The slow traveller in Siberia

Ed Gillespie is travelling around the world by land and sea. He continues his low-carbon odyssey with a slow train around vast Lake Baikal, one of the many unexpected delights of Siberia.

Siberia is not the first destination you might associate with the word “holiday”. However, we have been wonderfully surprised by this feisty, frosty Russian state. I think we’d expected to endure it as a necessary rite of passage on the way to more interesting places, like Mongolia. But it has been beautiful, brilliant and breathtaking.

One of Siberia’s many gems is the vastness of Lake Baikal. A powerful source of Shamanic power and significance for the indigenous Buryat people, it’s the world’s deepest lake and contains a fifth of the planet’s fresh water. So obviously the Russians built a filthy great polluting paper-pulping plant on its shores.

We took our slow travel mantra to the extreme with a six-hour, 60-mile train journey on the Circum-Baikal railway. The crowded airless carriage chugged languidly along the lakeside, doing a convincing impression of a banya (Russian sauna) as the potent spring sun poured in through the windows. “I didn’t expect to be too hot in Siberia,” I joked, to the amusement of Denis, our new Russian friend from Irkutsk, as we fanned ourselves frantically. He asked the guard if we could open the windows to stave off heatstroke. “We only open the windows in summer,” came the positively Soviet reply.

We feasted on smoked fish, a species endemic to the lake, while below us Baikal basked in all its frozen glory. The train afforded views over 30 miles of sheer ice to the craggy snow-capped peaks of the Kamar-Daban mountains on the far shore. Two of the fierce forest fires that blight the region in summer were billowing clouds of thick smoke into the blue skies. Baikal is as big as a sea, but the ice deadens all sound, so there’s no lapping of waves, only an eerie silence.

Two days later we awoke in Listvyanka to find the southern lake ice had vanished overnight. Yesterday’s frozen peace was now wind-whipped white horses. The familiar sounds of choppy waters had returned, this time accompanied by the gentle musical tinkling of ice crystals. Our thirst for Baikal still unquenched, we made plans to head 250 kilometres north, to Olkhon Island.

This was a mission in itself. We endured four hours of jam-packed, juddering marshrutka (minibus) on partly unpaved roads, then a padushka (hovercraft) skimming unnervingly but exhilaratingly over the ice, and finally a 35km dirt track scramble to Khuzhir on the island’s western shore. Our driver on Olkhon was Anatoly, a Russian Tom Selleck in his ‘Magnum PI’ days, all fat moustache, gold teeth, wily grin and twinkling mischievous eyes. He spoke no English so we quickly endeared ourselves to him with our stock-in-trade Russian ice-breaker “Kussna sassiski” (tasty sausages).

Anatoly took us ice-fishing, our lines dangling through holes in the foot-thick frozen lake surface, after a tentative walk out across the (fortunately) firm crust. When we made our first catch Anatoly, as the self-styled “fishing priest”, stepped up gleefully to “baptize” us. This entailed us being beaten repeatedly about the face with the tail of the freshly caught fish.

That night Nikola, the caretaker at our homestead, serenaded us with Engelbert Humperdinck numbers on his accordion. Nikola expressed incredulity when we told him how lucky we thought he was living on wild and wistful Olkhon. “Lucky? We are Siberians! This is normal for us!” If this is normal, I want to be a Siberian.

Ed Gillespie is creative director of Futerra.

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Homepage photo by Gasi