Sep 7 2010

Lake Baikal

True to his word, Sergei arrived at our cabin at 5am to wake us up for our 6:15 arrival in Irkutsk, our first official stop in Siberia. I was hoping for a little affection from Sergei — or at least a smile — upon our departure. We’d been through so much together. Station stops. Shower rental. A halting conversation about whether our ticket included meals.

But Sergei is not an emotional man. He bid us farewell with a gruff nod and continued on his way to Vladistovok as we stumbled into the cold Irkutsk morning, hoping to figure out a way to find the hostel where we could leave our luggage.

I think that arrivals are one of the most stressful parts of travel: you’re dropped off with heavy bags in some place you don’t know, often suffering from a lack of sleep, and are thrust into the merciless hands of the local taxi driver population. It’s like lambs to slaughter. But just as in Moscow, no one mobbed us at the Irkutsk gate — it seems that Russian taxi drivers are often just as content to stand around train stations chewing on sunflower seeds as they are actually driving their cabs. If you don’t want to pay their tourist rate, they don’t want to bother.

But this time, I was the one with a target: a young taxi driver in bright red pants had responded to my offered fare with a friendly wave, and I had a feeling that if he didn’t find another paying customer soon, he’d be ours. Sure enough, the train’s passengers melted away and, faced with no customers and no sunflower seeds, he agreed to take us.

We then learned something funny about cars in Irkutsk (and Ulan Ude and Ulaan Baatur, it turns out): there are no rules for where the steering wheel goes. Some cars have them on the left, American-style; some of them are on the right, like England. This one was of the right-hand variety, which Peter did not notice until, getting into the cab, he accidentally sat down in the driver’s seat.

Oh, the driver thought this was funny. Between his red pants and his friendly giggles (and my own fatigue) I decided he was my favorite cab driver of the entire trip so far — especially because he deposited us precisely behind the unmarked apartment building that contained the hostel. Thank you, red-pants taxi driver!

Our goal that day was not Irkutsk, however. We were on our way to Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest freshwater lake. It’s an amazing place, with several species of animals that lived only there (a special type of seal, for example, and a fish distantly related to salmon) — not to mention a population of hard-working sponges that, combined with the lake’s size and relative lack of pollution, made the water safe to drink.

Baikal!

We had planned to spend several days on Olkhon Island, located in the middle of the lake’s south end. Getting there required a seven-hour minibus ride there and back — and I will say that if you decide to visit Lake Baikal, you might want to think twice about the island. There are other lovely access points that do not require spending fourteen hours in an overcrowded van. Our minibus was home to a cast of characters including a young couple from Holland (who were lovely), a blonde Russian woman in sunglasses who reminded me of Joni Mitchell till she started screaming into her cell phone, and (among many other people) a young couple with two small children, who proved that the rules for child safety in automobiles are quite different in Russia than America. Who needs a seatbelt! The young boy’s father did an admirable job of supporting him with one hand and nursing a beer with the other — which ensured that they were both in good spirits for the duration of the ride.

The first section of the road to Olkhon was paved and flat, giving our minibus driver a chance to participate in what I’ve observed is one of minibus drivers’ favorite activities: passing other cars. Oh, how they love it. It occurred to me, as we leap-frogged our way up a line of about fifteen cars, that I have never in my life seen a minibus driver who is not in a rush. Except when they stop, that is. Our driver was quite fond of leisurely cigarette and dumpling breaks, and enjoyed pulling into a rest stop just when he had reached the front of the line of traffic.

The quality of the road gradually disintegrated (and the number of road-crossing cows increased) as we got closer to the ferry crossing for Olkhon. By the time we reached the island, all semblance of a normal road was gone, and instead we were following unpaved ruts that criss-crossed the hills around us — anything that vaguely resembled tire tracks qualified as a road, and since Olkhon drivers enjoy off-roading, there were plenty of tracks to choose from.

We bounced our way 40-or-so kilometers up the island before finally reaching the town of Khuzir, which is really more of a collection of ramshackle wooden houses scattered along oddly wide dirt boulevards. Our destination was Nikita’s, a “homestead” recommended enthusiastically by Lonely Planet. At Nikita’s, said the good old Lonely Planet, we would stuff ourselves on delicious homecooked meals in a lively guesthouse run by a former table tennis champion.

Part of that was true: the place was lively. In fact, it was overrun with international backpackers, all hanging out on the dining hall front stoop, or wandering between the on-site banyas, or eating an umpteenth meal of sticky rice, imitation crab salad and the omnipresent omul. (Perhaps omul can be delicious, but it was not so at Nikita’s.) Despite there being well over a hundred guests, there was no running water in the rooms, and the shower required you to heat up a bucket of water with an electric coil (“Caution!” read a sign, indicating that you should unplug the coil before you electrocuted yourself) and then pump it out of the handset by stepping back and forth between two plastic buttons on the floor. (It turns out that it is very difficult to bathe while marching.)

It was an interesting reaction on my part, since everyone was friendly enough, and hey — it’s not the kitchen staff’s fault that they only appeared to have four ingredients to work with. But just as a cat’s hair stands up if it gets within ten feet of a dog, as soon as I walked into Nikita’s, my hackles were raised.

But in retrospect, it didn’t really matter. Lake Baikal was visible right outside Nikita’s back door, and the sight of it — a shimmering expanse of blue, almost inconceivable in size — more than made up for the smell of the shared bathroom.

Almost more unbelievable than the lake itself is the fact that during the winter, it freezes enough that locals drive their cars across it. That means that, despite the fact that we arrived in August, it was freezing. And that meant that, naturally, Peter wanted to swim in it. So one afternoon we scampered down a steep hill to its shore, dodging shards of glass and piles of trash (environmentalism has not quite made it to your average Russian tourist), and he waded in for a dip as I stood on the shore, just up to my ankles.

I hesitate to say that the water was “ice cold,” since that’s physically impossible — but if I were to order a giant glass of ice water, perhaps a Slurpy, that would be approximately the temperature of the water. As soon as I stepped into it I could feel my blood rushing away from my toes; it was so cold that it actually hurt.

Peter plunged in anyway, emerging with an enthusiastic shout. (Supposedly swimming in Lake Baikal will add 25 years to your life.) I had no intention of following him, so instead I just stood at its edge, trying to see if my feet would acclimatize. When they no longer hurt, I took another step in. And another.

This is a big difference between me and Peter: he is a diver, able to jump into any body of water that hasn’t frozen solid. I prefer the slow, painful entry, working my way in inch by inch until at last I have no choice but to dunk my head. It’s a really stupid method — and it’s what happened at Baikal: after inching forward for upwards of ten minutes, I finally decided to go for it, and dropped under water for what has to have been one of the shortest dunks known to man.

My verdict? It was cold. Take-your-breath-away, give-you-a-heart-attack cold. But I could use those 25 years.

Tired of Nikita's food, we bought lunch in town -- and were presented with a hot omul in a bag, no plate, no fork. Turns out the skin peels off easily, and the spine pulls out. But your fingers will smell like omul for at least eight hours. Trust us.

One of our "delicious" lunches. Can you see the fish eyeball?