Siberia is nothing like I expected. Though I’m not entirely sure what I expected (salt mines? fur hats? grey skies?) I definitely wasn’t thinking of 28c temperatures, water glinting in the sunshine and the sand hot beneath my toes as I rub sunscreen on my arms. I wasn’t thinking of flower filled meadows, sun dappled birch forests, lush green fields and a sky that stretches endlessly above, a pale blue bowl occasionally given depth by tall stacks of white clouds. It turns out that in summer at least, Siberia is pastoral and beautiful.
My introduction is Irkutsk, a pleasant town with wide streets. On the high street stand sturdy 19th century stone buildings, today home to a mix of stores you could find anywhere in the world: Mexx, Reebok and Benneton to name just a few. Cafes set tables out under the trees on the pavements and market stalls sell fresh strawberries and blueberries. It all feels very European and somehow very familiar and this despite the fact that Irkutsk is just one hour ahead of Melbourne in time zones and is further east than Bangkok.
After a day wandering the streets and enjoying the sensation of being back in Europe, I decide to head into Siberia proper and spend five days by the shore of Lake Baikal. Baikal is an enormous freshwater lake, some 600km long and 60km wide. It’s the deepest lake in the world (1637m on the western shore) and allegedly holds enough water to supply the entire world for 40 years. In summer Lake Baikal becomes a water playground for tourists from all over Russia. (In winter it freezes over and you can drive your car across it. As the lake thaws in spring it claims around 10 lives each year. Locals risk one last drive across the frozen water and each year the ice creaks, cracks and swallows them up. When they’re pulled from the water they’re often frozen with their hands still on the steering wheel, that’s how cold the water gets. Even now, in August, it’s still only 8c.)
I travel to Olkhon, an island on the lake, six hours drive from Irkutsk. We pass by low mountains, pine forests and meadows that are so filled with flowers the grass struggles to take hold. The driving is erratic and frightening; cars and buses veer in and out at high speed. All along the road are memorials to accident victims and we pass and we pass several accidents, including a distressing scene where a car is stalled diagonal across the lane before the body of a man, bloody and broken on the road. A woman stands beside him, hands to face, crying. Our driver speeds on.
It’s a relief to get to Khuzhir, the only village on Olkhon, with wide sandy streets lined by colourfully painted wooden houses. All around is sky and water and a deep restful silence.
The sunsets here are jaw dropping. The sky flames orange then red then violet pink; clouds are haloed with gold and the lake water, clear as glass, mirrors it all.
I stay at Olga’s guest house, which turns out to be something of a mix between camping and visiting your gran. My room has two small single beds with springs poking up through the bumpy mattresses and two large and heavy looking lounge chairs covered in brown velour. The bedding is bright blue with a pattern of yellow stars and a cartoon rabbit asleep on the moon. The toilets are drop toilets in the back garden and the shower is a camp shower (a barrel of water with a hose attached to the shower head). There’s also an outdoor sink for cleaning your teeth. There’s a communal dining room for the three meals a day that are included. Today we have eggs and fresh bread and jam for breakfast, fish soup (with fish freshly caught from the lake) followed by pork with mashed potatoes and salad for lunch and a vegetable and meat bake for dinner with still warm homemade cake for dessert. I can see I won’t be losing any weight in Russia.
There’s plenty to do on the island. You can hire a bike and cycle to the other side; take a jeep tour to the far north or a day long horse trek. Or, like me, you can layer on the sunscreen, lie on the sand in the sun and read War and Peace.
There are quite a few other travellers here and it’s very sociable. One day I take a hike with Tristan, an Aussie traveller and runner. He’s taken on a massive challenge for himself this year – he’s running 52 marathons in 52 weeks in 40 countries. Last week he ran 100km in Mongolia, this week he’s doing marathons in Siberia and Helsinki. Check out his website to find out more about his challenge or watch his YouTube video. Those of you in Melbourne who are feeling energetic, can join him on his final run on New Year’s Eve.
Another day I explore the town with Adrien, a sexy French aeronautics engineer and on the third day I have lunch with Marco, an Italian photojournalist who is doing a story on pollution in the lake (a controversial pulp mill is threatening the area’s UNESCO status). On the last night the four of us and Cecile, a Belgian teacher, go out for a few beers.
The pub is small and filled with heavy wood furniture and large Russians. To my disappointment they’re drinking beer not vodka but at least the cans of beer they’re throwing back are 1litre in size. The place smells of smoked fish – a local delicacy that everyone else is consuming with gusto – and sea air. Euro-pop bangs from the loudspeaker in the corner.
We sit and chat and drink until the bar staff throw us out at 2am. Outside the temperature has dropped. A chill wind is blowing and I’m grateful for my scarf and wool jumper. We take our final beer and sit outside Olga’s, wrapping ourselves in duvets against the cold. It’s the 31st of July but right now it feels decidedly wintery. And, finally, as I shiver while I sip my 1litre can of beer, I feel a little more Siberian.