Thursday, August 15, 2013

Third Leg: Novosibirsk to Irkutsk/Lake Baikal

Novosibirsk station, on a lovely night. 
Inside the station.

I arrived in Irkutsk very early on the morning of the twelfth. The journey from Novosibirsk was relatively easy; I now know what to expect from the train and my fellow passengers, and I also found it easier to sleep, as the train's motion has become soothing rather than distracting. In general, I've had difficulty falling asleep on this trip due to the excitement and stresses of traveling but also because it stays light out until 10. Also, since you don't do anything on the train all day except read, eat, chat, 
and doze, you're not very tired when bedtime finally rolls around.

Maxim, a friendly cabin-mate.
My little nook.
There were fewer passengers getting on and off during this more remote stretch, and I shared my cabin with only one other guy, a young Russian named Pavel. Two people rather than four makes for a more relaxing ride. For much of the day and a half, I dug into War and Peace, livening things up by taking pictures of the taiga through the window. The reflection kept sabotaging my shots. While returning from the bathroom sometime in the afternoon, I unexpectedly came upon an open window and began to snap shots of the birch forest. Then, I felt provodnitsa's tap on my shoulder, like a matron correcting a schoolboy who has stepped out of line. She briskly closed the window and scuttled off without a word. Another silent battle took place over the curtain arrangement on the window outside my compartment. When my door was open, I would pull the drapes back as far as possible to maximize my view. But when the door closed for one reason or another, the curtains always were rearranged neatly in the old pattern! In general, the provodnitsas have been very kind, making sure that I know when my station is coming up or letting me know when it's time to get back on at a long stop. In the middle of the afternoon, you hear a tap on the door, and in she comes with a vaccuum to clean the little rug in between the bunks. These women work hard and probably don't get much thanks for their trouble.

Savannah-like taiga.

Lots of wildflowers in bloom.

Around 10 o'clock on the second evening, Pavel, who had been absent from the compartment for several hours, returned with new friends from the restaurant car. This jolly crew, consisting of three well-primed, loquacious Russians in their twenties, could not restrain themselves from coming in to meet the Americanski. They were very curious and friendly, and they spoke just enough English to make for an animated exchange. Some beer and Johnnie Walker helped move things along. Apparently, this crew was headed to Irkutsk as well, where they would represent their company in a bowling tournament. Three hours later, they were convinced to depart. I did enjoy their visit, however, and the chance it offered to get beyond the reserve that I've encountered in many Russians.

Nighttime stop.
Best friends.

Pavel was up early the next morning, as well, blasting what I think he thought was a cheerful salvo of techno from his cell phone. An unhappy newcomer to the cabin groaned from the top bunk to no avail. I got off in Irkutsk around 7:30 and navigated the tram to my hostel, Baikaler, where I opened the door to find several young Frenchmen in sleeping bags sprawled across the living room floor. Evidently, it had been a memorable Saturday night. I decided to let the place wake up a bit and left to wander around the deserted town and get some much-needed breakfast. 

Hallo Comrade!
Baikaler ended up being a lot of fun. I hadn't had a real conversation for a week, but Irkutsk is firmly on the backpacker circuit, so I've been surrounded by a shifting mix of western Europeans in the days since. I've only run into two other native English speakers since leaving Moscow, but English is the lingua franca for travelers, conveniently enough. French has also come in handy on a couple occasions. The first day, I roamed around Irkutsk with a Portuguese psychologist, Sónia, who is also doing the Trans-Siberian. We checked out a musuem dedicated to the Decembrists, ate at a restaurant called Mamoschka's, dedicated to Russian kitsch, and took in the big Angara River. The highlight, however, was sitting under the Lenin statue in a park, drinking beer and spitting sunflower seeds (the hostel is on Lenin and Karl Marx Streets). Finding that I had one more day than expected before departing for Ulan Bataar, I signed up for a trip out to Olkhon Island, which lies about halfway up the western side of Lake Baikal. My companion for this venture, Damiano, was an Italian fellow in his mid-thirties, very amiable and droll. He works for a movie distribution company in Rome and apparently meets all sorts of stars, yet remains very down-to-earth.

One of many old wooden houses in Irkutsk. More on them in separate post to come.
We headed out in a packed marschrutky the next morning around 9. The ride involved a lot of zipping around slow trucks and bumping over washed out roads, but we made it to the ferry in time and eventually arrived at U Olgi, our bucolic hostel, around 2 or 3. Khukir, the town where we were staying, is a very strange place, a sort of hybrid tourist destination for international backpackers and affluent Russians. It's developed very quickly in the last decade or two, in large part because of a huge wooden hostel complex run by a former Russian table tennis champion. This compound is complete with several cafeterias and facilities for organizing tours, and it has a somewhat cultish feel because of the hippie-ish, global seeker atmosphere...e.g. lots of young earnest yoga types prancing around in bright tights. It is the social center of the island and provided a convenient way to organize a visit to the northern, less developed regions. 

Relieved to no longer be on the move.
Despite the chaotic, sprawling nature of the town, the lake was only a short walk away, and indeed, I went for a couple of dips. It's an enormous body of water, very blue, and quite clear. The temperature on the eastern side of the island, open to the main part of the lake, was comparable to a New Hamsphire lake in early June. Our tour took us to some remarkable promontories, well-trodden but still spectacular, rising several hundred feet above the water. In the back of our van, gripping each other as we bounced along the extremely rutted roads, sat two Italian couples. As we rode through pine forest, we would hear murmurs of "Bello, bello...Bellisimo!...Fantastico." At one point, the road was so bad the driver asked the men to get out, while the women (ladies, I should write) could stay in. Interestingly, the German woman disembarked, but the Italian females remained. Here was Russian and European gender culture in a nutshell.

A rocky point.
Our driver, an ethnic Buriyat, wore a hat that said, in English, "Native Pride", His ancestors occupied the region around the lake before ethnic Russians turned up a few centuries ago. Unfortunately, he spoke no English, so a Russian woman sitting up front translated all his points about flora and island culture into English. For lunch, he made us a fish soup over an open fire. I was a bit dismayed to see a fish head peering up at me from within my bowl, but the dish was actually very tasty...or at least, as we would say in the huts, hot and salty. As the meal was dispatched, everybody got quite chatty. The Italians rolled cigarettes while the English-speakers chatted about the ubiquity of techno in Russia and other such engrossing topics. 

The night's activities included more international chatter over dinner, this time with a more Teutonic flavor, and a subsequent search for an elusive bonfire on the beach. We did come across a number of Russians camping out, some of whom were blasting - what else? - techno from a car stereo as they sat outside their tents. Loud music and a campfire seem to be the two essentials in Russian camping (glamping?).

All fruits.
All melons.
Nuts and dried fruit.
In the morning, it was time to return to Irkutsk. Tonight, I embark on the train to Ulan Bataar, which despite being relatively close in mileage, will take two nights to reach. Apparently the stop at the Russian-Mongolian border takes several hours, with the police coming through the train to look at passports, etc. This morning, I went the city's central market, where a remarkable bounty of summer Siberian produce was changing hands. I bought tomatos, cucumbers, radishes, carrots, blueberries, and pine nuts for the journey. One can purchase pine nuts already shelled or the entire cone, which, like a squirrel, one picks apart to get at the nuts. 

Sadly, Damiano flew back to Moscow this morning. Along with Michiel, a Dutch fellow who came along on our tour of Olkhon Island, we went out for Mongolian last night (all three of us passed on horse meat but got a meaty dish called The Nine Warriors of Chengis Khan) and then hit an Irish pub to for some vodka. I actually had only drunk vodka once before this on the trip, in Moscow, and that was of a Danish variety. Clearly, I needed to sample the real thing, and I can affirm that this has now been satisfactorily accomplished. 

Damiano gets down to business.
It's been a lot of fun hanging out with other backpackers this week. These fleeting connections, forged in absorbing, unfamiliar situations, leave significant impressions, as I can attest from previous trips. The experience of traveling alone is really important to me, but I will miss these folks as we all move off in our own directions. Apparently, the Trans-Mongolian has quite a few backpackers on it - many more than the railroad that continues across Siberia to Vladivostok - so I'm sure that the next few days will bring some new interesting characters across my path. For the time being, I feel that I am in-between chapters of this journey. It's wonderful to have taken in so many sights and to have met some fascinating people, but I am also wistful because the experience is so fleeting. 

No comments: