It will be a long six hours and a tight fit to Lake Baikal. Not much leg space and a large babushka, faintly smelling of…borscht sat by me, rather too close for comfort and spilling all over me with her doughy bare arms. I said “Dobre utre”, but she gave me a funny look. What does that foreign woman with her clown glasses want from me? This is not Guatemala: saying hello to strangers immediately puts you in the category of the suspicious weirdos who might want to take something away from you. Later, when I met Juan from Argentina, we started a nice chat from my front seat to his back seat but the same fat lady complained that I was screaming in her ear. I tried to find the word for “unpleasant” or “disagreeable” in my little phrase book but I guess they haven’t thought that the average traveler might eventually need anything but niceties to say. When she asked me to close the window, I just said NYET! Nyet, nyet, nyet she muttered. After lunch, she decided to make peace, flashing a big smile full of gold teeth and saying that she didn’t understand a single word of what we were saying. Well, you don’t say! Is that so? She’s spreading out my way more and more and producing more and more heat. Fat chance I’ll close that window. She eventually got off, carrying away at least half a dozen bags, tucked away under and in between seats, and seemingly hidden all over the bus.
Everybody seems to be traveling that way, with multiple bags. I wonder how they manage to keep count.
There is something cartoonish and unreal about the scenery: an endless expanse of shallow rolling hills , blue sky and puffs of clouds that could have been drawn as a background to a Disney version of a Russian fairy tale. A few scattered trees, a rare fence, rarer log cabins and happy cows with their calves, stocking up on fresh grass for the long Siberian winter. Horses sometimes and more hills covered this time with evergreen.
Waiting for the ferry to Olkhon Island, I look at souvenir stands: masks, dolls, leather embossed with cryptograms, dream-catchers. It all looks exactly like Inuit arts and crafts. We’re not so far after all. Once off the ferry, it’s thirty-some more kilometers to get to the village of Khouzhir where I am to stay. Between the little harbour and Khouzhir, the sacred island of the Buryat, considered one of the world’s five poles of shamanic energy, is starkly austere. It doesn’t resemble anything familiar. I’m thinking Ireland with all its green subdued; Patagonia; Iceland without the volcanoes, but I haven’t been to any of these places. The road follows the lake across which rocky cliffs rise, like a monochromatic cubist painting, in alternate geometric patterns of grey and limestone white. Everywhere else it’s discolored grassland, no trees until pine-covered hills become visible on the horizon.
Khouzhir is your typical Siberian villages with wooden houses scattered about, as far away from each other as possible and just close enough to still be called a village. No paved streets or sidewalks, wide dusty lanes, a small supermarket and an overflowing garbage container with a cow busy rooting around, keeping the seagulls at bay.
But, within Anna Osipova’s Zhemchuzhina (that word must mean oasis, I’ll have to check), it’s another story. First, she might look like a rough kind, but it’s just the voice and the frown. She really is the benevolent mother superior of her little domain. The wooden isbas that she rents are homey, built of logs with something that looks like reindeer moss between them, and buried in bushes and flowers.
She is quite the gardener with boxes everywhere, full of tangled dahlias, pansies, poppies, geraniums and fragrant lilies. In the back, a greenhouse with at least five varieties of tomatoes ripening on the vines and a vegetable garden that puts mine to shame. Imagine a Siberian garden putting a Guatemalan one to shame!
There is also an unfortunate plaster menagerie of garden dwarves, hedhehogs, frogs, ladybugs, etc. You see the picture.
A real dog compensates for the kitsch animals: she is Gina, a placid mop of a Pekingese who likes to have her belly scratched and yelps to get scraps from the dinner table. Anna serves sturdy Siberian food: cabbage soup and beef stew with noodles, sauerkraut (!) or rice porridge for breakfast (not a favorite of mine) or a single chicken wing with mounds of mashed potato. After dinner, the lake is barely visible, except for the lingering light of the late sunset as it is melting into it in pallid watercolors. The lake itself is on the program for the next two days.