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On Sunday someone was pounding at my door. It was 7:05 AM. I opened it a crack and said, Da?"
"We are going skiing," said a cheerful Alexsey. "My friend Olga in the car. Hurry and get ready."
I had just checked the temperature on the television and knew that it was minus twenty-four out. So I pulled on two layers of long underwear, a wool turtleneck, and built up from there throwing sweaters and additional items into a duffle bag so I wouldn't become overheated in his car.
"Bring money," he said as he watched me.
"How much?" I said.
"1600 rubles," he said.
"Where are we going?" I said.
"Putin's favorite resort in Siberia," he said. "The only time he has been here has been to ski. Never to Ulan Ude to visit."
"Where is it?" I said.
"Near the bottom of Baikal," he said. "Two hours."
"Three if we are lucky," I thought, but said, "Great, I'm ready. Is Luba coming?" (his wife)
"No, she is taking the kids to the bayna," he said. "You drive," he added.
I threw my bag in the back of his car, was introduced to Olga, who was surprised to see me climb behind the wheel, and we took off with Alexsey regaling her about who I was, what I did, some surprising adventures he's had with me behind the wheel, and so forth. However once we got out on the road to Baikal, they soon leaned back in their chairs and fell asleep while I drove along the clear near empty road that slowly saw more snow mount along the sides and soon fat flakes filling the air. By the time Alexsey woke two hours later, now near the shore of Baikal, a foot of snow was on the road, that had been reduced to a wide one lane, and I was attempting to pass a road grader plowing the road and spewing clouds of snow into the air.
More gas," he said.
On a curving uphill slant I pulled half out into thick snow on the uncleared side and throttled by. Cresting the hill we passed two vehicles trying to pull another back onto the highway. To me I was finally experiencing a Siberian winter as I expected, lots of snow, houses hunkered in looking like scenes out of Doctor Zhivago, people bent over pulling their water cans and groceries on small sleds, men digging paths to their house with monster sized snow shovels and kids skating down sidewalks. The roads were not salted, just plowed and as yet not sanded. Thus driving brought me back to the conditions in the Adirondacks pre-Olympics when the natives considered such driving conditions often far safer, and more fun, than summer, and certainly better than the now slush and salt damage to clothes, cars, trees, homes and environment (and our water quality in Keene). Clearly those along the eastern shore of Baikal were enjoying the lake effect of warmer weather and heavier snow than those of us further inland. Looking at his watch, Alexsey said, "I'll drive now."
He cranked up the speed and we zipped along. Soon a wall of mountains appeared on our left running down and along the lake. I felt as if I was skirting the base of the MacIntyre Range. In the distance I could see ski trails coming down one of the peaks. "There it is," said Alexsey. I nodded in agreement as we sped along. Looking out over the angry gray waters of the lake it was hard to believe that in less than a month it would be frozen solid, so solid that a temporary and informal roadway would be made straight across saving hours of driving for those seeking to go from Ulan Ude to Irkutsk; indeed the trip would be cut by more than half. At that point Alexsey pulled out to pass a station wagon ahead and, as he neared what I assumed to be the drivers' blind spot, the car in front started to pull off the road and right into our path. Alexsey tried to pull wider around him and even through the other driver tried to correct out of the way it was too late. Blam. We hit them and spun 180 degrees coming to a stop facing the way we came about a hundred yards down the road.
All piled out to inspect the damage. Fortunately no one was hurt. Our car suffered a small dent to the driver's side rear door, but their car not only lost a headlight and had the front bumper knocked loose, but the whole side of the car had turned into an accordion with the driver's side window completely missing and doors jammed shut. While stern words were exchanged, overall the feelings were of great disappointment on all sides and a bit of shared understanding and moments of humor. Indeed the other driver was remarkably stoic and calm considering the damage and impact on his day and life until repairs could be made. No question that Alexsey was responsible for the other's car. While the driver called a friend to find a repairman for an estimate we had lunch at a nearby café, a wonderful spicy homemade soup with sausage, onions, black olives and a dollop of mayonnaise served with a plate of hearty bread and black tea with lemon. Following lunch, and after more discussion, knowing how long it typically took for the police to arrive, Alexsey left his passport with the other driver as collateral and we went skiing, our journey now having been delayed about three hours. The resort entrance, as it turned out, was less than a mile down the road.
Mount Sable, or Baikalsk at is it is also known, is one of Russia's more popular and modern ski resorts having gained recent local notoriety because President Putin came and skied there the previous year. It does have many things to commend it. The view up Lake Baikal was spectacular, although marred by the large paper mill belching out long plumes of smoke below us on the waters edge, smoke that gave a distinctive odor to the air as we pulled in. Since the day was filled with snow squalls, the view of the lake was intermitted, but remarkable when it peaked through and a tease to what it must be on a bright and sunny day. The resort's other great asset was the snow. We had only managed to hit the slopes by 2:00 PM, but there was still plenty of untracked powder nearly a foot deep in many places with nary an icy spot or even boiler plate to be found underneath. All natural snow. Something I hadn't experienced on an East Coast resort since I can't remember when. Even though our skis were far from being perfectly tuned, or tuned in recent memory, the conditions were great.
In size, the mountain is between Big Tupper and Gore and serviced by four long T Bars and a rope tow on the beginner's slope. The first T Bar (a double, meaning two side by side) took one up to what we would call mid-station. This lift was about the length of the former Mt Whitney T Bar. There one could take another longer and steep T Bar up to the top, a ride that started by near launching you off your skis as the cable stretched to its maximum length before whipping you upward. The first such takeoff came as such a surprise that Alexsey and I nearly fell off but by wildly clutching at each other and the bar we managed to hang on. Thereafter we were ready and set ourselves like astronauts to be catapulted into space and did quite well. I felt I now knew the reason for the large sculpture of a rocket launching into space at the resort entrance. There was another slope off to the left serviced by a T-Bar only reachable from the top of the first lift, and still another slope beyond that serviced by the longest T-Bar on the mountain, this only accessible from the top of lift two. The trails ranged from intermediate to double diamond with several fairly narrow of a kind not seen on Whiteface since Wilderness was widened.
There are three base lodges, all generally in A-frame shapes. One is strictly a bar, actually two bars. The second, the large central building, contains two rental and a ski clothing shop in the basement, two restaurants, one with wait service on the main floor, and a bar on the top floor. The third is the combination administration, ski school, ski patrol, membership and purchase a condo office. No bar there. There is also a semi circle of kiosks selling typical kiosk fare, and an outdoor barbecue serving fresh fish caught in the lake that morning. Some differences with Whiteface are the outdoor billboards extolling various ski products and the turnstiles used to check your passes at every lift on the mountain. Instead of a ticket, you are given a white plastic card, for which you pay a 150 ruble deposit. Holding the card in front of a scanner allows you to go through a gate and get in line for the lift. These scanners both eliminate the need for people to check passes with an attendant and gives the resort exact use of the lifts during any given day, and one assumes by season pass or day users.
About half way up on the left side of the lower lift an elaborate surfboarders complex complete with metal rails had been installed adjacent to an unused (at the time) 50 meter ski jump built into the hill. The complex was hardly being used even though snowboarders made up for about a quarter of the people on the slopes. They tended to gather near a large wide man-made jump and were have a grand time flinging themselves through space.
The cost of a full day lift pass and rental of equipment came up to about $50. I noted in the bar that bottles of vodka started around 80 rubles ($3), or about the same price as in a kiosk or market. Beer, sold in half liter bottles, also seemed to be offered at the same price as package stores and the food was not much more than roadside cafeterias. The weather was much warmer than Ulan Ude so decked out for minus twenty weather I found myself very warmly dressed. Since we arrived so late we pounded down the slopes to the closing bell at five thoroughly exhausting our legs pushing through powder and un-groomed slopes all afternoon. I suspect that the main slope had been prepared for the day, but the snow had been moved around a bit by skiers by the time we got to it.
Olga was a fairly refined skier who handled most any conditions with ease and Alexsey kept his legs spread well part, chin thrust forward, arms outspread and curved like two pinchers, and charged down and across the slopes with great gusto. We met two friends of his, both doctors but now in the fast salad food business and doing quite well thank you. They were both accomplished, relaxed and graceful skiers. There were few truly aggressive skiers or overly fast skiers, so the tenor of the place was quite pleasant. They wanted to know how Mount Sable stacked up to Whiteface. I gave them credit for far better conditions, this a poor day by their standards being early in the season, would have resulted in rapturous joy in Placid. But I said, when it came to scale and variety of terrain, it was not a quarter of the size or offerings of the Olympic Mountain.
In fifteen minutes it seemed to go from gray light to dark. It was time to turn for home. Well not quite. First it was back to the scene of the accident, discussions with the police, waiting for the arrival of money to cover the agreed upon repair bill, another meal in the café (I had a terrific chicken soup and ham, carrot and egg salad), filling out forms, and then a beer and a nap for Alexsay while I drove all the way home on the now cleared roads. At one point a heavy bundled man, driving a motorcycle with a woman stuffed into the sidecar holding what appeared to be a bag of fish, passed us in the other direction in what seemed to be a slightly controlled drift. Alexsey woke up in time to see this, watched it go by and said, "That's a real Siberian man. I've turned into a soft American. I like a warm car." Then he went back to sleep.
We got back around eleven. Alexsey's parting words were, " Next Sunday banya. We go skiing again after New Year, OK?"
2005 North Country Public Radio, St. Lawrence University, Canton, New York 13617-1475