Sunday, June 11, 2006
But it’s a Wet Cold
I’m trying to resist the idea that it always rains in Russia, and only in Russia, but it’s hard. On the way from Ulan Batar, the train stopped for about 20 minutes on the Russian border. There, three hundred yards into the former Soviet Union, it began to rain. It has now rained for two days straight. It’s weather that invites brooding. It’s wet. It’s gloomy. It’s Siberia. I’m beginning to understand why Russians look so dour all the time,
Siberia itself is actually quite attractive. I’m staying in a private home in a village of 600 people on the shore of Lake Baikal. The lake, of course, is dramatic, and the mountains are beautiful. The village is cute, too, with lots of weathered wood houses, some of which are painted bright colors and decorated with fancy wooden carvings that look a little like lace. Adding to the interest factor is the fact that half of the population is Buryat. Buryats are the native inhabitants of Siberia. They are mostly assimilated now, and speak Russian and live in houses, but they’re closely related to Mongolian nomads. In fact, an American woman I met who had somehow gotten invited to a Buryat home said all the wooden pieces were numbered, just in case the family ever got the urge to disassemble the dwelling and put it back together somewhere else.
The village I’m in just got 24-hour electricity six years ago, and still doesn’t have telephone service of any kind (I am posting this from the city of Irkutsk, about 100 kilometers away). Also no running water. The house I’m staying in does have its own sauna, though, so it’s not all bad. They’ve rigged up an interesting washbasin bath/bake dry procedure for bathing that works surprisingly well.
Our host is named Galena, and she’s a very sweet, stout babushka who is determined to feed us into docility. So far we’ve been stuffed full of sausage, cheese, bread, and cake. And that’s just breakfast. Other meals have included meat dumplings on rice and hearty vegetable soup. It’s all really good, and I’m beginning to understand why Russians look so well fed all the time.
Today we took a hike in the rain along the shore of the lake. The mist made it very atmospheric. I’d packed a poncho so I was pretty comfortable. The lake was stunningly dramatic in the changing light, going from looking like a deep green ocean to looking like gray pavement in minutes.
It’s been nice to have a little down time here. I’ve emptied my brain of all my Japanese and Mongolian pleasantries, and I’ve been learning a little Russian. I can’t say much yet but I have been teaching myself Cyrillic lettering. Our guide has been quizzing me, pointing out street signs and candy wrappers and making me read them out loud to her. It’s a little like being a child again, barely able to communicate.