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Published: October 16th 2007
I was met on Saturday morning - 7 am Siberian time, 2 am Moscow time, which I was still on - by Valera, my host in Siberia. As luck, or serendipity, would have it, he offered to take me straight to Lake Baikal, the sacred lake about 70 km from Irkutsk. He said he had an apartment there also, about 100 m from the lake, with a view to it from the bedroom window - would I prefer that instead? What a question! I wanted to kiss him! It was just what I needed after all that time in big cities and on the train. So we drove straight to the Lake in his car and watched the sun rise over miles and miles of forests and frosty fields. And the apartment there was simply amazing - south-facing, with a balcony, and the most beautiful view to Lake Baikal. I saw a dream-catcher in Valera's car, and as it turns out, he is very interested in shamanism and spirituality, and proved to be a fantastic resource during my time here. Not only that - he's also a brilliant cook. Forget everything you ever read about Russian food being vile - the
home-cooking I have experienced here is divine.
The weather was marvellous in Listvyanka, a small village that stretches along the Lake. I was preparing for Siberian winter: instead, I had three days of wonderful sunshine and the last of the autumn heat: around 16-17 degrees celsius. I was walking around in a t-shirt most of the time.
Even though I hadn't slept, the day was simply too nice, and I set off to explore the village. Behind the apartment is a hill, which I ascended - it leads to a sacred Buryat place. The Buryats are a large ethnic group in this area, they are a peoples of hunters, cattle-breeders and shamans who lived in log huts/yurts (some still do). The area around Lake Baikal is rich with archaeological sites, rock paintings, carvings, and old Siberian vilages, as well as the taiga, the Siberian forest consisting mainly of pines, firs and cedars, and in which brown bears still reside! From the hilltop, you have the most amazing view to the lake, and Buryats have tied many cloth ribbons to the trees and railings as an offering to the local deities. The Buryats work closely with the land, and
believe everything around us is sacred. Valera told me that apart from cloth ribbons, they often leave food, vodka and even cigarettes at their sacred places as an offering for the spirits. Being up there, I thought I was in Sicily. It was an incredibly clear day with a bright sun and not a cloud in the sky - it felt like I was in Cefalu at the Temple of Diana, looking down at the turquoise sea, in particular as Baikal is so big and the weather so clear that you can drink it. All around the lake are snow-covered mountains and hills, and the yellow autumn leaves were contrasting with the water and the silver-white birch trees. I never thought Siberia would be this... beautiful.
Listvyanka, the village, is a contrast between the old and the new. People still live in beautifully ornate and colourful wooden huts that are connected by dirt tracks mainly, but then there is an abundance of big four-wheel drives with tinted windows. Even though it's touristy, it's a lovely place: there's a fish market and people sit by the lake, eating freshly smoked fish, and I discovered another sacred Buryat site at the
end of the village, with an amazing view to the lake and the mountains. Unfortunately, these sites (and the shores) are also incredibly littered: there are heaps of plastic bottles and other rubbish every few meters.
Siberian cemeteries are interesting also: every grave is enclosed with an iron fence, and besides every grave are one or two benches and sometimes a table, presumably so that the relatives can sit with the dea. Sometimes offerings of food are besides the overgrown graves, and the gravestones all have pictures of the deceased, sometimes etched onto the marble. I also saw the odd human bone lying around!
I also visited a 'sea acquarium - bad choice. Basically, two seals, one of which was called 'Winnie Pooh' locked in a tiny little basin performed tricks like playing ball and putting their heads through plastic rings on the command of a young girl. As I watched the scene, I thought, 'you should be wild and free, swimming in Lake Biakal - not be locked in this pitiful basin performing stupid tricks day in, day out, for human beings'. And then I thought: doesn't the same apply to us human beings? Shouldn't we
all be wild
and free, following our dreams, our deepest desires, our destiny - rather than being locked in jobs we don't enjoy, civilisation and social norms?
Later that day, I went on a boat trip around the Lake, where I was befriended by a family from Kazakhstan, two brothers, a sister and a disco-dancing uncle. The men sported rows of gold teeth and lots of bling, and one of them was carrying a large camcorder around and merrily filmed all my conversations with 'Hassan', who tried to persuade me to run away to Kazakhstan with him. His brother nodded emphatically, indicating that this would be a good idea: 'you have four cars in Kazakhstan if you marry brother - Toyota!' Tempting as this great offer was, I declined - and I resisted the temptation to mention Borat to them as well!
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