The Trans-Siberian to Irkutsk
Ulaan Baatar. 6:23pm 7, August 2006
I should at last mention the lovely staff at Godzillas Hostel. And yes, that`s supposed to be plural and not possessive, apparently. They were lovely. (switching from Tea to Beer. Yay beer!) Katja, I easily could have fallen in love with, well, to be honest, did. But I`ve been falling in love at the drop of a hat, the briefest of eye contacts, the slightest inclination toward affection. I`ve fallen in love with textures of color on walls layered up to mask graffiti and eroded away revealing historical tastes. I`ve fallen in love with the jackhammers in hollow buildings that happened to resonate in harmonic frequencies. And of course, the stars, my lovely stars, though the moon has been estranged from me somewhat this trip. I`ve loved meat pie that turned to me a kind eye, and real ales warm from the cask. So it shouldn`t come as any surprise that I fall in love with two lovely girls at the reception of Godzillas Hostel. Evgenya could have been Fay Wray in a past life, and its her misfortune that the Fay Wray look is apparently "out" right now. In the 20`s she would not have had to lift a finger. Sadly, fashions change, and she`s slaving away at the hostel. My most memorable interaction was one day I went to her and asked, "do you have a cover for a pillow?" She responded, "Its called a pillowcase." I hung my head in shame, only slightly mock. It never occurred to me that it would still have that name. Well, she was like a sister to me, and like my sister, knew just how to goad me. Our relationship was a sparring relationship. But with Katja, it was an uncomfortable friendship that slowly built until... I had to leave. And nothing could become. She was my age, and I could feel the chemistry between us from the beginning. Something changed between us after I showed her my photographs. I could see she saw in me a glimmering of the man she wanted to be with... I erase metaphor after metaphor approaching this subject, but its the travesty of travel that one often becomes so close with someone, and yet, unable to utter the fateful "一期一会" and we, two planets momentarily conjunct, spin off on our disseparate orbit. Next time I won`t be so shy...
So, lugging my pack and a few day`s worth of food, I headed off to for the raison d`etre of this trip. The central motivation of all this time, effort, expense, and suffering: My dream vacation on Siberia. For many years, half in Jest, half in Symbolism I have said, frequently whilst in India, that my dream vacation was to visit Siberia. And I`ve always wanted to ride the Trans-Siberian Railway. Well, actually what I`ve wanted was to have seven days on a train, from Vladivostok to Moscow, uninterrupted. Seven days of constant movement; and rather what I`ve really really wanted is the uniterrupted sequestering on a tramp steamer heading to some foreign port a month or two away, trapped, so to speak with a difficult tome and the malaise of the incarcerated. But half way to that goal, I took the Trans-Siberian to Irkutsk. And why Irkutsk? More than just another point on the map, Irkutsk was central to controlling Asia and Taking over the world in RISK™. For RISK semiotics, perhaps only Kamchatka has more exotic signification. But that`s a real pain in the ass to get to... Well, not really a pain, just out of the way and expensive. So, next time...
But more important than all that, Irkutsk is near Lake Baikal. Beautiful Lake Baikal. The oldest lake in the world, Baikal has been a lake for 100,000,000 years. That`s several ice ages ago. The last ice age began a mere 1.2 million years ago, recall. It is also the deepest, over a mile deep. The surface sits at 455 meters, so that puts its bottom 1200meters below sea level. Which, if it were even a corner of the ocean would make it an impressive trench. But that`s not enough. Its also the Purest; with water so clean you can walk right up to this veritable sea, stick your head in and carelessly drink up. The water is crystal clear, purified, ironically, by a special species of sponge that filters the water of impurities. On top of all this it freezes over in the winter, though I`m still not convinced it does in its entirety, cause its so big that`s just hard to fathom. Freezing water bodies is one of those things I have constantly lived too far south to really grasp; meaning I am slated for a return trip some march hence. Baikal, it is claimed, holds 20% of the earth`s fresh water, which though a fun figure to bat around, I find a bit too unqualified to be true*. I`ve seen the Ganga during the rainy season. And the Mississippi. And I can add the Amazon and the Nile by statistics, and then toss in the Great Lakes and Lake Victoria... and that`s a lotta water, and what about th aquafers... And if we`re talking about water ready to drink, then to we factor in Dasani? At any rate, there is nothing better than camping by an indesputibly pure water source, and one of such abundance made me feel like Solomon or Bill Gates.
*An email in response from an old friend:
Just so you know, the 20% of freshwater statistic is definitely off. 22% of earths freshwater is groundwater – aquifers and the like – of the remaining 78%, more than 99% is trapped in permanent ice and glaciers. 0.33% of surface freshwater is in all the lakes in the world. So Lake Baikal must necessarily be less than 0.33% of above ground freshwater. To be more specific, Lake Baikal, which is the world’s largest freshwater lake, has a volume of 22,000 cubic kilometers. The total volume of freshwater on the planet is estimated to be 37,800,000 cubic kilometers. Therefore Lake Baikal contains approximately .0005% of the world’s freshwater. It does contain about 16% of all the freshwater in surface lakes, which, given the vagaries of estimates at this scale, could be rounded to 20%. Maybe that’s what they meant? Though it is interesting to note, since you mentioned all those rivers, the combined volume of all streams and rivers on earth is about 1250 cubic kilometers, or 0.0003% of all surface freshwater.
Thanks, Karl, for the Science, and setting the record straight! --Hudson.
The Train ride was uneventful. I travelled third class, which as I mentioned, was a bit too comfortable for my taste. True, its nice to have sheets and such, but I like suffering, and there wasn`t much of it here. The mere four people in my coupee` were nice people. And nobody in any of the five cars in Cattle Car class got noisily or destructively drunk. It was in all, uneventful. I was told of riotous vodka drinking hooligans, of carrying on until the early hours of morn, but no, lights off by ten, and most of the cars slept most of the way. I had a friend from the hostel in 2nd class, so I paid a visit a couple of days. She was Australian, working in India, and travelling on a nine month holiday from work . In her couchette there was a Belgian Newlywed Couple, and a Ukranian. But he was not getting obnoxiously drunk either. Indeed, I am forced and saddened to say, the hard partying, impetuous, heavy drinking Russian stereotype is about as valid as the College keg party myth. True it happens, true its a part of the experience, but far far far from all Russians participate in this institution. (Nevertheless, I did find this side of Russia at times).
So the train rolled on, I read Gogol`s Dead Souls a classic of Russian Satire, and a fabulous piqueresque tale of on of the first Anti-heros of literature. Written in the 1830s its a story about a man who`s found a way to capitalize on the acquisition of dead peasants. No, it has nothing to do with voter fraud, but it is a clever system he works out. I think what makes the book (at least the first part the second was never completed, or rather, twice was completed and burned... from what survives, somewhat with good reason) so compelling is the vividness of each character in the study, and the complexity of the protagonist. You want this man to win, but you know that he`s a scoudrel. You must read this book to understand the russian Character, if such an understanding you desire, of course.
So, after four nights and three days I arrived in Irkutsk... just a minute. I`m in such a hurry to get back to Lake Baikal that I`m cheating you of Siberia!
The second night we crossed the Urals and I returned to Asia. I was very very eager to see this demonized expanse of desolate land called Siberia. But it turns out Western Siberia, at least along the stretch of trainline, is mostly bog and birch forest. Birch, of all things. Growing in its little clusters, propagating by shooters, so each tree is part of a tree-colony. And these islands of tree cousins sit amongst verdant, mostly undeveloped fields, which must have proved a Catch-22 to the Mongol horde. More water than they`d ever seen, knitting their way through the bog, with unbelievably lush pastureland, but something fundamental lacking. No spanning out and storming across these plains. Rather a single-file trek, weaving this way and that, with foot rot and mosquitos to contend with. I can see their faces... "Sunuvab#*ch!" This went on for a night and two days. Birch forest, bog, meadow, bog, the odd pine-birch forest, more bog... the odd villiage of wooden houses, punctuated with heavy industry, workers dormatories and the ubiquitous metal storage sheds in the yard behind. Dismal, dirty, worthy of exile.
By the third day we climbed into the low hills of the Central Siberian Plateau. I had been contemplating parachuting off the train in Krasnoyarsk, for that`s where you change trains, head to Abakan, and then to Kyzyl, in Tuva; the Tuvans being Mongols stranded within Russia for many many years. This is one of the most remote corners of russia, bordering on Kazakstan and Mongolia, the mountains get up into the low three thousands, and one can find the famous Throat singers, who took the Tibetan mantra technique to unimagined peaks, or vice versa. Its hard to put either chicken or egg first in Central Asia, which is largely unknown both to history and archaeology. but in the end, I realized that I`d, foolishly or not, opted for a 3 week visa instead of the 4 week visa, in order to save something like three dollars (my rationale was that Russia was expensive and I ought not loiter; forgetting about camping as well as uncounted upon difficutly procuring tickets in Moscow leading to a longer than expected visit). Anyway, the timing worked out for reasons I`ll elude to obliquely later. But Krasnoyarsk-to-Kyzyl is an adventure waiting to happen! Study the map and you`ll understand.
On the last morning, we drove through a fog, pulling in early in the moring to Irkutsk. Perhaps visibility of a hundred yards. As soon as I got my bearings, I headed into town. A local I`d struck up conversation with on the train told me it`s far! I should take a bus. I pointed out to him that two kilometers is not far to walk. In fact, if it were New York, the distance would be from midtown to the villiage. Well, okay, most people with luggage would take the subway... but... but. dammit I was trying to draw alusions to small-town mentality and it all fell through! Fine! People are the same everywhere. Lazy fucking slobs, whilst I`m so cool! Grr... My head has turned against me and practically prohibits me to draw conclusions or make speculative judgements anymore. All the same, all the same, all the same is all I hear. No, people aren`t lazy, I just like to walk. The better to see things. Even in a fog. Crossing the bridge, for example, I noticed the bottom of the river. "Holy shit," being my exact words. Bright green algae at the bottom of an aquamarine river, in the middle of the biggest city in Siberia. And I felt convinced I could bathe in it and drink it, too [Though the latter is advised against...]. In fact, I had been mistaken from the map. Despite all my study, I neglected to realize that this river is the EGRESS from Baikal, all the others flowing in from as far afield as Mongolia. In fact, its totally possible to make a boat trip from Central Mongolia all the way to the North Sea. And wouldn`t that be fun! Doubt you`d get the permits for it though, and super special permits of substantial monetary value would definitely be required. Thus, the vast Angara river begins its long meander to the North Sea, sadly without me.
So, being the sort to foolishly rush in without a reservation, I knowingly headed to the Downtown Irkutsk Hostel. Though it is not quite downtown, it is very conviniently located to the train station. I was betting that they might have a cancelation or something, but was pretty sure they`d be full. Still, I like an adventure. There were three other hostels, and I gambled I could get into one of them... or else head down to Listvianka and camp. (Listvianka is the short-timer`s visit to Baikal; 40 min away by bus). More than anything, I wanted to play my typical American.
The New Stereotype of Americans, you might be interested to note, is quite the contrary to how the stereotypical French view us. Why are we so concerned with the French anyway? These days, each country, to speak in stereotypical generalization, views its neighbor with distaste. If Asian-Russian, they hate Asian tourists, If Czech, they hate Poles and Moravian tourists. If Lithuanian, they hate Polish tourists. (The Poles get a really bad rap for some unknown reason...) If Latvian, they hate Estonian tourists. If French... well, the French hate everyone... kidding. But Americans have finally risen above the fray. Whatever they may think of our politics, we are no longer the Ugly American, but rather, we`ve become jocular, good natured, and laid back. We`re always smiling, and friendly, if not a bit naive and bumbling. But most significantly, we ask too many damn questions. I have discovered this not only in service industry people I`ve met, but also in first-hand observation, and finally and most damning, I have found it in myself. I have this undying need to ask whomever I meet dozens of questions that have nothing to do with their field of expertise. I want my cashier to teach me to say thank you. I want the bellhop to tell me about bookstores. I want the bartender to tell me about remote corners of the country. In short, we are jovial, but we never shut up. The current winners for Most Welcome Tourist, interestingly, is the English. Except perhaps in Wales, Ireland, Scotland, and of course, France. [unscientifically researched]
So, I went into the hostel, and asked for a room. It should go without saying that I fell in love with the receptionist at first sight. Red Hair, bright blue eyes, petite with curves, what else was I supposed to do. So, I let her take care of the other two people I walked in with, and poked around at the information available on the walls. Bus, Boat, Train Information, and three Maps. Of course, Maps are novels to me. But better than Novels, Maps are novels-to-be-written. Nascent Novels. Enovelization. To enovelate... sorry. where was I... I was lost in the maps of Baikal. By the time Katya got back to me, I had already plotted my journey to Olkhun Island, of which I`d heard mention from several travellers; none with any concrete information, more a dull murmer about something special. A rumor riding the wind of the next big thing on the backpacker circuit. Katya called a couple other guesthouses and hostels, and regretfully informed me that the only place available was Arena Hotel. This, she said, was very basic and unappealing, but was what was cheapest, and available. I thanked her for her help and proceeded to pick her brain, flirt, invite myself to stay at her house, and in short, make an utter fool of myself, stopping just shy of annoyance. And as it was the end of her shift, I walked her to the bus stop, and noticed we were both wearing yellow shoes. Its the little clues, really. But I bade farewell, and continued my exploration. The hostel.... ah shit. I just figured out where the other hostel was! Lenina street was one way on either side of a largish park-square. It never even occurred to me that the other side of the park would also be Lenina street, and that the odd numbered buildings would be over there... lemme go check... No. Shit. where was that hostel!? Anyway, I couldn`t find it, so the next to last resort was Arena.
So, I found the Circus, where in fact there was a circus performing. I skipped it. But children were running around over worn down cement paving stones, every tenth one missing, the cheapest of trinkets being sold from wagon, kiosks everywhere, selling simple "foods." Beer shops, and cigarette shops, but no clear indication of a hotel. I wandered up one side, down the other, in front, behind, and found a sign that said "Apeha" is script, which looks more like Apewa, but is Cyrillic for Arena. But it looked like a service entrance to a highschool gym. Still, not to be daunted, I entered in to the unlocked door, down the tiled corridor, through another unmarked metal door, where I found a small office, also unmarked, with a woman who, of course, spoke not a word of english. I enquired about the hotel. She was nice enough to at least gesture at a receipt, and point back around in the general direction of the other side of the "Circus." So, back I went again to explore where I`d been before. This time on looking more closely, there was the same sign as before, a closed door to an unlit room, and still very little signifying "hotel" other than the word Apewa in script. I tried the door, it was unlocked, I walked in to what could be taken for a lobby, perhaps to a shriner`s lodge, or something of a midwestern civic club meeting room. A VFW hall waiting room perhaps. Again through unmarked doors and around the corner, expecting people in funny hats with obscure badges and finally found what clearly was a reception desk. There the woman knew three words of english relating directly to her occupation, single, double, and one night, oh, and passport. Surprisingly, she also offered the the word "cheapest" and I managed to get the price down from 750 rubles to 550. But at what cost, I was not yet sure. She filled out the paperwork, handed me two pieces of paper, one I clearly identified as the receipt previously offered in demonstration. And back again to the other building.
After a long lecture at the front desk about the rules, clearly indicating something about "one person" and presumably, no guests, fornication, drinking, smoking in the room, carrying on, loud noises, gunfights, or raising pidgeons; worrying that I was missing something about a curfew, being locked out, left to wander the streets only later to end up bruised and in a cell of the county jail, she sent me to my room. Jesturing something about to the right. Okay, so room "14" turned out to be on the 3rd floor, the door marked 14 was clear enough, and I was left to puzzle over the "2." This became clear when I opened the first door onto a kitchen, dismal, rusting refrigerator, bare lightbulb sink, table with old plastic cloth. and saw door number 1 and door number two, with a second lock. Okay then. So this was what they meant by "shared flats" in Bulkakov`s Master and Margarita. Two other doors off the kitchen, one to a bathroom with no toilet seat, and a shower with what a brave person might consider a small tub underneith, and the thinnest most utilitarian of plastic shower curtains. All the piping exposed, poorly painted, and walls inadequately patched from years of maintanence. I wouldn`t call it clean, but neither was if filthy. My room had two beds, bedsheets from the sixties, a door onto a shared balcony, a couple tables and chairs, and a window. I should mention at this point that every window at this latitude is doubled. There`s an outer window and an inner window, a very sensible arrangement for dealing with the serious winters. My hotel here in Ulan Bator goes so far as to have a double door, the inner door, as many I`ve seen padded on the inside. The double window even had a small window on top, at both layers, to allow a small amount of air through. Overall, everything very utilitarian, and no worse than most hotels I`ve stayed at in Asia, but this one simply costing around 20 dollars instead of five. But heck, it was a suite.
After settling in, I went back out to explore, headed to the bus station to plot my escape to Baikal, and was approached by a group of Czech travellers who had arranged for a mini-bus the following day to take them to Khuzir on Olkun Island. So, after a few moments consideration, I decided one of the girls was hot, so why not. At the worst I`d be stranded for another day in Irkutsk. Then walking back through town, I found the main pedestrian street, the shopping mall, the 24 hr restaurant serving pizza and sushi and Russian cafeteria food, all at a reasonable price (though I wouldn`t trust the sushi). And after sitting for a while drinking a beer, the trainride finally caught up with me and I went back to take a nap.
I was awaken around five pm to a banging on my door, and the woman from downstairs barged in on me yelling something in Russian. Hiding behind a pillow, I told her one minute, as I was not dressed. Thus I was introduced to my roomate, and the caveat for saving 200 rubles on the room. Anyway, not a big deal to share a room with a stranger. This one was from Argentina, and seemed nice enough. I got up and headed to the train station to buy my ticket to Mongolia. After a little misdirection and wandering about, I finally made it to the train station, where the clock read 13:50. Which judging from the position of the sun I found hard to reconsile, but my head was still not right after the little sleep on the train (the last night I had jet-jump, and counldn`t get to sleep at by reasonable hour) and my nap and being startled awake just muddled my brain. After three ticket windows, I found not a soul who spoke a word of english, and seemed to sneer at my discomforture, but eventually figured out that international train tickets were sold upstairs. I walked in, and asked which window, only to have it slammed shut in my face. It was four minutes till the turn of the hour, and by the clock., that hour was 14:00. The hours on the sign indicated that the end of lunch should be at 14:00 despite what day it might be, and I couldn`t believe the rudeness of closing four minutes early and leaving me stranded like that. The room was empty, and how hard is it to sell one more ticket??? Anyway, the two people at the information desk sorta smirked at me, and told me I`d have to come back tomorrow, and I couldn`t make sense of why that might be, since the clock said 14:00, and the ticket window was allegedly open until 19:00. Eventually, the guy behind the information desk counter said "moscow time" and it all clicked. All the train stations, schedules, tickets, and trains in Russia are on Moscow Time. And fair enough, as the only country to span 11 time zones, I guess they can do what they want.
The next day I went to buy my ticket early, bought my ticket for 16:00 which of course means 21:00 local time, and convert that back to 12hr time and hahah you have a recipe for disaster!!! But one most likely to get you there hours early... Then on my way back to my hotel, I stopped by the Downtown hostel to buy a map of Baikal, or at least that`s what I was telling myself, and who should I run in to, but Katya, who herself had only arrived five minutes previously. So laughing to see me again, she invited me for a cup of tea, which I happily accepted.
Finally at the bus station, I arrived thirty minutes early to meet my group. But after an hour and a half went by and they still hadn`t shown, I noticed another group with backpacks, and approached them with my backpack, and an adorable young Russian girl asked me if I`d like to ride with their group to Khuzir. What was I to do? It turns out that Mini-busses just simply run to Olkun normally, and there were no "special arrangements" in place. The minibus (read van with 13 1/2 seats) even has a number, 507, in fact. So after a moment`s deliberation, not wanting to leave my other group in the lurch (I aspire to be a man of my word) I fell in with this other company.
Camping at Lake Baikal
We piled in. A french man and woman, and a Russian man and woman, but where I made the obvious assumption at first, it was the other way; the two French people were working for a Graphics Design firm in France, and were sent to work in Moscow. The two were flatmates, and were dating the two Russians. Also in the van were an elderly Buryat (Russian-mongol tribesmen) Babushka, her younger daughter or other relation, and two russian boys, one a soldier back from Chechniya, who fortunately couldn`t speak enough English for us to "go there." So we piled in for the five hour drive to Olkhun. It was a good group, a fun ride, and I had some assistance ordering food and otherwise making sense of things from the Russians who spoke good English... English well... sorry..
The ferry to the island was interesting. There didn`t appear to be anyone in charge of the landing, and there was nearly a fight, okay, there was a fight when one car tried to bypass the long queue claiming to live upon the island. Taxis, busses, working vehicles and residents get priority, leaving tourists in what must be an hours long wait to board the ferry, which takes nearly an hour to make a round-trip, to make the crossing, ten or fifteen at a time. It did not look fun at all. But as a taxi passenger, we just zipped by them, trying not to be smug.
Once on the island, I bid farewell to my fair weather friends, and when asked where I would sleep, I just pointed east. That way. I was anxious to get back in the woods, back under the stars, with fair weather on an island that only gets 10 or 15 inches of rain a year. (Guess what happened on the third day? ...You`re quick!). So, I had the pathetic map I bought from Katya, and when The Russian girl bought a better more trekking oriented map at one of the stops, I photographed my route, just to be safe. On either map it looked pretty straightforward. But that was before the reality of the situation set in. Heading out into the woods from the villiage, a village solely of sand roads, there are no road markings of any kind. On my way out, I met a pretty loopy elderly Belgian man who chewed his English and bottom lip, and didn`t seem totally "there." Unfortunately, he offered to "guide" me, not knowing where I was going; his idea of camping involved a cabin with full board... so it wasn`t until he got to his guesthouse at the edge of the villiage that he clued to the fact that by camping I meant, like, outside n` stuff. But since the road I was on seemed to be heading in the right direction, I took a chance and headed out on it.
From the center of the villiage I could see the hills I would be crossing, but once under the trees of the pine forest, I was relying totally on my compass and the photograph of the map, which indicated something like the crisscrossing logging roads and firebreaks I was suddenly encountering. The island is only 16 kilometers across, and set at an angle NE to SW. So if I headed South and east, I ought to eventually find the valley that led to the beach I was aiming for. There was no guarentee of a beach, however, just a supposition on my part. But as I got further and further down this trail, guessing left here and right there, I lost more and more confidence until, under the setting sun, the road eventually ran out into a logging clearing. Well, at least I knew where I was then, which was lost. As tempting as it was to just strike out due south through the pine forest until I hit a trail, I thought better of it. See, I grew up in Florida, and I`ve been lost in forests like this before. Its really disorienting, and going from lost to loster didn`t seem like a sensible idea. So...
- One litre of water is not enough for a day`s trekking.
- A bottle of vodka doesn`t count.
- Islands in Lakes do not necessarily have conviniently located sources of water inland. Convinience being relative to having some indicator, like a proper map, as to where it may be.
- Arid pine forests are intensely flamable.
- Roads can and do often go nowhere. Trails do not always continue to go in the direction they start out.
- Even roads that show signs of heavy and frequent use.
- Arid pine forests are extremely flamable
But it all worked out. From the clearing I could see the hill indicated on my map(s) of which the trail ran along the base. So, I followed the labrynthine logging roads and firebreaks in the general direction of the hill, and hit the "main road" across the island. The sand was considerably whiter, and the base was harder, indicating a complex relationship between soil erosion and exposer of hardpack base. I hiked until sunset, and made "camp" at a place where I was geographically "certain" of on the map. I had half a liter of water to make it to the Bolshoe (Great) Sea of Baikal, and had some shred of confidence left that I would be able to do so by the following afternoon. Here is where I learned another valuable lesson. The mosquitos were out, and I wanted a bit of a fire to chase them off. So I grabbed some moss covered sticks, four or five of them, stacked them up and, before going to too much trouble to build a fire, decided to see what they`d do. So I lit the moss. The first stick immediately flamed up like a torch, ignighting the other three, the flames lept up two feet within 15 second, and the ground under the teepee started burning. That`s when I knew I had a problem. Last thing I wanted to do was use my last half-liter of water to put out a forest fire. So, I scratched the idea of campfire, and stamped out the voraciously growing flames. The mosquitos had cleared out by this time, at any rate. I made a meal of bread and cheese, dried apricots and chocolate, took a shot or two of vodka, and hit the sack. The next morning, I noticed smoke rising from the pit that I`d carefully smothered the night before, and which hadn`t dared to smoke for the hour before bed. But there I had a miniature forest fire, about a foot in diameter, and still ever so slowly growing. Fucking scary. When the ground is burning, you have a problem.
So the next day I only got lost twice, and actually, the first time I wasn`t lost, the map just didn`t indicate the road looping back to the North. So I accidentally found a shortcut by following axed trail blazes and deliberately placed sticks across paths. I can follow deer trails like highways, human trails are only difficult when there is the obfuscation of number and `Which.` But when my shortcut ran out, and the trailmarkings seemed to indicate an overgrown logging road, I was losing confidence. For the first time I took bearings off a picture on my camera, to the mountain summit I could clearly see. All signs pointed to me being in the right place, but still, I dropped my pack and scouted ahead. I was rapidly approaching dehydration, rationing my tonic water for mixer with my vodka that night. One must have one`s priorities. So, I found the trail, discovered my shortcut to my delight, and finally crested the ridge and could see baikal four kilometers down a patently obvious valley. I was saved.
This valley was day to the night of the tinderbox forest. Its amazing what a little groundwater can do. The pine forest began to give way to birch, and when the valley opened up a little, a verdant meadow of butterflies and .wildflower greeted me. The bugs increased in number, and the cool breeze coming through the forest indicated the abundance of water and nearness of the lake. The road let off to a trail where the groundwater emerged as a creek, and the meadows quickly became bog. I was racing down the trail at this point, but not so fast that my nose didn`t pick up the wafting sage from the drier hills above, nor mine eyes notice the impressive black ant colonies standing half a meter high. Curiously, the Eagles that I`d been startling out of the trees all morning stayed inland, and when I emerged upon the breathtaking view of baikal, only seagulls and a single seal greeted me. Baikal is so cool they have freshwater seals.
I found on a small bluff overlooking the lake, an Ideal campsite, it had clearings for three tents, a picnic table equiped with a ridgeline for a tarp, or laundry, as it were, a large firepit, logs cut to be furniture, and even a campcrafted shovel. Everything spoke of an excess of campcraft. Someone even cut saplings and stakes for a pup tent, would be my guess. Low Impact camping this was not. It should be noted that litter is a big problem. Pits here and there full of bottles, random scraps of litter here and there. And the travel brochures incourage one to build a fire just anywhere. Also, Siberia is one place where people seem to feel no qualms about butchering standing trees for firewood. Though the island is a National Park, a culture of protection of nature has not yet even begun. Which, for us early arrivers is a good thing. I had no shortage of fallen wood within a hundred yards of my campfire, since everyone else was apparently of the "must chop wood" school of fire building. Mr. Rick Whistler was the one who finally called us boyscouts out on our excess of campcraft. We would go dragging huge logs in from the forest and he one day got frustrated and said, why the hell are you doing that? Look, sticks you can break with your hands burn too. There`s no need to go chopping wood all the time. Well, I haven`t chopped firewood for a campfire in probably 15 years. When necessary, I just burn logs in half. Thanks Mr. Whistler.... of course, secretly, we brought the large logs into the campsite expressly for the purpose of chopping them. Burning the chopped wood was secondary... Boys are like that.
I spent a full day at the lakeside. I set up three of the logs as a throwing knife target for recreation. I did some yoga, I bathed in the frigid waters, albeit briefly. I put up my tarp as a sunscreen so I could stay out in the field on the bluff with the incredible view instead of heading for shelter under the trees. I slept out under the stars, and when I was lucky enough to wake up in the middle of the night, the luminous milky way, and a meteor shower welcomed me home. I studied the constellations of Sagitarius, Capricorn, Aquarius, Pisces, and Aries. I learned to identify Vega and Andromeda. I watched the Satellites watching me. Scanning me for Weapons of Mass Destruction, no doubt.
I did have some neighbors on my beach though. Tucked away under the trees, a group of first six and then four were camped. I had a site large enough for a scout troop, they had a site better suited for an individual. Anyway, they were there first, so its their fault they got it backwards. They were Russians, Siberians in fact, from Two days away back west and further north. One was a computer programmer, and consequently could speak English passably, even though he never had before. Five years of schooling prepared him for that day, meeting me, inviting me for tea, and discussing things. The group also informed me of a local fisherman up the coast a ways, where we went and bought smoked fish. Some of the best goddamn smoked fish I ever done et. Picture it; Toasted bread, swiss cheese, smoked fish, and the oldest deepest purest lake from which the fish was pulled there to behold. Paradise. I had also brought a different variety of dried fish with me; dried meat is my new "thing" for camping. But this variety of fish I recognised from an Onsen Miyuki and I visited in Japan. I knew that if grilled, it would turn tender and release its oils. So, campcraft to be used with caution. I found a flat stone, and carried several coals from the fire on it over to the picnic table. There, I toasted bread, melted cheese, and grilled my fish right on the table, japanese style. And cleanup? Wipe off the knife, dump the coals back in the firepit. My only other pot was the 850ml can from a can of pears I ate for breakfast the first day. Cook in the open flames all you want. And at the end of the trip, throw it away. This was the third can I`ve been through in this transit across eurasia. This technique has allowed me to minimze the camping gear while train-and-hostel travelling. Thus keeping the pack small. Of course, I have a french press travel mug to fill the vacancy.
The second night, while having tea with my neighbors, I mentioned my preference for sleeping under the stars. They said well, what if it rains. Normal question. Get that all the time. I said, well, its nice weather, it won`t... and looking up; listening to the music of the spheres, I suddenly knew I was wrong. It had been warmer that day than the previous, and there were still clouds in the sky after nightfall. It was a warm front coming through, and was sure to be followed by rain. So before going to bed, just to be safe, I set up my tarp. But by midnight the sky had cleared of clouds, though it was still a bit warm. Again with the Meteor shower, the constellations, and I drifted off to sleep contemplating the brightest stars in the sky. The next morning I awoke to a single drip of rain on my face, a couple more on my bag, and so I rolled into my groundcloth burrito. After a half hour with no more rain, and a little more lazing, I got the impression that I ought to get moving. Clouds were gathering, and rain couldn`t be far off. So I made a fire, made breakfast, packed my bags, and right as I sat down to eat, the rain came. I`d left my tarp up for last, "up" being stretched across the picnic table, a darn spiffy way to pitch a tarp. So I crawled under the table, and discovered an arrangement using my walking stick that even gave me a window with a view of the lake. As the light rain drizzled down, I read Thomas Pynchon`s Mason and Dixon and drank my coffee waiting for it to let up. A half hour later it did, the clouds broke and I could dry my tarp before packing up to leave. I hiked back over the mountain with much more confidence, hiking back to a known point being exponentially easier than hiking forward to an unknown; I gathered eagles feathers, took shortcuts to my shortcuts, managed to get lost and find myself on a trail I had conspicuously avoided on the way out, somehow having inconceivably crossed the trail I was looking for in the process. As I passed the camp of my first night, I decided to go in search of the springs that had been indicated on the maps. Where are springs? Well, downhill, so again with the bushwacking through the pine forest, I eventually espied a more luxurient green and found a very Colorado looking biome, another interesting lesson. Springs don`t always reach the shore. This one ran out after I followed it for a couple kilometers. But it was flowing in the direction of the villiage, so I just followed whatever trails or roads I came upon until I was back in the villiage; thirty minutes before which it clouded over, and as soon as I could see the mountains across the Little Sea, It was evident that rain was coming. Indeed, bearing down on Khuzir from the Southwest was a wall of blue, completely obscuring the mountains behind. A nice solid rain front.
Naturally, I went looking for a bar. I think its not a villiage unless there`s a pub. The van I`d ridden in on dropped us outside what appeared to be on, but it lacked character, so I was searching all the way down Lenina St (Every town has one apparently) on the way there with the cloud bearing directly down on my heels, to no avail. It was all good, though, since it was also the direction I intended to hike that night to camp... So I set myself up at a table on the patio that afforded a good view of the storm, and a group of locals drinking together. Well, the storm came and went, and then the locals took a turn for the stormy. First a drunken Buryat man was apparently being offensive, and a woman at the table picked him up by the arm and led him off a ways telling him to go home. He came back looking for a fight, which he didn`t get. But then a big burly guy got up, went to his car, and came back with a grenade. Right, so, I`m not jumpy or anything, but this definitely got my attention. I took my cue from the reaction of his friends, none of whom seemed particularly concerned. But after he started punching on the guy he was threatening with the grenade, who then tackled him over a low wall, nearly knocking out one of the posts for the awning we all were sitting under, the police were called. They didn`t take the grenade quite as likely; two soldiers with folding stock Kalashnikovs took up positions behind cars, one with stock unfolded, while a third, pistol drawn proceeded to enter into negotiations. The man`s friend bravely intervened, while the patio promplty cleared out into the bar itself. I lingered by the door, trying to figure out if all of this was for real. Eventually the man with the grenade got into the Police Jeep, and was driven off, and things returned to normal. Somehow in the melee I lost my walking stick. Sadly, It turned up the next day, so I don`t get to say of my beta model Walkin` Stick that I lost it in a grenade fight!
So after the rain let up completely, and the military actions had ceased, I headed out for the beach. Just north of Khuzir there are sand dunes and the Small Sea, where the island is closer to the shore (there`s really no justification for calling the sections of the lake to either side of the island "seas," but, when in Rome...) I was surprised to find a great many people camping along this stretch. I counted at least a dozen groups, and didn`t see nearly all of them. Under the setting sun peaking out beneath breaking clouds, I walked along the sandy shore, trying to find a path of firmer sand with little success. When a group of three Russians called out to me the magic word "Vodka" I relented. I couldn`t refuse. It`d been a long day.
I fell as much as sat down, dumped my pack and offered up whatever I had at that stage, which was not much. I had breakfast for the next day, coffee, but little else. We munched down my pine nuts and drank their vodka while carrying on the normal conversaion, where are you from, what do you do, what do you think of Russia, George Bush, isn`t Baikal great, etc, etc... But the vodka was kicking in, so I`m not entirely clear where all the conversation turned at this point. I remember it getting dark, being the last ones on the beach, being invited to camp with them, and in the end, stumbling up the dune, getting my bag out, Thermarest™ inflated even, And passing out atop the sand dune.
The next morning, luckily it hadn`t rained in the night, I woke up with a minorly damp sleeping bag. As much a result of sweating inside the bag as morning dew and mist from over the "sea." But it dried on its own while I nursed my hangover. Science has proven that coffee directly counteracts damage done to the liver from a hard night of drinking. Thank god. So, I offered up my coffee; one of the three took one sip, promplty emptied his stomach by the express method, and sensibly went back to bed. The other hadn`t even gotten up yet, leaving the third, the beautiful Kazakstani boy and I to toast in the morning with cup after cup of good coffee. Good coffee makes up for a world of ills. I hastily made my musli over the campstove they had brought as I dispaired of building a fire with the materials available and was in no condition for foraging in the area of an official and frequented car-camping area. Needles and Haystacks. But when the third, the most Siberian of our friends awoke, He stumbled right over to the woodpile, picked up the flimsy kitchen knife they`d brought and began whittling down a 1 by 2 . Thus the kindling. There were a couple logs of split lumber, which I`ve almost never use, and had no idea how inflamable it really was. But with a handful of woodshavings, a minimum of elbow grease, and about ten minutes time, we had a much needed comforting fire. More coffee followed, and I was duly, silently, shamed.
But as the reptile I felt like, the fire`s heat returned me to sensibility. In two days I would need to be on my train to Ulaan Baator. And while it wasn`t strictly necessary that I leave the island that day, good sense suggested that I might be better served to have a night in Irkutsk to tie up any loose ends perhaps, or I donno what, but I felt it was just the best idea that I be moving on. There was nothing left for me to do on the island, and the weather made no indication of breaking from the thick fog (both actual and metaphorical) that endured well into the afternoon. So, I bid my compatriots adieu, and returned the town to buy the first ticket out of town. Well, that turned out to be 2pm. Nothing earlier was available, So I wandered around in the/a fog bought an orange and some yogurt and headed up to the bluff to the south of town to gaze into the haze. The pine needles condensed the cloud into droplets pattered on my hat and pack, yet the turquoise of Baikal shone through undiminished. From my cliff overlooking the lake I stared out in search of Shamanka, Shaman`s rock. But what I spent an hour contemplating as Shaman`s rock, turned out not to be. Right as I was leaving to get some soup to warm my bones before the five hour minibus ride back to Irkutsk, Shamanka emerged from the fog, nice enough to give me a glimpse and set the record straight.
Long story short, I buried my head in my book, my hangover lifted, I dozed a bit, and before I knew it, I was back in Irkutsk. I`d initially planned to just stay at Arena and not make a big deal about it, but the Van dropped me halfway between The Downtown Hostel and Katya and Arena. So I figured it was worth a shot. I also took a stab at finding that lost hostel again, to no avail. So, trying the code for the front door, I discovered that they`d changed it while I`d been gone, but only incrementally, and I was able to crack the door code with trivial effort. And with a buzz at the rented flat, Katya who was standing right there let me in with her wonderful smile. Its curious. She works every other day, and only had worked there for a week. Two days later would be her last day. yet somehow in three visits, I managed to see her every time, once when she was just about to leave, once five minutes after she`d arrived, and once while she`d be there all night. This final time, they were also filled up... but fortunately, there was an extra fold-out cot to be had, which she welcomed me to use, and so gave shelter from the storm. It turns out that night, even the Arena was booked solid.
The next day, at nine oclock in the evening, I boarded my train, this train only having second class coupees. We set through the night for Ulan Ude along the southern shore of Baikal, where the train makes a steep turn south for Ulaan Baator. The return to Asia was evident in the landscape, the faces of the people we passed by, and in the loping pace of the train; perhaps top speeds of 50 or 60 kilometers per hour. And the surest sign of a return to Asia, unnecessary bureaucracy. The border crossing was ridiculous. We sat at on the Russian side for four and a half hours (others were timing and adamant... I knew better than to look) in the oven of a train waiting for nothing to happen. The two bogeys heading south to Mongolia say distended, in the rail yard like two links of forgotten sausage left for the dogs. The coaches were mostly filled with tourists, and it is impossible for tourists not to gripe at these sorts of things... Still, I kept my head down, nose in book, and just waited for the time to pass. Eventually, we got our exit stamps (a relief, indicating that I`d been properly registered) and the two cars were linked to a locomotive, which pulled us across the boarder. But before that the Russians thoroughly searched the undercarriage, and thoughout the train, inside various panels for goods being smuggled out of the country. I`m sure there`s a story there... The Mongolians made a show of searching as well, but you could tell their heart was not in it. Finally on the Mongolian side of the border we went through passport control. Now, everything I`d read indicated that Americans and a couple others don`t require a visa to enter Mongolia. However eveyone else does. So with all the talk about visas, I couldn`t help but to be nervous. I was only going off what I read on the internet and only a fool trusts his fate to information found exclusively on the internet. And what would happen if I`d already been booted from Russia, and actually needed a Mongolian visa? Where would they send me? How would I be detained? So there I was wishing I needed to get a passport for some pervese reason. Still, my passport was returned with stamp and no complaint. Still, we had to wait another two hours for our cars to be coupled to the end of another train, and to finally, finally be off for Ulaan Baator. Longest goddamn border crossing I done ever seen!