Published: December 14th 2006June 22nd 2002
North of Irkutsk the road is quite uneven and ridden with potholes. In fact, one man stands on the roadside waving his arms in an undulating fashion, so as to alert drivers of bumps ahead. He smiles and waves as we pass; his horse waits unbothered. Does he really do this all day long?
The landscape is featureless. Other than random shrubs, patches of forest and yellow wildflowers, few signs of activity exist. At Bayanday, we passengers were left off at a general store. Some stood around, some shopped or smoked. The store was one of those sole refuges of commerce in the rural expanse of Siberia, in which anything is for sale. We were likely their only customers for the whole day.
"Eto Fsyo?" the driver called. Is that everyone? No reply meant yes. He drove off east and slowly up a thousand meter ridge. Thirty minutes into the ascent, we arrived at a pass which warranted a smoke break. Once again, we exited the bus and stood around a gravel lot occupied by a couple selling kvass, omul and other random items. My eyes were struck by a copse and adjacent post littered with rags. Upon closer
inspection, I noticed the hundreds of thin strips of cloth had been tied to originally the wooden post and eventually the branches of the surrounding shrubs. This must have had a symbolic role. I bookmarked this image.
The asphalt disappeared around noon. The ensuing dustcloud became a source of discomfort as the bus filled up with a grainy mist. One obstinate scientist slammed the overhead vent shut. Heat soon swelled up and prompted a burly man to lift the vent. Not even a minute later, the svelte scientist closed the vent with an expressive pull. This battle would have continued endlessly had the bus not come to the lake's edge. We all fled out into the fresh air.
The bus is sideways waiting for the barge. Folks have flooded onto the gravel plain, the green hill and the log dock. Trash litters the margin of the gravel lot, cows snooze beyond it, a turquoise outhouse leans behind them and grave monuments crown the hilltop. Three women with a spaniel have arrived to watch the transfer. The Dorozhnik has docked, a rusty Ladar has carefully exited. (The landing is still under construction). A pick-up is being pushed in reverse off
the boat; perhaps the gear is out... no it's not. A lorry following in "head" beeping. Finally a Nissan exits. We roll on. Let's go...
The ferry inched across the thin strait slowing at the lone dock on the shore of the verdant isle. Yet another dirt road led the bus over and around hills to the dusty cluster of wooden houses known as Khuzhir. I was the only one to get off at the apparent bus stop. As the bus skidded forth, I looked for some indication of a hotel or establishment of bienvenue. To my pleasure, my eyes failed to espy any evidence of conventional modernity or attempt at tourism. The only identifiable edifice was the neighboring supermarket. I walked in and two ladies paused in the midst of their colloquy.
"Gdye gastinitsya?" I demanded. It was a natural tone in Russia.
"Vui turist?" Well, I guess I was a tourist, so I nodded.
They looked at each other and muttered questions. Having found a conclusion, one instructed me to find Nikita, pointing down a dirt road leading away from the present building. I couldn't follow the rest of her detailed and earnest instructions.
I walked down the
road past several homes, greeted a passerby, and turned left at the end as I had understood. Confronted with another dirt road and more houses, I wandered forth and approached a gate that stood out among the other unsuspecting dwellings. I knocked. A lean man with sandy blond hair appeared asking "Shto?"
"Are you Nikita?" I asked in Russian.
"Yes." He answered in English.
"Do you offer lodging?"
"Yes, everything for fifteen dollars."
What did everything exactly mean? I was naturally skeptical of spending US currency in Russia and therefore contributing to a black market. Yet, the price was agreeable for a bed, three meals, sauna and facilities. I accepted and he invited me in.
Nikita's homestead was surrounded by a thick tree-limb fence and composed of several log buildings designed to compartmentalize heat. Many "servants" and family members performed odd jobs, which were numerous faced with Nikita's plans for expansion. Jolly ladies occupied the kitchen and immediately began preparing a meal for me. Children ran around causing mischief, dancing in the mist, and shouting in unison when a surprise occurred. Dogs and a cat added to the bustle already established by the expansion. As the home was for the
majority self-sufficient, all required ample time for preparation. The cooks spent all day cooking. Washing was done by hand and local wood was used to start the fire. This labor-intensive lifestyle struck me, the idle lazy tourist. I felt led to contribute, rather than consume.
I soon met the other Americans Nikita had mentioned. The first was OJ, a thin hippie whose environmentally-friendly existence led him to develop a solar-powered source of energy for the homestead. This organized project turned out to be a laborious time-consuming and enervating endeavor. His efforts to wed a Russian were also just as hurdle-laden. With simply my attentive eye and open ear, he began to expatiate at length about his pet-peeves concerning Russian bureaucracy and society. He passed along one useful idea: In Russia, time is that which keeps everything from happening at once. I quietly listened and nodded until some other distraction captured our attention. It was time for me to eat.
After my hearty starchy meal, I settled in my room, a cozy and brisk chamber furnished with "organic" furniture and lighting. The whole was far removed from the electric and automated existence extant elsewhere. Out in the hall, I met the other American. A mid-twenties volunteer for the Peace Corps, Christine reflected my culture to a greater extent than the pentagenarian. She informed me that Nikita was a Soviet ping-pong champion and suggested that I check out the sacred rock.
The Buryats hold in high regard a large crag just five minutes behind the homestead. It emerges from a small bay formed by low meadow. It has a slight curvature that intimates movement, although petrified by time. It makes the world seem tilted, and gives itself a more aplomb appearance. The embracing waters, distant azure shore and vaporized firmament comprise a veritable sanctum for any spiritual biped.
That late afternoon over tea, I learned the word for rainbow. "Tam raduga!" shouted the children upon seeing a double band of color stretch across the fading day.
After a breakfast of rice porridge, crepes, and eggs over easy, I opted to partake in an excursion to the northern tip of the island, also endorsed by the volunteer. A tone maverick man in a leather jacket and aviator sunglasses drove six of us in his rugged van up the dirt road onto the steadily rising plain above Khuzhir. The dirt gave way to short grass streaked with treadmarks. Over hills and through streams, we came to a high spot topped by four posts. I recognized the many strips of fabric tied to the posts at different spots. Our guide stopped and explained to us the meaning. Both Buryats and locals share the tradition of tying rags in a sacred location to signify a wish or memory.
We continued as north as possible, stopping at a point known as Tri Brati. The "three brothers" in question were actually three crags, similar in nature to the sacred rock near Nikita's. Driving a bit further into the fog and hiking ten minutes through wet mist and steady wind, we reached the northernmost point. The view was quite naturally inexistent. Yet, I lay down on my stomach and inched my way towards the edge of the precipice to the east. I looked down at what death could look like. "That's the deepest part of the lake," I overheard our guide mention. Already several hundred meters above the crashing waves, I tried to imagine the other 1,625 meters hidden beneath the blue. My mind was unsuccessful.
Continuing in a circle around the isle, always the best of itineraries, we came to a wide valley on the lower part of the eastern shore. Only one distant house occupied the open verdant area. The stoic guide - he had not yet smiled on the entire trip - prepared a fire with nearby wood, rolled omul in aluminum and placed the victuals on a rack over the fire. This time baked, the omul had less flavor and came across as impressive as a boiled catfish. When one must use basic survival skills, taste is seldom a concern. These folk began to seem like ichthyophagists, subsisting solely on this untranslatable omul. I sat and enjoyed the fish, not really speaking to anyone. They carried on in Russian about some topic. I was consumed in my own solitude, bookmarking how far I had come and dwelling on the sensation of having arrived at a coastal valley on an island in Lake Baikal in the company of local strangers.
We returned to the homestead in the mid afternoon. There was no need to know the exact time on an island like this. As I walked in the wooden fence, I met the two French journalists. I had been told that two Frenchmen were also spending the night here. Speaking in French we introduced ourselves. They were both Breton, one from Rennes, the other from Morlaix.
In French, I asked, "Have you tried Coreff?" It's the local beer from Morlaix, one of the best I had tried whilst in Brittany.
"Wah!! It's my favorite! Imagine that, meeting an American who's drunk la Coreff on an island in Lake Baikal!" the stout one exclaimed in ebullient French.
We all were absorbed by the wonderment that travel brings when two souls who've occupied the same town link up on practically the other side of the planet.
They were writing a travelogue for a secondary publication in Brittany. For their next story, they planned to write about what they had just done that day: riding a Ural. "O, c'est la moto legendaire de la Russie!" exclaimed the stout one from Morlaix. This legendary bike was similar to the one seen in various adventure films, characterized by its side vehicle for a passenger to sit in. He pulled out his compact digital camera and clicked through a few of the photos they had taken. In one, Marcel (the stout one) was sitting on the motorcycle part and Remi (from Rennes) was stuffed in the passenger compartment, his head barely sticking out. Both wore the thin fabric helmets that simply slide over the head and black protective goggles. They looked like two geckos. In the next photo, they were zooming past, Marcel lunging forward and the other still stuffed in the sidecar expressionless, a plume of dust billowing behind them. As he flipped through others, I asked how they managed to borrow it.
"We paid the guy sixty dollars," Remi replied proudly.
It all seemed contrived. Although the story would look great and entertain a wide readership of French connoiseurs of culture, I failed to see the value in paying sixty American dollars to ride a Ural up and down the dirt road.
Over a meal of fish and caviar with potatoes, Nikita asked if I would like to take a sauna after dinner. I accepted the offer, given it had been a while since my last sauna, seven years prior in a Swedish chateau. Two newly-arrived Swiss travelers had joined the household and also expressed interest in one. After dinner, Nikita informed us that it was ready. Already wearing a bathing suit, I went ahead and entered the wooden cabin. Inside, it was definitely warm. I sat on a moist bench and took my t-shirt off. The warmth felt great, although it wasn't an intense heat that I had expected.
After about ten minutes, the wooden door swung open and the Swiss guys entered. Hanging up their towels, they asked me, "How is it?"
"Nice. It could be a little warmer."
As I sat there, they proceeded to take off their shirts and their shorts. Completely naked now, they walked in front of me over to a door that I had previously not seen. If I wasn't a bit surprised by their nudity, I was even more surprised when I saw them enter the real sauna. I had been sitting in the dressing room the whole time!
Feeling stupid, I pulled off my bathing suit, jettisoned my prudish upbringing, and joined them in the actual sauna.
After the sauna, three of the young Russsian boys invited me to play a round of ping-pong. It was no surprise to find a ping-pong table in the homestead of a Soviet table tennis champion. One of them, perhaps the oldest, welcomed my company, speaking to me slowly in Russian and then eagerly asking the translations of basic ping-pong words in English. "Paddle?" he asked as he tapped the ball my way. We played a game, which he won although not with ease. Presumably Nikita's son, he may not have the gift to be a champion.
I had decided to leave the following morning in hopes of returning in time to see England play Brazil and more importantly the US play Germany. Yes, the World Cup was having an influence on my schedule. On Olkhon, one has no hopes of catching a football match, even if lucky enough to pick up a channel. So, instead of taking the usual early morning bus, I asked around the homestead and heard that Andrei, yesterday's guide, would be driving to Irkutsk after breakfast. Perfect. I caught up with him before breakfast and asked if there was a spot in the van for me. "Da, kanyeshna" he replied, straight-faced and still wearing the aviator sunglasses, which he probably slept in the night before.
We left after breakfast, not promptly after by any means, but nonetheless after breakfast. After waiting twenty minutes or so in the van listening to the hippie, Andrei finally hopped in the van, which was visibly old but audibly functional, and revved it a few times. Jostling over the dirt road back to the ferry, I reflected upon the satisfactory sense of departure that one experiences after a trip well executed. I had not had any idea that I would be able to make such a trip to such a remote place. Yet, the timing was comfortable, the sights well worth the effort, and the experiences with the people meaningful. Having arrived at the ferry, Andrei brandished a bottle of vodka, distributed and filled four shot glasses and offered a traditional toast before taking a ferry. Of course, the boatman joined us in the toast as well. We all declared "Booz darof" and invited the "little water" to carry us across.
The van ride proceeded at a quicker pace than as had the bus a few days prior. I had in mind to offer several rubles in compensation for the gas. Having paid 200 rubles on the way up, I figured I would offer a hundred, especially considering that there were two other guys in the van.
Following the same roads, we passed the now familiar rest area with the cloth strips and the gloomy town at the main road (Bayanday). Nearing Irkutsk, the hippie asked how much I had arranged to pay Andrei. He rolled his eyes when I told him I hadn't made any arrangements. "Haven't you learned to always negotiate a price before making the purchase?" I shuddered at the realization of my oversight. True, carpooling customs back home wouldn't really apply here. Once I began to recognize where we were in Irkutsk, not far from the bus station, I asked Andrei to drop me off. Turning around with those same big, blank lenses and straight face, he said "Dve sti." Two hundred, just as I had expected. With barely two hundred in my pocket I resigned my payment to him, knowing that in Russia this is a fair price and that in Russia there is no such thing as a favor.