting us," Dima said as they climbed in.
He was a small, skinny, grey-haired man probably in his late forties. He was wearing camouflage trousers, jacket and hat. When his cheeky, stubble-covered face broke into a
smile, as it regularly did, a set of upper teeth that were entirely gold were startlingly exposed. He spoke in a crisp, clear voice with absolutely no hint of alcoholic drawl. This would have made him easy for me to understand if it had not been for the fact that his speech was a perfect example of what we had discussed before lunch - he spoke almost entirely with rude words. In the unstoppable stream of vulgarity that passed his lips, swear words that were nouns were modified to become verbs and the verbs took on items from Russian's plethora of prefixes, infixes and suffixes. Adjectives, participles and verbal adverbs were formed from the various root swear words and were stacked one on top of the other as he happily told the fish police about something, the meaning of which was completely lost on me. Dima, Sasha and Vanya, however, sat listening attentively, nodding in understanding and occasionally commenting or asking a question.
He was interrupted after a few minutes by a woman sitting in the passenger seat of his car I had not previously noticed who crowed, "Vasily, I'm going to be late for work!"
he apologised to us, "I'm going to have to go. See you all later."
A little later, after we had finished the bottle of vodka, Sasha also announced that he had to go.
"Ed," Dima said, "You can go with Sasha if you want but I'd like to invite you to stay the night with us. Do you want to?"
"I'm not sure, this babushka I'm staying with might be offended if I don't come home on my last night with her."
"No, no, she won't be offended, she'll be worried though if you don't tell her. Do you have her phone number?"
"Yes, I do. I'd like to stay with you guys but I just don't want to upset her."
"It's OK, just tell her you've met some nice people who invited you to stay and that you'll be back in the morning."
"Better to say you met some militsia who invited you to stay," Sasha suggested.
"Militsia? Are you crazy? She'd be terrified," Dima retorted. "She'd probably come here herself and take him home! Best to tell the truth, tell her you're with the fish police."
And so my
night with the fish police was agreed on. Galina was phoned and sounded neither offended nor worried. Sasha left in a rickety old four-wheel drive that had been parked alongside a Lada behind the vehicle they lived in. Dima, Vanya and I went outside for a breath of fresh air. For a few minutes we stood on the edge of the dazzling, flat white expanse, the wind that blew in off it chilling me to the bone.
"Well, what to do?" Dima asked.
"I've got vodka," Vanya answered, grinning.
"Why not," Dima said, chuckling. Vanya took a bottle from the boot of the Lada and we traipsed back inside.
"So Ed," Dima asked as we made our way through the bottle, "do you have a girlfriend in Moscow?"
"Uh huh," I answered.
"Why didn't she come with you? I guess you wanted to find a Siberian girl for yourself!"
"No, I didn't..."
"When are you going to marry her?" he cut me off.
"What do you mean? I'm not going to marry her! I mean it's only been a couple of months, it's far too early to even think about that
sort of thing!"
"Does she know you're not going to marry her?"
"It's not that I'm not going to marry her, it's just that I wouldn't think about marrying anyone unless I'd been with them for a few years!"
"Yeh I guess where you're from things are a bit more free like that. Here in Siberia if you f**k a girl you have to marry her. If you don't then her dad will beat the shit out of you. The only way you can get out of it is if you pick up an STD from her. But her dad will still beat the shit out of you. Another way out is to deliberately pick up an STD from a prostitute or whatever and claim you got it from that girl so you don't have to marry her. Three times I've had to do that, can you imagine!"
When the bottle of vodka was finished we went to the village shop and bought another.
"So, Ed," Dima announced when we got back to the vehicle, "as you know it's soon going to be the 9th of May, Victory Day. I would like to ask you
something that's very interesting for me. What do they teach you in your schools about the war? I've heard they teach that America won the war?"
"No, they teach that the Allies won the war together," I answered, "but also that Russia lost more people than any other country. 26 million or something."
"That's right," he told me, "but in our schools they teach that Russia won the war. America and England helped of course but it was us that won it. What do you call the war?"
"The Second World War," I answered.
"We call it the Great Patriotic War," he said.
"Interesting," I said, noncommitally.
"What about military service?" Vanya asked. "Does everyone in England have to do it?"
"No, we don't," I answered.
"Everyone in Russia has to," he told me. "I was in Chechnya."
"Yeh? Did you ever see Ramzan Kadyrov?" I asked about the Chechen President. I find it fascinating that the Putin - Medvedev government can get away with having a renowned mass murderer, torturer and rapist in such an important position.
"Yes, I've seen him. What are you, a spy or something?" He
smiled to show that he was only joking.
"What about you and Sasha?" I asked Dima. "Where did you serve?"
"We didn't, luckily," he said. "We each had brothers who had served before us so they helped us bribe our way out of it."
The vodka flowed, the conversation degenerated and suddenly someone had the bright idea of going for a drive on the lake. Out we went in the Lada, Dima roaring with laughter as he wrenched the steering wheel from side to side, causing the car to skid and spin on the ice. Eventually we stopped around a promontory and out of sight of the village. We finished the bottle of vodka, went back to the village to buy another, then drove back out onto the lake.
I knew what was going to happen just moments before it happened. I saw a patch of partially melted ice ahead but Dima somehow did not notice until it was too late. The front wheels sank into it and, rev as we might, the car would not budge. We all got out and took stock of the situation. Dima tried again with just him in the car.
It was useless. We spent hours out there trying to push the car to no avail. All of us fell into the patch of slushy ice several times, after which the cold wind became excruciating on our soaking bodies. To add to my utter misery I fell on the ice while trying to push the car and tore skin on the back of both legs.
The last thing I remember is seeing Sasha's four-wheel drive cruising over the ice towards us and realising we had been saved.
* * *
"I realised what must have happened when I got back and you guys and the car weren't here," Sasha told me the next morning. "You were very drunk. You see Ed, you shouldn't drink vodka with Siberian people!"
"Yeh, we all went a bit crazy last night," Dima said. "Did you hear that car come in off the lake at night? We should have checked it."
Vanya just chuckled. To contrast with his stern behaviour from the previous day, he now seemed barely able to stop smiling and laughing.
"Come on, let's have some breakfast then I'll drive you in to Severobaikalsk," Dima
"I advise you to have a couple of glasses of vodka," Sasha said. "You should never get drunk on a hangover. If you do, that means you're an alcoholic. But one or two glasses is always a good idea."
We did as he prescribed. Over breakfast I realised how much they must have been adjusting their language the previous day to talk to a foreigner: now their conversation was littered with expletives to the extent that I had very little idea what they were talking about. After we had eaten Vanya hugged me goodbye, Sasha shook my hand and Dima and I set off to town.
Back in Severobaikalsk I bought a bouquet of roses for Galina which she accepted with a nod and smile. She had prepared an enormous bag for my train journey full of her home-made pies, bread and bottled water. She also gave me a pair of sandals because my boots were soaking from falling into the patch of melting ice.
"Please, let me at least give you money for a new pair of sandals," I begged, but she wouldn't hear of it.
"Where's Jury?" I asked. "I'd like to
"Don't worry," she answered, "I've thrown him out of the house. He'd been drinking for a few days."
She drove me to the train station and came with me right to the door of the carriage.
"Look after him, he's a good boy," she said to the carriage attendant.
"Yes, he looks like a good boy," the carriage attendant said. "Come on, get on the train then."
"Make sure you phone me when you arrive to let me know you're ok," Galina said. "And make sure you wear warm clothes. It gets cold where you're going. Towns like Taksimo can hit the minus sixties in winter."
We hugged goodbye and I got on the train.
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