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.