Friday, 13 July 2012

The best way to see Lake Baikal
   In the afternoon i got down to writing postcards and thank you letters, with my clothes drying on a fence in a side-street that i supposed would be fairly low-key, though a passer-by apprised me of his view that i wasn’t being very sensible. In fact, when i came back to them an hour or so later, they hadn’t been stolen, but some prankster had gone to the trouble of sticking post-it notes marked with jokey prices on each item! Through the cafe window i caught sight of someone wearing a t-shirt with a slogan that one wouldn’t see very often at home: “I am not normal”. Continuing my correspondence at an outdoor place in the evening, i took a photo of a helicopter as it zoomed low over the salt-free ocean, and another of an especially bold Siberian sparrow, hunting for crumbs on my table.
Siberian sparrow
   Sleep in my little dacha that night was hampered first by the unsettling sound of horses bolting past the window, then by the yapping of various dogs through the night and in the morning, and by a cockerel, cats, and, it seemed, both pigs and cows; pretty much the whole shebang. Rising late in more sunny weather i visited the nearby church, then headed for the tourist info next to the shoreline, knowing i had to be at the airport by 8pm.

The Circum-Baikal Railway: "golden buckle on the steel belt of Russia" 
   Overcoming a soupcon of uncertainty, i forked out the equivalent of 35 euros to go an excursion by boat across the lake, which turned out to be money well spent. Most of the other passengers were Russian, but i also spoke in English to a young Flemish-speaking couple from Antwerp, giving them a photo of the school in Hasselt which had a Russian flag flying outside. Tongeren, i learnt, is a familiar port of call to Belgian schoolchildren. After crossing over[1], and keeping a beady eye out for bears on the untamed mountainside opposite, we docked at a place near a tunnel on the Circum-Baikal Railway. Once called “the golden buckle on the steel belt of Russia”, it was built at astronomical cost in treasure and an unspecified number of workers’ lives at the beginning of the 20th century, in order to connect the eastern and western arms of the Trans-Siberian Railway. Landslides however made it “exciting but dangerous” to traverse, and in 1957 a dam on the Angara river caused a significant part of it to be flooded. A new connection between east and west was constructed, though the dismembered section still serves a number of small Buryat villages on the northern shore of the southern extremity of the lake. A very capable English-speaking Russian guide was on hand to tell us about these things, as we made our way along the line and through the tunnel, before being left to our own devices for a bit, near a beach on the other side. While we were there a much larger cruise-ship arrived, carrying what i supposed to be eminent Chinese dignitaries, at which point a great tourist-inducing slogan for the lake came into my head: “Still Waters Run Deep”. On the return voyage, withdrawing from the nippy Siberian air in a cabin below deck, i chatted to some Russians over tea and biscuits, among them a young woman who told me that "Our president came here." "Medvedev?" i asked. "No, the other one, what's his name, Putin..." I know it's only anecdotal, but that's not the sort of conversation you'd expect to have in a totalitarian state, where people tend to put on an outward show of deference towards their leaders. Then as we approached Listvyanka it was super to catch a glimpse, before it plunged beneath the surface, of a nerpa, the totemic freshwater seal, so often the public face of Baikal’s unique flora and fauna. Somehow, it seemed, this sighting gave my visit to Baikal a seal of divine favour.

   Thankfully there were no surprises in store on the bus journey that evening to Irkutsk airport, where i spent some time on the internet before making the first actual plane journey of my tremendous ‘walk’ to Mexico, to Russia’s Far East. My encounter with the city of Khabarovsk[2] was limited to walking between two of its airport terminals, but i was struck by the Mediterranean warmth of the local sunshine. The nearest thing to a difficulty about stepping on to the connecting flight to Seoul involved a bottle of mineral water that had to be drunk first.   
Pilgrim, Lake Baikal

[1] Baikal is a very long crescent shape.
[2] Named after Yerofey Khabarov, a Russian Cossack entrepreneur and adventurer, who established Russian claims to the Amur region of Russia’s Far East at the expense of the Chinese and Koreans in the mid 17th century. He was perhaps in a similar mould to the 16th century Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés.

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