Since we crossed the Yenisei, the taiga has morphed into tundra, gone are the forests of pine, spruce and larches to make place to dwarf shrubbery, moss, lichen and grass. The Island of Olkhon, except for some boreal forest on hillsides, is mostly beyond the tree line.
Four hundred-mile long Lake Baikal is the deepest and oldest of all inland waters in the world. It also contains one-fifth of all fresh water on the planet and equals in volume our five great lakes put together. However, being shaped as a long, narrow crescent, it never gives that oceanic feeling of other great lakes in the world as it never gets more than 80 km wide. From wherever I stood, I could always see the other side. Even though its waters are dizzyingly transparent, there are rumors of pollution from farm soil and paper plants. Others say that you can drink the water and huge filtration efforts are made to preserve the lake’s rich biological life. Anyway, cattle drink at the shoreline without apparent ill-effects, but then they also eat from the garbage without apparent ill-effects. Who knows? I prefer the last theory and it’s hard to believe that its glassy waters, as evenly blue as if a giant bottle of ink had been poured in, couldn’t be anything but pristine. Olkhon island would apparently be the summit of a mile-high mountain. That is no legend, the Lake in some places is a mile deep. On the first day, I walked to the Shaman rock, perilously climbing the unspectacular, craggy rock frittering away under my inappropriate sandals.
Small rodents, with a short fat tail scuttled away. I was told they were called souslik, not sure I can find the translation just now. Ha! A ground squirrel apparently.
On the way to the rock, I walked along a sandy beach (there are many on the island). Not many people in the frigid water, but many soaking every bit of the July sunshine. That was truly Sunburn Festival: fishbelly white bodies competing with already beet red champions that make your skin hurt for them. Haven’t they heard of skin cancer? The next day, along with a French couple, their son and a Russian family, we took a ride to Cape Khoboy. The tour was all in Russian but our guide made himself somewhat understood. Vadim was totally sympatichniy, half-Russian, half Buryat. As he said with a big smile: 50/50 strong man! At the end of the hike through the larch forest, we reached impressive Cape Khoboy. Allover, trees were dripping with the local version of prayer flags, votive ribbons offered to the spirits of the Lake, along with coins and ruble notes tucked over and under stones.
We had a picnic of fish soup, made with omoul, the famed relative of salmon that can only be found in Lake Baikal. If one believes Herodotus, the omoul screams when it’s pulled out of the water. Enough to cut your appetite, but the soup was good. Herodotus wrote fantastic stories about Siberia. How could he possibly know? From unverifiable travelers stories I suppose. We know his accounts are often whimsical to say the least. I can’t imagine Herodotus traveling to Siberia. Does anybody know? If so, let me know. I took the marshroutka back to Irkutsk. Isn’t that a pretty word. In fact, we’d call it a shuttle or minibus, but marshroutka certainly has more panache. It was a very elegant marshroutka (I like that word) with fake Louis Vuitton pearl grey velveteen upholstery and a quilted charcoal vinyl ceiling. My neighbor, once more, was on the large side or taking more space than she should have but, as I fell asleep, her shoulder suddenly seemed like a comfortable bolster and, for a brief moment, I let my head rest contentedly upon it. Izvenitye, izvenitye, I apologized. She didn’t seem to mind. She offered me a candy. On the marshroutka (again, I love it!), I met Ping and Yen (a.k.a. Candy), a movie-star attractive yuppie couple from Beijing. She, an architect trained in Norway looked like a princess from an ancient Chinese painting and he, well…looked like…a prince. They had lived in Chicago and he was now doing university research on the self-driven or automatic car project. The car of the future: you sit in, program your destination and the car gets there without your having to make the slightest effort. For now, safety seems to be the main issue. I had all sorts of projects for my return back in Irkutsk, but we got stuck in a traffic jam. Still, the driver went out of his way to drop me off at the train station. Another kindly Russian who took me under his wing, trying hard to say a few words in French. It was nice to see Lisa and Mathieu again at Irkutsk station, another French couple also met on Olkhon. They were on their honeymoon and familiar faces at the station are always reassuring. Even though I’m beginning to know the routine, I can’t deny that once inside the train, a sense of triumph wells up. No pictures of my companions this time. An older Buryat man, Slava, took a lot of place, talked to himself frequently, snored loudly. His cell phone also sang the opera. Another Buryat woman sporting a diamond as big as my thumbnail (couldn’t tell if it was real) mostly kept to herself. The other passenger was a handsome older woman with a kindly face and nice contralto voice. Her feet were somewhat smelly, but I won’t hold it against her. Slava seemed to fill the compartment with his jolly presence. At one point, he was practically sitting on the nice Russian woman’s face, with his knees on my bunk while he was loudly sipping his tea. I feel a bit sad to see Russia and Siberia already behind me. It went so very fast. I would have liked to wander freely, stop where I felt like it, explore the area but my visa won’t allow me to stray from the already established circuit. I expect China (or Kitai as they say here, closer to the old Cathay) to leave me more leash. P.S. In a soviet style supermarket where everything is out of reach and you have to point and search your dictionary, I met my first hairless crested dog. It looked vaguely like a closely-shaved poodle with hirsute head, mitts and slippers and a pink and white spotted pink and grey skin. It was a most bizarre sight. I include a picture. I guess it’s an acquired taste.