The Pearl of Siberia

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October 20th 2011
Published: December 13th 2011
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Old Believer GalsOld Believer GalsOld Believer Gals

These brightly coloured frocks were fantastic, we were invited in for lunch and vodka, while they sang for us and explained their traditions.
Siberia. It’s one of those places that wakes up long before the sun has broken the horizon.

The hazard of dwelling at a parallel this far north, is how drastic the length of day shortens as winter encroaches. I’m used to it, but the Australians argue amongst themselves over what time of day it is. It is almost half eight, but still pitch dark. They grumble. Then without warning someone switches on the sun, and the day officially starts.

Our tour leader is a woman from Israel who doesn't speak Russian or Mongolian, or Australian for that matter. She is strict and abrupt and highly offended by us most of the time. When excessively questioned by The Australians about her past, she progressively gets more evasive. I've determined she must be a secret agent hiding out in Russia so I've dubbed her Anya Amasova....but for this blog she will simply be known as the Israeli Assassin. When I tell her of my suspicions, she neither confirms nor denies it. She is bossy, and you just know she could kill you in your sleep. The Australians and I fall absolutely in love with her, but we heed her every command.
Lake Baikal at SundownLake Baikal at SundownLake Baikal at Sundown

Men return from fishing, the sun sets in the distance. We prepare to take a Banya and plunge into the frigid waters.

After she gives us our briefing for the simultaneous border checks, we leave the frontiers of Mongolia to encounter a very serious Russian checkpoint. On both occasions, female customs officials swoop in with their red lipstick and tightly fitted uniforms with those high-heeled boots, demand your passport, scrutinize you from head-to-toe, and then disappear with your valued documents. Trepidation strikes your heart as the train lurches forward to advance to the next station without your beloved paperwork. Best to remain calm while guards in military fatigues parade through each carriage with their barking dogs. Unceremoniously you are kicked out of your Kupe (berth) as they painstakingly go over all your items. One Russian woman in our carriage had spent hours hiding things - making us all very nervous. One of the Australians I’ll call Ivan, snapped a few photos of the events unfolding outside our carriage as she was being carted away, but the guard with a jagged scar across his cheek spotted him and actually re-boarded, tracked Ivan down and icily made him delete his pictures. Whoa.

This whole border processing took the better part of a day. We were parked at a small town called Naushki
Tasty LeninTasty LeninTasty Lenin

Giving Lenin a little loving in Ulan Ude
that allowed for us to stretch our legs and pick up provisions, it is painfully isolated and bleak here and the locals were able to spot us a mile away. Some harassed us, some swore at us. I managed to accidentally walk between a young couple having a fisticuff at their vehicle…she with the upper hand so I fought the urge to intervene. We were finally underway again at four o’clock that afternoon.

Upon our train, things are upgraded somewhat. The carriage is clean and neat, with rich carpets and drapery, and slightly softer plywood for the sleepers. I learn quickly that travel by train is as entertaining as you make it. My group spend a lot of time chatting up our fellow passengers, doing chores (it's amazing how busy you can get just making soup). Some sleep, others stare out the windows watching the bleak landscape as it goes by. I'm so in the moment, I haven't cracked my book or listened to my iPod yet. The Australians chime with excitement every time it starts to snow. I keep one suspicious eye on the Israeli Assassin at all times.

The rhythmic sounds of the train as we
Old Believers WeddingOld Believers WeddingOld Believers Wedding

Two of The Australians might be married now.
paddumpt-padum paddumpt-padum down the track is actually hypnotizing. I go into a trance like state and lose hours of time…I’m worried I might start barking like a chicken or hump a chair if this continues. One of The Australians casually compares the sounds of the railway to a heart beat. It does give you this sense of wellbeing, like being in a womb, too bad I'm laying on a piece of plywood masquerading as a sleep surface. My body interrupts my rest every 15 minutes to remind me to switch up...or risk cutting off the circulation to a vital appendage.

The sprawling lights of Ulan Ude appear just after eleven, the night a chilly -2c but fresh. Wasn’t too sure what to expect from one of the largest cities in Siberia, but by day it is a clean bustling metropolis. In the centre of town that iconic gigantic Lenin head, this monstrosity of copper is almost 8 meters high and a little excessive, so I felt the need to give it a lick. Of course Vladimir Lenin, the Bolshevik Revolutionist is regarded like a rock star in this country and I truly respect what he accomplished during his lifetime.
Smile for the Camera Damn it!Smile for the Camera Damn it!Smile for the Camera Damn it!

Although I tried for hours to photograph Valerian smiling, it didn't happen.

...and a little tongue action is actually a sign of respect in my country.

One of our stopovers is an Old Believers village on the outskirts of town. I always cheer for the underdog, so when a strapping man called Sasha explained how his semeiskie (family) are descendants of a group of people who got the hell outta dodge when Peter I started to enforce his new ideas on them, I’m impressed. Choosing to go across the wastelands of Siberia and settle in the most inhospitable part of the world is pretty gutsy isn’t it? No one expected them to survive, let alone thrive, but they did, keeping their old traditions alive. We are invited to join them for lunch, their homes are plain but comfortable, each house has a humongous pile of firewood out front, indicating an extremely harsh winter coming fast. Turquoise is apparently the only colour available at the paint store. We meet some relatives, who are all dressed up in traditional costumes with very serious faces yet welcoming when they put out a wonderful spread for us with lots of vodka toasting going on. By the time someone drags out an accordion, I am
Lunch Time!Lunch Time!Lunch Time!

Delicious meat soups, meat and mashed potatoes, buns with fish inside them, sliced raw pork fat, sweet breads, and of course glasses of Samogon.
warmly buzzed.

I'm going to need a nap after this.

But we are whisked away to our next stop, a home stay on Lake Baikal. The Australians have gotten into the habit of sounding off from one to ten in Russian so the Israeli Assassin doesn’t lose her freaking mind looking for a straggler. I am number seven, “Sem!” I shout enthusiastically when prompted. We are ridiculous.

After a long twisty road through dense forests of ghostly birch, the incredible blueness of the lake appears off in the distance. Turka is a small village where our family is located. Valerian and Larissa greet us all serious-friendly at their gate. I am immediately taken by the fact they both are sporting mouthfuls of gold caps. I spend the better part of my stay trying to get them to smile for a photo. Both of their grills could beat lil' Wayne's hands down...but no luck, apparently no one smiles in Siberia. We are ushered into their recreation room which overlooks a stark inlet where most our meals will be served. Food just starts coming out of the woodwork, hot bowls of flavourful Borscht dolloped generously with sour cream, freshly
Tropical SiberiaTropical SiberiaTropical Siberia

The Pearl of the Siberia resort and spa. Lovely white sand beaches. Colder than you can imagine.
baked rye, some kind of seasoned meat, perhaps deer, accompanied by mashed potatoes, and a vinaigrette salad of cucumbers and tomato, chased with plenty of toasts with the house Samogon (homemade Vodka). We are shown to our comfortable clean rooms to prepare for the many hiking viewpoints strategically scattered throughout this area.

Lake Baikal is referred to as the Pearl of Siberia and I can see why. The lake is crystal clear and stunning. The peoples that live on its shores are a tough breed. They live by their own set of rules and this place is reminisce of a wild frontier town, I truly expect to see Clint Eastwood sidle down the centre of town, spurs a jingling. It’s hard here. The Pearl of Siberia is a whopping 636kms from north to south, 60kms wide and 1637 meters deep. It will eventually become the worlds 5th ocean when it splits Asia in half.

Never warmer than 15c, the white sandy shores give the optical illusion of somewhere tropical. But this place is not tropical. The Australians bragged on the train that they would all skinny dip in the lake. I raised a suspicious Canadian eyebrow of doubt.
Siberian HomesteadSiberian HomesteadSiberian Homestead

Loved all the old wooden houses that just oozed personality and charm.
I didn’t think they have it in them. I was right. One of The Australians couldn't get past his balls before screaming like a girl.

The skies seem to consistently threaten snow. Valerian goes about preparing a traditional Banya for us. A new experience for me, a Banya is a Russian sauna, and I would assume very coveted during their hideous winters here. Nobody brought swimmers, so we strip down, some to our underwear for politeness, and stuff into a thick wooden room three benches deep to be cooked beyond recognition. The Australians have already sold-out the Turka general store of all its Samogon vodka, so we are forced to drink someone’s duty-free Cointreau.

Valerian and Larissa beat us with birch branches soaked in cold water and herbs...which was unnerving really at first but pretty soon we are all bright red, laughing, and covered in bits of shrubbery. Next came the best part. You must run outside to a metal slide and fling your body into the freezing lake. Lots of hushed debates and side conferences occur before I take the lead and commit, hurling myself down the slide.

The Australians follow me in like lemmings.
A Turquoise Volga or LadaA Turquoise Volga or LadaA Turquoise Volga or Lada

I loved this oldie beside the turquoise fence.

As soon as the ice water goes over your head, a blast of sheer adrenalin causes that fight or flight instinct to kick in. Your superhuman strength allows the ability to walk on top of the water in order to reach land again in a nanosecond. Once you get your breath back after a massive arrhythmia, the blood rushes back to all your extremities…then you want to go again. And again! And again! I love Siberia.

Completely exhausted from the Banya, we spend the rest of the evening warming ourselves around a roaring camp fire. The boys proudly cook up the lake fish they caught earlier in the day in a rickity boat, we all try to outdo each other singing, I give them a healthy version of Wobbly Boot. The Australians pretend they’ve never heard of it, having me on. Charades are no good because our host family can’t speak English, so we try acting out things, finally we just toast and sing. Beatles are always a win win. The temperature dips to -2c and it starts to sleet, we are all high from the Banya, so it takes Larissa's strong encouragement to clamber inside to get warm.
Hot Springs HellHot Springs HellHot Springs Hell

Oh sweet jesus this was hot. But made my ankle feel better instantly. How is that possible?

One of The Australians casually likens the cold air to a smell. He explains that when someone who has been outside walks by you, you can feel the cold air still on them. The cold just sticks to you like a smell, he says. I am astounded. All my years of living in Canada and it takes an Australian to point that out. Larissa serves up one delicious fish for each person to pull apart with finger-licking fingers. I am so alive at this very moment I can’t stand myself...these moments in time are the peripheral dragon I chase at home. I don’t remember my head hitting my pillow.

Up early and eating porridge Larissa has prepared, I try not to make a face as she adds a heaping ladle of melted butter on top. My ankle is really bothering me today, all swollen and purple. I decide to pass on the planned boat ride to the island for a hike and exploration day. Valerian coaxes me instead to join him for a little this point I have no idea where we are going or why. He drives us through several villages of gingerbread to what I
Only Colour Available at the Paint StoreOnly Colour Available at the Paint StoreOnly Colour Available at the Paint Store

Turquoise is obviously a very popular colour. No real backstory, they just like it.
think might be the local Sanatorium. The site was probably quite impressive back in the USSR days, but now severely rundown but apparently operational. Paths are overgrown and tired, stray dogs bask in the sun, tennis courts are overrun by weeds. People wander the grounds in no particular direction. Old statues of Lenin are maintained proudly with fresh metallic silver. Valerian buys a loaf of bread from a vendor and tucks it up under his jacket…I wonder if we will be having a picnic. Nope. He starts throwing chunks of it into a rather large cesspool pond with pop bottles and garbage floating on the surface. I'm a little alarmed when he gets inappropriately mad at a seagull that swoops in to steal floating pieces of bread. He whips gigantic chunks of heavy rye at them, one bounces off a baffled bird temporarily stunning it. Suddenly, something starts to burble up out of the depths, gigantic carp monsters rise from the murk, Valerian is victorious. I try to look impressed.

He encourages me to follow him and we walk down an overrun path thick with orange larch needles passing miserable looking people along the way. A creek comes into
Riding Dirty Siberian StyleRiding Dirty Siberian StyleRiding Dirty Siberian Style

Great shakey vehicles to get around in.
view that looks like it might be coming from a hot springs. Well, it's steaming anyway. I’m thinking Chernobyl. Valerian takes my shoe and sock off like he's my Dad, and insists I dip my foot into these boiling waters, I politely do as ordered and thrust my sprained foot in. A gigantic smile crosses Valerian’s face as I scream in horror, his mouthful of gold shines in the midday sun. My camera is nowhere handy, dang it. I’m happy to report however, that whatever that creek was, it made my foot better immediately.

All of us return to Ulan Ude the following morning at a forlorn hour of 4 am to board the Trans-Siberian and continue our journey west. I've noticed that our group have all a new level of relaxed aura...even the Israeli Assassin has brought her alertness down a notch. You’d think we had all been at a fancy spa resort for a mini break.

As the Trans-Siberian skirts the Pearl of Siberia along its southern banks, I am satisfied from my experience with this place called Siberia, where time has its own agenda.

Additional photos below
Photos: 22, Displayed: 22


The Banya!The Banya!
The Banya!

OMG I loved the Banya (sauna). After a cold day outside it felt so nice to steam cook, and then plunge into the icy lake.
Delicious Food!Delicious Food!
Delicious Food!

We ate so well at the home stays in Siberia.
Metallic LeninMetallic Lenin
Metallic Lenin

Painted in a lovely coat of shiny silver, this man is treated like a rock star in these parts.
Lake Baikal lakeshoreLake Baikal lakeshore
Lake Baikal lakeshore

Rocky shores of the lake, lots of places to hang out and enjoy the scenery.
Serious SashaSerious Sasha
Serious Sasha

The son of the Priest at the Old Believers village he showed us around.
Gingerbread HousesGingerbread Houses
Gingerbread Houses

All the little towns had this wonderful woodwork on them.
Sasha's Pappas ChurchSasha's Pappas Church
Sasha's Pappas Church

The Old Believers place of Worship, I lit a few candles and prayed for The Australians.
Siberian SuburbiaSiberian Suburbia
Siberian Suburbia

Just a street in downtown nowhere Siberia. Hard, rough and interesting.
Lake Baikal from the TrainLake Baikal from the Train
Lake Baikal from the Train

The train travels along the shores of the lake as we make our way to Irkutsky
All Smiles and PleasantriesAll Smiles and Pleasantries
All Smiles and Pleasantries

Some of the Australians hanging out

14th December 2011

Wow Andrea, I have to say that this is probably the best blog I have read on here. Thank you for telling such a vivid, humorous tale of a place I will doubtfully ever visit.
14th December 2011

Why we travel.
Wow! That is flattering. Thank you BVChef. Never say never, they make a pretty mean borscht there. ;o)
14th December 2011

And second - awesome blog! it\'s funny and gives the reader a more accurate feel for what Siberia is really like than any other blog I\'ve read on here. While most tourists take the train across Siberia and get off at one or two large towns, you went out to the villages, met the locals, experienced their hospitality, the harshness of their environment and some of the weird little cultural quirks and it makes for a great read. молодец!
14th December 2011

Я люблю Россию!!
Wow Ed...coming from you that is so cool! спасибо!! I barely scratched the surface of Siberia, but the experiences I had and the people I met were nothing less than wonderful. I see why you love it. You were right, I am hooked on the culture and want more. When I do my Eastern Europe trip I will go back for sure!
14th December 2011

Bless you for taking a few minutes to publish this. I understand where you are coming from on this article however , I do believe that there are more desirable solutions. Voyance serieuse
15th December 2011

What an can feel the experience in your words...and your delight you have Aussies looking out for you..!
23rd December 2011

Love the Aussies
Thanks Dave. Merry Christmas to you. Have fun in Java.
16th December 2011

Thanks for the memories
My wife and I did this trip about 4 years ago. Your blog reminded me of how great it was and how wonderful the people were - even the provodnitsas on the train after we gave them all little koalas. I went back and read your blogs from Oz ( which is where I live). I'm glad you liked the place. I came here on holidays nearly 40 years ago and never went home. John
23rd December 2011

You're welcome!
So glad to have had this experience. It was a trip of a lifetime. Cheers!
11th March 2019

Re-reading your blog
Andrea, I know I've read this blog in the past but can't figure out why I have not commented. We are thinking about a trip to Russia. I may have to email and ask you additional questions. The small villages sound intriguing. so many places to travel and so little time. For us, the people are always the heart of any trip we take.
13th April 2019

I hope I was able to help. What ever you decide, your trip will be epic. Russia and Siberia remain on top of all the places I've visited. I was completely smitten by the culture, the people and the experiences. Siberia was a once in a lifetime experience!

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