Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Again, from Listvyanka

Hello Everyone!

Today Edward and I just finished a tour of the town Listvyanka, which is situated perfectly on the shores of Lake Baikal and I can honestly say this has been one of the most memorable days of my life. As you can see from the pictures it was absolutely gorgeous out: blue skies, perfect light and a nice, warm temperature of 5 degrees (which beats the -8 when we arrived this morning). Our guide, Naudia, took us first to Chirsky Mount (the pictures of us overlooking the lake and the Angara River). We took a chair lift to the top, headed through the woods out to the out crop which is believed by the natives to be a spiritual point. In keeping with their customs we tied a ribbon each to a tree branch of our choosing while making a wish, as their practice declares: everytime the wind blows across your ribbon, the wish is whispered into the ears of God. Which, ya know, is cool.

The unfrozen Angara River which you can see behind and below us is the only river which flows out of Lake Baikal. Legend says that Old Man Baikal had 336 sons (the number of rivers which flow into the lake) and one daughter, the beautiful but headstrong Angara. He wanted her to marry the weak river Irkut, but she refused and instead longed to be with the powerful Yenisey, which is Russia's longest river. He chained her up to keep her close but one stormy night she escaped and fled north to her lover. In his anger, Old Man Baikal hurled a massive boulder after her and it crashed down upon the trail she had made. It is known as Shaman Rock and the natives used it as a place of spiritual connection or judicial trials. If a man was placed on the rock and survived the night, he was deemed innocent. On the other hand, if a woman was placed on the rock and survived the night, she was deemed guilty and killed when she returned to shore; the logic being that the lake had refused her as a wife and therefore she was tainted with guilt.

After this we went and saw the Baikal museum which, I have to say, is relatively unimpressive except for the two enormously rotund seals which I filmed for awhile. They are really rather cute. I can't believe I just said cute.

The part we'd really been waiting for all day followed the museum and that was a walk out on the lake. I have some cool videos of this too which I will try and post, but I'm not sure this ghetto computer can handle the transfer of information. The pictures don't really do it justice because it's simply not possible to capture the expansive beauty of this place. The lake runs 636 kilometers from North to South and is over 80 kilometers at it's widest point. Roughly where we're standing in those pictures it drops to 400 meters and a bit past that, out in the basin it's nearly a mile deep. The lake holds over 20% of the world's fresh water supply and 90% of Russia's water. If the water were to be emptied out over the world, all of the land would be covered in about a foot of water...which, ya know, is impressive.

Ok, enough education for the day.

The Train Trip:

So, after a few hours of free time in Omsk, which included a run on the treadmills in the local gym (sorry I totally shifted gears on everyone there), we boarded our train. As usual we were in Car 11 (I guess MIR has some arrangement with them involving this particular number) and our providnitsa was pretty nice, but like all Russians, didn't really smile a whole lot. Apparently smiling is an "American concept". We got a terrific sleep that first night and got up in time to read a bit before having one of our half-dressed-slipper-and-overcoat-wearing forrays onto the platform to find lunch/breakfast. As always the babushka's didn't let us down (reliable ol' gals) and we managed to scrounge up some really good potato dumplings and some potato filled bread. Between that and the dried figs we purchased in Omsk we were set for the rest of the daylight hours (not that there are a whole lot of those in Siberia).

This time, more than the last time however, we drew the shocked stares of locals who couldn't figure out why two guys were walking around in gym shorts, slippers and jackets in - 0 degree weather . Crazy Americans...crazy fucking Americans. But we were not deterred and got everything we needed, plus a little fresh air. By the way, Ed and I totally have this down. We board the train and immediately upon entering he throws his bag up in the storage compartment and then I throw mine (hoist and heave really) then we lift up my bed and dump our coats in the compartment there, then lift up his and put groceries. Within 5 minutes we have our clothes hung up and are in our comfortable train clothes (which we packed in our carry-ons). On the platforms we find the babushkas in no time flat (or rather, they find us) and Ed buys some items from one while I buy complimentary items from another. We take turns getting tea and what not from the samovares and generally speaking we have yet to try and kill each other.

However, my grand plans of reading for 20 hours were foiled (happily) by the presense of two Australians we found during our walk through the train. We invited them into our cabin and we began playing cards, eating, drinking a few beers and finally watching a couple episodes of an Australian crime drama on their laptop. Matt and Linton, great guys. Salt of the earth Ed would say. But then again, he said that about those Russian's who turned us into incoherent, piss-drunk (as the Aussie's put it) morons. So...maybe I won't trust him when he calls people that.

It was a really pleasant journey though and those 40 hours just flew by (in a manner of speaking). We arrived in Irkutsk at a very civilized hour and then were driven out to Listvyanka by Naudia and our driver Vladamir. She's really really nice. He's awesome. All in all Ed and I have really lucked out in this town. We're really looking forward to dog sledding (or sledging as the Russian's call it) and snow mobiling tomorrow, in addition to actually doing some of that reading. Another trip to a Russian bath is in our future (this one happens to be private and attached to the hotel), and more or less we plan on having a relaxed, early night.

We're now 16 hours ahead of Seattle, 13 ahead of New York and 5 from Moscow, which apparently is the center of the known universe according to many Russians. At some point I plan on going off on a rant about the Russian culture, their use (or rather un-use) of deodorant, the insanity of their love of paper and the general issues with serving "mystery meat". But that will come tomorrow, or later tonight. I might be too mellow after the banya to get worked up properly.

I wish you all a pleasant tomorrow and I will talk to you later.


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