I arrived in Severobaikal’sk on Monday morning. At around noon we set off for the hot springs. The experience can be summed up like this: imagine that you are in your bathing suit and you have to choose between swimming in a cauldron of boiling water or standing in the 10 degree F air. Eventually, you choose the boiling water and stay in as long as you can stand it, about 15 minutes. Then you jump out and run into the snow. Pause to consume picnic lunch. Rinse and repeat.
After this rather jolting experience I decided I needed to get to this darn lake already. So I walked out, thinking I could just mosey onto the ice, look around, and come back. But the thing is, the ice near the shore is really jagged. Apparently, this is due to the frequent temperature changes near shore, where the ice expands and contracts causing plates of ice to smash into each other. So I started walking, but I really wound up crawling over these heaps of ice slabs. It was really disconcerting because they moved slightly with each movement of my own. Plus, the ice makes this hollow groaning sound when you step on it. I can imagine this is what it must have been like for the astronauts on the moon; walking on a surface that you know is safe but still completely unfamiliar.
I walked into the center of town for a look-see. Maybe it was the overcast day, or my exhaustion, or the fact that I knocked the wind out of myself with a nasty slide on some steps, but I thought Severobaikal’sk was ugly.
In the morning we set off for our trip across the ice.
There had been a heavy snowfall recently, so we wanted to follow in someone else’s tracks. Not only does that make it easier to get through the deep snow, it also saves you from having to expend energy figuring out the best way to go; if someone’s already been there, you know it’s ok. The ice is about 75 centimeters thick, so there’s no danger of it just collapsing. But what can be dangerous is attempting to drive over boulder-sized chunks of ice.
We were in a big SUV with four-wheel drive, thank goodness, because we needed it. Here’s me and the SUV and my guide, Alexander, and the SUV
Now, apparently as the temperature changes, the ice expands and contracts causing it to crack. These cracks don’t really go down all the way to the water, but enough pressure on the lip of the crack can pry it open into a hole. So you drive around the cracks.
But sometimes you can’t drive around the cracks; that’s when you JUMP the cracks by gunning the car’s engine and zooming headfirst right over the crack. The first time we did that I forced myself to keep my eyes open because I thought, “Well, if I die, I sure want to see this first.” And it turned out to be no big deal. Alexander said it’s just a regular feature of driving on the ice. After a while I even let myself close my eyes each time just to make it a more pleasant experience.
In some places where the ice is buckled up, it is blue. I have not yet received an adequate explanation of why this is. Alexander said it was because the water was so pure. Ok, fine, but wouldn’t it be absolutely clear, then? Like the ice slabs I saw on my first day? I need a physicist to explain this to me.
The weather was clear and we made pretty good time. Having set off at 9am, we got into the village of Davsha at around 2pm. Personally, I think even calling Davsha a village is pushing it. Only seven people live there. One of those seven people is Yuri, who I failed to adequately photograph. You’ll see half of him in some of the photos below. We stayed with Yuri in his house, the same house in which he grew up with his parents. He lives there alone.
Davsha may only have a population of seven, but it has a museum! Yuri took me there and explained all about the various flora and fauna of the region. By this point I had really reached the edge of my Russian ability. The tour as I experienced it was something along the lines of “This is a [brown furry animal with long legs and arched back]. See how it [word word word]. It eats [word word] and mates [word word word] and there was this one funny time when [word word word word].”
Davsha is the seat of the Barguzin nature preserve, which was established during czarist times to protect the Barguzin sable, which had been severely over-hunted. This is a map of the nature preserve. The project achieved its goals in that the sable was successfully repopulated and are now found in a much wider area (off the edge of the map, even).
There were sable romping all around Yuri’s house:
Yuri’s parents lived and worked on the nature preserve and are among the people in this photo in the museum.
One word I was familiar with is the nerpa. It’s a special kind of seal found only in Lake Baikal. It’s a mystery how a sea creature, usually found in saltwater, wound up in a freshwater lake. This is me and a taxidermied nerpa:
One thing I was curious about before I left was how the nerpa breathe during the winter, when the ice is frozen solid. Apparently, what they do is to pick a spot near a rocky shore and, when the ice starts forming, they use their claws to break through and just keep doing that all winter so that they have a little breathing hole. They can also hold their breath for us to 50 minutes.
After the museum, we returned to the house and then drove out on the ice again to two fishing holes. Alexander gave me a fishing pole and showed me how to move it around so the fish would be attracted. “Fishing pole” is a little overstated, though. It was a stick with fishing line tied around it. Then farther down on the line there was a weight and then farther down still was a piece of bait that they had threaded onto the line. No hooks.
I couldn’t see into the hole, really, it was so dark. But I just kept moving the stick around like they said and, sure enough, soon I had a bite. I had trouble pulling it out of the water because the fishing line was so long and I’m so short, but with Yuri’s help I got the fish out of the water. Then we tried to photograph me holding the fish, but it was just flopping around too much. At the same time, a massive snowstorm kicked up. So by the time the fish was good and truly dead it was coated in snow.
On to the other fishing hole with my stick. After about 10 minutes I got another bite and this time is was a really big fish, about a kilogram. We got it out of the water and Alexander insisted on getting a photo this time. So he had me take my mitten off and grab the fish with my bare hand. But the fish is wet and slippery and flopping all over the place. I kept dropping it and picking it back up and it kept spraying me with cold fishy flop water. Alexander came over and put my fingers in the fish’s gills to hold it up—so in this photo I’ve got my fingers in the fish’s gills while it’s still alive and flopping around. Plus, I’m covered in ice-cold fish water that is quickly freezing in the snowstorm.
We got back to Yuri’s house and it’s not at all warm. It is cold. While we were out fishing the fire had gone out and Yuri’s first order of business had been to go stoke the fire in the banya (wet sauna), not the one in the house. Ever since the floppy fish incident I had been looking forward to the banya so I could both warm up and perhaps smell a little better. I asked Alexander if people usually wore bathing suits in his banya and he said that it didn’t matter. I didn’t want to wear my bathing suit because it’s a full suit, with a really high back and I wasn’t sure how all that synthetic material would react to the intense heat of the banya. And since Alexander said anything goes, I figured, well, everyone’s going to be naked, that’s what you do in the banya.
But I get in the banya and I am the only one naked. Alexander is wearing swimming trunks. At this point it’s too late to go change (I’d have to trudge through the snow), so I just try to act like I’m perfectly comfortable with all this because I am desperate to be warm. Then Alexander gets out the birch branch and starts beating me with it. This is the usual practice in the Russian banya, the leaves are supposed to stimulate circulation, but it is still damn strange to be the only naked person in the room being beaten by birch branch.
Then we ran outside into the snow. Yes, we did.
Then we went back in the banya and went through the whole procedure again. But even though I was really enjoying the heat and the birch smell and all that, I cut my banya short. A bikini would have saved the day.
After the banya we ate dinner (fish, naturally), drink a bottle of vodka, and then Yuri pulls out his accordion. Even though he’s supposedly married, I think it’s been a bit of a long time since he’s seen another female human. So he serenaded me for quite a while with the accordion, telling me my eyes are as blue as the Baikal, etc. But by that point I didn’t even care enough to be uncomfortable. I just listened politely and then went to bed.
But before I could go to bed I had to go to the outhouse. What would have been a pleasant stroll in the summer was an obstacle course in the winter, with waist-deep snow on all sides of the path. The path itself was covered in knee-deep snow, a result of the recent snowstorm and the fact that I seemed to be the only one using the outhouse. So I trudged for about five minutes to get there. And it’s not one of those new-fangled outhouses with a seat, it’s an old-style one with just a hole in the ground and a place to put your feet. Since I’m uncoordinated at best when I’m sober, the vodka-flashlight-winter coat-valenki combination made the trip…unpleasant.
Because of the snow storm, in the morning we waited until we got word by radio that there were other cars out on the ice. This way we could caravan along with them. So we didn’t set off for Ust Barguzin until about 2pm.
Morning in Davsha:
What little electricity Davsha has comes from these solar panels:
The snow was very deep on the ice and we even got stuck once. A truck in front of us stopped and pulled us out with the help of a rope. I was like, really? A rope? Is going to pull this multi-ton vehicle out of the snow? But it did. I tried to stealthily take a photo of the truck guy because he’s wearing a hat bigger than his whole head and a suit, for some reason. He had on these shades and was smoking a cigarette—he needs to be the bad guy character in some Siberian thriller.
Driving for hours on end in with the sun beating down on ice and snow is a bit like watching an Ingmar Bergman film. Lots of silence, slow movement, breathtaking visuals yet exhausted boredom at times.
The ice was definitely more populated this second day. We passed fishing yurts and huts that were clearly built for long-term use during the winter.
We arrived in Ust Barguzin to INDOOR PLUMBING. I took a shower and used the facilities in bliss. We ate dinner and I don’t really remember much else because I was so tired.
This morning we set off from Ust Barguzin to Ulan Ude. The drive took us about four hours and was quite pleasant. We stopped for belyashi (fried meat pies) and tea and I considered going to the bathroom. But this outhouse was also of the hole-in-the-floor variety and I couldn’t even find the hole. So I convinced myself I really didn’t have to go.
Now I’m in Ulan Ude, in the home of a lovely woman named Olga who is washing my fishy jeans and other clothes. When mittened, I had become overly attractive to cats. I couldn’t be happier. I’m a city girl, really.