I’ve had a wonderful few days. I’ve met some wonderful people, seen some wonderful sights, eaten some wonderful food that was both dairy and meat free.
I’m back in the hostel in the regional capital of Irkutsk (capital to a region of Siberia the size of France) after two nights spent on the island of Olkhon which lies just off the Western coast of the amazing Lake Baikal. It’s been a relaxing day despite an early start – I had to be up at 6.30am to catch the mini-bus off the island – this time it was not driven by a drunken maniac, and interesting conversations about the dangers of driving into cows were had courtesy of four lovely folks from Lancaster and Bristol, both English cities with which I have a connection. By lunch we were back in the city, and I have been content to sit in the kitchen chatting with Marc from Darlington (Lonely Planet / Thomas Cook / Bradt guidebook writer), Gemma from Sheffield (the 2nd Sheffieldodian I’ve met this week, the first being a member of the Discovery Channel film crew also staying at Nikita on the island), Tom from Kent (been teaching English in China for a year and now heading back to London to become a lawyer), Michael from Berlin (where I will spend the day next week) and the two Ozzie’s whose names I forget, but who are travelling from Perth to Northern Ireland to start new lives in the rain. All the while, the lovely Julia (Yulia) has been running around looking after us, keeping us supplied with tea and telling the noisy folks to keep the noise down so some of us can write…!
I was content to not explore the city further, although I know my brief tour has not really done the place justice. I managed the market and the old wooden houses, before becoming distracted by everyone playing in the new fountains in front of the sports stadium. I tell you, this image of Siberia being some cold wasteland is way off the mark – it’s been shorts and T-weather ever since I got here, and without the oppressive humidity of Japan or China.
In previous posts I’ve quoted a few statistics about this forever-deepening 636km long banana-shaped crack in the Earth’s crust that will eventually split Asia in two, but you know, statistics don’t really sum it up. It’s much more than a body of water that accounts for 20% of the World’s fresh unfrozen water, it’s much more than an ancient giant home to the only known freshwater seals, and thousands of species of flora and fauna, 80% of which are not found anywhere else on the planet. It’s a lake of staggering purity, staggering blueness, and sea-like qualities such as being somewhat on the big side, and sporting waves crashing upon sandy shorelines. Seeing cows lined up drinking its waters does confuse the mind somewhat.
It also acts as the backdrop to Nikita, a remarkable guesthouse type setup run by a local chap who made it his goal to bring more people to the island of Olkhon to support the local economy. He has succeeded, big style. On the nights that I was there, there must have been at least another 30 guests from all corners of the globe. In addition to the Discovery Channel crew (really nice people, and very inspiring – watch out for “Atlas Russia” to be broadcast next February) there was a very friendly German family on their way home from Beijing who complained far less than most Germans I’ve met on this trip – such as the 50-year-old Helmut who, for as long as he can remember, has dreamed of taking the trans-siberian, but is deeply unhappy as there is not enough room for his luggage to be stowed properly on the train. Also staying there were a Scottish couple who had only intended to make it a brief visit, but a week later were still unable to leave, there was the professional photographer from Poland who was loving the chance to capture such beauty on film (has a better ring to it that ‘memory card’), and there was a whole bunch of staff who were the friendliest people you could ever hope to meet.
One of the highlights for poor-me-eating-supermarket-bread-and-cheese-everday was the food – absolutely delicious – and they had a vegetarian option! You can’t imagine how happy this made me, even more so as I had no idea that this was an option until I arrived in the dining room for supper. Free (English) Tea on tap too, and some yummy cakes for dessert. I was in heaven.
They don’t sell alcohol at Nikita which makes for a very peaceful, relaxed environment. Those who do wish to sit back with a beer can wander down the widest dirt track in the village (it also happens to be the main road) to the little store that sells everything from Mars bars to engine parts, toilet rolls to carpets. After watching the sun set we did just this, before returning to the hostel to spend a happy evening admiring our new exhaust pipes whilst chatting with the film crew – I was particularly interested in talking to their translator, a graduate of Nottingham Uni’s Russian department. I’m always intrigued to learn how these linguists get from language course to job-I-would-love-to-have. Of course there’s no secret; it’s just a case of being determined, and being a swot in the classroom!
There was much laughter that night. They told us tales of the many places their work had taken them, including the Irkutsk Eye Hospital which apparently doubles as an upper-class guesthouse, visitors being accommodated in the disused offices on the top floor.
“But you know, no matter how many times in the night we pressed the button by the bed that read “call for nurse”, she never showed up…!”
When it came to time to retire, I happily strolled across the courtyard lit by a million stars, contentedly feeling that I really had made the right decision to not travel by plane. Up there at 55,000ft I would have missed all of this – Siberia would just have been that pretty big landscape that took hours to pass over, not the place it is, that being a land full of beauty, excitement, peace and friendship.