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.