The Beauty of Lake Baikal

Trip Start Aug 08, 2006
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Trip End Oct 11, 2006


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Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Listvyanka, Russia

The train arrived into the largest city and capital of Siberia, Irkutsk, at around 8AM. The sunrise over the Siberian steppes was an inspirational introduction to the this city founded in 1652 by Russian Cossacks. Also known as "Paris of Siberia," the architecture of this city was supposed to be very European with classical styles adorning the wide diagonal boulevards.

We were met on Platform 8 by our Russian guide, Anya, who spoke fluent English. Immediately, she took us to our tour bus outside the station where we exchanged some money ($1 US = 26.6 Rubles).

I would like to mention a little something about currency on this trip. Throughout Beijing, Mongolia, and now in Russia, it appeared that the US Dollar was universally accepted in banks and on the streets. However, the same was not true for the Euro, Japanese Yen, British Pound, Australian Dollar, or other currencies. I was short on local currency in many places, and the local vendors gladly accepted my dollars. My British, Australian, and New Zealand traveling companions did not receive such a welcome with their own currencies. I even tried to use some of my Euros and Yen to no avail.

Russian banks were very strict with US Dollars. To exclude any counterfeiting, they would only exchange US $50 or $100 denominations that were in mint condition and printed after 1997. If the conditions were not met, the Ulysses S. Grants and Benjamin Franklins were of no use!

The ride to Lake Baikal and the lake town of Listvyanka was beautiful. The terrain of taigas, or verdant forests, opened up a corridor for the national highway to pierce right through green Siberia. Lying 63km from Irkutsk, Listvyanka could be reached by bus in 40-45 minutes.

After a 40-hour journey across the arid steppes of Mongolia, the landscape of Siberia was a distinct change. It reminded me of the thick forests of Alaska, Canada, or Patagonia (Argentina) where elk, moose, brown bears, and deer ran free. Taiga, derived from the local Siberian language meaning "forest-covered mountain," was an ecological environment filled with coniferous forests of subarctic lands located just south of the tundras. In Siberia, especially in Irkutsk, winter was very long, lasting from the end of October until the end of April. Average winter temperature was -22C, but -40C was not uncommon. This past January, the entire area experienced a brutal winter with 30 days of -40C and brutal blasts of snow.

Arriving on the shore of Lake Baikal, Russia, I was immediately reminded of Lake Nahuel Huapi, Argentina surrounded by the Andes Mountains. However, Lake Baikal was the deepest lake in the world, reaching a depth of 1637m (or almost 5000 feet). 336 rivers flowed out of Lake Baikal, including Russia's longest river, Yesiney River, which was the only river flowing north into the frigid Arctic Ocean.

I arrived with my Australian buddy Paul to our homestay apartment. Our hostess was Lidia, a typical fun-loving babushka, who was born in Western Russia but moved to Listvyanka many decades ago. Speaking no word of English, she communicated with us entirely in Russian. I did not have any problem speaking with her, but Paul just nodded and pretended to understand her enthusiastic conversation. I mainly served as an interpreter for Paul during our 24-hour homestay.

Lidia's apartment was very modest. According to Russian customs, all guests had to take off their shoes at the entrance and walked around the house in socks or slippers. Lidia, a retired economic analyst, was fond of foreigners. She had hosted many Westerners before, but her traveling experience had been limited to only Mongolia and internal Russia. She enjoyed hearing about stories of the bustling city life in the US or seeing pictures of nature across Western Europe or Australia. She was a very good cook, and like a typical babushka, she made sure we finished all our food before we could leave the dinner table. Paul and I were full, but she continued to lavish the dinner table with more food and continued to say, "Pozhaluysta, Yedite! (Please eat!). "Normal'no (OK)," I responded although there was no room in my stomach. She constantly served us Russian tea from her beautiful samovar.

The homestay in Listvyanka was a very beautiful experience as I was able to see how a Russian lived. Her material possessions were few, but her heart was big. In this small, modestly decorated apartment, with only one bedroom, a small living room, an antiquated kitchen with only space for 3 people around the tiny wooden dinner table, I was able to reach out and touch the daily lives of Russians. It was moving to hear how much suffering she had to endure under the Communist system, with constant food rationing. Although the markets were more plentiful now, they were pale compared to those in the US. The natives of Listvyanka were a resilient people. Trying to sport a modern fashion, they mixed and matched whatever was handed down to them and tried to imitate the style of New York, Paris, or Milan. Their resilience was a beautiful quality equally matched by the paradaisical landscape in which they dwelled.

Later in the evening, Bora, our fun-loving, party-animal tour guide, booked us a Banya experience. Going to a Russian sauna, or banya, was a unique experience that one should not miss. Usually situated in a wooden "dacha" house, the banya had several rooms for changing and showers. The actual sauna had dry heat produced from a coal-burning furnace. However, one would not actually just sit inside the banya. There was a wooden deck where one person would like down, and the rest of the group would flagellate that person's back with twig branches dipped in hot water. It was not meant to hurt, but to massage the back with the soft leaves from the bouquet of twigs. I was whipped many times, front and back, by my companion travelers. Some even resorted to aggression for no apparent reason, but their forceful lashing actually offered a more soothing massage than a castigation.

After our banya, we got dressed and went to a Russian bar to try some vodka. It would be a shame to be in Russia and not sample one of its 150 varieties of vodka! So I had a 50 gram shot (pyatdesyat) with the entire group, and I washed it down with cold black cherry juice. Next door was a boisterous club, where a Russian performer was singing "I Will Survive" by Gloria Gaynor. The evening passed by quickly with more drinking, laughter, and an unadulterated sense of joie de vivre.
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