[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.