Hello, I don’t get to see many sunrises these days as there are so few dark hours in this part of the crazy world that the sun has normally been up for at least four hours before I wake up (it gets totally dark around midnight and is light again by about 4.30am).
However this morning I woke at about 4am and just couldn’t get back to sleep which is unusual for me – I would really be the world’s worst insomniac – I get very grumpy.
Anyway – how could I be grumpy when I decided to actually get out of bed rather than toss and turn to spend my last day at Lake Baikal blessed with this glorious sunrise as i go for a walk on the headlands and write this blog.
It rained overnight and is quite nippy at the moment so everything feels bright and fresh and the smell of the lake is really special.
I have wanted to come to Lake Baikal for a very long time – Siberia in general has fascinated me ever since I became addicted to looking at atlases in my late teens, though this lake in particular is quite amazing. For a start it doesn’t look so big on a shrunk map of the world though it is just massive – very long – you can’t see from one side to the other and it holds more than 1/5 of the fresh water reserves of the whole entire world – that’s just mind blowing in itself – though also in the winter it freezes over and is covered by an average of 2 metres of ice – I would love to come back here twice more – once in the middle of winter and skate on the ice and do a drive/camp on the ice, but also another time to see the incredible sight of all the ice breaking in March and April.
It’s amazing to sit here and see the trees and shrubs around – they have to do all their business in just about 4 or 5 months before the September frosts set in – doesn’t leave much time for spring, summer and autumn.
The other reason I have wanted to come to this lake for a while is that I once read a book – I think it was called ‘The long walk’ by a Polish political prisoner who was sent to Siberia in extremely harsh conditions. He eventually escaped and walked across this lake, into Mongolia and China and since the Chinese would have sent him back, he eventually walked to Tibet and to safety. A very fascinating story. We met a Polish traveller with her dad who old us it had been made into a movie. It’s on my ‘to see’ list.
We have been staying at an amazing place called ‘Nikita’s Homestead’ – recommended to us by our friends Bernie and Ryan who came here in January.
They described it as a Mittagundi type of place (for those who don’t know Mittagundi – an amazing, isolated and rustic place in NE Victoria that provides incredible outdoor experiences for young school age kids).
We thought we would need a week here to relax after traversing China where we were a walking circus and then nomadic Mongolia. It has been so nice to stop and also amazing to have 3 meals cooked for you everyday in the canteen and not have to worry about what to eat today – and the food has been so amazing – lots of vegetarian Russian soups, cabbage salads and lost of fish at each meal – I’ve even got used to the sweet bread with dinner each night. There are wooden rustic yet ornate houses and buildings dotted around everywhere – one night they had 200 people staying.
One of the highlights definitely has to be the Russian Banya – just so refreshing and cleansing – I think the kids have written about the one we went in as a family that they have here in the complex but yesterday I went in a little one on the beach with Kalika and Zoi – set up in a small trailer with a wood fired heater in the back, boiling up the water and hot stones and steaming the trailer up – after 5 minutes you just need the relief of the cold lake – the in and out, in and out many times for 1/2 an hour.
We also had a birch broom massage – basically birch made into a broom and warmed up by the boiling water coming out of the heater, the the lady who runs the banya comes in and slaps you all over with this birch broom and ends with having to take 3 big sniffs of the aroma. Quite exhilarating.
I was wondering how cold the water actually is – and I eventually got to ask someone who knew – and it is 4 C -I was expecting lots colder – like 1 C – oh well, it feels way way colder than southern Tasmania which is the next coldest place I’ve swum in.
Definitely another humungous highlight was meeting our friends Luke & Maria and Kathleen and the kids – Levi and Gabby – our kids instantly became friends and then wanted to spend every waking hour of the next four days together. It was great – hopefully we’ll see each other again if I can ever convince Sandy to visit the US or if they come to Australia. Our kids are planning on keeping in touch at any rate. Kathleen had some great Sarah Palin jokes! Love those…..
We’ve been in Russia more than a week now – and initially on our first wander around Irkutsk we stumbled on a market with loads of fruits and veggies which was so exciting after Mongolia where we didn’t have any fruit in the ger and only a choice of 3 vegetables.
I just re-read the last sentence and it made it sound like I didn’t like Mongolia – but I did – I loved it despite the vegetarian challenge. However I find it hard to get to a new country or place and not instantly compare it to what we’ve just had. It’s bizarre – maybe it’s just human nature. Anyway – Irkutsk is a beautiful town on the river – as you walk along the river you are hard pressed to find a spare spot to put your heart padlock on the rails – to I guess, entwine your heart with your beloved for ever. Or lock it in anyway!
Our first Russian meal at a Russian fast food place that supposedly offered sushi and lots of salad and other Russian delights was a bit disappointing and showed us just how difficult not knowing the language (despite me knowing Bulgarian and the Cyrillic script and being able to piece some things together) is and not to trust the pictures that are on display – most of those things aren’t available ‘today’. The kids are getting so much better with – ‘don’t believe what pictures and brochures say – the reality might be completely different’. However – on our second day we found a vegetarian Hare Krishna Restaurant and OMB! it was so delicious and scrumptious and yummy and amazing and incredible – lots of flavours and super healthy desserts too and even ginger lemon water – now that takes me back to India!
The above photo is the entrance to our hostel – a converted apartment on the 3rd floor – very interesting use of space!
Our entry into Russia deserves a bit of space…….
I find border crossings so interesting and they always seem to happen in the dark hours when you really want to be asleep but you need to wait up otherwise they’ll wake you anyway…….and the toilets – well if you have to go to the toilets during the 4 or so hours it takes to go through Mongolian customs and then Russian customs, you either need to have a discrete container or just hold on till you really hurt – You see they spend at least an hour or two at each border post but they shut the toilets (so that you don’t have lots of poo and piss at the stations as the ‘stuff’ just goes down to the bottom through an open hole in the toilet. Anyway I’m sure you don’t want to hear about train ablutions!
Anyway the big Mongolians (many of them are pretty big) enter the train first, asking to open my bags – golly it’s been a while since someone asked that (they are very sensitive about people stealing their national treasures after that idiot tried to buy their dinosaur bones for $1M at an auction in New York) and border crossings always happen around midnight for some reason- all kids and Sandy were sleeping. I wait to give out passports, accept them again and open bags of kids clothes! The bags were everywhere as this is the first train trip that we were allowed to all squeeze into a 4 berth carriage to save some money. The Chinese mainly do it by height so we had to buy 5 tickets in China – I guess the Mongolians don’t really care as long as you can fit in – it was quite squeezy but surprisingly fit really well – lots of top and tailing – I became Kalika’s ‘twin’ for the night.
Eventually after I opened a few bags of clothes they waved to me to stop – I was starting to have to lift beds up while sleeping children were on them to get to the bags – I think they could tell we weren’t stealing rare dinosaur bones or Genghis Khan’s remains! Then we get to the Russian side and by this time I was seriously thinking about what would happen if my bladder actually burst and whether they would see me if I peed out the window! The Mongolians were actually friendly in comparison to the Russian guards – we had a big burly woman in high heels stomp in to get our passports to stamp – she kept counting to seven and shining her torch and shaking her head and she made all her colleagues that walked past count as well as if it was the biggest scandal they had seen. Then I had to pass each passport one by one and lift their sleeping heads so she could tell it was them and not some other person we were trying to smuggle in. Toby was a classic cause as I lifted his head he just grumbled, shook violently and almost fell off the bed – I think she got the picture after this so didn’t look too closely at Zoi and Emilio. The dog leading customs officers get on next and have to go through all our compartments to make sure we weren’t smuggling any stowaways. – Kiki didn’t even blink as I lifted her whole bed up to check the bags and space underneath! They even check small holes in the passage way floor for refugees -I guess. I wish I had the guts to take photos of the customs officer – she was mega scary!
That brings me to next topic – Russians – we have met some of the nicest people and some of the rudest people – it just doesn’t make sense! Then our friend who had lived in Moscow for a year explained that Russians have a ‘circle of trust’ – once you’re in that then they will do anything for you, though you kind of need to earn entry to that. That maybe explains why people at ticket offices just hold a sign or point a finger as if you have if asked them to rip their teeth out instead of actually smile.
Another great example is one woman at the market who was selling watermelon – very messy when travelling and Kiki just loves it so I asked if she could cut one in half – golly it’s as if I asked her to amputate her leg with a 40 year old rusty bomb. Obviously the answer was no!
We went on a boat cruise on Lake Baikal – the captain came out two or three times at the start and yelled at the kids, in the gruffest voice, to sit down so they didn’t fall off the back.
After our lunch stop and hike the Arctic winds came in while on the lake so he came out with blankets for the kids to wrap around each other, his face softened and he eventually invited them all down to the warm little room under the steering room. I guess we entered his ‘circle of trust’.
Also – check out the jetty we had to walk on to get to the boat – one of the most rickety I’ve seen.
What we have found though is that when the Russians know English well then you are in that circle already and they are so helpful and want to walk you to the train etc! There was a lovely family with a baby on the bus back from Olkhon island to Irkutsk and the mother was an English teacher – great at translating, calling us taxis, negotiating with the driver about drop off points, and giving us her email if anyway she can help us further!