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.