As my vision gradually began to focus I realised I had not the slightest idea where I was. A little bit of panic began to set in so I jumped up and walked over to the window. It was just getting light outside, there was snow everywhere and other than that all I could see was a load of wooden houses. I looked ay my phone - 5am. What was the last thing I could remember from the previous day? Having vodka breakfast with Zhenja and Misha on the train? I strained to remember something else....after several minutes one more memory came back to me, that of finding Zhenja's friend in another carriage on the train and him giving us another bottle of vodka.
So where the hell was I now? Somewhere in Severobaikalsk, the final stop of the train I had been on? Or had I actually found a way of getting to the little fishing village of Baikalskoe like I had originally planned? Or had I gone on with the guys from the train and accepted their offer of staying with them in Severomuysk, another train ride five hours east of here? Surely I would have remembered something
of that, or at least had the impression of being on a train?
There was another room attached to the room I was sleeping in. I went through and found my bag and jacket. Everything was still there, wallet, passport, camera. Camera! I looked through the photos. There were lots of pictures of Zhenja, Misha, Sasha, I and another guy who had not been on the train but whose face rang a very vague bell now that I saw it. In several we were drinking more vodka in a cafe... Good God, what had I been thinking?
On a table next to the window I saw a tray of uneaten food, chicken wings, bread, cheese, thick strips of fat; now I remembered someone bringing me this just before I had gone to sleep the night before but who on earth had it been? It was at this point that a splitting headache and burning thirst began to set in. I wandered back to the bed and, as if by magic, found two unopened bottles of mineral water next to it. I drank them both in under half a minute.
Suddenly loud techno music started blasting from somewhere
in the house. I crept out of the room and into a large hallway. There were several closed doors leading off it, a flight of stairs and a long table. The carpet on the floor next to the table was covered with nut shells. I slunk back into my room and lay back down on the bed. What to do? What to say? Who was I staying with? How embarrassing! Unless, God be thanked, it was Zhenja or Misha, when I finally met the owner of the house I would just have to apologise for my condition and explain that I could not remember anything. I waited, dreading the moment when I would have to face my host.
Perhaps an hour later the door to my room opened and a tall, skinny man in his late thirties wearing trainers, jeans and a red jacket with its hood up and covering a beret entered. He did not seem to notice me but went over to my bag, bent down and started looking through it. Christ, yesterday when we had been newly-met drunken friends he had not robbed me but now, sobre, reality had hit. I jumped out of bed and
he immediately stood up. I walked over and shook his hand.
"Excuse me, please," I said, my head spinning, "I'm extremely ashamed but I can't remember a thing from yesterday. I can't even remember who you are, I'm sorry."
A jumbled stream of Russian came out, interspersed every few words with an extremely offensive expression that literally translated means "to the c**k."
"I'm sorry, what did you say?" I asked.
Again I caught almost nothing of what he said.
"Excuse me," I apologised, "I've got a terrible hangover and I speak terrible Russian anyway, could you speak a bit more slowly?"
This time I grasped a few of his words but could not make any sense of his sentences as a whole.
"Where are we?" I asked. "Severobaikalsk? Baikalskoe? Severomuysk?"
He did not answer my question but mumbled on unintelligibly.
"I'm sorry," I said, "I'm going to stop bothering you. Could you please tell me where the train station is? Is there a train station here?"
"Why?" he asked, staring at me as if offended.
"I need to get a train. Where are we?"
Again he would not
answer but said a few understandable but completely unconnected words. It was becoming clear that he was utterly insane. Had I been so drunk that I had been hanging out with a random nutter? I decided to do a runner. Luckily everything I had was here. Great. I put on my jacket, saying I was cold. Ok, where were my shoes... actually, where the hell were my shoes? I walked out into the hall and he followed me. I looked around but there was no sign of them.
"Do you know where my shoes are?" I asked him. He didn't answer me. I asked the same time five or six times, after which he brought me a pair of slippers.
"No, I need my shoes!" I said.
"We'll find them," he told me. "Would you like tea?"
My head was in such a state and I simply could not arrange my thoughts. "Ok," I replied, thinking that at least this might take me to another part of the house where my shoes were.
We went upstairs, into a room and out onto a balcony. He poured me a glass of cold tea out of a
jar and put six lumps of sugar in it. On the railing I noticed a plate of raspberries, sugar cubes and squares of chocolate. I waited for him to take a sip of his tea then tried mine. It was disgustingly strong.
This was a huge house we were in by Russian standards. Those I had seen out of the window had been much smaller, pretty much just wooden shacks. Surely it could not belong purely to the madman in whose company I now found myself?
"Is this your house?" I asked.
"Yes," he replied, before going of on another low-voiced, impenetrable rant, the words of which I knew but when linked together contained no meaning whatsoever.
"Come on, please," I begged, "I really need to find my shoes. I need to go to Severobaikalsk."
"This is Severobaikalsk," he said. I experienced a sudden, almost boundless but short-lived wave of joy at finding out at least something about my whereabouts.
"Ok, but I still need to find my shoes," I said.
"We'll find them," he said.
I went back inside and tried all of the many doors upstairs. Some led onto other
rooms but my shoes were nowhere to be found. Two were locked. "Those are closed rooms," he told me.
I went downstairs but he did not follow. I tried two doors, both locked. I went back into my room and sat down in despairing depression. A few minutes later he followed me in. He rummaged around in a drawer for a few seconds then turned around. To my horror he was holding a syringe in his hand. Luckily I was nearer to the door than him so I backed out. He followed me, syringe in hand. He put it in his mouth and picked his teeth. When it re-emerged it had a little white blob on the end of the needle.
Just then a door next to me opened and a woman came out. I put her age at about fifty. She was slightly overweight but still had a healthy look to her, still with brown hair and definitely not yet termable a babushka.
"Sasha, sit down," she said to the crazy man. "Edward, this is Sasha, my son."
Happiness near ecstatic, relief near mind-blowing, gratitude near groveling blasted through my system.
"Good morning," I
said to the lady, "I'm so so sorry and I'm extremely ashamed but I can't remember anything from yesterday, I'm so ashamed, what's your name?"
"Galina, but you can call me Auntie Galia," she answered. Her voice was hard and efficient but I fancied I could detect hidden undertones of kindness. "From what I gathered yesterday you arrived here with friends on the train already drunk then you left them to try to find transport to Baikalskoe. They were good people by the way, your friends. When I saw you first was in the market. I heard you talking English but I didn't understand. Later I realised you weren't Russian so I came back and asked everyone in the market, they're all my friends, whether they'd seen a drunk foreigner. They said they had, and that you'd gone back to the train station. So, I went there and found you with your friends from the train there, they were waiting to go somewhere..."
"Severomuysk," I said.
"Yes, that's right. Anyway, they wanted to take you with them but I wouldn't allow it, I said 'he's in no state, he's coming home with me.'"
"I'm so sorry,
I'm so ashamed," I stammered, repeating myself now to the point of imbecility. "Thank you so much for helping me."
"Don't mention it," she said, only just failing to supress a smile. "Anyway, as I understand it you need to get a train to Tynda the day after tomorrow."
"That's right," I told her.
"What are you doing here?" she asked, "Do you have parents?"
"Yes, of course, in England," I replied, surprised by the question. "I work in Moscow though and now I have twelve days holiday so I decided to travel the BAM railway."
"I see," she said, nodding slightly. "Anyway, you're welcome to stay with us until then."
"Are you sure?" I asked. "I can easily stay in the rest rooms at the train station..."
"No, no, I won't hear of it. You're staying here."
"Thank you very much, you're very kind," I answered ashamedly and not knowing what else to say. Sasha was standing by watching and listening with uncomprehending ears.
"You know," she said, "yesterday I thought you absolutely couldn't speak Russian."
"I didn't say anything yesterday?"
"No, you were just swearing."
hung my head. "I'm so, so, sorry."
"No problem!" she said. Despite her attempts the smile broke through a little more than it had the previous time. "Here, I'll cook us breakfast. Sit down."
She fried a couple of eggs in ungodly amounts of oil and put them on a plate in front of me. My stomach churned. Until now the desperation of being alone with the mad Sasha, the panic of not knowing where I was and the need to stay on my toes to rectify the situation had kept my hangover at bay. Now, however, I knew everything was OK; the flood gates were opening. Galina began talking about showing me round town after breakfast and my taking an elektrichka (local train) to some hot springs nearby. I made a measly attempt to stomach some egg but it was too much.
"Galia," I said, not quite able to address her as Auntie like she had told me to, "I'm really sorry but I can't eat. I feel terrible. I think maybe I need to lie down a little longer."
"Of course, of course, no problem. Go and lie down. Lock the door so Sasha
doesn't disturb you. Here's the key. Keep it inside with you. I'll wake you up in three hours by knocking on the wall from the other room. Don't answer if anyone knocks at the door, it'll be him."
Apologising profusely I staggered back to my room, into the toilet and, for the second time in my life, vomited on a hangover. I dreaded to think how much I must have drunk; I know my limits with alcohol and am never sick even on the night, let alone the day after. Of course memory can be a little hazy the next day but never had I previously experienced such a complete loss of it as this. I could only put it all down to an extreme case of "when in Rome": it had always been my attitude that when traveling one should do exactly what the locals do, accept any offer and get involved with them as much as possible.
Three hours later at eleven o'clock I could not say whether I had slept at all but at least I was feeling a little better. I ventured out into the hall and saw a door that had previously been
locked now standing open and leading onto a bathroom where my boots sat reassuringly next to the tub. Galina must have heard me coming as she appeared in the bathroom.
"How are you feeling?" she asked.
"Much better," I replied.
"Come through and meet my grandson," she said.
We went through the bathroom and came out into the kitchen. A young boy of around sixteen was sitting at the table.
"Edward, this is Vanya, Vanya this is Edward," Galina introduced us.
Vanya stood up and, smiling, shook my hand. "Very pleased to meet you," he said in a voice that made me believe for the first time in my life I had just heard those words spoken by someone who had meant them with all his heart.
"Pleased to meet you too," I responded, failing miserably to put the happy sincerity into my voice that had filled his.
"Sit down," Galina told me, "I'm making some pies. They'll be ready in fifteen minutes. Meanwhile, what do you want to do while you're here in Severobaikalsk? You want to see the lake I guess?"
"Yes, definitely. Actually my original plan was to
go to a little village called Baikalskoe and try to find someone to stay with there. Do you know the place?"
"Yes I know it. Vanya, show Edward those photos of us at Baikalskoe."
Vanya took out the pictures and I leaned over excitedly, having been unable to find a single image of this little fishing community on the internet. All the shots were, however, of Galina and her family having a barbecue on a nearby hill and showed very little of the surrounding area. She pointed out cousins, nephews, nieces, in-laws, an endless stream of relatives united in happy, unsmiling enjoyment of one another's company.
"That's my mother, she was 88. She's dead now though. And that's my sister; she's also dead. They messed up an operation on her." Galina was silent for a few seconds as Vanya continued sifting through the pictures before adding, a trace of sadness in her usually tough voice, "That was a good time."
While they were showing me the fifth or sixth set of photos of their family in various different nearby locations the front door opened and a small, slightly bent, grey-haired, weathered-faced man shuffled in at a
pace usually reserved for people in their seventies or eighties. Something about him told me he was not much past sixty though.
"My name's Edward," I said, standing up and shaking his hand.
"Jury," he said, breathing hard and giving a slow, small smile flecked with gold. Even from arm's length I could smell days-old vodka and tobacco on him.
"Slut, this is the guy you found in the market?" he asked Galina. It must be noted here that the Russian word for slut is quite rarely actually directed at a person and is more usually just thrown almost at random into sentences in the same way as the English F-word. This is how Jury was using it here, or at least I hoped so.
"Yes, this is him," Galina answered.
"Slut, you shouldn't drink with Russians, slut! Russian people all drink a lot, slut, we're used to it and you're not, slut!"
"I know, it was stupid," I agreed.
"You know, slut, it's better just not to drink at all, slut!"
"Look who's talking," Galina commented. Jury ignored her.
"Slut, what are you doing here anyway?" he asked me.
"I live in Moscow and this is my holiday," I said, acknowledging with a smile that I understood the ridiculous nature of the way in which I had so far used my days off.
"Slut!" Jury said.
"Anyway, the pies are ready," Galina announced, placing them on a plate on the table. "Help yourself, Edward."
"Thank you," I said, picking one and taking a bite, my appetite having finally returned.
"So, slut, what are we going to do with him while he's here?" Jury asked Galina.
"Well after we've eaten we'll drive him around for a bit, then at five he'll probably want to take the elektrichka to Goudzhekit so he can bathe in the hot springs."
"Slut!" Jury agreed. Then turning to me, "So come on, slut, let's go and see Lake Baikal, slut, the thing you came here to see, slut!"
"Go get your jacket, Edward," Galina said, "we'll head off in a minute."
On seeing my jacket, however, she pointed out two large and newly-appeared tears in it. "Give me that, I'll sew it back up."
"No, please," I protested, "it's not necessary, really..."
"Nonsense, give it
here!" She almost wrestled it from my arms.
"By the way," I asked as she was sewing, "how much were those bottles of water you left by my bed in the night? I'd like to pay you back..."
"No, Edward," Galina said, her smile almost completely overcoming her efforts to control it, "you're our guest."
Fifteen minutes later the four of us were driving down a narrow, bumpy lane lined with small wooden houses. "What do you do?" I asked Galina.
"I'm already retired," she told me, "but I run my own business as well, a small shop. We're going there now to pick up some stuff."
We got out of the car outside a small shopping centre in the middle of town. The area was completely different from where Galina lived, with concrete apartment blocks taking the place of quaint wooden homes. We went inside and they took me to their shop, which in fact turned out to be more of a stall. "Would you like some kvas?" Galina asked me, referring to a Russian non-alcoholic drink made from bread.
"Yes, why not," I said, reaching for my wallet.
"No, no, you
don't need to pay, this is our shop," Galina said, taking a bottle from a shelf and popping it into her bag.
"How long have you lived here?" I asked, back on the road and heading towards the edge of town.
"Since the beginning," Galina replied. "I used to live in Sakhalin and Jury lived in Kazakhstan. We both came here forty years ago to work on the BAM railway. Back then there was only the Trans-Siberian, way south, but nothing here whatsoever. We arrived, set up a tent on the lakeside and started laying rails."
"The railway you traveled on to get here, slut, I built it!" Jury informed me.
"It must have been hard at first, being here in the middle of nowhere," I commented.
"It got easier. At first the cold weather, bad conditions and bears drove lots of people away. But then we moved out of the tent into a balok . After about ten years I was given a tiny house. And then, a few years ago, I finished building the house I live in now."
"So is everyone who lives here either
a railway worker or the children of railway workers?"
"No one new has arrived?"
"The opposite in fact, over ten thousand people have left since the end of the USSR. Less than 25,000 are left."
I knew the story already, but it was interesting to hear it from a personal perspective. Back in the 1970s and 80s people from all over the USSR had been forced (in the case of prisoners) or tempted (in the case of normal citizens) into working on the BAM, the "Construction Project of the Century" as it had been called. They had flung themselves or been flung into a pristine wilderness, a wild country of taiga forests, bears and nomadic tribal people and told that they were their country's heroes, opening up a new part of Russia that would be of utmost importance to their country both strategically and in terms of resource exploitation. Its line had been completed just before the end of the Soviet Union and had fallen almost into disuse, the state in which it finds itself today, shortly thereafter. Only a negligible number of rarely full trains now connect the bleak settlements to be found along
its 5000km, communities that never existed before the railway and are populated only by its workers and their descendants. None of this history of broken promises, wasted lives and forgotten dreams could be discerned from the characters of Galina, Jury and Vanya, however. I might have expected Galina and Jury to compain when talking about the harshness of their lives, the pointlessness of the project to which they had devoted them or the way the area had since fallen into decline. But no, Jury expressed only pride and Galina spoke in a matter-of-fact way that suggested there was absolutely nothing out of the ordinary in what she was saying.
"Has life here changed much since the end of the USSR?" I asked.
"I suppose we have more variety now, more access to different sorts of goods. But there's a lot more stress too. You never know when you could lose it all. During the Soviet Union life was calmer. We didn't have much but we always had enough to get by and you knew you didn't have to worry about that." I had previously heard exactly the same opinion expressed by people in Moscow, ranging from receptionists to
successful businessmen. She went on: "Sasha couldn't handle the stress. It was partly the end of the USSR and partly his military service that made him lose his mind. He gets by though, I suppose. He has friends in Severobaikalsk who he grew up with. One or two have done very well and own cafes now. They let him come in and sit down, give him a beer or two. By the way, you forgot to lock your door before we left; make sure you lock it, because he might go in otherwise and look through your bags. He won't steal anything, that's for sure, but just so you know. And at night definitely don't leave it unlocked: he doesn't always sleep."
We drove down a steep, bumpy track that led to the pebble-strewn shore of the lake.
"That's our Baikal, slut!" Jury said in a proud but tired voice. "That's our Baikal."
The surface was completely frozen, its colour so identical to that of the sky that it was often hard to see where one ended and the other began. Together we walked out onto it, walking around the contorted structures where the ice had somehow
welled up out of itself and carefully avoiding patches that had begun to melt slightly. It was a place whose beauty and bleakness matched and complemented one another; the wind-enhanced cold, the gradual disappearance of anything other than white as you got further out on the lake, the brown slopes of the hills on the shore lightly covered in barren trees. We took several group photos with our arms round each other.
We dropped Jury off in the town centre then drove out again to a spot with a good view of the lake, right next to a sign that said "Severobaikalsk" in enormous letters. Up on the slopes of a mountain on the other side of the road another sign read "Real men build tunnels".
"Look, we have four tunnels near here that go through the mountains," Galina said, pointing. For the first time I fancied I heard pride in her voice. "Before that the tracks had to take a much longer way around them."
We walked over to where the bare branches of some trees had been hung with hundreds of pieces of coloured cloth. "This is a holy site of the Buryats, you know
the indigenous people of this area. They have some sort of shamanic religion."
Driving back through Severobaikalsk I asked if we could stop to have a look at a church. We got out and approached a small one, Vanya and Galina bowing and crossing themselves over and over again both outside and in. The interior contained a number of pretty icons but little else. As we wandered around an elderly lady in a head scarf appeared from somewhere and informed Galina that she was standing in a forbidden place. Galina apologised then started exchanging small talk and pleasantries with the woman.
"She arrived here at the same time as me," Galina told us after we had left. "We used to play on the same basketball team together."
"Did she play well?" Vanya asked.
"Brilliantly," Galina answered.
"Are we going to pick up Jury?" Vanya asked on the way home after visiting a few other lake view spots.
"No, he's probably drunk another half litre by now!" Galina replied and they both laughed.
Later that day, on their recommendation and having been fed almost to bursting point with Galina's pies before being dropped off
at the station, I took the elektrichka to a place called Goudzhekit. While once there had been a settlement there it had since been abandoned and there was left only a turbaza, a kind of inexpensive Soviet tour camp. The elektrichka was almost unbearable: the heat of sixty people crammed into one carriage mingled with my hangover and the need to sit staring into the face of a complete stranger to provide an experience that almost made me wish I had not embarked on it. The carriage was awash with drinking and swearing. The word "vuipit", meaning to drink but only of alcohol, appeared more often than any other apart from swear words.
Finally we arrived and I escaped into the blissful cold outside. After I had got over my initial relief at having left the carriage behind I was staggered by the scenery: huge snow-capped mountains loomed and extensive pine forests unfurled all around me, although they were rapidly being made invisible by the snow that had begun to fall in abnormally large flakes. I went over and looked at the timetable, to check when the last train back would be. Four o'clock! What the hell?! I had
already missed it! My heart sank. I wandered over to another station building whose door was slightly ajar and knocked. An old, skinny man answered.
"Excuse me," I addressed him, "do you know what time the last train is to Severobaikalsk?"
"Come on, come on, let's go and have a look then," he said kindly and started wandering over towards the same timetable I had already looked at.
"No, I've already checked it," I told him, "it says four o'clock."
"Ah, yes, so it does," he said, reaching it and having a look. "That means nine o'clock. Make sure you're here by about ten to nine and you'll be ok."
Of course. I had forgotten that at all train stations in Russia, despite it being a country containing ten time zones, timetables are written in Moscow time. I walked down a track that cut through the forest, the other people who had got off the train now only vague figures ahead of me through the swirling snow. On arrival at the turbaza, a small collection of wooden houses, I went inside one, paid a hundred roubles (US$3), got changed and went outside in just my
boxer shorts to where two miniature swimming pools were fed by hot water from the springs. "It's very good for your health," Galina had told me, "but it's dangerous to spend more than five minutes in one and you need to take a twenty minute break between dips."
I felt a bit out of place because so far only a group of huge-bellied babushkas and a couple of pot-bellied middle-aged men were in the pools. Nevertheless, having come all this way, I decided to brave it. I lowered my toes into the water to withdraw them almost immediately with a yelp, much to the amusement of everyone else. It was almost excruciatingly hot.
"You've got to do it more slowly," one of the women said.
Shivering from the cold air on my naked body I did as told and, over about thirty seconds, managed to get into the pool. Once in I quickly realised that any movement was uncomfortable and that the heat was only tolerable if I was completely still. As I stood there motionless, the temperature difference between my body and head presumably at least forty degrees, I began to feel dizzy. This dizziness grew
stronger and stronger until it felt as though my head was going to explode. Enough of this, I thought, and began to inch my way towards the steps.
I sat in the changing room for twenty minutes during which time a group of drunk twenty-somethings appeared, changed and went to the pools. After I had recovered from my previous dip I went back and joined them, reasoning that having traveled for an hour and paid a hundred roubles I owed it to myself to at least have one more dip. This one was even more short-lasted. Getting out turned out to be a matter of drawing a fine line between moving through the near-scolding water at a bearable speed and leaving quickly enough to stop my brain from popping. The experience did not seem to have the same effect on anyone else and I exited to shouts of "Aaah, it's so good!" from the young men.
I sat in the changing room for a while, hoping that my spinning head would return to normal. The young men came in shortly after. The last one, as he was walking past me, sliped on the wet floor; it was at
first unclear whether he would fall or right himself as he somehow hung in the air for a second - but fall he did, slamming into the tiles. Almost immediately he got up but again went flying, to roars of laughter from all his spectators. An almost imbecilic grin appeared on his face as he slithered on the floor and, with a bestial roar, he charged back through the door and jumped into the pool.
I spent an hour in a small underground cafe below the pools watching streams of wasted people come in to order drinks before walking back to the station. As I waited the snow subsided and the sky began to clear. An animal trotted past the lonely station buildings, onto the tracks and away, following them towards the snow-streaked mountains that rose above the forest. Whether it was a wolf or a dog neither I nor Galina, looking at the blurred photo I took, could tell.
Vanya met me on the platform at the station in Severobaikalsk and walked me to where Galina was waiting in her car. His politeness, cheery enthusiasm and general liveliness brought a smile to my face as he interestedly
inquired about my trip to the hot springs. I felt myself hoping against hope that he would not start drinking vodka like all the other men around here seemed to. I could not imagine him drunk and swearing but neither could I see any men who were not like that.
Whatever the health-promoting effects of the hot springs, something had certainly helped me overcome the worst hangover of my life.
Click this link for advice on independent travel along the BAM
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