Russia, September 13, 1999
Don't be fooled, Irkutsk isn't all that, but the fish from Lake Bikal are!
|As you might know by now, I fancy myself a traveler. Or at
least I did until I met two couples the day I was leaving Novosibirsk.
Each was on a trip around the world and on their way home via Russia.
The first couple was a Japanese duo who had started from Tokyo two years ago and was cycling to all the corners of the globe. They'd been to the most northern point in North America, the most Southern in South America, the most Western point in Europe, the most Southern in Afrika, and were headed to the most Eastern in Russia.
Shigeru and his girlfriend, Naoko, retold fun tales of Central Asian and Afrikan responses to two Japanese on motorcycles in their curios, very Japanese, style of English. I was in awe of their spunk, especially in traveling solely by bike and ship, and in their desire to go to the farthest point in each continent. They were good, but not as amazing as the other cycling couple.
When I wandered by a room in the hotel, and Shigeru was taking notes on the best roads around Chita, Siberia, I had to stop and see who else would be crazy enough to drive across Russia. There, giving directions, was Keith and his wife, Tania, who are completing a sixteen (yes, 16!) year odyssey around the globe.
The two set out, on one motorcycle, in 1983 to see the world, and here they were, going home after wandering across the American continent twice, Europe, Afrika, and Southern Asia. I was just in shock that any other couples would attempt what my parents did two decades before. My folks took fifteen years to cross this big blue ball we live on, by taking it slow with many diversions (yours truly being one of 'em), but they didn't limit themselves to one bike either.
Ok, to be fair, neither did Keith and Tania. For four years, they lived on a sailboat in the Caribbean Sea, wandering from island to island as they felt. Only question I had was why they left that little oasis in this world, but boredom comes quickly, even in paradise, to travelers. So that is why, after al that time, they were headed back to merry old England, via Novosibirsk.
I wish both couple the best of luck. And even though Keith financed their way by selling photos to magazines (not a bad idea!), I do wish that all four write down what happened so that future Wayans, Naokos, and maybe even Keiths, will be inspired to walk out the front door for the great unknown beyond the bend in the road.
After a second week in Novosibirsk (I told you I liked it!), I was time for me to finally leave Central Siberia and head east to Irkutsk. I would like to tell you that what the city looked like on a bright, sunny day, but it rained the entire time I was there. As Yuri told me, Irkutsk has four months of cold weather and eight months of f--king cold weather.
The second cold day I was there, with my spirits low from the smell of winter in the air, I went south to the source of the chill, Lake Bikal. Now, every Russia, after they calm down from describing how amazing Yalta is, will then tell you that Lake Bikal is the second most (or maybe the most) beautiful place in Russia. With this hype, and with Yalta's memory fresh in my mind, I went to the lake expecting a transcending experience (Yes, all those missionaries were warping my brain!).
The bus experience there should have warned me for what was in store. First, I looked for the hydrofoil to the lake, but when none of the Russians seemed to know where it was, I gave up and went to the central bus station. When, after an hour wait for the bus, it finally showed up, I was happy to get out of the cold. Not for long though. Half way into our hour trip, the bus pulled over. I jumped out to discharge the Baltika I drank waiting for the bus, and went I was about to ask the driver to wait for me, I saw there was no need.
In the back of the bus, the motor was billowing out dark black smoke as the remnants of a fan belt melted to the engine. After an hour, and six to eight Russian men's opinion, the bus started again, and we were on our way. Although the bus driver got out at one stop and chatted with friends for a while, he drove as if we were actually late for the last boat to salvation. Around each corner, he twisted the bus like the Ferrari he wished it were. If I wasn't so used to the crazy taxi drivers of Moscow, I think I would've been like the lady next to me, and leaving finger grooves in the handrests.
As it was, we arrived safe in sound, in a village perched on the edge of an abyss. A ledge hanging on the edge of a mountain diving into the lake. If I were a Russian who'd never left the country, I'd agree that it was the most spectacular sight I'd ever seen. Nevertheless, compared to the beaches of Costa Rica, or the valley lakes of the Rocky Mountains, I was not impressed. I guess the dark clouds and howling cold wind did not help the impression.
What I was impressed with, and what I would say a 5,000-km train trip from Moscow would be worth, is the freshly smoked fish sold right at the bus stop. Damn! It was the best fish I've eaten outside my mom's kitchen. So succulent, so tasty, so amazing, it literally melted in my mouth. I was one happy camper, eating the hot fish, perched on the lake's edge, watching the cow next to me drink straight from the lake as I toasted her with my Baltika.
After I sucked down two fish within a few minutes, I went and told the ladies I bought it from, how amazingly tasty it was. When they learned that I'd eaten many different fish, in many different places, they were so honored, or so Russian, that they gave me three fish free. With my gift, and a new beer, I headed down to the Lake Bikal Museum.
If, for some random reason, you find yourself on the shores of Lake Bikal, do the world a favor and do not go to the museum. Yes, you will learn a lot about the lake; the geography, the flora and fauna, the history, and all that jazz. You will also be supporting the continued imprisonment, and it was truly a prison, for two of the endangered Lake Bikal Seals.
Thousands of miles form the nearest ocean; the seals migrated here an ice age or two ago, and now form a separate species, endangered by man's occupation of the lakeshore. When I saw the two sleek, inquisitive, and intelligent seals confined to a small metal tub in a back room of the museum, all the nightmares of incarceration welled up in me and I cried. I cried for a long time, and even thought of slipping them in my backpack, there was no one around, and sprinting for the shore, before the practicalities overwhelmed me. So I did what I could, I bitched out the museum's curator, and warn you not to be privy to this injustice.
It was fitting that after my seal experience I would leave Irkutsk. The whole city felt tainted by those two sad-eyed seals, and I was good to go. Today found me in Ulan Ude, the last stop in my Russian odyssey. I will be leaving Wednesday morning for Ulan Bantor, and a whole new world that awaits. Until then, the most original Lenin statue I've seen in this massive and mysterious land will haunt me: The floating Lenin head of Ulan Ude.
Be aware, the Lenin Head moves!