Somewhere on the rail line between cold, but clear, sun-tinted Mongolia and Siberia we passed decorative gourd season in its entirety. Perhaps there was a day or two of golden-leafed days somewhere in Irkutsk, but those first days were spent in a soft white bed inside a hostel inside a soviet-era apartment building. Not because the two-night train ride had been exhausting, but because I came down with a case of something that involved lots of porcelain-hugging, and I needed to stay close to the toilet. When I emerged? Cold. Wind. Snow.
Something about a sudden change in seasons unsettles. Mongolia seems like a distant memory and China last week’s dream. I’m pretty sure Nepal didn’t happen at all. Perhaps I went to middle school in Thailand?
Train travel is supposed to slow things down to the speed of comprehension, but I still cannot keep up. The journaled fragments from the last few weeks seem like fiction. All I know is that today I’m in Listyvanka, Russia right near Lake Baikal, and that I’m very cold.
Yesterday morning we left our baggage locked up under a staircase in Irkutsk and walked through light flurries to the bus stop a few blocks away. Moments before stepping outside into the cold, I glanced outside the window and gasped, “it’s snowing!” as though I had forgotten all the years of wet, cold terror I spent in Massachusetts with salt-stained jeans and shoes filled enough ice water to please a distance cyclist in San Antonio. It all came back moments after stepping in a pile of curbside slush.
We found a dirty white van with a sign saying “Listvyanka” on the dash manned by a large, brutish man with only a thumb, a forefinger, and a pinky on his right hand. For 100 rubles a piece, we bought passage to the settlement bordering the famous Lake Baikal. About an hour and a half later, we started driving through the increasing snowfall, dropping off Russians with bags of groceries and picking up gangs of school children along the way in an operation like a long-distance songtheaw. I focused on whatever I could through the increasingly icy windshield, hoping some small degree of focus would keep the motion sickness at bay.
About an hour later, we were dropped off outside a small pier in heavy, windy snowfall with unfortunately scanty directions to our hotel (1 km away from the pier) and no maps in sight. So we picked a direction and walked, with icicles forming in our hair and around our shoelaces all the while.
Obviously, we chose the wrong direction, a point we realized when the road came to an end with a wall of barking dogs. So we turned around and got the first room we found in a hideously decorated, over-priced hotel situated above a terrible and also over-priced Chinese-Russian fusion restaurant. The room featured a red lace bedspread paired with sheer, off-red curtains that created an atmosphere not unlike my mind’s idea of a late soviet brothel. The room’s decor was finished with a soft-focus, lavender-tinted painting of a girl with a unicorn on the wall. Suddenly, I felt my sickness come back.
This morning we left our key in the door and tried our hand at finding the original hotel again, this time over sidewalks that had developed and opaque icy glaze on top–another side-effect of winter I had conveniently forgotten after my summer-chasing tenure in Austin and Thailand. Eventually, after some unintended ice-skating, some back-tracking, and a stop for coffees and pastries, we found our intended destination: a grouping of log cabins surrounding a central banya on a hill run by a man wearing camo pants who owns many, many axes. Do you need an axe? I could probably steal six or so with very little chance of anyone noticing.
We haven’t really left the cabin since. I mean, it looks really cold outside, and we’ve already had several multi-kilometer treks re-enacting the political exiles of yore. Plus, our cabin is barely heated as is–Andy is wearing two pairs of pants under the covers and I’m dreading the thought of tooth-brushing for the chill of the cold tiles under my feet. Aside from a borscht run, there’s no real point in enjoying the great Siberian out-of-doors in this climate. Under the stormy clouds, the lake’s renowned clear waters appear black, choppy, and…soul-sucking, like a secret race of dementor nerpas rule under the water’s surface.
In fact, this whole area seems ripped out of a dark fairy tale with the landscape’s drama casting a dusky moodiness on the burly men and the soft, yet semi-scowling women. It’s not too hard to imagine that the house fire of the early evening may have been caused by the surly baker’s nighttime hobby: baking small children into pies.
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