October 28, 2008

Lake Baikal / Olkhon Island, Russia

Leaving Irkutsk, after a day and night of light precipitation and bitter temperatures, in a semi-snow-woman condition for the Island of Olkhon, I was not aware of the journey that lay before me. You can make it to the banks of Lake Baikal from the city in about an hour on roads that cut through the flat and bare landscape of the region, but getting to this island is a bumpy six-hour trek in a minimally heated mini-bus that includes a ferry ride which can add an extra hour or so depending on the queue and the weather. The passing scenery had put me in a hypnotic state of motion but even with the rough terrain of the roads, I managed to doze in and out of an afternoon travel slumber that had me almost falling over, in periodic spastic jerks, onto the shoulder of my Buryat neighbor.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, having only read things that called Lake Baikal the “Gem of Siberia”, but when we arrived at the ferry landing and I took in a sip of the crisp, windy air and saw the sun shimmering off the surface of the brilliant blue sapphire water as velvety, honey-soaked mountains framed the view, I immediately got butterflies in my stomach, like an adolescent developing her first crush, and I could hear the ghost of John Wayne riding up beside me on his horse, looking me in the eye and saying, “M’am, this right here is God’s country.”
Olkhon Island is like Mother Nature with her Saturday night party dress on the bedroom floor. She is exposed, seductive, passionate and unpredictable. She will either bend under the touch or claw back with nails. She will inspire poets and warriors alike. It is legend that Genghis Khan is buried here and the spirits, which the island Shamans call to from trance, seem to soar in the sky like determined arrows from a bow. The myriad of patterned clouds hang so low that it feels like you could attach a hose to a vacuum and suck them down like dust in the corners of the ceiling. The earth here stares at you fervently and every second is spent with a heightened awareness of being.
“How did I get here?” I wondered, “Where am I?” For a second in time I seemed to lose all sense of gravity and, even though the distance and time difference from my family and friends was enormous, I felt calm and safe. It was as if, suddenly, I could zoom out from the microscopic dot that was Me and, from an omniscient perspective, see the sequence of events that led to this moment, as if through a 1970’s plastic Viewfinder from my youth, and everything was as it should be. The service on my cell phone had switched to the local carrier and it announced its’ name on the display window, “Far East”; appropriately named. I really was in the Far East in what seemed like an unintended, but welcomed, exile into the spectacular fields of the Siberian steppes and on the shoreline of the deepest and largest fresh water lake in the world.
The mini-bus dropped me off at Nakita’s Homestead, one of the oldest guesthouses on the island, and from the second story of the pagoda-like terrace, I could survey the village with it’ wide, irregular and uneven dirt roads, old wooden shacks blowing smoke from their chimney with Soviet-style factory cars parked in front, cows and dogs roaming free and the indigenous Buryat people, cousins in ancestry to the Mongols, walking the streets in gloves, hats and heavy winter jackets lined with fur. Sergei, the local priest of the islands only church, a Greek Orthodox Church, told me that the past few years have seen a huge increase in tourism during the summer months; with 30,000 visitors in a four month time frame compared to the island’s 2,000 inhabitants. But not many people come in the winter and I was happy to find that I had the place, wrapped in peace and quiet, almost entirely to myself.
Which ended quickly when I met Crazy Italian Daniel. After spending the first two nights and days in complete and meditative solitude, falling into deep sleeps in my warm cabin room and enjoying the beauty of my surroundings with five hour walks on the beach, through the forests and into the steppes without seeing a single living human, Daniel and I struck up a conversation while waiting for lunch to be served in the communal canteen. He is an older, successful business man from Florence with a free spirit and an artistic heart and when he came to the island five years ago on holiday, he impulsively bought a piece of property overlooking the lake on which stood, and still does stand, a dilapidated, unlivable house. He comes every year for about fifteen days and stays at a guesthouse while he thinks of what to do with this property; Restaurant? Rooms for rent? Shops? When we met, his latest impulsive purchase was a Soviet-style truck, and after finding an easy and fun rhythm to our discussions, we took this truck on daily excursions to tour the landscape and to visit some of the neighboring villages, which are no more than five or six houses on a dirt road and maybe a little market for dried goods. We became the non-violent Bonnie and Clyde of Olkhon, blazing through the open fields, perhaps scaring a few sheep or cows into moving aside, while giddily bumping up and down in our seats as the water and mountains stretched out before us like a famous museum painting. Daniel seemed to embody the spirit of director Roberto Benigni when he spontaneously stood on the back of his theater chair, joy emanating from his entire being, as he was announced the Oscar winner for the movie
Life is Beautiful, as we shuttled along, Daniel would turn to me every so often with an enthusiastic grin, his finger pointed in the air and shout over the loud hum of the motor, “And the Adventures Goes On!” And the adventures did go on; that night, with a bottle of wine and some Vodka, a collection of the staff, some locals and a few straggler tourists, we made a party, complete with live accordion and piano music accompanied by sing-alongs and great conversation and we all drank and danced by the wood burning stove until well past midnight.
My departure was the next day, but I was having such a wonderful time that I decided to stay a few days longer than planned because at $27 a night with breakfast, lunch and dinner included, a cozy cabin with a cookin’ space heater and an outhouse for the toilet, I thought to myself, “Life really
is beautiful.”

1 comment:

jess said...

well you are now truly an adventurer. trusting the universe the way you do.. wow!..i loved the gold tooth excerpt...we miss you and love you.. john really missed you today. he is glad you are having fun but secretly he wants you to be near him..bundle up and stay safe.


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