September 2013

On arrival at Irkutsk airport at 5am on the morning of Sunday August 25 the guide we had hired was missing and refused to reply to phone or text, though she had the previous day confirmed that she would meet our plane. After a perplexing wait of an hour or so Anna, on whom Claudia, Jim & I relied implicitly (since being the only Russian speaker among us, and the only one who had been to Baikal before), took charge and hired a taxi to take us to the Olkhon Island ferry terminal, a five-hour drive. The next day being a Monday the travel agency that had arranged the guide reopened, and after Anna gave them a talking-to they sent another guide, Nadia, to us posthaste. Nadia’s grandfather had been born on Olkhon Island, so clearly we were meant to have her with us. As a profession Nadia does research in a biopharmacology lab, currently examining the effects of X-rays on fluorite crystals, at a (ridiculously miniscule) salary of about $200 per month; she makes her money to live on during the remainder of the year by tour-guiding during the brief Siberian summer.

On returning from Baikal to Irkutsk we met Svetlana, manager of the travel agency, who told us that the intended guide had texted her on the morning of our pickup that she was fine but was having a family emergency, and that was the last that anyone had heard from her. This sudden, inexplicable hitch in our plans made Svetlana very worried that the Baikal spirits didn’t want us there, as similar things (and worse) had happened before to people whom the spirits didn’t care for. Svetlana was actually thinking that she might have to refund our money & tell us to return to Moscow until she got Anna’s call and discovered that we were in fact already at the lake.

There is no way to convey in words the magic that is Lake Baikal, the world’s oldest (25 to 30 million years), deepest (more than 1600 meters) lake which contains a full 20% of the world’s unfrozen surface fresh water. 20%!!! I could rave on and on about its rock formations, particularly Spirit Rock, home of the lake’s most powerful spirit; the wild thyme and the lake seals; the saunas on wheels driven up to the lakefront to permit one to run out of the heat into the chill (in most places 13 C = 56 F) of the lake water, which in most areas is pure enough to drink (and drank it thus I did, repeatedly).

We were put up in the only 4-star hotel on Olkhon Island, which provides an adequate quantum of ironical cognitive dissonance, as well as tasty food and a better than decent latte. Sour cream was applied to everything there except the carrot juice, which was dosed with heavy cream (and made surprisingly tasty thereby). Jim kept everyone so spellbound at the hotel with his card tricks that at breakfast on our last morning there the entire kitchen staff come out to demand that he entertain them. We went out on horses one day, and on bicycles another; and one morning we met a capable Buryat shaman, or more precisely, a man six years into the twenty-seven year shaman apprentice program, a mechanic by profession who had entered onto this path after his nephew had been met by a shape-shifting bear-shaman who told him that his uncle’s time to learn had come.

Still, signs of the repression of not-long-before were still visible, for example in a deserted gulag-era work site, and are still recalled, like the Great Siberian Ice March; but the miseries visited on the lake and its environs by the twentieth century still pale in comparison to those that befell the more populous parts of the country during World War II. Overall approximately 26 million Russians died in that conflict, some 12 to 15% of its then population, roughly two-thirds of these civilians. At least one million died during the nearly 2 ½ year long Siege of Leningrad, and this reality was for me immediately palpable as soon as we disembarked from the Sapsan (the new high-speed train that transits between Moscow & St. Petersburg in about 4 hours, one-third the time that it takes one to drive that distance on the abysmal roads). Wherever we toured in the city (Stroganov Palace, Blood Church, Hermitage, Nevskii Prospekt, St. Isaac’s Cathedral, and various sites related to Peter the Great) I found myself unable to shake the perception of a beneath-the-surface hyper-vigilance, as if another attack were expected at any moment.

Having grown up watching footage of grim Politburo members saluting rockets stiffly during interminable May Day parades, Moscow surprised me by offering much in addition to its often bizarre Soviet-era heritage (like the building whose two halves differ significantly from one another because Stalin mistakenly approved two sets of plans and neither set of architects dared to ask him which one he really wanted built, so they built half of each plan and stuck them together!). From the Sanduny Banya (established 1808), the premier Moscow Bath House (where you can hire men to beat out a rhythm on your body with oak or birch branches while you broil in the sauna)( ) to the Roerich Museum ( to Jagannath (Kuznetsky Most Str, 11), the city’s oldest (and still tasty) vegetarian restaurant.

One of the highlights of our Moscow stay was a visit to Kerala, an Ayurvedic clinic. Dr. Mohammedali and his team fed us well and provided excellent treatments, so excellent that Jim (who had been a body worker himself before becoming a doctor of Chinese medicine) pronounced his the best massage he had ever had, and returned the next day for another.

My last night in Moscow coincided with Anna’s birthday, and for the occasion her father Viktor (without whose immense assistance our trip would have been far more difficult, if not impossible) hosted a dinner for her at a private club made up to look just like a communal apartment from Soviet days, an establishment that happened to be just around the corner from where the family had lived as Anna was growing up. Filled with memorabilia from that era (including an ancient B & W TV set with a screen about six inches square fitted with an ingenious magnifying glass filled with water!), we ate and drank and schmoozed while Viktor and Anna’s husband Kamal toasted her.

Next to me sat the young, beautiful, painfully shy Svetlana, aged about 20, whom I slowly befriended as I watched her use her sketchpad to keep everyone else at bay. Over the mushrooms she confided to me, “Art is my salvation!” Shortly after she did a pen-and-ink caricature of me in a couple of minutes, very precise, very accurate.

What followed was quite amazing: she lifted the pepper shaker and with studied precision shook black pepper powder onto a white paper napkin to create the image of a woman’s head in extreme detail. I’ve never seen the like. All the while her beau Timur, also an artist, was recounting to me details of his recent trip to the shrine of Tsukuyomi-no-Mikoto at Japan’s Ise Grand Shrine, about how though he and his friend arrived at night when the shrine was closed a monk suddenly appeared to escort them inside, and opened the Tsukuyomi shrine to them, where he had a most powerful experience; and how this opening of the door was paralleled in his life by his meeting and then entering into a relationship with Svetlana (his first real girl friend) immediately on his return to Russia.

All in all it was quite the evening, the perfect culmination for a memorable trip to Rossiya. Bol’shoye spasibo Viktor and Anna, and everyone else who worked so hard to make our stay so outstanding! And do svidaniya!