Monthly Archives: January 2015

On the bus to Lake Baikal and Olkhon Island

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.Not smile!

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.contrasts-of-lake-baikal-part-2-life-in-villages-of-transbaikalia-31

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.Olkhon

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.

Khouzhir's Main Street

Khouzhir’s Main Street

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.

Anna Osipova's  Zhemchuzhina Olkhona

Anna Osipova’s Zhemchuzhina Olkhona

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!

Chrysanthemum

Chrysanthemum

Siberian Dahlia

Siberian Dahlia

Anna's Vegetable Garden

Anna’s Vegetable Garden

There is also an unfortunate plaster menagerie of garden dwarves, hedhehogs, frogs, ladybugs, etc. You see the picture.

Anna's Garden Dwarves

Anna’s Garden Dwarves

 

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.

Sunset on Lake Baikal

Sunset on Lake Baikal

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Irkutsk: the “Paris” of Siberia

Early morning in Irkutsk is delightfully quiet and almost Mediterranean in feeling, with its leafy streets and sleepy wooden cottages.Irkutsk1 I’m on my way to the bus station, dragging my suitcase on bumpy streets. At least, yesterday’s muddy puddles have dried during the night.
Since we crossed the Yenisei, we are in Oriental Siberia, what used to be known as the Wild East and, for good reason, as it somehow once paralleled the Wild West with new gold fortunes, crime, gambling, prostitution, lawlessness and the Cossacks as cowboys. For a long time, the region was strictly forbidden to foreigners. There is always a slightly exhilarating feeling in reaching what was once the unreachable. There are still a few closed “cities” in Siberia, mostly dedicated I’m told to armament manufacturing.

But Irkutsk, more than 5 000 km from Moscow seems entirely open to the West, with Subways and McDonalds, and whatever American junk food likely to fatten up the still relatively slim Russians.
But that’s only a tiny part of bucolic Irkutsk with its parks, greenery, street markets and the icing-sugar facades of the Decembrists’s mansions side by side with more modest but lovely gingerbready merchant house.

The Troubetzkoy House

The Troubetzkoy House

irkutsk 2 The Decembrist aristocracy was exiled here after trying to overthrow the czar in 1825.

Decembrists' Uprising- St.-Petersburg, December 14, 1825

Decembrists’ Uprising- St.-Petersburg, December 14, 1825

When the wives joined their exiled husbands in 1827, they brought with them the customs of St.-Petersburg, to recreate here the gentility and culture of the capital. And they succeeded well enough, for Irkutsk to be considered the “Paris” of Siberia. The Revolution and its ensuing regime didn’t catch up here until the1920’s.
Here splendor and rusticity live side by side. And if there is definitely a charm to the aristocracy’s candy-colored palaces, it’s a charm that pales in comparison to the mostly decrepit masterpieces of wooden lace and scalloped friezes of the peasant princes’ homes. As Irkutsk was once a rich merchant town on the road of the silk and tea caravans, a city of parvenus who thought nothing of having their clothes laundered in London, even though they’d lose track of them for one year. One peasant, made rich with gold, was said to have slept under his bed, finding the bed he’d bought too beautiful to sleep in.

Most of the wooden house burned down in a 1879 in a fire that destroyed three-quarters of the city. Some of the old houses are abandoned with filthy or broken windows, their exquisite wooden lacework gone to seed or rot. Some appear to have sunk in the ground, their lower windowsill level with the sidewalk, or what passes for sidewalks: wooden boards in some places, broken up pavement with scattered muddy puddles from yesterday’s rain.

Sunken House

Sunken House

A few houses have been refurbished. No broken, dirty windows here; little lace curtains, rows of potted plants and the occasional cat licking its paw.
The so-called historical center has been renovated, but they did a terrible job and ended up turning it into some tacky village, half-Disney, half-Mont-Tremblant village. Fake, fake, fake, with American music blaring from every café-bar.
I strolled through an open-air market where, among the usual vegetables and flowers, endless stalls of strawberries, wild and cultivated, were offered. They were bigger and redder than anything I’ve ever seen. Could they possibly be from China? Next to them, basketfuls of kitten and puppies were also for sale.

Market- Irkutsk

Market- Irkutsk

Unlike other Siberian towns, this one has an atmosphere of genteel chaos. After all, we are theoretically in Asia.

From my hotel room window, I have a plunging view into one of the old, rundown wooden houses. For a moment, I feel like a voyeur. The backyard is bare of any greenery but full of old furniture, appliances, broken toys, a potty, a cage with budgies and something that looks like a brick barbecue, but could be anything else. A man was pouring water from a jerry can into various basins. I assumed the house had no running water. The family, or families, seem to be Asian (Buryat probably). I haven’t been able to count the children. They appear and disappear and infant, a toddler, a little girl, a younger man, an older man, a young woman, a teenage girl. Very confusing. I pulled the curtain shut.

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