Foreword: Siberia is vast, dotted with people and connected with a seemingly insignificant network of roads and trains, and containing the world’s largest unharvested stock of evergreens- the Taiga forest. Lake Baikal, at the heart of the Russia and strategically on the Trans-Siberian Train route, is fittingly sized. For the indigenous and Buryat people that have lived there since the beginning of time, Baikal was a mighty protector, a lake that arose from a never-ending fire, teeming with wildlife and sheltering people from hungry winters and summers that were late in coming. For the Russian Tzarstvo at the beginning of the 20th century, Baikal was a key trading and military connection, linking the railroads from east to west. For the Russian scientists working at a nondescript field station on the banks, the ancient crystal clear water acts as a magnifier, enabling them to use a state-of-the-art telescope which is submerged on the lake floor. Despite changes in regional government, over-exploitation of wildlife, degradation of shores for summer tourist getaways, and encroaching climate changes, the magnitude of a lake that holds 20% of the earth’s unfrozen fresh water is earth shatteringly calm.
There is an old story about Lake Baikal and his daughters: Lake Baikal had many daughters, all of whom were bright and beautiful like stars in the velvet darkness of night. All of his daughters were loving, and in loving their father, chose to stay with him- those are the hundreds of rivers and streams flowing into the lake. But Lake Baikal had a daughter who was more beautiful that the rest, and she chose to marry and leave- that is the Angara river, which flows north out of the lake towards the city of Irkutsk. We followed the Angara back as well, when we took a bus back to Irkutsk after our three-day trip, leaving Baikal seemingly forever, and feeling kinship with the beautiful daughter Angara who loved the lake but still left.
We had wound up on this trip by a series of fortunate events- fellow travelers referred us to newly acquired friends, and we were invited on a three-day backpacking trip along the south west coast of Lake Baikal with absolute strangers. In the end, we were seven- myself, my friend Julie who spoke only English and German, three young Russian college students, two Poles who spoke nothing but Polish but had a friendly dog, and an ex-military German survivalist who was raised in Uzbekistan but spoke Russian. I imagine what we must have looked like to anyone who saw us all together- especially at mealtimes, when we stopped hiking for hours and the Poles opened whole cans of sweetened condensed milk and the dog panted expectantly.
We spent the days walking and exploring, stopping in villages for beer and arriving late to camp. We drank water from the lake, breathlessly navigating rocky beaches by moonlight to fill bottles, tasting the earth, and the water, because that’s what our new friends did. We awoke, astonished in the mornings by the hazy horizon of the coming day and startled to find the water we had been drinking full of floating green plant matter, and made tea and brushed our teeth with it anyway.
The first morning we were out, we flew into the water naked, having shed our clothing and some sense of caution at the beach, and emerged out of the freezing water as if baptized, whooping with enlightenment. We walked forever, skirting the peninsulas and cliffs that characterize the southwest side of Baikal, and when we walked around a point, we would stand and see the next three jutting out ahead of us, and we were glad- glad to be walking, glad for each other, and glad to still have trail left.
The second night, we came into town ahead of the group, and sat on the front stoop of the small grocery store eating smoked fish with childish joy. As the musty night descended onto the town, onto the toothless storekeeper’s son eating potatoes and fried fish by lamplight in the store, onto the little black cats who came creeping up to us begging for fish, onto the tourists in their B&Bs and grandfathers walking together, we sat together and ate, licking smoky fish and sweat from our fingers.
The sloping hills of the first day yielded gradually to rockier cliffs, precipitous drops, and surprised us with a mountain goat’s view of the coast. Little succulents clustered into the dry soil, fields of wild flowers traced our path, and far away on a hillside a mare and her new foal watched us. On the second day, we walked through crisp pine forests, the heat of the forest floor and the cold wind from the lake playing tantalizingly on our skin. With the red trunks and piercing blue water as my backdrop I let my inhibitions drop, settled into my backpack, stretched my legs, and left the rest of the group far behind.
I was in love with the blue water, the cold air, the scrubby slopes, and the new found feeling of walking all day. When we left for the city the following day, warming our aching muscles in the morning sun as we walked to the bus stop, both Julie and I were wishing that we were walking back onto the trail. And as the bus wound its way along the Angara, away from Baikal, I couldn’t help but feel that unlike the Angara, I would eventually come back.
March 8, 2017