Friday, 13 July 2012

Lake Baikal: first impression.
In its early stages, the pilgrimage had a sort of working title, A Walk to a Lake on the Way to a Church, the lake being Baikal[1]. On first sight, under a grey sky, it looked very much like a big Scottish loch, but for all the fathomless, monster-harbouring depths of such meres, you could practically pour one into Lake Baikal, and scarcely anyone would notice. The so-called ‘Pearl of Siberia’ is a completely different kettle of fish, long known as a ‘sea’ rather than a lake, and said to contain as much as 20% of the world’s unfrozen fresh water.[2] Moreover, for the most part this water is exceptionally clean, making Baikal a veritable El Dorado of bio-diversity, with more than 1,700 species of plants and animals, two thirds them endemic.

   I visited one of several lakeside cafes, and exchanged a few words with a troika of Polish bikers, on their way from Warsaw to Vladivostok. When i produced a photo of Wroclaw they invited me over to their table and ordered me a tasty local Buryat speciality called Buuza (Pozy in Russian; a large variety of pelmeni, meat dumplings), and half a litre of beer. Asking one of them about the apparently intractable complexities of relations between Poland and Russia, i was told that it simply all comes down to history.

In brighter weather
   Presently the sun came out. Ambling along a road parallel to the shoreline with an eye to establishing where i was going to sleep, i exchanged pleasantries with some Antipodean tourists, stopping over on their way from Hong Kong to St Petersburg. As the evening wore on however there was some vexation, when a host of different places had to be ruled out for one reason or another. So it was some relief at about 11pm when a fisherman asked if i needed somewhere to stay, quoting 12 euros for a bed. He phoned the landlady of a B&B over the road, and soon i was being warmly welcomed and shown to a great little room with pinewood walls. On the morning of Wednesday 29th June 2011, feast of SS Peter and Paul, i awoke to a magnificent view across the 25 million year-old tarn, and went downstairs for a free cup of coffee in the company of two holiday-makers from Paris. It happened to be the Diamond Jubilee of the ordination of Fr Joseph Ratzinger, known to us now as Pope Benedict XVI. Recalling this event, which took place in Friesing, Bavaria, on 29th June 1951, he notes:
“ the moment the elderly Archbishop (Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber) laid his hands on me, a little bird – perhaps a lark – flew up from the altar in the high cathedral and trilled a little joyful song.”
   On the subject of priestly ordination, Pope Benedict has of course made clear that the priesthood is reserved only to men. Russians generally cope better with this simple fact than many people in certain spiritually devastated western countries, who fancy that the Church is under an obligation to yield to secular reasoning. Women can no more be ordained than men can be impregnated.
Church of St Nicholas, Listvyanka
   That morning i did some exploration ‘inland’, as it were, and came to another pretty wooden church of St Nicholas, where i prayed my rosary, and lit a candle before a beautiful icon of Our Lady, entrusting to her the remainder of my pilgrimage. Nearby i also made a mental note of a little derelict dacha over the road, where theoretically it would be possible to spend the night. Laundry meanwhile was my next priority; equipped with a bar of soap i headed down to the shoreline, to take advantage of the fabled purity of the water of Lake Baikal. I didn’t try drinking it, but while washing clothes i soon discovered that, if one ever did drink it, it would never be necessary to add ice. It is so cold, i literally couldn’t put my hand in for more than a few seconds without feeling pain. However, as i made a right old hoo-ha about this, along came a group of Russian pensioners, who calmly changed into their swimming costumes and fully submerged themselves in the pitiless Siberian meltwater.

[1] This name translates approximately “Nature Lake”.
[2] Russians are sometimes prone to exaggeration (for instance, i heard it said that the lake has a surface area the size of Denmark – not quite true), but this estimate about the volume of water is accepted by scientists around the world, on account of Baikal’s unimaginable depth (1643 metres at its deepest point).

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