Mare and I seek some shade on the porch of a small store, in the remote fishing village of Baikalskoe, Siberia. We are thirsty and exhausted from an exhilarating hike along the mountainous shore of magnificent Lake Baikal – the oldest (25 million years) and deepest (1600m/5,200 feet) lake in the world.
This portion of the Great Baikal Trail, which will one day circle 2,000 miles around the lake, twists through virgin forest, and onto steppe like slopes that disappear over craggy cliffs. Bays along the way appear Caribbean, as the visibility of this water is up to 42m/137 feet, but frigid, as the ice roads over the lake melted only one month ago.
This peaceful 300 year old Siberian village was the only seal hunting and seal fur collective in the northern Baikal region. Today, fishing is the primary source of income for the fifty or so inhabitants.
Back on the porch, a man approaches with a fresh fish in his hand, an omul, which is endemic, and a distant relative of the salmon. He says something in Russian. I shrug and laugh. Mare tells me, “He said Vodka.”
He smiles and lifts up his shirt, to reveal a full bottle of vodka in his pants. In an instant he secures glasses from the store, sits next to me on the floor and pours shots. Ah, my first taste of the Russian vodka ritual. You do not leave until the bottle is empty.
He makes toasts in drunken Russian. I respond in inebriated English. Laughs sound the same in any language. Drinking half a bottle of Vodka could lead to a body hair contest?
Mare takes me to the lake, for a sobering dip in the ice cold water…because we have a date for dinner…in a family’s house.
These wooden houses, made from logs and ornate trimmings, display traditional Russian architecture. All of them use blue or green as the primary accent color. We roam the dusty streets, dodging cows, in search of our dinner. “It has a green gate,” Mare says. “They all have green gates!” I respond.
Grandma Gertrude flags us down, and serves delicious fish soup, with fish and rice stuffed rolls. Dinner is topped with tea and wild blueberry tarts. Sweat pours from us, as we eat hot soup in this hot house with no running water.
We have discovered warm, friendly, hospitable people, beneath that cold Russian veneer. Strangers help us at bus stations, folks invite us into their homes for food, and we have witnessed neither violence nor hatred. We’re glad to have jumped off the Trans-Siberian RR, and onto the BAM (Baikal-Amur Mainline) RR in order to explore Northern Lake Baikal.
We catch the one daily bus, from Baikalskoe Village back to Severobaikalsk, to the comfort of Baikal Trail Hostel, where Anna has registered our visas and purchased Hydrofoil tickets for us. Thank you Anna, and son, Misha, for making us feel at home. Ron Mitchell