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Baikal – An Interlude - 8/15/05

Church of the Assumption, Moscow

Dressed for a social outing in bright orange flowered blouse and white slacks, arms widespread Yanzhima Vasilieva, along with her equally well-turned out husband Nicholi and our mutual friend the elegant Sveta, greeted me on a foggy Tuesday morning at the gloomy Ulan Ude airport. I had spent a couple days relaxing in Moscow, checking in with the Fulbright office, meeting friends of Yanzhima, traveling about the dazzling metro and seeing, once again, the Kremlin. There I saw a mini performance by a Russian Orthodox Choir in the Church of the Assumption (sing one song, purchase our CD) and an unexpected and resplendent military precision unit complete with a marching brass band in white, about a dozen cavalrymen in dark green with a blue breastplate, white belts and plenty of brocade; and a platoon of riflemen who would twirl rifles, high step, and clap their boots with great flourish and effect.

Thank God it's wireless.

I found out that free wireless was to be had at TGIF restaurants and Starlight cafes – and adjacent coffee shops, and indeed squatting on the street nearby – the latter first used before I found the signal picking up in the coffee shops and used before the establishment opened or in need to whip out a few quick emails before dashing to a plane. Indeed while so squatted a young Russian came up to me and asked if I was Naj Wikoff of Keene Valley. As you can imagine I was a bit startled by that one. Turns out he was sitting in a car with his laptop checking his emails and picked up my signal.

Siberian Airlines--travel light.

With growing embarrassment, still financially smarting by the steep price charged by Siberian Airlines for any luggage over 22 kilos, and after prying myself out of the enveloping embrace of my greeters, I mentioned that I had a fair amount of luggage. “We heard,” said Yanzhima. “I brought our son’s car,” said Nicholi. Even so they were a bit amazed by the amount. “So, you will be staying for year,” said Yanzhima. “I brought some cold weather clothes, my office equipment, my textbooks and your laptop,” I said handing her her new pride and joy. “Oooh, so small and light, this is perfect,” she said, “but we have to hurry. We have to catch the noon ferry.”

We drove to their apartment for breakfast (Nicolia and I struggled my luggage up the four flights), changed into some informal traveling wear, and I stuffed a small bag with clothes and a computer on a vague description that included being on a ship and needing some warm clothes – a thought at odds with the blistering temperature. We dashed with their sullen teenage daughter Ayana around Ulan Ude picking up their niece Aryuna and nephew Ayur (the 9 year-old gymnast champ of Buryatia), stopping to purchase food and then rocketed down the frost heaved and pot-holed road to the Selensky Ferry arriving to find the ferry captain and crew at lunch. A huge line awaited. Adjacent to the ferry were the 10 year-old half finished pilings of a bridge stalled first by the screams of locals slated to be deprived of their livelihood and subsequently halted by a delay in rubbles. The ferry consisted of a large wooden decked barge attached midsection on the down river side to a tug, that had the power to keep the fully laden barge abreast of the current, while upstream a very undersized, full out, thrashing workboat headed either right or left and so angling the whole affair across the river. There was no cable on either end of the ferry to keep cars slipping off the deck and into the drink. One prayed for good brakes as they parked the first row of cars within three inches of the edge, all cars bumper to bumper, and thus we squeezed on – the last so admitted – with the trunk of the car jutting two feet out into space.

We stopped briefly at their ancient farmhouse in a small farming village on the north side of the Selengski Delta, the world’s largest fresh water delta giving the Nile a run for its money in size. Tossing in some additional food and what appeared to be winter gear by Placid standards we headed off along the east shore leaving a paved road shortly behind. After bouncing along for about a half hour we cut west to a rustic resort used heavily by the residents of Ikursk (a city on the west side with no nearby beaches) and drove to the shore.

Boarding the Olkon.

There sat our beached ship Olkon, named after the largest island in Baikal, and home for the next three days. How to describe it? It had the aesthetics of a garbage scow or a WWII troop transport painted a faded white. We are talking function. The hull was narrow and made of welded steal plates and everything else of weathered wood. After climbing a 45-degree narrow ladder that leaned from shore to bow and rocked sideways with the movement of the boat, one slithered down through a square hole into the forward dining and sleeping compartment. At the far end was a set of stairs that took one directly to the bridge and after cabin – an all purpose glassed-in space, followed by a door onto a short after deck, and after tail where a small metal open barrel has been welded to the stern – the not so privy open-air privy. All I can say is under full steam one really had to go to the bathroom to want to use this contraption, forget thoughts of littering the lake. All in all the Olkon was a floating railroad flat.

The crew consisted of the 51 year-old dashing captain Valeeiy, who had been a trucker in far eastern Russia until after the end of Communism when he moved to Baikal and created the ship from scratch without any previous experience at sea, on boats or welding, carpentry or wiring. In response to the question how, he tapped his head and said, “I’m smart.” His first mate was Seegey, a slightly weathered, slightly older, competent, humorous fisherman. The cook, who never once cooked or cleaned a fish, was Inna, a lithe woman of 21 that I mistakenly first took as Valeeiy’s daughter.

Olga, Yanzhima & Olga on deck.

We were greeted on board by our sailing mates, four women either college classmates or, in one case, a wife of a college classmate of Yanshima; Natasha, Olga (who spoke English), another Olga, (who spoke to me in German), and Alla. These four were en route home after ten days touring China with Yanzhima (next year Mongolia), a country they didn’t like because the people smiled sweetly but one could never get past the smiles and, as far as they were concerned, all things cheaply made are made in China. Shortly thereafter we steamed off up Baikal into the rising mist and breaking sun. I can’t say much about the voyage, following the first of many substantial meals that included vodka as a lubricant, as I slept most of the way in the bow compartment, a V-shaped bunkroom (the Captain’s cabin) crammed with our luggage, until the crunch of the ship hitting shore announced our arrival.

Our home for the next few days was a remote bay that unexpectedly turned out to become a rather international colony. Tossing our baggage down to Seegey, standing in the surf, we poured down the swaying ladder and onto the beach. The first team effort was erecting a large canvas tent that, for all appearances, had been abandoned by the German army on their failed march to Moscow. It was in sad shape, full of holes, and torn in several places. Once up, a couple sheets of plastic were laid down for flooring and another tossed over the top as waterproofing. This latter did not cover the entire roof of our tent to the dismay of those sleeping on the outer ends as it poured that night and the unprotected canvas was ineffectual at keeping out the torrent. The three children, captain and crew were all safely and dryly lodged aboard ship, and the rest of us crammed like so many sardines in the center of the tent. To my good fortune I ended jammed warm and dry between two Olgas. The only discordant note was Yanzhima’s sonorous snores that would do well at keeping any bears at bay.

However prior to our soggy night, the captain did a little net fishing that garnered a sizable meal, we toured the bay finding the only memorial to a French filmmaker unheralded in his native land – this on a dramatic headland jutting out into the lake - and a wandering German-speaking Russian who was guiding a group of Germans from Leipzig. They had kayaked down the Selensky River from Ulan Ude and were currently working their way up the coast. After dinner I wandered over to find the Germans in full musical throttle led by the first violinist of the Leipzig Symphony Orchestra playing a 50 Euro red Chinese violin accompanied by an economist on the guitar and the hardy throats of a mostly male choir. Indeed their roles were near opposite of ours, three women to about eight men. Stephen, the violinist, was thrilled to learn that he grew up a scant seven kilometers from my mother’s family’s home village. “Can you imagine,” he shouted, “I find myself sopping wet on a remote spot half way around the world on Lake Baikal to have a near neighbor stroll by.” On their side of the headland a dramatic mountain rose out of the bay with its heights lost in the growing mist. Even more thrilled was he to discover I actually had learned the Bavarian dialect; that had him thundering on in a language I hadn’t used since college.

The next day, north of us, we found four Frenchwomen renting an illegal cabin recently constructed, not to last as long as the owner would hope (and no doubt expect from the cost). It was being built and expanded on the shores of the lake by three Russian carpenters. I say this as the logs were laid directly on the ground – no foundation stones underneath to keep the wood from rotting. The women were friends of the director of the Ulan Ude Performing Arts Center who, turns out, operated an international camp that brought together teenagers and adults each summer to help clean the shores of Baikal. Three days later I was to find myself in the center of a dozen of his teens all eager to test out their English on the American they had heard about. Two of the Frenchwomen had a bit of Russian ancestry, one was interested in Buddhism and friends of a lama who recently received instruction from the 5th Dalai Lama (and got into a long and engaging discussing with Yanzhima) and the other having successfully taken her grand aunt to emotional reception in her home city St. Petersburg (not visited since 1917), decided to follow her friend on a spiritual and environmental journey. A third recently returned from gathering and was preparing mushrooms not found anywhere else in the world. (“How do you know which to eat,” I wondered recalling Alex Schoumatof’s confident forays into the Adirondacks that once landed Nathan Farb in the Placid emergency room). I begged off a taste.

A taste that I did not beg off was a small tart blueberry found growing on what appeared to be an foot tall evergreen plant with needles like a spruce, but a bit soft. The berries grew singly and in clumps starting about a third of the way up the stem, three or four in a clump with several clumps per stem. They are picked in the same manner and ease as blueberries and could be eaten raw, or cooked with a bit of water and sugar to make a great jam that we ate by the spoonful or spread on bread giving us all very purple tongues. Nicholi said the plant grew only along the shores of Baikal.

I asked Nicholi about the presence of the cabin. He said it was a growing problem – with no government agency to monitor such a vast lake shore effectively, people were starting to just build camps with little or no regulation on any aspect of design, location, environmental protection say nothing of it being illegal to build on such land in the first place. I have heard that a similar problem is now growing quite out of hand in the Altai region of Russia (the part of Siberia containing the highest mountains in Russia located far closer to urban areas) from where fellow Adirondacker Matt Fowley has let a couple exchanges.

Heavy winds and pounding surf, but bright sunny skies, forced the Germans to stay another day so a far amount of international visits took place. Our more protected shelter provided great surf casting using poles twenty feet long if an inch that whipped the line out quite a distance once you got the knack. That evening Olga, Olga, Yanzhima, Natasha, Alla and I went over to the Germans taking them up their invitation for a banya, really more like an Indian sweat lodge constructed four years before in their cove by a theatre company (note the growing arts and environment connection). We arrived in time to witness the near whole lot of now naked Germans burst forth and run leaping and hooting into the lake. They trooped out of the water, slugged down some beer, and invited us in (how another could squeeze in I couldn’t imagine). They clambered back in and every now and then a sizzle and little steam eeked out followed by lots of thrashing that made the nylon covering dance a bit. “They are whacking themselves with birch leaves,” their guide said.

After this their third and final steam bath, the women and I shrugged our shoulders, stripped and went in. I felt that some of the German men may have wished to take a fourth banya if it wouldn’t have been seen as bad form, especially by their women colleagues. The banya was well constructed of four thick stones walls, and a huge stone oven in the center (that had been heated by a large bonfire prior to the tarp being laid over the wood frame). Surrounding the oven were benches on three sides. On two sides were buckets filled with water and birch leaves, and another bucket with a ladle for tossing water on the stones. While not as hot as most Russian banyas I’ve experienced we heated up rather nicely and a couple volunteered a bit enthusiastically to whack me not too gently with the birch branches outdoing some rather painful thrashings I had taken a couple years before by Dan Plumley. Hitting the lake was a thrill. After three times any dead skin and dirt was long gone and we were cleaner than we had been in ages. I also learned that for the women this was their first time at a co-ed banya as it was not traditional in Russia that men and women banya together or, if they do, they wear sheets. But seeing the Germans they didn’t know what else to do and certainly did not want them to feel that such things were not normal for Russians. You can imagine the consternation back at our fire later that night when Valeeiy, Seegay and Nicholi learned what they missed and had turned down. They had assumed, wrongly, they’d be sharing the bayna with the German men and me. Did I get the evil eye for somehow not insisting they come as if I knew what to be in the offering.

On the way back we stopped at the German’s campfire and found them singing and passing a very large vodka bottle around, again not a traditional Russian custom as they prefer each person having their own shot glass. But they tipped it back and we had a fine time. The Germans asked us if we had any songs and, after a few rounds of vodka, the Russian women let loose with a Russian song dear to the hearts of Russian’s everywhere that obviously struck a not so pleasant cord in the Germans. “What was wrong,” they later asked me. “We listened to all their German songs and sang along with some we knew”. I explained how it took awhile after the US Civil War for Dixie to be sung in the north or John Brown’s Body in the south. I pointed out that all the Germans were former East Germans and had they been West Germans probably no big thing. But the East Germans were hit hard by the vengeful Russians on their march to Berlin and during the Cold War – so I suspect that the song had been heard before and still carried some unpleasant memories as Leipzig was the center of the revolt that lead to the collapse of the East German state.

Not too long after our less than enthused share in the entertainment, we went back to our fire for a fish feast that had been prepared by Nicholi. Later Nicholi and Yanzhima went off to their own near banya, a small illegal hunters camp found nearby that he had prepared like a honeymoon suite albeit a very hot one as its tiny stove had proved remarkably efficient. That night it was clear and cold. Our light sleeping bags were no match, but fortunately we all benefited from a willingness to pack in close quarters and managed to survive in cozy shape. The next day started sweet with calm seas, a bright warm sun, but gathering clouds in the late afternoon decided us to pack it in and head south. Sitting on deck proved the value of winter gear as a very chill wind was blowing and the spray flung itself high in the air. After a couple hours of this bracing ride, I retired to the forward cabin and a nap until once again we reached shore. This time we beached near a hot springs. Our arrival attracted a small horde of teenagers who, seeing me on deck, shouted out asking if I was the American they had heard about. News travels fast. While I provided them an opportunity to practice their English, hammer me with all manner of questions, and test my skill at flipping Frisbees, Yanzhama scouted out a Buryat restaurant in a yurt run by one of my future colleagues at the East Siberian Academy of Culture.

Around midnight we reached Yanzhima and Nicholi’s farmhouse and a white kitten (Alaska) and dog (Tracy) delirious with joy at seeing us. Hungry as well. Their method of feeding their pets while away was simply to leave the dog and cat outside fending for themselves. I woke to find the kitten curled up next to me, purring away, perhaps smells of Oreo lingered in my fleece pullover.

Friday turned out to be the kind of day one hoped for on Baikal - bright, warm and sunny with not a cloud in the sky. We are going to the beach shouted Yanzhima. Devideavi Devideavi (hurry up, hurry up) she shouted. We all, a nine-year old, a teenager, a cat, a young adult, and seven adults, packed into their car and took off. We drove about a mile north and then followed a rutty road through a pasture to a marsh – in sea terms a tidal basin of sorts. Leaving shoes behind we walked across wobbling and sinking planks laid out over floating grass until we reached a metal rowboat. We piled in with Nicholi and I each manning an oar of the seriously over laden craft. We weaved our way through tall grasses and cattails disturbing a crane or two along channels and a across a small pond to a spit of land that arched away into a long curving near private beach. An even more packed car that contained our luggage was ahead of us on our drive back to Ulan Ude that evening, but for now we ended our Baikal vacation swimming in the warm lake, picnicking by an open fire, finding shells and driftwood, playing cards and with the kitten, and watching the sun slowly arch across the sky and down to the distant hills wishing they day – the week – would never end.

Naj 8.15.05

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