Walking a fish along Lake Baikal

Dec. 4 – Irkutsk

Lake Baikal is a 600km long, crescent shaped gouge a mile deep. It is 30 million years old, has more water than all the Great Lakes combined (20 per cent of the world’s fresh water). It has about a thousand unique species. I simply had to see it.

Lake Baikal and mountains from the train, through grimy windows.

I had first glimpsed the lake as the train approached Irkutsk, tracks running along its shore. We had a grand view of its dark blue waters, steam rising into the cold air. That day, I was in an impressionable mood. To me, the lake wasn’t merely deep, but profoundly wise. “Gather round”, its calm surface seemed to say, “I have many tales to tell.”

The minibus took about seventy minutes to cover the 60 kilometres to the village of Listyanka. The bus was full, a dozen of us crammed in, all furs, leathers, woolens. We had to scratch the frost off the windows to see trees and snow as we bounced along the road. Once arrived, I immediately bought my return ticket. Two hours lakeside would be enough. It was noon and sunny, but also -15C, and I still had to arrange my Novosibirsk rail ticket for tomorrow. If I missed that next bus, I’d have to wait a further two hours. Travel doesn’t free you from timetables.

Listyanka is a small collection of waterfront hotels, cottages, abandoned/unfinished buildings and camping spots on the edge of the lake. It is not particularly pretty, as if it knows people come there for nature, not civilization.

Polar bear? Not a chance!

As I walked along the pebbly shore, a couple of stray dogs trotted at my heels, hoping for scraps. The light wind sent gentle waves towards the frozen pebbly beach, steam rising in the middle distance. I saw perhaps two-dozen tourists, bundled up, taking pictures. A group of young men videoed each other stepping barefoot into the water, laughing painfully. My beard was frosting over again. Even handling a camera with bare hands was unmanageable after a minute. And the locals say it’s one of the warmest winters in Baikal in a long time. Usually, the lake is frozen over by now.

Despite the lack of tourist traffic, there were many vendors, selling the usual array of trinkets and tee shirts. I only wanted one thing; a smoked Omul for lunch. The Omul is a troutlike fish found in Lake Baikal, which the locals sell from roadside stands. I approached one of these booths, paid about one dollar for a freshly-smoked fish, and headed down the road. I eyed my meal.

Pleased to eat you. Making friends with my Omul.

Warm, plump, banana-sized, with head and tail still attached, his smoked fish eyes stared back at me. I briefly considered giving him a name, but then realized I should get eating before he got completely cold. Thus began a memorable culinary experience. I had no fork, no knife, no plate, no table, no shelter from the elements. Fish in one gloved hand, other ungloved hand picking away at the flesh under the skin, I walked along the shore. My fingers stinging from the cold, I pulled white meat away from the bones easily, first one side, then the other. The smoky, sweet-salty flavor was fantastic. Seasoned with frostbite, it’s a meal I’ll never forget.

A kindly retired Swiss teacher, now married to a Russian and living in Irkutsk, helped me get my ticket to Novosibirsk. We had met briefly when I arrived, as he and his wife are friends of the lady at whose place I am staying. He invited me back to their flat for tea and some meat stew. In German and Russian, we discussed my trip, life in Irkutsk, today’s Russian election. As if the Omul wasn’t enough, I was even fed homemade strawberry cheesecake.

I’m off to Novosibirsk tomorrow (1500m, like Toronto-Winnipeg). That means one sleep on the train and arriving on Tuesday afternoon. Tomorrow, a post on the railway dining experience.

On foot in Irkutsk

"Rustic charm' or 'seen better days?"

Dec. 3 – Irkutsk

At the Mongolia-Russia border, at midnight, the Russians used a German Shepherd to search the train, after the Mongolian Cocker Spaniel had sniffed around. Neither found anything of interest in my compartment, but I still watched the dogs with some apprehension. Earlier, a Mongolian woman had tried to convince me to hide some goods to help her avoid paying duty on them. I refused, earning a rude gesture suggesting I was dismally underendowed. Later I checked my entire compartment to make sure there was nothing stashed away that could be pinned on me.

"Inside the kitchen at my home stay"

In the morning, the train skirted Lake Baikal for a couple of hours. We approached Irkutsk to gentle flurries, much to the delight of the Australian passenger, who had never seen snow fall.Walking from the station, I got to my homestay easily. I have a cheap, comfortable room in the cozy wood-paneled home of a German-speaking woman.

Last night and today I walked around Irkutsk. It’s not a small place, but after two weeks in China’s megacities, it felt quaint, human-scaled, easy to negotiate. There are many old wooden buildings. One could say they have a rustic charm, which is a polite way of saying something used to look better. But after the imposing, never ending concrete phalanx of apartments in China, these distressed houses, with their crooked frames and cracked paint, were a small comfort.

My first dinner in Russia was at a sushi place on Ulitsa Karla Marksa. Service was slow, but I had no reason to hurry. It was the sort of mellow, mood-lit place that plays acoustic, soulful covers of U2’s “With or without you”. The guy at the table next to me tried to figure out chopsticks. Another pulled out an iPad. Three young women drank tea and smoked. I had a hearty fish soup, and seafood mixed with rice. The waitress (the designated English-speaker) asked me:

“What do you think about Irkutsk?”

“I don’t know yet. I’ve only been here two hours. The meal was nice.”

“It is very cold now.”

“Yes, but I am from Canada.”

That was a lame response. I’ve been living in Vancouver, which has made me soft. It was -15 C that night. Those low temperatures have held, so my Siberian rambling on foot requires a different approach. It means dressing up to spend the entire day outside – boots, heavy socks, longjohns, fleece-lined trousers, five layers up top including overcoat, wool/Gore-tex cap, gloves. It also means marching at commuter speed on the icy, lumpy sidewalks rather than ambling along. My face remains exposed. The bristles of my beard keep freezing, and the metal of my glasses stings the bridge of my nose. Yes, I chose this experience. Siberia is not famous for its summers.

Today is Saturday, so Irkutsk was shopping. At outdoor bazaars, all sorts of cheap goods were on offer including the usual plastic Christmas kitsch. From loudspeakers, the cold air carried the voices of famous crooners. First Elvis’ “My Way”, then, perhaps an indication of Russian humour; Ella Fitzgerald’s smooth “I love Paris in the springtime”. At the large indoor market shoppers got their groceries. Fruits and vegetables (imported and expensive), salads, pickles, cheeses. Heaps of frozen, surprised-looking fish. Behind large refrigerated displays of red animal flesh a butcher looked on, hands and forearms flecked with blood.

I misread the bus schedule to Lake Baikal (actually, the truth is I forgot to adjust my watch to account for the time zone change), and will go tomorrow. This means an extra day in Irkutsk, which I do not regret at all.

Thank you for your Siberian Idol votes. The final tally, with all polls reporting, was:

Novosibirsk: 9

Omsk: 6

Krasnoyarsk: 2