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.

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!