In Siberia aboard the Baikalo-Amourskaya-Magistral

Church in Baikalskoe

March 2012

Those of you who expressed such enthusiasm when I returned from my previous adventures in Siberia have shown interest in reading more travel notes from my latest trip taken last March.

I’m rather afraid of disappointing you though, I can’t say how extremely touched I was by your support two years ago. But it seems I have said it all and it will be difficult to come up with something new with which to impress you.

Moscow subway

Moscow subway

You are now familiar with my 3d class Platskart car, with the ever present Provodnitsa, you can almost taste those mushroom pelmeni, you know how the samovar functions and you can imagine the sound of the hammer banging under the train at each major station; you are even totally at ease with those seven truly disconcerting time zones, in short you are now a specialist in Trans-Siberian affairs and as such you tend to remain rather blasé with train trivia…

I therefore won’t bore you with a day to day diary, I’d come up with nothing new since my previous trip. Indeed I boarded the same trains though my route differed to some extent, treaded with the same fur-lined boots in identically unexciting grey-colored towns and cities, dined on the same mushy noodles ordered from long-faced waitresses named Tatiana or Natasha who on rare occasions brightened up and acted proud to meet a stranger such as myself. I traveled this year under the same blue skies, again during the month of March though temperatures were more severe, minus 30° Celsius (-22°F) whereas in 2010 the thermometer rarely pointed lower than a mild minus 10°Celsius (14 °F).

You mean you took the same trip? Again? How boring, grumbles the experienced traveler you most probably are. Not for me though. My mind was not set on discovering a new land nor on experiencing new sensations. I was returning to Russia just -to be there; to take yet another plunge into that country, to connect with it, maybe even to confirm, if need be, that this is where I feel at home. A rather funny place to feel at home, you must think. Well, maybe I’m a funny little lady and I’m only discovering so now, just as you are.

In fact, in the book simply titled Transibérien, which I will mention later on, French author Dominique Fernandez writes *

“Though I would recommend travelling aboard the Trans-Siberian to anyone who loves nature and the cultures of Siberia, it would be insane to take off on this enterprise without the company of a Russian native or a person speaking the language.”

I hardly speak the language and I was not travelling with a Russian native, so I’ll leave you to judge…

(* all quotes are my own translations)

Here in Russia, you can count your local friends by the number of nicknames you are given. I am usually Elena, often Yelena, at times Lena, plus several other shorter versions that go too fast for me to catch. It often seemed to me that the person I was talking to was also called Elena, indeed it seemed to me that every other woman’s name was Elena, I was never sure in fact if it was their name or my own they were speaking.

Picnicking on the beach Listvyanka

Picnicking on the beach Listvyanka

March 8th is International Woman’s Day and a very special occasion in Russia, and this year it happened to fall on a Sunday. How lucky I was, thought I, standing on the beach in Listvyanka where a few dozen local families or couples had come to picnic. The men had offered a rose to their loved one, the women felt like queens for a day and all had begun to sip their vodka on ice

(the ice being under their feet and not in their glass) when I trudged up at 11 AM to check the boat schedule to Port Baikal.

Omul or kebab vendors had set out wooden chairs and tables for their customers. They looked like little dining-room arrangements standing out in the middle of the snow. Those who had brought their own lunch were settling around the row of public benches and tables that stand sheltered from the icy wind and snow by plastic awnings.

There were pony rides for the children, as well as what I call a Siberian merry-go-round (a long wooden arm tied to a central pillar, the kid sits on a sleigh attached to the arm and the parent holds on to it, running in a circle around the pillar, turning the sleigh as they push the arm).

Though most everything is open on Sundays it is none the less a very special day in Russia. There is a sort of lightness in the air; it’s a very different atmosphere from the rest of the
week. Our Sundays are banal, most of us just do what we don’t have time to do the other days of the week. But in Russia there is something festive about the day, people dress nicely, they go walking down whatever promenade or public area the town offers, fathers buy ice-cream for their children and speak to them gently, you sense they are enjoying this moment together, that they are showing off their family. There is an old-fashioned and touching quality about it, like something out of the sixties.

Such was the mood on the icy beach as I took some pictures of a group of particularly cheerful women who invited me to share their lunch of tiny smoked fish on slices of brown bread, bland cheese and sweet pickles, handed to me, as usual, on a few pieces of grey toilet paper. I was dying for some hot tea but they wouldn’t hear of it until I downed the good measure of vodka they had poured me in a plastic cup. I had been told that the men pushed you to drink in Russia, for my part it was the women, at 11 in the morning, on the ice-covered beach facing the small village of Port Baikal on the other side of the Angara, where, I had been told “there is nothing to see”, and which I had therefore set my mind on visiting.

Elenas and their picnic on ice

Elenas and their picnic on ice

I may have misunderstood but I do think I got it right: my group of women all went by the name of Elena, with various nicknames, and that’s what had brought them together that day. They went wild
when I told them that I too was an Elena.

During my previous trip that had led me all the way to Vladivostok, I had had little time to spend on Lake Baikal, therefore my idea this year was to get to know it better, to admire the Pearl of Siberia as they call it and even to attempt to vaguely circle it. Quite a big circle my reader will say, given that it is over 700 km (400 miles) long and that no road runs along its coast… And, my dear reader, how right you are.

So with no further ado, here come a few short adventures of your faithful Elena, on Lake Baikal.

To Be Continued…

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