Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Day 13 - 22nd July 2009

4.30am. Wide awake. Not because I wanted to be but because the four bed dorm we were in had a big glass window with no shutters or curtains. Coupled with the fact that my head was right below the window ensured I got my full early morning fix of vitamin D. The heavy rain clouds had passed on and the sun was trying in vain to burn the mist off the lake. Considering that Baikal never gets much above 15 degrees in the height of summer, being so deep and frozen for most of the year, it was hardly surprising that such a process tended to take much of the day. We got up and walked across the garden to the outhouse among the trees where a wooden shower house had been erected. Everything was wooden around this village. There were a lot of trees. At least there was hot water.
After a simple breakfast we kept the appointment we made the previous night to meet the former inhabitants of the village. The mosquitoes had calmed down enough for us to enter the hallowed ground. Each grave had a plain wooden or painted metal fence around. Some painted black, but the majority were painted bright blue. This colour seemed to be very prevalent as we had seen it at every train station on the journey. As you left the stations you always noticed that nearly all the houses had the same colour scheme, a certain shade of light blue. When I was growing up in Belfast there was an old joke that many shipyard worker’s houses were painted red inside and out from the ‘acquisitions’ of red lead paint used to prevent the hulls of great ships from rusting during the building process. You were safe as long as you didn’t lick the walls! Perhaps the same went for the former communist workers in Russia. Corporate railway colours became this year’s new black. ‘You can have any colour scheme in the house you like dear, as long as it’s railway blue’.
Looking among the gravestones we could see photographs of those reposing below. It was always better to see an old face than a young one. You knew the person had lived a long and hopefully happy life. The younger, fresher faces had had their time cut short. I wondered what had caused their demise, illness perhaps or an accident? Given my ignorance of the Cyrillic alphabet I couldn’t decipher the details, save for the years of birth and death. One grave caught my eye in particular. The grave of a Russian soldier, and his picture complete with fur hat and metal star over the furry peak. Like all graves in the cemetery, his was facing east, so the dead can see the sunrise every day. I couldn’t read his name as it had been obliterated by time and the elements but he appeared no more than in his late 30’s or early 40’s. I wondered had he died in a soviet conflict somewhere. Imagine leaving the tiny village of Bolshiye Koty to fight and lose your life in some foreign land, only to return in a box. Perhaps he was stationed in the area during conflict years and died on duty. Maybe Bolshiye Koty wasn’t his native ground? We will never know, but as these thoughts crossed my mind I could hear a certain Billy Joel tune run through my head. ‘Leningrad’ was about a Russian soldier who became a circus clown after his military service and spent his remaining days making people laugh. A poignant song that makes a valid point. We really are all the same under the skin regardless of where we come from. I have come to realise this more and more as I journey across continents.
Leaving the dead in peace to enjoy the last of the sunrise, we returned to the small dock. There is a myth that states if you put your hand into Baikal you will live 5 years longer, two hands 10 years, both hands and a foot 15 years and so on. If you immerse yourself bodily you are supposed to live forever, but knowing how cold the water was I think all you would do is shorten your life considerably from shock.

We risked our hands and feet, so hopefully will be around for a few years yet. The boat was already there and we waited for the same high heeled stewardess to untie the heavy lines with her miraculously unchipped nails. A ten minute run in the hydrofoil and we arrived in Lystvyanka, the slightly bigger little village we had seen the day before. Our guide from Irkutsk, Dmitri, arrived to meet us and gave a quick tour of the village. We stopped at a viewpoint overlooking the lake. Beside us was a tree with thousands of coloured ribbons tied to it like psychedelic leaves. Dmitri explained that although during the soviet years religion was all but forbidden, people still held onto faith and tied tokens of hope to this tree. Onwards to a little market filled with wooden stalls, and the smell of fish being smoked filled the air. A heady mix of what seemed like cigars and salmon assailed our nostrils and tantalised our taste buds. A distant cousin to the salmon, the Omul, is found in Lake Baikal. It’s the only source of this fish in the world and when smoked is considered a real delicacy. Hot smoked as opposed to cold, we bought it while still warm and moist. Delicious! It reminded me of my father returning after a successful day’s fly fishing, and hot smoking his own salmon in a converted biscuit tin with holes punched into it to let the smoke filter out past the recumbent fish.
We had lunch at a lakeside restaurant and asked Dmitri to join us as our guest. When he saw the prices he was horrified, said it was more than he earned in a day and graciously withdrew. The prices were more or less equivalent to a McDonald’s takeaway. After lunch we were asked did we want to see the so called trained dancing bears. If so, Dmitri said we would have to pay extra as it was outside his budget. We declined the offer, not because of the extra fee, but because we could see the small cages they were kept in when not ‘performing‘. I have seen reports on television in years past how some poor creatures were trained to dance. One version was to place the animal on a large flat metal plate. Chain it so it couldn’t escape, and light a gas ring under the plate. Every time they would play music they lit the gas and the poor creature would have to move from foot to foot to avoid the pain of the heat. When the music stopped so did the heat. After a while the creature became so mentally disturbed it would start to dance instantly in fear of being burnt. Pavlov’s dogs taken to extremes. Barbaric. I shuddered to think how these poor bears had been conditioned. We left Lystvyanka thinking it over in silence. Halfway back to Irkutsk we stopped at a reconstructed wooden village museum showing what life was like over the centuries for Russian people, gentry and peasants alike. From fortresses, churches, schoolhouses and private dwellings, we saw how the styles changed. The modern dacha, or country houses, we saw every day by the railway tracks hadn’t actually changed that much in the intervening years. Each of the houses in the museum had decorations that were meant to ward off evil spirits. Doorways were very small and low, not just as a heat saving device in the frozen winters, but also to force the visitor to bow down in deference to the owner as they crossed the threshold. Beds were four poster affairs but the mattress was up high to retain as much heat as possible. The children had a similar type of high bed which they shared. Each child had one plank to sleep on, so you could work out the number of children in a family by counting the planks in the bed.
We stopped by an old church where Dmitri explained something to me that I had always wondered about. Why did the Russian Orthodox Church have two extra bars on their crucifixes, and why was the bottom one always set at an angle. The explanation was that the upper small wooden bar across was to signify the name of Jesus as it is sometimes depicted - INRI - and the angled one at the bottom was meant to represent a foot rest coming outwards, like a two dimensional representation of a three dimensional object, upon which rested the feet of Jesus when he was nailed to the cross.
As we left the church a wedding party turned up. I asked Dmitri how to say good luck in Russian and passed on my best wishes to the happy couple. I forget the words now but they replied with a ‘spaceba’ or ‘thank you’ and smiles. Dmitri explained that the best man and bridesmaid also had another job to do after their expected duties on the wedding day. That of marriage guidance counsellors. If there were any problems in the marriage they were meant to help sort it out and keep the marriage together at all costs. Not a bad thing maybe. Perhaps our western societies might benefit from this approach. If the best man and bridesmaid knew they would have their work cut out for them in future years because of a couple’s incompatibility perhaps they might have tried to talk the couple out of getting married in the first place.

On the main road back to Irkutsk we were told the road was known locally as the ‘Eisenhower Road’. Apparently, well after the war, Eisenhower intimated that he was thinking about visiting the area. The then leader of Russia, President Khrushchev wanted to create an impression of great wealth and power. He ordered that the road between Irkutsk and Lake Baikal be upgraded from a rough track to a high class two lane road. Almost 70km of asphalt road was constructed in only two months at horrendous expense. Eisenhower never came.
Finally, at around 6pm we returned to Alex’s flat overlooking Lenin Street. A quick shower and we caught the last of a service in a beautiful orthodox church nearby. The harmonised voices of one man and two women reverberated around the curved and painted walls of the small church. It was a very moving experience. We stopped on the way back at an Italian restaurant for a pizza. A bottle of red wine was ordered. The first in a very long time. Sadly, a lot of Russian wine is sweet and this was no exception. Hard to get down, but as it was so expensive compared to Spain, drink it we did. The pizza was every bit as strange. The base was made from puff pastry instead of the usual dough. Different but tasty enough. Another reasonably early night was called for. The next day was the start of the big push to Moscow and we needed to get as much rest as possible.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Day 12 - 21st July 2009

Another early start. Picked up by private minibus at 7.45am for the next leg of our epic adventure. We were driven out of the pretty streets in the centre of the city and taken to the hydrofoil terminal on the outskirts. By doing so we saw a lot more of the sort of buildings we had expected. Grey concrete, run down tenement style housing with old soviet propaganda symbols. Hammers and sickles abound, with the odd poster style image of triumphal workers created in mosaics coupled with slogans that I can only guess suggested how wonderful the old regime had been. That said, the place was clean and people were well dressed. Better it has to be said than some ex-pats around Spain. The silent Siberian driver sported long dreadlocks and had the coldest ice blue eyes I have ever seen. We were shown down into the hydrofoil.

The stewardess, resplendent in airline style uniform, stockings and black patent high heels told us our seat numbers. Once seated I could see the deck through my window. The seats were placed low down in the boat so the window was at shoulder height for those below. The high heeled, glamorous stewardess was visible up to ankle level and I could see her carefully untying the lines to release the boat from the dock. Perhaps she didn’t want to ladder her stockings or chip her nails. It was a curious sight from my viewpoint. A big heavy rope being coiled beside a dainty pair of feet encompassed in high heels.
Once free of the dock we quickly got up onto the plane and raced downriver and out into Lake Baikal. A vast stretch of water that is so large you can barely make out the far shore. As it is, the shoreline is out of sight at normal head height because of the curve of the earth, and that is at the narrowest point. Baikal, 40km wide by 500km long, is the largest freshwater lake in the world and totally drinkable straight from the lake thanks to filtering sponges living deep down in the depths. There are species of flora and fauna here that are not found anywhere else in the world. In a few billion years, scientists have theorised that Baikal will become the world’s next ocean by splitting Asia apart. Tectonic plate separation is increasing the area of the lake by a few millimetres each year.
After a brief stop to de-bus passengers at the little touristy town of Lystvyanka we continued about 15km north to the tiny village of Bolshiye Koty. A quaint genuine wooden village with approximately 40 permanent inhabitants. This would swell up to perhaps 500 in the summer as people would use it as a platform to go hiking or camping in the vast forests and hills surrounding the lake. We were met by a young female guide, whose name I have sadly forgotten, and walked the 3 minutes through the village’s dirt track street and along the lakeside to our private home accommodation. A rustic wooden log affair that had originally been a small house. The owners had simply built another house over and around the original to house travellers like us. It would also provide much needed insulation for winter. We were taken to our four bed dorms over the main house and had a wonderful rustic balcony with views over a misty Baikal. Basic but adequate. It’s hard to believe that, come winter the lake freezes up to 3 metres deep. Thick enough to drive a car across in some places. Each house had hoses stretched across the road down to the lake for their fresh drinking water. What do they do in winter, I asked? They simply cut a hole in the ice and drop the hose deeper down to access their winter water supply. Being in the heart of Siberia, temperatures can drop to minus 50 in extreme cases, and surprisingly in summer have been known to hit the high 40’s.

There was absolutely nothing to do in Koty, except eat and drink, walk around the village taking atmospheric photographs of yesteryear and for me, catch up on some writing. Over a delicious lunch of home made blinis we saw a device sitting on top of the old rusty cooker in the kitchen. It had a dial on it that flickered back and forth and was connected to a car battery sitting on the ground. Considering the basic conditions in which we were living we convinced ourselves the cooker was operated by the car battery and the device on top registered the charge being used. A very Heath Robinson affair. Then it occurred to me that the little box with the dial was only a battery charger and was actually charging the battery. They had mains electric. The charger was simply sitting on top of the cooker. It’s strange how the mind works when you are in an unfamiliar environment. When another of our party arrived and asked the same question about the battery operated cooker, I explained that it was actually a seismological device to warn of impending earthquakes. Given the fact that Baikal is on a fault line people had to monitor the constant fluctuations of the earth’s plates in the region. I pointed out the flickering needle on the dial and said there were hundreds of little tremors each minute and managed to keep this little ruse going for at least 10 minutes before bursting out laughing and giving the game away. Such fun when you have nothing else to do.
We sat on the rough hewn balcony on creaky old chairs and relaxed. I caught up on some more writing and we watched as big heavy threatening clouds rolled down the lake. As they hit the surrounding hills they groaned loudly and threw shards of lightning in our direction. The sonic booms of thunder reverberated around the valleys and took our collective breaths away. Tonnes of fresh water poured down above our heads and obliterated the lake. This was summer in Siberia.
There was only one shop in the village. A room had been converted into a rudimentary store in one of the wooden shacks and the only access to the goods was via the owner through a small hatch in the window. Unfortunately it always seemed to be closed. There was a sign in the hatch that informed potential customers of something, but as it was in Cyrillic we couldn’t understand.
Walking to the far side of the village, in a forest we found the graveyard but there were too many mosquitoes under the trees to get closer. We vowed to return and visit the dead centre of the village next morning before leaving. We had long since exhausted the entertainment guide the village had to offer. I would love to say I got bolshie in Koty but there was no-one to get bolshie with. It was an early night, but not voluntarily.