Third post B4 Vladivostok

It’s after midnight in Ulan Ude. I’m back from my frustrating journey north. I’ve had two large beers, so I’m calm.

The bus dropped us at the train station instead of the bus station ( “It’s Russia!”), but this time Russian logic worked to my benefit. I walked in and bought the first ticket to Vladivostok. Yay!

So in 12 hours I will be boarding train number 8, heading east. Sixty-two and one-half hours later (that’s almost three days) I will debark in Vladivostok, home to the Russian Pacific Fleet. It was a carefully closed-off city during Soviet times, and more recently the most wild of Russia’s Wild East. I will apply for my Chinese visa, tour the city while waiting, and then leave Russia. I think I’ve had enough.

I’m kinda delighted that I’ll be spending July 4 in such a place.

See ya’ll on the East Coast.

Thwarted in Russia

[posted from Ulan Ude. It’s sort of a day-in-the-life-of type post. Enjoy.]

Chuckle chuckle. How my fortunes can change, in just a day! I was in the middle of writing a frustrated report from Ust-Barguzin. It was going something like this:

If I write a book about my travels in Russia, the working title will be “Thwarted.”

I endured a 7-hour bus ride here, to this miserable and dusty little town, because it is the perfect staging point for hiking trips to the Holy Nose Peninsula, the Ushkanny Islands (home to the rare Nerpa seals), and the Barguzin Valley. Alex Betekov was recommended (again, both by LP and the Aussies!) as the man who would get me there.

Our email exchanges didn’t gain me much – no precise options for tours or hikes, no information about groups I might be able to join. Instead of doing a broken-English battle via email, I took his advice and just told him when I was coming. We would discuss details in person.

Of course, there are no details.

There are no groups to join. (“One group left today morning,” he said. “Too bad you not come one day earlier.” ARGH. “But I asked you about groups, and you didn’t tell me,” I replied, trying to remain calm. “I could have come earlier.” Alex either didn’t understand, or didn’t want to. “Yes, too bad you not come one day early.”

There are no one-day hikes – he’s got a straight job now.

There’s nothing to do, but wait.


But now – a miracle! No other tourists have appeared. Still no groups to join. But suddenly Alex has a friend who can take me on a 3-day trip, at the exceptionally (suspiciously) low price of 1500 rubles/day (about $50). I don’t know if it’s because I told them I’m a travel writer (in the Russian conversations about me, I kept hearing the word “pisatilnitsa,” which means “writer”) and they’re worried about bad press. If only they knew.

Anyway, a bearded Ulan-Ude native called Victor is going to take me on a tour. We’ll kayak from UB out to the Holy Nose peninsula. Then (I think) we’ll hitchhike (with the kayak!?) across the neck to the opposite bay. At some point we’ll camp for the night. (This part isn’t so clear.) But assuming we make it, we’ll then kayak to Snake Bay, a secluded but popular destination for Russian tourists and fisherman. I’m told there’s someone there who might be able to take me diving (?) for fish (?). Again, unclear. Anyway, we camp again. The next day we reverse the road back to UB. Again, the return trip is a bit hazy – will we catch a ride? Will we kayak?

I realized, while having this very vague conversation with Victor about itinerary and costs, that my growing frustration wouldn’t get me anywhere. It certainly wouldn’t get me to the Holy Nose. So I took a deep breath and said, “Eff it. Why not.” The trip might suck. Despite Victor’s assurances, it might cost a lot more than 4500 rubles (plus food). But then again, if all goes well it could be pretty fucking amazing. So I’m smiling and nodding and rolling the dice.

Ha….hahahaha. It’s just too funny. I’m writing this in UB, but I’ll post it in about 8 hours, when I get back to Ulan-Ude. “What?” you may be asking. “No trip?”

The squishiness began almost immediately after Victor and I had sorted out a plan. Within just two hours, we went from “we’ll leave at 11 in the morning” to “we’ll leave at 7” to “we’ll leave at 9.” But the day dawned cold and rainy. At 8:56 Victor called. “We will wait one or two hours to see about the rain. I will call you.” OK. By 11:30 the rain had stopped (though the clouds were still low and threatening), but I hadn’t heard from Victor. So I called him. “Yes, you can come meet me and we’ll go.”

Um…so why were we waiting? Why hadn’t he called me? How were decisions being made? Victor’s English wasn’t good enough, so I called Alex, whose English is marginally better. I explained that I was confused. Alex called Victor to see what was up. He called back. “Yes, he told me he is ready and waiting for you to come.” I explained again that I didn’t really want to go out into the wilderness with a guy who seemed so nonchalant, so infuriatingly vague. And what happened to the problem with the weather? Though it hadn’t improved much, somehow now it was OK to go? I could imagine three days of me trying not to strangle him. Alex said he’d call Victor again to discuss.

Ten minutes later, Alex was back on the phone. “Christina, you are right. Victor is not ready to go. So I think maybe you should find another plan.” It was already in the works: Svejta would arrange a seat for me on the 2 pm bus to Ulan Ude. Enough of this!

To cap it all off, about 15 minutes later Victor called again. “Christina, Sasha [Alex] tells me you are having doubts?” I was silent, stunned. What is reality, what is true here in Ust-Barguzin? What had been said, really, between Alex and Victor? Yes,” I said. “So you will cancel?” asked Victor. “Yes,” I replied. He sounded angry – I couldn’t believe that HE was the one who was angry. “Fine, you are canceling. I wish you good luck,” he replied. Derisively? Sullenly? Hard to tell.

But I don’t give a shit. I’m getting out of Ust-Barguzin, and frankly I think I’m ready to get out of Russia. I think I’m going to skip the planned day in Khabarovsk, go straight to Vladivostok, get my Chinese visa, and get out. Make like a store, as we say in Hungary, and bolt.

PS – the sun just came out. ha! hahahahaha.

PPS – The working title is back and better than ever.

The invisible city

Lonely Planet calls it “one of the most likeable cities in Eastern Siberia.” The Australian cousins sent me email giving me tips: “If you go there – and you HAVE to go there…” they liked it so much. Either there are two Ulan Udes, or they are crazy, or I’m missing something.

You know the old saying that Boston city planning involved dropping a handful of toothpicks on a piece of paper and then making each toothpick a one-way road? Ulan Ude is worse (though unlike Boston, it least offers foreign wanderers street signs). First, it’s much, much uglier – mostly old Soviet concrete and some new steel/glass awfulness. And (due to the fact the city is built on steppe, I think) everything is on different levels – sidewalks lower than the street, the street lower than the buildings. It’s impossible to see anything – where you are, what’s in the shops – never mind to see where the road might lead you. It’s like trying to get from point A to point B in one of those Escher prints we all had on our walls in college.

From what I could discern there is only one walkable road from the north part of town (where I stayed) and the south part (where all the stuff is). I tried to find another way, but I kept getting funnelled into the maze-like dead end of concrete apartment blocks, where the notion of “sidewalk” and street” and “empty space” are all interchangeable. You put your life on the line, trying to walk through one of those complexes. And you’ll definitely get hopelessly lost.

Anyway, as I was saying, there is only one road, and it is full of diesel-exhaust-spewing Ladas and Kamaz trucks in a GREAT RUSH to get places. Much honking and gunning of engines and screeching of tires. The sidewalk itself would undergo wild transformations from block to block: sometimes it was nicely concrete-tiled and at road level, separated from traffic by a line of trees; sometimes it was a dirt path that meandered closer to the buildings, set about a meter higher than the road; sometimes it was a narrow strip of broken concrete right by the road, lined on both sides with high concrete barriers that led you halfway down a sidestreet before you could cross to the next block south, across what seemed to be a busy highway off-ramp (again, impossible to see exactly where all those careening vehicles were careening from).

As for the buildings , their placement was equally chaotic. No promenade of grand structures here. There would be concrete hulks of offices right up against the road; whitewashed concrete shopping malls set back from the road, up some stone steps and a piazza-like area dotted with ice cream vendors; stucco-covered concrete ex-Soviet hotels set at an angle to the whole street. Sometimes the view was just a concrete hill leading 30 meters up to the unseeable road above. Visual chaos.

Then suddenly the sidewalk became broken stone stairs that led you into a wide-open, mostly unused main square, in which you had to choose which direction to continue. And let me tell you, no matter which direction you choose, you never feel like you get anywhere. UU isn’t so much sprawling as uncentered. There’s a recurring nightmare I have: I’m walking along (or climbing a hill), thinking the unnamed thing I seek is just around the next bend, just over the next hill. It must be! But every time I get around the bend or over the hill, all I see is another curve. (Doesn’t take a genius to armchair-psych that one.) Well, UU is my living nightmare.

Even the pedestrian zone of ul. Lenina (every town in Russia has one) is uninteresting for the average tourist: mobile-phone shops, children’s toys. There was one overpriced cafe, but it was well-hidden enough that I didn’t find it until I had already accidentally found a nice cheap shwarma place attached to an equally well-hidden shopping mall. I mean, how does a city’s pedestrian zone not have, like, a billion cafes? Answer: Siberians don’t go out to eat much, and this is a city for Siberians, not tourists.

Of course, when you go to Ulan Ude – and you HAVE to go there – you will discover why it’s worth it. The aforementioned (I hate that word, but there it is) otherwise unremarkable main square is adorned – dominated – by the world’s largest Lenin head. Yup, you read right: it’s a statue, of only Lenin’s head, on a plinth. And it’s HUGE. Inadvertent Soviet surrealism at its best.

Sucks to be alone


This morning I took a 7-hour bus ride from Ulan-Ude north to Ust-Barguzin. There’s this guy here, called Alex Beketov, who has a homestay and purportedly can arrange hiking trips – no matter if you’re alone! he said by email. Feh.

His proposal is for me to borrow his tent and to hike alone to the top of Holy Nose Peninsula, camp there, and then hike back. “The trouble is, you might lose your way. The way is marked, but sometimes people miss it.”

Um, no thanks.

The other option is that maybe there will be a Russian-only group doing the hike tomorrow. He’ll know by 9 pm. We’d leave tomorrow at 7 am. Yes, this is last-minute Russia at its finest.

If I had someone to go with, in theory I could do this intriguing hike (scroll donw to Stop 3), but it’s not really something to do on your own. At least not if you’re a girl who doesn’t speak Russian.

The good news is that if this turns out to be a bust, I have a backup plan: On the bus I met a Russian woman who is an English-language teacher in Moscow. She’s in a village about 30 km away visiting her mother for the summer (with her German boyfriend). She says the beaches there are nice, and there are thermal springs and whatnot. She gave me her phone number and invited me to come stay. So we’ll see.

OK gotta run – I’m using Alex’s internet and his friend who is putting me up for the night (Alex’s place is being renovated) will be home soon.

I love love love to travel alone. If I wasn’t alone, for instance, it’s less likely I would have met the English-language teacher. But if you’re trying to book a tour or go hiking, it can be a pain in the ass.

Oh I’ve got a whole post to write about Ulan-Ude, by the way. What a crazy place. I’ll write it tonight and try to post tomorrow.

Sleepless in Irkutsk

Providing a neat book-end to my time in western Baikal, I am again awake at 6:30 am, sitting at the kitchen table of Baikaler hostel. In two hours I’ll be on a train to Ulan-Ude, the capital of Buryatia and the biggest city on the east side of Lake Baikal.

This time, instead of my sinuses keeping me awake it’s my brain. Last night I visited with Anton, my hiking guide and (I hope) new friend. We talked about many things, including the birth of his truly adorable 3-month-old named Polly. But the thing that’s kept me awake most of the night is sustainable tourism and Russia (I’m trying to put together a story proposal), and his very convincing pitch for me to go to Severobaikalsk (on the north shore of Baikal, and difficult to get to from Ulan-Ude) and to come back for an ice trek across the lake for my birthday in March.

All of a sudden I’m seriously considering skipping Mongolia entirely and just doing it next year, after coming back to Baikal. Because I need to be in Wuhan for the eclipse July 22, I’ll need to go straight from Vladivostok to southern China, then back up to Mongolia, then back down through China to Vietnam, Malaysia, etc. Pain in the ass. If instead I just do Russia/China/Vietnam/Malaysia for the diving season/back to Russia in March/Mongolia….hmmm. But that means Mongolia in April/May time, which isn’t ideal weather.

The other option is to skip Vladivostok this time and head straight to Mongolia after UU/Severobaikalsk, stay in Mongolia for just two weeks and then hightail it down to Wuhan. Then I can hit Vladivostok when I come back next March. This has the benefit in Mongolia of being the right season for and overlapping my time there with Nikkie, Nikki and Russell. But then only 2 weeks (instead of a month) in Mongolia. And…I *have* to make sure I go to Vladivostok, which (rather oddly) has been on My List since I was a little girl.

Someone, please tell me what to do!

Also, after all my ambivalence about Russia, I trust everyone is making note of the irony of me planning a return visit so soon?

As I said, Anton is very convincing. But also…I’ve realized that Baikal has me hooked. It’s beautiful and difficult and rugged and complex and intriguing and always-changing and grumpy and breathtaking and boasts a list of superlatives: biggest freshwater lake, biggest unfrozen fresh water source, deepest lake, oldest lake, home to a number of endemic flora and fauna, and so on. You can swim in it, dive in in (in theory), search for sunken treasure, drive, walk or bike across it, rock- or ice- climb along it, etc.

And most people have never heard of it.

Everyone thinks I’m crazy

“You came here all alone?” Their eyes form perfect, bugged-out circles. “Alone?” they repeat, hoping I’ve made a mistake, that a friend or husband or (best of all) a tour group, complete with a guide carrying a red umbrella, is just around the corner. “You aren’t afraid? it’s dangerous!”

I’ve had this same conversation – almost verbatim – with at least ten people, from St. Petersburg through Kazan to Kyzyl. While I’ve heard it from time to time in other countries, this sentiment has never been as prevalent as it is here in Russia. So naturally, I’ve developed a theory, based on my observations and what I’ve learned so far.

First, most tourists in Russia are Russian. I don’t know why it took until now to realize that “tourist season” would mean *Russians* taking up the hotel rooms and crowding the sights. Um, duh. It’s as silly as not anticipating American tourists in line for the Statue of Liberty ferry. So the trains, hotels and restaurants have been filled, so far, with vacationing Russians, Russians on bizniz trips, and Russians off to visit babushka in her dacha.

As a sort of corollary, there are relatively few foreign tourists in Russia. (I say relatively.) Those that do come stick to the basics – St. Petersburg, Moscow, maybe one of the towns in the Golden Ring. So other than the few foreigners I met in Piter and Moscow hostels, the only other non-Russian tourists I saw anywhere were the Australian cousins I met on the train from Tomsk to Krasnoyarsk. Think about that for a sec. After a month in this country – well, three weeks if you don’t count the week with my dad – doing the backpacker thing, touring the tourist sights, I haven’t come across more than a handful of foreign tourists. Gaggles of Russian tourists, but no Germans, Japanese, French, Brazilians, or anyone else.

[I think this contributed to my lack of enjoyment outside of Tuva and Lake Baikal. I feel very alone. I’m a freak wherever I go. Which is fine, but I wasn’t expecting to be the only tourist in town. So I’ve got to make the mental adjustment.]

Thirdly, of those foreign tourists, only a small percentage are really independent travelers – staying in the cheapies, doing the “show up, find a room figure it out” thing. And frankly, Russia has no idea what to do with us. I think there are maybe 4 or 5 city tourist offices in the whole country (St. Pete, Moscow, Novgorod, Kazan…one more?). Private tour agencies cater to groups…and specifically to Russians. Few employees speak any English, and there are few English-language materials. (Don’t even get me started about the general lack of maps.)

In other countries I’ve visited, even the weird out-of-the-way places, you always can find the Swiss transplant, American ex-hippie, or enterprising local who’s the center of backpacking activity. Not so here. Instead, those on tight budgets all use to find homestay accommodation or locals hoping to practice their English by showing tourists around their town. Once again, the Internet helps people self-organize around shared/complementary needs! (The trick, of course, is to find one of the dwindling Internet cafes in the first place – everyone’s gone handheld-device, so I-cafes aren’t as necessary or crowded as just a few years ago.)

[Another aside: I started writing about this before coming to Baikal. In Irkutsk and now Listvyanka, there are many more foreign tourists and more tourist infrastructure. I stepped off the train in Irkutsk and saw a half-dozen backpackers waiting with me for the tram into town. My hostel was full of foreigners, as opposed to the Piter and Moscow hostels that housed mostly Russians. So here, at this watery jewel in the middle of Siberia, they’ve figured out how to attract tourists and make us happy. Now it’s a matter of attracting more of us….]

So. Why the lack of tourists?

The obvious starting place is the visa requirements. You all read about my frustrating and expensive adventure in visa-acquisition. That tale, with a few variants, has been repeated to me by many of my fellow foreigners.

Next, foreigners have to register once they are in Russia, and in every town where they stay for more than 72 hours. In many places the hotel/hostel will do this for you, sometimes for a small fee (100-150 rubles). So far I’ve avoided having to go to the OVIR visa-registration office myself. But this requirement just adds to foreigners’ confusion and dread: Like most rules, everyone seems to have a different opinion on whether to take registration seriously. After my visa fiasco I’ve been diligently registering everywhere I go, but I’ve met quite a few people who just shrug the whole thing off. They might be right – so far, despite many warnings in Lonely Planet that the police can stop you and demand your passport and registration at any time, I haven’t so much as made eye contact with any cops. We’ll see what happens at the border when I leave.

These two bureaucratic remnants are evidence of the biggest factor of all: for so long, Russia was a closed country. Tourists traveled as a part of a group, escorted by an Intourist representative. Even for Russians, movement around the country was tightly controled and monitored. Now, in the tourist infrastructure of the New Russia, there’s there’s still an undercurrent of suspicion directed at strangers. Three times I’ve been asked if I’m a spy. (My favorite: the impossibly young director at the Tomsk SEZ asked me, “Who is funding your trip?” I looked at him blankly, confused. His colleague laughed and said, “Is it the CIA?” I smiled and replied, “No, I assure you that I am funding my own trip.” I pulled the collar of my shirt towards him. “But can you please speak a little louder?”)

Despite 20 years of openness, Russian people and institutions still can’t get their collective heads around the notion of simple independent travel.

It’s dangerous. Crazy, even.

From Russia, with frustration

I’m back in Irkutsk after three days of not diving Lake Baikal. The dry suit was too big, the weather too poor, the dive shop too disorganized. Thwarted by Russia once again!

Since my delightful detour into Tuva, which felt like I left Russia for a week, it seems my ambivalence about Russia has not changed. I escaped the shaman in Abakan (I can’t stop saying that – it’s too funny), only to I find myself back in plain old dour Russia. I think I’ve found a big reason for my ambivalence, however: Russians are also ambivalent about themselves, about their country.

Over my 8 weeks here I have spoken with businessmen (as opposed to Russian biznesmen, who are closer to mafiosos than entrepreneurs), administrators at nonprofit organizations, educators, university and high school students, tour operators, lawyers, retirees, and dozens of others. They come from all over Russia – Moscow, Kazan, Yekaterinburg, northern Siberia, eastern Siberia, Tuva. As you’d expect from such an enormous country, I’ve gotten dozens of different impressions about the state of Russia, and what it needs. The one unifying thread is that things are not going well, that the people are struggling to find a good way – a Russian way – to live; the whole country is searching for a Russian identity. Dilyara Sharikova, the head of a private business school Kazan, was eloquent and remarkably blunt: “I am not optimistic about Russia. It needs a very long time – not even money – to find our own way of living. Now we are living half in the Soviet system, half in the US/European way. We need to find a synthesis. We have American, Asian, Soviet, Communist concepts. We need our own, new concepts. This will take a long time – 100 years. Our mentality is very conservative. Too conservative.”

For 70 years Russians were told that they are a world superpower. When the Soviet Union disintegrated, they were suddenly left staring at the shriveled old man behind the curtain instead of the Great and Powerful Oz. While they rubbed their eyes in bewilderment, oligarchs stole much of the country’s riches and deposited the profits in offshore accounts while the same old politicians donned masks of democracy yet continued to rule as before. And most people I’ve spoken with don’t really believe in democracy, or don’t understand or feel the power it may give them. They view voting as a joke – they already know who will win an election before it happens.

The people I’ve spoken with are angry and frustrated at the loss of the only positive aspects of the Soviet times – full employment, free health care, good education. They’ve been left with no safety net, and no rules or examples for how to make a life. Most Russians I’ve met live in the shade on either side of the fence between legal and illegal. Honest entrepreneurs from Moscow to Irkutsk make daily choices between doing business legally – standing in absurdly long lines for a rubber stamp on an absurdly long form, paying exorbitant random fees for basic banking transactions, and so on – and spending time actually running a profitable business. Parents “bribe” their kids’ teachers for good grades or a passing mark on an entrance exam; they have to, because there are limited spots and teachers have no choice but to supplement their meager incomes to survive.

In the meantime, Moscow spends the Federation’s money on show projects – Olympic facilities in Socchi; a bridge to nowhere in Vladivostok, in advance of the Asean Summit to be held there; Special Economic Zones, where in the name of innovation and entrepreneurship a few hand-picked companies get huge tax breaks and other benefits in closed office park-like facilities.

It’s all quite depressing. As I write this, it occurs to me that I haven’t met a single happy, contented or optimistic Russian. It’s a country running scared, covering up their emotions with stoicism, maliciousness or heavy drinking.

I write all this with a giant caveat: I’ve only been here 8 weeks, for god’s sake. Anton the hike guide was right when he said my fellow tourists and I would never understand Russia. This is true of any country I visit, but I think it’s even more true here. First of all, as I said Russians themselves don’t know what they are. But also there are at least two Russias, and probably more: European Russia and then Asian Russia, what most people incorrectly lump into Siberia.

In my travels I keep thinking that Lonely Planet needs to make many different guides for Russia – there is too much to see, too much convoluted history, too little tourist information in every oblast or independent federation or other section of Russia to fit into one 800-page guidebook.

As I travel east I find people’s perceptions about themselves as Russians are as complex and varied as each section of Russia. I wonder what it’ll be like in China – another huge country split into a rich, powerful section (the east coast) and a poorer, neglected section (the west).

Nothing to see

[I wrote most of this post two Fridays ago from Olkhon Island, before my hike. Forgot to post it.]

After a Thursday of 34-degree Centigrade weather (that’s 93 F) in the fine Siberian city of Irkutsk, Friday morning dawned drizzly and cold. Nikkie (he spells his name with an “e”, so that’s how I’ll differentiate between the Dutch man and the British woman named Nikki.) and I took a mini-bus 6 hours northeast from Irkutsk. About 4 hours in we caught our first glimpse of the mysterious Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest lake and home to the rare Nerpa freshwater seals. We took a 10-minute ferry across to Olkhon, the largest island in the lake, and about 90 minutes later the van deposited us at the house of Olga Zereova, the homestay hostess who has been accommodating travelers for more than 10 years.

Over the past week or so I’ve realized how little attention I’ve been paying to what’s going on outside the window of the trains I’ve been taking. Only on the marshrutka ride to and from Kyzyl, and on the bus ride here today, have I really studied the landscape. On the train, it seems, what’s going on in the compartment is much more interesting. There’s usually at least one 2-year-old running up and down the aisles, being chased by mama or babushka. There are curious Russians who quiz me: Where are you from? Where are you going? Aren’t you afraid to travel in Russia? Do you have a family? Why not? There are scenes with the provodniks, the train carriage attendants who run the effing show: they check tickets, hand out linen, clean the bathrooms (and lock them at stations), bring you tea (for a fee), and yell at you/tease you/ exhort you/etc. if you break a rule. Sometimes they’re pleasant, and sometimes…there are scenes.

And then there are my fellow passengers to study: students returning home from Moscow, families going to stay with babushka for the summer, soldiers go to or leaving their service, drunk construction workers on leave from building the Olympic facilities near Socchi, mean babushkas who won’t let you sit on the bench/their bottom bunk, nice babushkas who show you photos of grandkids, young couples kissing and gazing into each other’s eyes. Very very very very very few non-Russian tourists. Like, none. I don’t know where all the backpackers are, but they’re not on the Russian trains.

(As it turns out, they’re all in Irkutsk. Comparatively, the city is teeming with them.)

But the main reason I haven’t been looking out the window is that there is nothing to see. The landscape switches from grassy farmland to sparse forest (the famous taiga has been clear cut away from the train lines) and back again. Sometimes the land is flat. Other times – exciting times – there are some minor hills. Every hour or so we pass a small village of wooden shacks, or a largish industrial town, shrouded by pollution in the middle of nature. But that’s it. That is Siberia from the Trans-Siberian.

The Siberia of poetry is one of isolation, desolation, stark nothingness. Looking out the train window, I yearn for such poignancy. Instead I see a blur of drab green and brown forms, with no jarring angles or colors or contrast. They might as well replace the windows with screens that use the old animator’s trick of repeating backgrounds during a chase scene.

The classic unhappy suburban youth complaint – my own included – is that “everything here is the same. everyone is the same.” Well, kid, welcome to Siberia. Or at least southern Siberia. But the vast majority of Siberia lies north of the Trans-Sib line, stretching hundreds of miles to the Arctic Ocean. I’m hoping that if I manage to get north to Yakutsk, I’ll find the real Siberia. If I’m still at all interested.

In the meantime, I’m gathering my strength for the 7-day, 6-night trek that Nikkie, Nikki, Russell and I start on Tuesday. I’ve got a lingering sinus cold – a less severe version of what I had earlier in my trip. But this time the runny nose is accompanied by searing sinus headaches. I’ve used up all my medicine and haven’t had a chance to go to an apteka to get anything more. So I’m having visions of traipsing up a rocky cliff with a heavy backpack while blowing my nose and squinting to alleviate my sinuses. For 22 km/day for 7 days. Egads.

Mysterious Baikal

Jeez it’s been almost two weeks since I posted! Well I have an excuse: yesterday I returned from a 7-day hiking trip along the western shore of Lake Baikal. On the trip I learned many things, including that hiking up fairly steep hills after spending the past 6 weeks just sitting around on trains means lots of huffing and puffing, and seriously sore hamstrings and butt.

The group was a perfect size: 4 hikers and two guides. Nikki and Russell, the British couple I had met in Moscow; Nikkie, the Dutch man they had met in Yekaterinburg; Anton, our guide; and Anton (aka Father Frost), who drove the supply car containing our backpacks, food, tents and so on.

The tour started with a Russian banya, a steam sauna right next to the lake. Our final cold plunge was a squealing splash and dunk in Baikal, which I had been told is about 4 degrees centigrade at the moment. After drying off we had a traditional post-banya shot of vodka, and then shashlik for dinner. Mmm.

The next day, which I’ll call “Hills,” we started hiking. Oooh boy. I had no idea I was so out of shape. But the views over the lake were spectacular enough to be worth it. Over the next few days we climbed up and down rocky hills, through pine forests, across low grassy hills blooming with hardy wildflowers, and along mesmerizing monotonous steppe. At night we camped – usually by the lake.

And the lake. It’s the largest fresh water lake in the world. It contains 20% of the world’s fresh water reserves. And it is remarkably, unbelievably unpolluted – in a country with a pretty terrible environmental record and in an area that is clearly the tourist epicenter of Asian Russia. If we needed to refill our water bottles – go to the lake. If we needed water for tea or soup or washing – go to the lake. If we needed to wash our filthy hands or feet, or cool our faces after a long sunny hike – go to the lake.

Our guides and caretakers were Anton and Anton. Clearly we needed a nickname for one of them, which came quickly enough on the first evening. After we tourists had our banya, the Antons did as well. It was a cold-ish night, so after drying ourselves we bundled up in layers and hats and scarves. But not Anton the driver/firestarter. As we sipped vodka in winter gear, he ate salami and cheese in nothing but his Speedo and some sandals. Thus we dubbed him Father Frost (the Russian Santa), or sometimes “Mr. Frost.”

The other Anton, our guide, is a native of Irkutsk who has been running his tour business for about 10 years. He’s got a muscular frame, sandy brown hair and light hazel eyes surrounded by crows feet whose depth age him well beyond his 29 years. (I had guessed he was in the 35-38 range.) He spends all of his time working – either guiding hikes/rafting/dog sledding/etc. or organizing trips for the freelance guides who work for him.

As you might imagine, he’s in great shape. Even Nikkie, the most gung-ho of all of us, struggled to keep up with Anton’s walking pace, especially up hills. Between the rugged scenery, our number, and the fact that we spent days just walking fast, I felt like I was a fellow in The Fellowship of the Ring.  Anton was clearly “Strider” – the character more colorfully described in the book than depicted in the film. I, of course, was Samwise Gamgee – “the fat one,” as Gollum put it. But hell – I am 10 years older and less fit than the rest of our party, so just the fact that I kept up makes me feel OK.

Over the seven days we shared many funny and wonderful moments – the tea bag fling (get yer mind outta the gutter, Andy Sullivan); Anton splitting logs for the fire using a WWF body-slam method; odd head gear to battle the strong sun; a sandy beach camp so isolated that we had to hike up a hill to get our tents, etc. because the truck couldn’t make it down to us; Father Frost and his 6 lumps of sugar in every tea; blisters, splinters, burns and toothaches; and much more.

So yes, I had a wonderful time. But I think I would have enjoyed it more with my friends. I like the Antons, the Nikki(e)s and Russell, but I’m not really connected to them. I kept thinking things like, “I bet Michele would love this!” and “I bet Lis could keep up with Anton” and “I can picture Henry betting Sean and/or Andy that he can [insert ridiculous and potentially dangerous act here].”

I guess I miss my friends.

On the last night, we camped on a small grassy plateau above the lake. Nikki and I hiked down to the small rocky beach below and I went swimming – not just a dunk, but *swimming*. I couldn’t resist. It was freezing, but so nice to float a bit – not to mention to wash off a few layers of the dirt, sweat, DEET, sunscreen, etc. that had gathered on our bodies over 6 days with no shower.

Before, during and after dinner we shared two small bottles of vodka. It’s interesting, what happens to cheerful Russian men after a few shots. All of a sudden Anton was bitter, scoffing at our questions about life in Russia (“You can never understand what it’s like to live in this place, where nothing works. You are thinking like a European, where the system takes care of you” etc etc). As he described the difficulty and uncertainty of life – from running a business to getting decent health care – dusk set in. Occasionally he would flick a knife into a makeshift wooden table in frustration. The discussion turned into a monologue – Anton ceased to listen to our explanations and protestations, wanting only to express himself.

(This wasn’t the first time this had happened to me – Jack, the owner of the hostel I’m staying at in Irkutsk, had spewed another bitter, pessimistic monologue at Nikkie and me after a few beers about a week earlier.)

It’s a complex dynamic. On the one hand, we are, in fact, (relatively) rich tourists who do not know what it’s like to try to eke out an existence in the New Russia. On the other hand, there we were, paying a 29-year-old 345 Euro each to do what he loves to do, to finance the house he is building (himself) for his wife and baby daughter. I don’t know if he was expressing jealously or frustration or pessimism…or otherwise well-hidden disdain for (perhaps) naive foreigners who think they can learn something of the Russian mind by asking a few questions of a Russian man on a desolated hilltop. Anton, I think, has already lived a few lifetimes (he studied podiatry, but being a doctor doesn’t pay; now he started a business, but the responsibilities of managing a growing business are weighing on him). It’s not just the constant exposure to sun and wind that has creased his face so prematurely.

I went to bed angry – it’s a pet peeve of mine to be accused of being a rich tourist. I can’t help where I was born and the circumstances of my life. I appreciate the freedom that my stable life gives me, and I try not to take it for granted.  But I’m not exactly running around the world, staying in 5-star hotels and paying for air-conditioned bus excursions to see stage-managed poverty. I said as much – angrily – to Anton before retiring to my tent.

The next morning I realized how silly it was for me to have gotten angry. By the end of the night we had all been talking past each other, each grappling in our own minds with knotlike complexities and cultural differences, and with our own individual limitations and fears.

Over breakfast, all seemed to be forgotten. After a fantastic expedition into an ice-crystal-encrusted cave, we piled ourselves and our bags into the SUV for the 4-hour ride back to Irkutsk. I rode shotgun and gently probed Anton for his mood, asking neutral questions about the flora and so on. I have no idea what he was really thinking, but it seemed to me that the previous night’s argument had broken a layer of reticence. He seemed cheerful and relatively chatty and (for the first time) asked me a bit about myself and my ongoing travel plans. When he dropped Nikkie and me off at our hostel, we hugged goodbye and he seemed genuinely happy to have met us. Personally, I’m sad that I won’t have the chance to get to know him better. I have a feeling we would be great friends.

Then again, perhaps had and I will meet again. There’s a  ice trek across frozen Lake Baikal that he runs in the winter. You camp on the lake in a teepee-like structure. The best time to visit Baikal, he says, is in March. So…maybe a Siberian birthday? If not next year, perhaps for my 40th (egads!)?

Until then, however: today I am catching up on email and uploading pics. Tomorrow I am going to Listvyanka, a village situated right on the lake, about about 70 km away from Irkutsk. I’m going to get certified to SCUBA dive using a dry suit, and then…diving Lake Baikal! I can’t wait. I’m going with Three Dimensions Dive Club, recommended by the very friendly, helpful and cool folks at Baikaler Hostel in Irkutsk. The best-run hostel I’ve found in Russia so far!

Shashlik smells yummy. Shaman stinks.

It’s 6:30 am in Irkutsk, about 40 km from Lake Baikal. I’m at the kitchen table at Baikaler Hostel, a remarkably friendly, clean, well-run place owned by a native Irkutskian. Seems like I had to come 2000 km east of Moscow to find some decent backpacker accommodation. My sinuses have me up before everyone else in the hostel. But it’s quiet, so I can finally write a bit.

When I last posted, I had returned from a wonderful day in the steppes with a Tuvan throat-singer. A few days later, on my last night in Tuva, Sean Quirk invited me to his home for a family BBQ. (The word “shashlik” seems to mean both BBQ in general and shish-kebab in particular, since that’s all people BBQ here.) Sean, his Tuvan wife (whose name I already forget), their two daughters, and wife’s grandmother live in a small, low-ceilinged wooden house in Kyzyl. In the dirt yard sits a well-preserved 30-year-old Russian car with a recently busted tranny.

I arrived before his cousins, so Sean and I could chat. We sat in his tiny kitchen making pork, mutton and beef kabobs while Sean told me how and why he came to Tuva. The short version: he was a bike messenger in Chicago, got a throat-singing CD as a gift from his roommate, taught himself to throat sing, decided he wanted to go to Tuva to learn more, applied for an received a Fulbright to do so ($18k!), and off he went. That was 6 years ago. He met the members of Alash, who had just started the group, joined the band, met and married a Tuvan. A familiar story of boy meets throat-singers.

Now he works playing for the Tuvan National Orchestra and Alash, scraping together a living in the same way as any other Tuvan. Sean has gone native.

As we put the second round of shashlik on the tiny grill, the wind kicked up. Dirt from the yard swirled up and “seasoned” the meat. Sean’s two-year-old cheerfully tottered about, climbing on everything. Soon a swarm of cousins arrived, brought the kitchen table out to the yard and began cutting salad and bread. Someone brought a pizza. And vodka. We had a lovely time, and I was sad to leave.

I came home late, smelling of shashlik, vodka and happiness.

The next day, the first day of June, I caught a ride with Marina’s cousins to Abakan. She had arranged for me to meet her aunt’s friend, a shaman. Thus began my period of confinement.

At around 2 pm, the cousins rather unceremoniously dumped me in front of Svejta’s house, across the river from Abakan proper. I was alarmed at first, but then Svejta cheerfully waved me in, instructing her sons to help me with my bags.

Svejta is a big fat Kazakh shaman. She wore white patterned stretch pants and a tattered t-shirt with holes in the armpits. Her blue eyes sparkled when she was joking around (often) but went dull when she was serious. Her presence, physical and otherwise, filled her tiny kitchen. She introduced me to her sons: Andrei (a tall, red-headed, befreckled 21-year-old), the middle kid (a chubby-going-fat 16-year-old who most resembled his mother), and Peter (a skinny 9-year-old with an evil streak – his toys consisted of two fake uzis and a soccer ball which he kicked, hard, in my direction while I had my back turned and almost took my head off. Twice.). Then I met Sasha, her wiry and rather dim 30-year-old husband (her third), on whose crappier-than-promised English I had to rely for translation. Svejta herself is 40.

Though I’d love to, I can’t go into all the details of the next 24 hours here. It’s…just too much. I told Svejta I was interested in learning about shamanism, and after a short chat she invited me to stay the night (or two) in her home. I accepted, curious. So it began:

Svejta could see in my soul/body that something is not right, and it’s ruining my energy and my life. Do I have headaches often? (No.) I had a traumatic experience when I was 18 or 20. (Nope. So then her guesses became more general.) Unrequited love! (Um, who hasn’t? I just blinked at her.) This is causing bad circulation. I must have varicose veins! (Nope.) I was instructed to stand on a stool at the table, life my pant legs and turn around so she could inspect my calves. Yes! There! Under the skin! “In 5 years, your legs will be full of varicose veins, because of this problem,” she told me, gravely. “But I can help.” She advised me to come to her for healing – 10 days of intensive therapy, complete with shaman rituals and chiripractic-sounding realignments. I just smiled and said nothing.

Sasha probed to see what I believed. On the computer he showed me photos of shaman excursions (!), a short video promo of “The Secret” (“the power of thinking positive!” he gushed), photos of a magic cave in India, and, inexplicably, an animated Pixar film, dubbed in Russian, about a sheep who learns to “stay positive” even after all his fleece is shorn.

Seeing that I wasn’t into the idea of a 10-day treatment, Svejta offered to do a shaman ceremony for me the following night, to help me find a husband – my “love half” as Sasha put it. She would do this for free, because, eveidently, she and I were sisters in a past life. All I had to do is buy the spirit offerings, which would be lamb meat and other things and which I would throw into a fire at the appointed time. The ceremony would take place after midnight, on the edge of the River Abakan, which means “bear blood.” Again, I smiled and was noncommittal. By now I had given up trying to journalistically find out about shamanism. I just wanted to get the hell out of there.

Interspersed with all this craziness were these prolonged, painful attempts to translate some rather odd questions from Svejta – questions that had no reasonable answer. “What do you think about network marketing?” (huh?) “Tell me some things that are amazing in USA.” And my favorite: “Can mothers rent cars in America?” (uh…what??)

That night, without asking me first (and in a clear attempt to convert me), Svejta did her shaman thing. As I got ready for bed, she entered my room with these kooky dolls and a sparkly blue piece of cloth. As she arranged the dolls along the wall, on the cloth, Sasha came in and explained that the dolls were alive and would “heal” me overnight. “Don’t be scared,” he said. My devolution into a Stephen King short story continued as Svejta and the middle son continued to bring in shaman stuff – her shaman costume, drums, flails, a monkey paw, some old bone, and other paraphanalia. The son lit incense.

Then I was instructed to sleep naked. (“You must not be confined,” explained Sasha.) When I said I’d be way too cold, they brought another blanket and a big, loose-fitting  t-shirt. When I was appropriately dressed and under the covers, Svejta came in again – this time with three lit candles and some chimes. She told me to close my eyes, and rang her chimes over my feet, torso and head. Then she sat down, noisily – she’s a large woman – and began chanting and beating a drum. This went on for about 15 minutes.

For my part, I was fucking exhausted (I had slept just 3 hours the night before, and had been awake for about 22 hours by then) so I just tried to go to sleep, thinking through a plan to escape this craziness as soon as possible the next day.

Finally the “ceremony” ended, and I was allowed to sleep. I’ve got pictures of the whole set up, which I will upload as soon as I can.

The next day, they asked, “How do you feel this morning?” Fine. “You slept well?” Yes. “You don’t usually sleep so well, right?” It depends. (In hindsight, I’m kinda surprised they didn’t try to drug me or something.) They gave up their questions. Pleading work-related needs, I told them I had to go to the internet cafe in town, instead of to a nearby forest (a magic forest, of course) to collect birch branches for our planned trip to the banya later that day. I had to be very firm, but finally they agreed to let me go. Escape! I logged on, checked the train schedules, walked to the train station and bought a ticket for that night. When I returned to Svejta’s, I explained I had to get to Irkutsk by Thursday “for work” and that I would be leaving in a few hours. I showed them my train ticket. They couldn’t argue. No midnight shaman ceremony by the river!

So after insisting on a quick trip to a friend’s banya (a Russian sauna), they dropped me off at the train station.

I have to work on this story – it’s crazy, crazy, crazy – but I haven’t had much time to write. Later this morning I’m going to Olkhon Island on Lake Baikal with Nikki, a Dutch man I met here. He had met Nikki (female) and Russell, the British couple I had met in Moscow, in Yekaterinburg. They three arranged a hiking trip along the western shore of Lake Baikal next week, and Nikki the Brit emailed me to see if I wanted to join. When I arrived to the hostel here (the Brits come in a few days) Nikki the Dutchman heard me talking about the hike and introduced himself. Funny! Anyway, we’re spending the weekend relaxing on the island instead of sitting around in the hot hot city. I hope to finally be able to write more, but I have a feeling we’ll be exploring the island instead.

OK running out of battery. More soon – I hope!