August 16, 2004
Deadpan Looks By The Deep Blue Lake
DAY 298: From what I had heard, many travelers on the Trans-Siberian Railway only stop once on the way from Moscow to the Far East in Irkutsk in order to see nearby Lake Baikal (rhymes with "bagel"). The shimmering deep blue lake -- the world's deepest body of freshwater -- was formed after a collision of tectonic plates. It is believed that as the plates separate over time, the lake will get deeper and wider, forming the earth's fifth ocean. Until then, it still remains the one "must see" place in Siberia.
MY BAGS WERE PACKED BY EIGHT and Nina served me my obligatory breakfast at nine. She wasn't as much help about the buses like her travel agent friend Elena had told me she would; all she did was motion me that I'd better hurry or I'd miss the bus. I had packed everything thinking I wasn't planning to come back to Nina's apartment -- I was going to spend my final night at this stop not at her place but in Listvyanka on the shore of Lake Baikal -- so I tried to give her back the key for the front door. In another episode of miscommunication, she refused it -- perhaps she didn't think I'd spend the night there.
I got to the bus station at ten hoping that the next bus would leave within the hour. A taxi driver approached me with body language to take his cab. He showed me the bus schedule on the wall for Listvyanka: 9:00, 14:30, 17:00. I had missed the 9 a.m. and the next wouldn't be for another four and a half hours. He quoted me 1000 rubles for the 65 km. ride (about $34), which was about what Eugene at Green Express said it would be anyway. I hopped in the cabbie's ride.
I went to the hotel reception as instructed by Eugene at the Green Express travel agency. As predicted the young woman there spoke English -- but wasn't much help. She didn't even crack a smile or even a half-smile.
"Where is the outdoor center?" I asked.
"It's here. What do you want?"
"Eugene said that there'd be horses or bicycles that I might rent."
"There are no bicycles," she said deadpan. Not even a smirk.
"Oh, Eugene told me there would be," I said. "And horses?"
"We have none, but maybe you will find [someone else's] horses in the back."
"Okay," I said, remaining positive. "I know you have no rooms, but another agent told me that I might be able to find a homestay around here. Which way would I go?"
"I don't know. I've never rented a house before," she said, again emotionless or even with a bit of disdain.
"Is it okay if I leave my bags here while I look for a place? Eugene said that if I came here to reception, they'd sort things out for me."
"You can't leave your bags here unless you are staying at the hotel," she told me after consulting with the other deadpan woman at the desk.
"U vas yest... uh, a room?" I asked the guy at the gate.
"Yes." The guy was Nicolai, a 23-year-old who learned English from being a foreign exchange student in Iowa, USA for four years. "We only have rooms with two beds," he told me with his Russian accent. The accommodation was about $40 USD, reasonable for what it was. "Oh yeah, you can also stay in a Mongolian yurt," he informed me. In the backyard were three traditional Mongolian yurts, big circular fabric tents constructed with a central pole and rope. At only about $12 a bed, it was perfect -- no one was staying there anyway; I had the entire deck of three yurts to myself.
Nicolai's parents ran the B&B, which was a fairly nice establishment compared to the little shacks down the road, and still not as Westernized as the bigger hotels like the deadpan Hotel Terema. Nicolai told me about bikes and boats and that if I wanted to do a boat excursion on the lake that afternoon, I'd better get to the nearby port and check it out soon.
ALONG THE SHORE OF LAKE BAIKAL in Listvyanka -- aside from the rocky beachgoers and villagers fetching pails of water (picture above) -- were informational signs with facts about the lake broken down into bullet points. Reading them, I learned a great deal about the body of water before me:
Irene, the older, retired New Zealander didn't seem too impressed with the tour and was pretty critical of everything -- particular the claim that the local pollution of the lake is entirely the tourists' fault, when industrial waste wasn't exactly hidden behind the trees. After the tour, Irene and her younger friend Gilley invited me to join them for coffee at one of the three cafes by the pier.
Gilly and I had beers instead, and we didn't just have one round. We sat out under the warmth of the sun, just being lazy over conversation. We took notice that just like the staff at the Hotel Terema, the majority of the cafe staff didn't crack a smile. "Everyone here is miserable and cold," Irene said. "I fit right in here." She was a seasoned traveler, having done most of that traveling in the sixties when going around the world meant "just going to India and doing drugs for six months." In her older age, perhaps she was still stuck in the sixties, ending every other sentence with "man."
Her sardonic bitterness -- which often transcended into humor -- came with age she said. She was the type of person who probably invented the slogan "Life's a bitch and so am I." She had been critical for the entire ride through Russia, even telling off one of the guards at the entrance to Lenin's tomb in Moscow who had been rude to her: "Your punishment is that you have to stay in this country for the rest of your life!" she told the guard who didn't understand. Gilly was often humored by all of her travel companion's snide comments, given that the recipient didn't hear or understand -- which wasn't always the case.
I accepted their invitation for a lake shore stroll and we walked along Lake Baikal, passed more little houses, cows taking over the road, a small wooden pier for smaller boats (HiRes) and a sad little zoo were Siberian black bears were poorly caged up. We eventually made it to their "homestay," which was actually an overpriced apartment their agency set them up with. There we had tea as the sun began to set outside the window. We went outside to another pier with our teas to watch nature's tranformation of hues, which turned the sky -- and the lake's reflections below -- a shade of pink.
We sat at a table over rounds of Russian vodka and orange juice (served in separate glasses in Russia), served by another emotionless deadpan staff that wouldn't crack a smile. There we met a rambunctious trio of American guys from Vermont and New York that tried to taunt the staff with falsetto calls. Still, nothing. One of them told us he was of Russian/Polish ancestry and that his European relatives were notorious for keeping deadpan faces in any situation.
The temperature had dropped as the stars came out. With no city lights, it was quite a display, all of them in the northern hemisphere present and accounted for -- even the clouds of the Milky Way. I didn't have anything but a t-shirt on so my time stargazing was brief. I bid farewell with my new friends of the day and bid them farewell when we split up. They went back to their apartment to wake early to go to Irkutsk while I walked the one mile to Nicolai's family-run B&B through the darkness with the sight of my breath in front of me at every exhalation. I suppose it was fitting; for my last night in Russia outside of a train, I had finally found the really real Siberia: a lake, trees, mountains, deadpan faces and all.
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