Flowers crushed in siberian snow

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.

Kayak rental sign covered in snow at lake baikal


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9 Responses to Skipped Right Over Decorative Gourd Season to Lake Baikal

  1. Sophie says:

    Sounds like a dream come true. At least layering your clothes means you don’t have to lug around as much. And yes, living in Austin means forgetting slush. Hope you see the sun and feel better soon!

  2. Katie says:

    This is my favorite post of the entire year. I’m not kidding. The link to decorative gourd season was awesome. I’m still laughing about that one. And the horse jerky and siberian toilets? And the black scary water and the scary people and chinese-russian fusion and borsht and walls of dogs and cold, wet terror. This just too much. I loved it. Mostly because I’m so excited you are experiencing all this!(except the horse vomit.)

  3. Jackie D says:

    Well, even though you’ve been miserable and/or sick for the most of the events that took place in this post, you have to admit they all make for a pretty good story. And sometimes it’s nice to have an excuse to stay cozied up in bed with a boy for a few days :)

  4. Kunky Sharp says:

    Susan, Grampa Jack always said that the right gear makes the difference. It sounds like you went to Siberia without the proper clothing … ;)

    Will your blog have a map of where you’ve been? Complete with the travelling lines? Maybe you already have this on Google?

    • Susan says:

      That might be true, but I was already pretty much like the little kid in the Xmas story in Baikal. I had on ALL my warm clothes and long wool coat and it wasn’t enough! Had I topped everything with a bearskin I would have been more comfortable, but I couldn’t find any for sale.

      I’ve got a map in this post. If you click on it, you should see more detail!

  5. Naomi says:

    Boy, am I glad I saw Russia in the summer! It’s the difference between the first “country palace” scene in Doctor Zhivago and a later scene where they must return, post revolution, to the now abandoned, drifting- icy- snow- covered “country palace” which looks about .01% times as inviting as before. You may have met your Waterloo, Suepolean! :)
    Also,to your comment about salty jeans, one thing I unabashedly love about SouthEast Asia: I will never ruin another pair of shoes via chemical salt again, with god as my witness!!! *side note: I may ruin them via inadequate sewers, but who’s counting?

  6. I want to echo Jackie – it’s all about what makes for a good story!

    I am planning on doing the Trans-Siberian next summer, and I want to go through Mongolia. Is this what you did? I would love to talk to you about your journey… how it was… how you went about planning it, if you have any tips… etc.

    Do you have any more posts about the TSR? I will look around, but would love to hear from you! x

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