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!

3 thoughts on “Mysterious Baikal

  1. I loved it! What a unique experience getting close to lake Baikal and to people like Anton; and the dip in the lake, and vodka! I was waiting for your latest!

  2. While reading this latest post, I could not help but think about a funny contrast between your life and mine. Your “Antons” are taking you on an exotic excursion in Siberia and my “Anton’s” is the name of the dry cleaner I take Mike’s shirts to on my excursions to Newburyport. I think that says it all!

  3. Hey, thanks for the shout out – funny, as I was reading along I was wondering if I could keep up with the Antons! Glad you posted – I’ve been jonzing for a blog fix. Your last post was so wacky I’m happy to read of such an uplifting experience. Sounds like lake Baikal was way more communing with the universe than time spent with a shaman! Happy scuba diving…we miss you!

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