Monday, August 30, 2004

A Letter from Siberia

Okay, into Russia now,

We crossed the border from Mongolia to Russia 4 days ago, a mammoth 11 and a half hour wait at the border with nothing to do but sit around in desolate train stations. But we were expecting the wait, so all things considered it didn't go too bad. Unfortunately I still had my dodgy guts (as did Dan) and we had to brave the most disgusting loos of the trip so far, at the Russian border station. I took a picture to preserve the memory, outside the dream-distorted ones of nightmares.

We travelled to Irkurtsk, which is another day's train ride after the border. Russian people all seem to be able to sing really well - unlike Japan, people here both like to sing *and* have the ability to carry it off. It makes me a little jealous, with my non-existant abilities. From Irkurtsk we drove to Lystvianka (I'm guessing at the spelling) on the shores of Lake Baikal, the deepest lake in the world. We had a homestay with Zoya, a Russian lady who had a big grandmotherly air going on, who greeted us with Russian pikelet-things, a huge plate of them. Her house was pretty run down, with an outdoor squat longdrop and outdoor Russian 'sauna' (basically boiling water and cold water you mix for yourself and wash with in a shed).

It sounds primitive, but after 3 days without a shower it came through for us. She had a really nice garden and lots of grandkids, and all the food she cooked for us tasted a lot like my granny made. Big helpings too.The first day was taken up with a tour of the "town" and a visit to the Baikal museum, which was good, but a little dull. I almost fell asleep during the video. I'm filled with facts about Lake Baikal though: the surface area of Belgium, with enough water to cover Australia in a 7 metre-deep flood and provide fresh water for the entire planet for 40 years, should we need it. Good to know anyway. Overall it accounts for 20-25% of the world's fresh water.

That night we went for a beer in Listvianka, which feels a lot like a Hi-de-hi tourist town mixed with run-down peasant shacks. The pub we chose had its car park filled with a limo and dancing Russians, the inside glum barmaids and bad music. We stayed for a beer, then ran away.Next day was the highlight, our tramp through Siberian taiga forest with Sasha, a hungover Russian guy who's son had got married the day before. A really, really nice guy, we walked through fairy-tale forests for the afternoon before camping on the shore of Lake Baikal for the night. Unfortunately, in his inebriated state, Sasha had packed 2 2-man tents instead of one 2-man and a 3-man, so Dan, Sasha and I spent an overly cosy night under some of the loudest thunder I've heard, some of it directly overhead. It got so hot inside the tent I was really close to braving the rain for a night outside, but things got cooler eventually.

The next day was cloudy but rain free and after breakfast we walked along the coast for the afternoon before heading back to Irkurtsk for another homestay in the city, where I am now.After Mongolia Siberia has been a lot closer to NZ and with less exciting stories to tell of. We did meet an old-man-of-the-sea fisherman at the campsite though, complete with bushy moustache. I'm not sure how much excitement that can make up for.It's hard to tell whether people like now or Soviet times better - Sasha said the older generations prefer Soviet times and he prefers the new freedoms, but still waxed nostalgic for the Soviet days when he and his friends could travel around Lake Baikal on a 5 day Deck Class (tents pitched in the snow and ice on the ferry's deck) for 5 roubles the whole trip. Roubles were worth more than, now 5 roubles is about 30c New Zealand, but still a good deal. Less freedom, more security about the future seemed to be the theme. A lot of Russians have got a lot poorer due to inflation since the fall of Communism.Time to go now. You'll be pleased to hear my stomach has cleared up, but I've traded it for a (mild) cold. Never mind,



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