September 1, 1995:
It was a sweltering day in Miami but we packed our bags with our warmest clothing before heading out to the airport. We were on our way to Siberia.
Luckily our tour group met in San Francisco. That gave us the opportunity to spend the weekend with Andy and Karen and meet Karen’s parents, Ray and Patti Irvine. Then on Sunday afternoon we joined ten other adventurers and climbed aboard an Aeroflot plane for the flight to Khabarovsk in the Russian Far East. Khabarovsk is a lovely city on the Amur River. Thirty miles upstream from Khabarovsk the Amur marks the Russian-Chinese border. But from the appearance of Khabarovsk you would assume you were in European Russia rather than the FarEast.
We were met in Khabarovsk by our Russian guide, Dr. Victor Kuzevanov, the director of the Irkutsk Botanical Garden. Our local guide in Khabarovsk was named Svetlana. Svetlana seemed to remember the good old days under the Communists as better days, but her complaints about the hardships people are now suffering were not consistent. She said first that Inflation has left people unable to afford anything but rent and food. Then she said that the traffic was terrible because so many people were buying cars.
We traveled from Khabarovsk to Irkutsk on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. While we were waiting on the platform for the train to arrive, a man standing near me asked me a question. I quickly called for Svetlana to translate for me. All the man wanted to know was if the train was on time, but with Svetlana’s help I continued the conversation. My new “friend” had a lapel pin which had a hammer and sickle in the middle. I asked him what it represented. He told me that it was the Order of the Great Patriotic War (which is what the Russians call World War II). Then he proceeded to tell me in gory detail (Svetlana kept saying, “He is telling you much more than you want to hear,”) about how he was injured and lay in the field for a day while the fighting raged on around him. Khabarovsk’s War Memorial had been an important part of our city tour, and talking to this proud war veteran reinforced my understanding of how important the memory of World War II is to Russians. During the train trip I bumped into my war hero several times and was really happy that I had spent many hours during the summer studying Berlitz Russian tapes and could greet him in Russian.
On the train Karsten and I had a compartment which was quite adequate. Our group ate in the dining car and usually had it to ourselves. The Russian travelers seemed to prefer to purchase food from vendors who lined up at each stop and sold dumplings, potatoes, etc. Victor bought us a loaf of bread at one stop. It was delicious. I took Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago to read on the train, but never read a sentence. We always seemed to be busy looking out the window at, the vastness of the Far East and Siberia, listening to Victor’s lectures about Siberia and Lake Baikal, or quickly visiting the trackside marketplaces. You couldn’t stray too far from the train for fear of being left behind. When it was time to leave the station, the electrified train began to move forward almost without a sound, not even bothering to blow a whistle. The countryside changed little during the two and a half days we spent on the train. Most of what we saw was forest and wetlands. Early September is already autumn in Siberia and the Russian Far East, and the forest was aglow in fall colors. The little agriculture we did see was fields for grazing and haying or small vegetable gardens. The summer must not be long enough to raise grain.
We departed the train in Irkutsk. Irkutsk is known as the “Paris of Siberia,” because a lot of the buildings look like the turn of the century buildings in Paris and because it is an important university town. For us the most interesting buildings in Irkutsk were the old wooden buildings, but we learned that people would rather live in an ugly high rise apartment building with modern conveniences than in one of those charming wooden structures. Irkutsk has 635,000 inhabitants and lies on the Angara River, which flows out of Lake Baikal. The Angara eventually flows into the Yenisey River which flows into the Arctic Ocean. Because our Russian guide, Victor, was the director of the botanical garden, we got a special tour of the garden. The most notable part of the garden for us was the greenhouse where they grow tropical and sub-tropical plants. Karsten and I were amused to see that the Siberians spend a lot of their scarce money to heat a building so that they can grow tropical plants, some of which we consider trash plants in Florida.
After the visit to the botanical garden we were all very excited because at last we were on our way to Lake Baikal. Karsten and I had seen several programs about Lake Baikal on television, and had read a National Geographic article as well as several books about this remarkable lake. To quote National Geographic, “Russia’s Baikal is older, deeper, and more richly endowed with life than any lake on earth. But to Russians this Sacred Sea embodies even more than its superlatives.” People in the region look to this mystical lake and the shamanist god, Burkhan, to bring health, happiness and prosperity. Many either get married on the shores of Baikal or visit it after the wedding. We helped one couple celebrate their wedding. Our bus had stopped at an overlook for a view of the lake, when two cars drove up. The group included a couple in wedding clothes. A cloth was placed over the hood of a car and several bottles of champagne and some plastic glasses were placed on the cloth. The wedding party Insisted that we join them in toasting the bride and groom and we happily agreed. A picture was taken of all of us drinking to the health of the newlyweds. In the short time we spent on the shores of Lake Baikal we saw three other wedding parties.
Soon after toasting the newlyweds, we found ourselves in the village of Listvyanka. Its wooden houses were charming. Each house had a vegetable garden. Victor told us that these gardens provide a very important part of the diet of Siberians. City dwellers like himself have a daccha outside town where they raise vegetables. The forest also provides most Siberians with food and medecine. From the train and from the bus we saw men with large cans strapped to their backs. These cans provided a safe place to carry mushrooms. Whenever we walked through the taiga (the Siberian forest) on the shores of Lake Baikal, Victor would explain to us the medicinal qualities of the plants we found in the forest.
On a hillside above Listvyanka we visited a solar observatory. The condition of the observatory is probably indicative of the current state of science in Russia As Karsten said, “It looked like a bankrupt business.” The equipment looked to be old and not functional. Once upon a time, during the cold war, this observatory played an important role in research concerning sun spots and how they affect communication (mostly military) and cosmonauts. But now the government doesn’t have money to continue much research on the sun, so the observatory limps along, undoubtedly with a greatly reduced staff.
The Baikal Museum in Listvyanka arranged our trip to Lake Baikal. At the museum a stout, likable and very energetic woman gave us a lecture on all the wonders of the lake and its surroundings. Then we went down to the lake and climbed aboard the ship, Baikal, which was to be our home for the next week, We were joined on the ship by Victor’s wife, Lenya, who works for the Siberian equivalent of the EPA, Sasha Timonin, a specialist in the fresh water seal of Lake Baikal, Vladimir Fialkov, the director of the Baikal Museum, Dr. Smirnoff, an icthyologist whose specialty is the omul, a delicious whitefish which is the main catch of the Baikal fisheries, and Alexander Bukharov, a geologist whose specialty is the Baikal region. The museum also sent along a photographer whose real contribution to the trip was the music he provided with his accordion. He would play romantic Russian songs and all the Russians would sing as if their hearts were breaking. The only songs the Americans could sing were “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” and “Home on the Range.”
We didn’t go to Russia looking for gourmet food – after all, how many Russian restaurants do we have in Miami? But we were pleasantly surprised at the quality of the food served on board ship. The cooks, as well as the rest of the crew, were always friendly and helpful, even though we didn’t share a common language. The Russian I had learned during the summer from my Berlitz tapes, along with a small phrase book, really came in handy. I became the translator for our group when no English speaking Russian was available. We had a lot of fun trying to communicate with our Russian hosts.
Although Lake Baikal contains some of the purest water in the world, it has two major sources of contamination. One is a cellulose plant on the south shore of the lake and the other is the Selenga River, which flows through Mongolia and the industrial Russian town of Ulan Ude before entering Baikal. Much progress has been made on cleaning up the water in Ulan Ude, but Russia has little influence on pollution prevention in Mongolia. The effluent from the cellulose plant is relatively clean as industrial effluent goes, but it isn’t clear that Baikal can absorb its pollutants for a long time without degradation. The government has committed to changing the product produced in the plant if that is necessary to sharply reduce pollution, but with current economic conditions in Russia, that commitment will be hard to keep. The government has, however, taken other action to protect Baikal. It has banned all logging and all mining within 100 kilometers of the lake. For a country desperate to develop its resources this is an impressive step.
As the Selenga River approaches Baikal it flows through a vast delta. We traveled a short distance up the Selenga and the delta around us looked like the Everglades, only a lot colder. We saw many great gray herons, which looked like great blue herons, and many other wading birds that were probably on their way south for the winter. Dr, Smirnoff left our ship in a smaller boat and threw out nets. In no time at all he had caught enough omul for dinner. The omul were heading upstream to spawn so they not only provided us with a fish dinner, but with caviar as well.
For much of the week we spent on the lake, the weather was cool and windy with menacing clouds threatening to soak us. The mountains ringing the lake were covered with fresh powdery snow. But fortunately we never got rained on and our warm clothes kept us toasty. It was hardly swimming weather and I kept my bathing suit safely packed in my suitcase. But Karsten actually used his. We made a stop in Chivyrkusky Bay where there is a hot spring. Although the weather was in the 4O’s many in our group, including Karsten, put on their bathing suits and got into a hot tub. Some people even swam in Lake Balkal. We were told that a swim in Lake Baikal would make you twenty years younger,
Not all the shoreline of Lake Baikal is taiga. We also visited a sand dune and alpine meadows. Victor harvested seeds from an endangered alpine plant, gave us each a handful of seeds, and sent us off to plant the seeds in appropriate places. It was very satisfying to help propagate an endangered alpine plant.
The Ushkanyi Islands are the summer home of the nerpa, or Baikal seal. It is the only fresh water seal in the world. Some 60,000 nerpas live in Baikal and the population seems stabilized despite the fact that the local hunters are allowed to kill 6,000 nerpa each year. On a calm summer day the rocks around the Ushkanyl Islands are covered with sunning nerpas. Unfortunately for us, the windy conditions on the day we were there caused the nerpas to stay in the water. I did see one nerpa come to the surface about a hundred yards off shore, but not seeing the nerpas up close was the biggest disappointment of the trip.
The shores of Lake Baikal look so remote and so natural that it is hard to realize that human beings have been living there for a long, long time. Our ship took us to a spot which seemed so remote I could have believed we were the first people to visit there, and instead we found petroglyphs left there by ancient peoples. The artwork was pretty impressive.
The Buryats are the current indigenous people living on the shores of Lake Baikal. Khuzhir, a Buryat fishing village on Olkhon Island, was one of two populated settlements we visited. The Buryats look very much like Alaska’s native population. That is no accident, Alaska’s native population are descendents of the Buryats’ ancestors, who traveled to the new world across an ancient land bridge, Our day on Olkhon Island was clear and relatively warm. We walked through Khuzhir to Shaman Rock. The area was so stunningly beautiful that we were sure that Khuzhir could have a future as a tourist destination.
We did visit one tourist destination – but strictly for Russians. This Siberian “Club Med” in Peschannaya Bay had sanitary facilities which most Americans would not find acceptable even at a campground. This little resort had closed down on September 1, so unfortunately it was deserted when we arrived. It would have been fun to see the place in July, in 95 degree heat, with the sandy beach filled with Russian sun worshipers. We hiked to the next bay, Babuska Bay, which also had a beautiful sandy beach. At Babuska Bay we had our “Siberian barbeque.” Dr. Smirnov cooked omul over an open fire, and the cook made shishkabob. There was also plenty of caviar and plenty of vodka. Victor’s accordion came out and the Russians sang and we all danced until early morning. While Karsten and I were dancing in the sand, I fell down and some accused me of having drunk too much vodka. But it is difficult to dance in the sand.
We visited one village where the economic consequences of the ban on logging around the lake were apparent. The sawmill is closed, and the people who had worked there are now out of work. The village has decided to pursue sustainable tourism. They are rebuilding a church as an attractive focal point, and are building cottages which they hope tourists will rent. We wish them the best of luck.
Our week on Lake Baikal had passed too quickly, and it was time for us to say goodbye to our Russian hosts and start the journey back home. We were surprised when we arrived at the Irkutsk airport for the flight to Khabarovsk to find that foreign and domestic passengers have a different terminal in Russia, even for domestic flights. We stood on the tarmac with our little group of foreigners, and watched the Russians exit a terminal about 100 yards away and climb on the plane. Then we were allowed to board the plane. This must be a throwback to Soviet ways of doing things.
On our return flight home we had an eight hour layover in San Francisco. Karen picked us up at the airport and took us to the house that she and Andy had bought while we were in Siberia. Even though we were suffering jet lag big time, we were really excited to see their new home in Menlo Park. The next time we see their house will be in June when we go out to California for their wedding.
We’re back in the heat and humidity of South Florida, but now and then I lie on my back, close my eyes and imagine I am lying in the sunshine on a rocky beach on Lake Baikal, nice and toasty in my down jacket.