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Published: January 23rd 2020
We hunkered down on the narrow, snow covered train platform, and turned our backs to the frozen blast that the train pushed ahead of it. The east bound freighter rolled past at full speed a meter away as we sat on our bags and held on to our child. Had we known the exact nature of the Baikalsk rail station, we would have booked our tickets to Krasnoyarsk from Irkutsk and taken the morning bus back to the city. The cashier that sold us our tickets in Irkutsk two weeks prior had assured us that we would simply be able to load our bags into the baggage wagon, and then take our seats. But as Andre (taxi driver and Baikalsk native) drove us to the voxal, and we ran our plans by him, he became concerned and made a call. "The train will stop at the platform for only two minutes" he informed us. Shit.
We arrived at the station early and dragged all of our gear out to the central platform. Several other trains blew by while we waited in the dark, each pushing a beautiful, ominous cloud of frozen mist ahead. In between blasts, we staged our
ski bags and packs. We wanted to be as prepared as possible to make a run for wagon #3 when our train briefly halted to board passengers at this faceless platform in the middle of the snowy taiga. In the small building adjacent to the platform, an employee appeared ten minutes before the scheduled arrival. She was pleasant and gave us some info on exactly where we needed to be standing to jump on the third wagon. As I thanked her and headed for the door she said: "your Russian is pretty good". "Thank you" I replied, "I have been here a few times before". "And did you learn to converse like this from those trips?" "Yes.". "Well then, it pleases you here?". "Yes." I replied, and I certainly wasn't lying. For reasons that elude our mastery of English composition, we like it here.
Back on the platform, several other passengers confirmed her advice and so we moved our two big ski bags and three packs another fifty meters down the platform. Unfortunately, they were all wrong. Finally, an ominous light appeared in the east and our train, the infamous #001 Vladivostok to Moscow, slowly came to a frosty
stop in front of us like a scene out of a state-sponsored crime film from the Soviet days. We counted three cars back from the engine and lined up at the door in a cloud of airborne hoar frost . The door opened and several surly, gold-toothed attendants began rushing people aboard. They looked at our tickets and began yelling at one another and us. We were at wagon #18, on the exactly wrong end of a 300 meter long train with less than a minute to go. With no time to waste, the same idea coalesced in all of us at once: Oh well, load up! Давай, поехали!
In about 30 seconds we threw our bags through the door along with our kid and ourselves. The train was a kilometer down the track when we finally wrestled the door closed. Then came the hard part as we snaked our gear through 15 cars of moving train to our seats by the toilet in the last car. Through narrow hallways and crowded, open-sleeper cars we stumbled. It was slow going, stepping on toes and pissing off hostesses, until we finally arrived at the least desirable seats on the train
(the only available when we bought the tickets), where an unusually understanding hostess booted the two Uzbeks and some shady looking dude who were cuddled up in our seats watching a fight on a laptop. But the job was not done. One of us had to go back and deal with getting the ski bags, one by one, into the baggage car, while the other had to deal with a child who had come down with a wicked case of watery, explosive diarrhea a day before our big train trip...
By the time we climbed up out of the Baikal rift on a familiar set of switchbacks, we were all settled in and covered in sweat, which was at least better than being covered in shit. The open sleepers are sweaty incubators of humanity in all seasons, winter being no exception. The temperature in "platzcart" that night was a sweltering 29°C. And everyone was hot. But the worst was behind us now, and we stripped down as much as we could and ate our dumplings out of a plastic bag.
It is hard to imagine traveling around on Russian trains just to do it. They are crammed and
Singletrack is the roots of classic skiing. Some of the descents are terrifying!
smelly with rude service and short beds. But for a couple of ski bums trying to get from one place to another, they are an incredible value. All of us, all of our skis, and the rest of our winter gear can travel for 22 hours straight over nearly 2000 kilometers for about 120 USD. We did not intend to come to Baikal on this trip but Sylvia was truly insistent, and when the atlas of Baikal suddenly popped up out of a corner in our house just before we booked our flights, she went crazy. She had been pointing out the big, blue feature of Baikal on our world map for months (a testiment to it's enormity), and talking about our plans to return as if it were absolutely definite. After making all of the gross planning decisions on so many trips, it was fun and relieving to let someone else make such a big decision; all the more fun because of her age and subsequent oblivion to how out of the way Eastern Siberia really is. And so, instead of simply flying to Novosibirsk and heading straight for the Altai as we had planned, we bought three tickets
Irkutsk from Akademgorodok
We often took laps here in our cross country gear from the adjacent tracks.
As luck would have it, the mild and meager early winter that unfolded in Siberia this year favored Baikalsk. A few other pockets received a bit in early storms but the lake effect helped to double down the precipitation on the south shore of the enormous lake, and the conditions, while a bit thin, were of good quality. Even in Irkutsk, things were not so bad despite all the local complaining about how lame the winter was turning out to be.
When we transited in Moscow, there was not a shadow of snow on the ground. But as we touched down in the frozen dawn hours in Irkutsk, there was obviously enough snow to ski on. What a relief!
We spent our first day in the city gathering supplies and information from local shops. We came away with our first solid lead on where to get some nordic skiing. At dawn the next morning we took the bus out to the Plotina Dam the holds back the Angara River and adds nearly a meter to the surface elevation of Baikal. Having only faint directions from someone who hadn't actually skied there, we hopped off the bus
The venue at Iskha.
Off a frozen bay on the upper Angara, Iskha was the nicest venue we found in Irkutsk. They hold a lot of races here including ski orienteering.
and walked along the sidewalk until we found a reasonable place to boot up; amongst a bunch of discarded concrete chunks where stray dogs lived. We were kind of laughing at ourselves, skiing along an industrial highway on a snowy sidewalk, but then Allison saw someone below on a fat bike and we figured that must be the place! We dropped down to an old service road and found other ski tracks. The track was a bit uneven but the snow was good and cold. We had kick waxed with Special Blue and our grip was solid. Eventually, we found a frozen part of the Angara below the dam that a dyke had closed off. It was laced with ski tracks and people were ice fishing...Perfect!
Much like the Yenisei, the Angara once froze in late winter and allowed transit across the surface. The effect of massive, Soviet-era hydroelectric projects has changed all of that and, with the exception of small bays along the banks of these huge waterways, the water is open and flowing throughout the year. We found the ice to be perfectly solid in our little bay, and the fully faceted snow on top, compressed into
Three pin rentals
Wooden skis and three pin rentals are still very normal. The kick wax is usually pine tar based, and the local technique seems to blend Classic with skate as the wax inevitably wears off in the cold, abrasive tracks.
nicely glazed track by previous skiers, was about as fast as snow gets at -20°C. We took turns skiing with Sylvia while the other adult took hot laps. The views of Irkutsk were great from the water and the visibly cold air gave a mystical feeling to the whole experience. Goal one had been achieved: We were skiing!
The next day was a disappointment as the bus we planned to take to another area had been cancelled, as had two other routes we had planned to use. We consoled ourselves with some cedar nut ice cream and some butt sliding on one of the big ice sculptures that had been built in the city center. In a land without liability concerns you can find dangerously large features that have been built with municipal funds explicitly for people of all ages to slide around on. With the holidays coming they were accompanied by impressive ice sculptures and lots of lights. Add to this lots of cheap Chinese fireworks and some Orthodox church bells and you get some serious holiday spirit.
In the middle of all the fun we also scored a little more beta about the ski possibilities in
Sobolinaya ski area above Baikalsk.
the city and followed the lead to four more days of really good skiing on nice grooming at actual Nordic centers. Unsurprisingly, Irkutsk is home to a lot of really good skiers and we had a blast making laps with them at the hilly, cranky competition venues where they get their daily ski fix. Sylvia especially got a lot of cheers and encouragement for being the youngest skier anyone had ever seen. We left Irkutsk with our legs really warmed up and headed out to Lake Baikal on a piece of highway that we had ridden two summers before. Perhaps we wax a bit sentimental about those bike trips but it felt a bit strange to be back on the trans-siberian highway in a minibus. As if those crumbling old roads that bump along in the forest are in some way hallowed ground for us. What can be said. We made ourselves out there on that greasy strip of asphalt, and when we stand on it, it is as if we left part of our essence there as well.
When we passed through Baikalsk (a large settlement on the lake's south shore) on our bikes in 2018 we were
Ice sculptures in Kirov Square
Irkutsk was covered in Ice sculptures, many if them also acting as slides.
in a bit of a hurry. We needed to resupply fast and get out of town to find a place to pitch our tent before dark. Never the less, we met a few nice people there and rode away with an overall favorable impression of the area. The most memorable person was a young girl named Vika who introduced herself as a "sportsmanka" and told us about her love of cross country skiing. The idea stuck with us and so we decided to spend our Baikal time there this year. We started out on day one with a half a day at the local downhill area where we had to convince the ticket sales staff that our "baby" could ski off the top and thus needed a lift pass. Russia is a coddling culture where anyone younger than 6 is considered a baby and could potentially be given a passifier. By comparison, where we come from, children Sylvia's age are regularly signed up for junior development programs and many adults have been humbled by fearless "grommets" in torso sized helmets as they fearlessly fly by. Both sets of cultural values have their advantages and disadvantages. The cashiers seemed scared by
An example of an interactive ice sculpture!
the idea but eventually complimented our language skills and sold us the pass. Victorious, we headed out to test our core strength on the poma lifts, which provided a much bigger challenge to get up the hill than any of the pistes proved on the way down. It has often been maintained by old schoolers who learned to ski on surface lifts that it is somehow a better value. "You get to ski in both directions" many of us have said enthusiastically. Trying to hold it all together with a kid between the skis in steep, uneven ascents while airless snowguns blasted us in the face and glazed our goggles, it was hard to call the poma lift a "great value". But it was a great experience and, doing it as a team with one adult going with Sylvia and the other feeding them the poma grip, we made it work. It worked us too, but we still rode until after dark when they turned the lifts off.
We took a taxi back to our flat that night with a friendly driver named Andre who gave us a ton of information. Most importantly, he knew where the local nordic
The fine nordic links at Baikalsk with the Baikal "sea" in the background.
center was. Secondly, he was half the price of other local taxi companies and his minivan could easily fit our skis. In the morning, he drove us over to the southern microdistrict and the local athletic facility where they groom a really nice track. This place was another competition venue with lots of steep climbs and ripping descents. The snow was "perfect blue hardwax" as we nerds say. Nothing but compressed spacial dendrites with a nice track set and an amazingly flat skate lane. We stuck with our strategy of one pack laden adult (carrying lunch and warm-ups) skiing with Sylvia while the other went out light and fast for laps. When the first parent had skied to their hearts content (or legs ability!), we ate and traded places. It is a nice strategy because nobody ever has to "sit the bench" and Sylvia gets to ski long and far.
When the day was done, we went inside to eat a bite and check out the facility. It was a huge Soviet-era hulk of concrete with hospital blue paint and a large wrestling room full of boys tumbling around on mats. In the back was the ski training room
Lots of herringboning required on the steeper climbs. Lots of butthole pinching on descent!
where a sharp eyed coach was moving athletes around to several stations on balancing and strength equipment. One of them was Vika the sportsmanka, pulling away vigorously at a ski erg. She was a little embarrassed to see us but pre teens can be embarrassed about seemingly anything. Plus chatting with her also gave us a great opportunity to meet her coach, who agreed to let us use the teams wax room to juice up our woefully dry skis!
The next day found us back at the nordic loop where we bumped into Vika and her teammates. She seemed far less awkward without all of her friends and her coach staring at her and she was blown away that Sylvia was half way through the hilly loop and going strong. It was great to see those kids ski. They were moving well, with smooth weight transfer, snappy timing, and graceful pole technique. Watching their coach ski the loop, it was no mystery where their strong technique came from. There are a lot of good skiers in the world, but seeing smooth, patient power delivery in such young people is really meaningful for us. They will take that with them
Holding on tight on the Poma.
for the rest of their lives and benefit from it in ways that they likely cannot see from now. In a disenfranchised little city like Baikalsk, where the closing of the local pulp mill has spelled economic disaster, where over 3000 residents have left in search of work in the past year, where a huge portion of children come from troubled (to put it VERY mildly) households, skiing like that is wealth...Even if (especially if?) it is simply a way out.
So yeah, Baikalsk has it's troubles. The pulp mill on the east side of town has been shut down, ostensibly to comply with global pressures on Russian officials to clean up their act and protect the lake. Baikal and it's environs are overwhelmingly listed as biospheric preserve and the plant was a blight on that concept. But Russian towns struggle with other problems that many (especially rural) readers can relate to such as opiod/alcohol addiction, domestic violence, lack of accessible healthcare, neglected educational facilities, and a rapidly changing economic landscape. Synergistic matrices of these factors can pull the rug out from under a town like Baikalsk in a hurry. In a rural environment, changes in the way people
make a living often mean picking up and moving. For people in the countryside, this means giving up a way of life entirely; a completely different ball game compared with say, retraining and taking a new job. We have heard similar complaints from Buryat people living on the North and East shores of Baikal who have been forced to give up on very historical ways of making a living such as trapping and gathering, despite obvious market value for the products they have sold for generations. Tourism is an exceptional industry in places like Baikalsk, and Sobolinaya, the local downhill area, has certainly attracted a steady stream of tourists from Russia, China, and beyond. But not everyone is suited for work with tourists and, as many who have survived on the tourist economy can attest, it is fickle and irregular. A few snowless winters or chilly summers can put a damper on things. In the end, the issue with tourism is that you are not producing anything necessary. If disposable income becomes a problem, the expenditures that amounted to your income stop. It can be a tough economy to stabilize as opposed to selling textiles, toilet paper, agriculture products, timber,
Still very much alive in Russia, chivalry is encouraged with insinuations that would be considered taboo in California.
furs, or other items that are more essential to the masses.
And yet Baikalsk so often wears a smile uncharacteristic of Russia at large. Unlike the gruff and passively impatient vibe that ferments in many provincial cities, life in a smaller town on the shore of a lake doubtlessly affords the luxury to live a slower, and by default a more gregarious life... At least to those who have developed a system of getting by. A lot of the other skiers at the nordic area were random locals who likely learned to stride in some state sponsored youth program in their school years. Like the young athletes we met, many of them were also impressively technically proficient. We have been surrounded by incredible nordic skiers for the past 15 winters in Tahoe, and a very high percentage of the people we saw skiing in Baikalsk could rank in the top of that crowd. And much like that big crowd of lovable nerds at home, the effect that cross country skiing has made on their wellness is readily visible. All of these people represent to us one of the greatest triumphs in sports: lifelong health in the pursuit of that
perfect something. Even if Vika and her friends stay in their town forever, they will likely always have this indescribably fun and elusive thing to master and grow with.
Baikalsk is the first place in Russia that we have ever returned to. It was a bit of a whim going out there as our long time plans have been 4000 km west in the Altai. Appropriately, it turned out to be a great decision and we are now pretty hooked on the idea of going back for a much longer stint. Despite insufficient coverage to ski any meaningful backcountry lines, we toured a bit up the frozen Solzan river valley to check out the impressive high terrain. Things look incredible and accessible out there and we are already trying to cook up an idea for how we could spend a whole winter in the region, and get a better shot at the deeper conditions that the locals have pictures of.
And so, with tickets in hand, we were off on another hell ride to Krasnoyarsk. The last time we made this run, we were out on the highway trying to not freeze. This time we were in a
Five fresh centimeters
If you know what this means, you are fortunate.
sweaty train car trying to breath. The highway was far nicer, and we knew on the front end that the public transit portions of this trip would basically suck. But in this case, it seems like a rather small plight to suffer for a dozen days of good skiing, and a continuation of a childs fascination with some big blue lake on a map.
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