Monday, November 24, 2008

Lake Baikal, Irkusk.

Julie, our blond, heavily made-up and humourless Russian guide, ushered us off the train platform into a minivan and spent the hour drive to Lake Baikal flirting with the beefy driver and ignoring us completely. After 36 hours on the train, none of us were particularly chatty anyway. There was no running water at the lodge, so logically, we dropped our bags and started a six hour walk. As we passed a fire-ravaged house and a single, child-size mitten flapped across the muddy path, Julie turned to me and deadpanned in a thick Russian accent: "It's not a nice day for walking." She wasn't wrong.
The first hour we walked single file along the motorway beside the famous lake, which was blanketed in a fog so thick it was just bleary grayness. Julie's responses to all questions were as cold as the weather, and we trudged along in the sleet with nothing but R's running commentary for entertainment. We spent about an hour in Russia's most hilariously underfunded museum, which, unsurprisingly, was all about the lake. Out of focus snap shots of bored tourists at the museum in the 80s were peeling off the plastic sheets they were glued to, and the stuffed wildlife looked like the taxidermist had a generous breakfast-vodka ... all the heads were wonky and some of them may have arrived as roadkill. The bottom floor had an aquarium of gray fish (the lake is too deep and dark for them to have bothered evolving colour), with one tank of tropical fish to highlight their dullness. It wasn't all drab though - there were some great little (gray) 'vertical swimmer' crabs that propel themselves along in the water then tuck their tails under and free-fall to the bottom, and also a fish so translucent you can read through it. Sadly, the last tank held two horribly fat seals, ballooned out like fleshy blimps. They feed them 4kgs of fish a day and the tank is barren except for a single hoop, which I'm not sure they could fit through.
When we completed the educational component of the day, it had stopped sleeting so we hiked up to a look-out point (yes, to look at the lake) for lunch, but the cafe was closed. Julie said: "It's always open." Clearly it wasn't, so we walked back down. By this stage every one was pretty grumpy -- we hadn't showered for a few days or eaten anything since the night before. To top things off, we had to fetch buckets of water to 'flush' the toilets, which were in our rooms. I know an ensuite is supposed to be fancy, but not in all circumstances. It was probably unsurprising, given the moody climate, that we all got spectacularly annihilated on a mixture of Mongolian and Siberian vodka that night. Except Julie, who doesn't drink.
Rusty, with vodka.

The next day was an incredibly well structured series of punishments for anyone with a hangover (all of us, except Julie). We started with a grueling uphill hike to two different look out points (how many views of a foggy lake do you need?), followed by a trip to a smoked fish market which was seriously fragrant, but when the next activity was a boat ride on the choppy lake, we all pulled the plug.
Unable to stomach the smoked fish (I managed to put a small amount in my mouth and actually swallow it, with about a litre of water), Kat and I opted for some fried rice cooked up in a gigantic wok by the only happy Russian in Siberia, which I think is why we actually decided to eat it. While Kat went inside to pay for it, I watched a pigeon land in the rice. The happy man shoo-ed it away and then, seeing I'd seen, scooped the bit the pigeon sat in out and flicked it on the ground. I was too broken to make a fuss, and he was so happy, that I just shut up and ate the rice, and didn't tell Kat til after she'd finished eating hers. Done with organised activities, especially anything Julie might suggest to hurt us more, we separated for the afternoon and met again in the evening for a sauna - the only truly great thing Lake Baikal had to offer us. To be fair, it was a terrible time of year for seeing a lake town, and there's nothing like a common enemy to bring a group together. Having not showered for three days at this stage (there were buckets of water in the sauna, but I mean a proper scrub), we were all looking forward to the 77 hour train ride ahead.

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