Thursday, April 27, 2006

демонстрация (n. demonstration)

Since we lobbed in Irkutsk in September exactly two issues have stirred locals enough to take to the streets.
In February marshrootky drivers laid down their car keys and lucky charms after an Altai railworker, Oleg Shcherbinsky, was sentenced to four years in a labour camp. Oleg's crime had been to drive his family to a local picnic spot and fail to predict that their car, while indicating, would be sideswiped by the Altai governor travelling at more than 150km/hr. Silly Oleg.
"Today it's Shcherbinsky, tomorrow it could be you," said the marshrootky drivers, repeatedly. The marshrootky drivers were angry on Oleg's behalf, but also because they themselves spend a good deal of time evading the black BMWs which scream through Irkutsk traffic, flashing the blue lights which exempt them from road rules. Apparently if you are a bit short on political connections, you can buy these lights yourself in Russia for US$25,000. After dozens of similar protests up and down the country the courts agreed Oleg had been hard done by.
The second demonstration has been going on for a few months now, ever since an oil company announced it was laying a pipeline to China a few kilometres from Baikal's seismically active northern shore. Its prevention strategies in case of a spill amount to: "it probably won't happen".

These pictures are from this week's protest at the football stadium. I particularly enjoyed the ordering of the speakers. First up was the Imam of Irkutsk's near-invisible Muslim community, who handed over to the Communists, who introduced the Bolsheviks. I guess it's true that in opposition you can't choose your bedfellows.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

an evening with Frank (and other Easter stories)

Sometimes I love the Russian Orthodox church. Others say Easter with chocolate eggs and a sing-song. The Russians say it with a six-hour service equal in suffering to the crucifixion itself.

I popped in for the Saturday night service at Irkutsk's Krestovozdvizhenskaya (the Exaltation of the Cross or, if you like, Our Lady of the Seven Syllables) Cathedral. I was fashionably 90 minutes late.

The marshrootka driver drops me off at a footpath leading up from Lenin street. The church is a big church, as churches in Irkutsk go. It has five steeples topped with small blue domes. From its vantage point atop a very little hill it overlooks half of the stadium, a tramline and one of Irkutsk's more frightening traffic intersections.
Inside, the church is three-quarters full, although this is always a bit hard to judge. There aren't any seats in Orthodox churches and people tend to move around a lot, lighting candles and so forth. Standing listening to a liturgy are maybe 400 people, the men bareheaded and women in hoods and headscarves. Oil lamps are flickering in the belfries. Everything smells of candle wax and incense. I know nothing about Orthodox liturgy and church Slavonic is hard, so I can't shed much light on which particular bit the priest is up to, except to say that I have noticed that the Russian liturgy is divided into two categories: the mournful kind and the celebratory kind. The celebratory kind involves singing. This is the mournful kind.

Rather unexpectedly, the liturgy stops. The priests and altar boys bustle around gathering banners - an icon, a crucifix, the Virgin, the disembodied (and moustachioed) head of Christ. This disturbs me. I do not like Christ to remind me of Frank Zappa. Everybody digs out candle holders made from soft drink bottles.
We follow the priests outside. Tacked onto the enormous wooden doors is a sign about etiquette. It pleases me to think the Russian Orthodox church might have a liturgy unchanged in five hundred years, but it still has to tell the faithful to turn off their mobile phones.
We shuffle around the building perimeter. The church is in the middle of renovations and in any case not built to be lapped. We walk half the way along the footpath above the road; couples, kids, babushkas, men in suits and some in military uniform.
We walk in silence, except for the bells, pealing as though someone has died which... right, and the neighbourhood dogs, which are going mental. It is other-worldly and quite beautiful. People's hooded faces are lit by their candles. For some reason there are an enormous number of Armenians.
As we pass above the road we appreciate the views of the sports store 'Fanatic'. Drunks urinate behind the Lenina tram stop.

The priests finish their lap and lead the way inside. It's now Easter Sunday and a small electric sign has been switched on above the altar. The sign is made from the same kind of fluorescent tubing you get in the West in chemists and video shops. Completely sidetracked for a moment, I consider why it is that in Irkutsk there is not a single video shop. I realise this is probably because of the healthy bootleg DVD market. I decide to pick up the interesting 'Brat' and Brat 2' when I have a chance.

The sign reads 'Христо воскрете' - 'Christ is risen'.
The liturgy resumes. This time there is singing.

After two hours on my feet I need a break. I take my thermos and sit on the stone steps outside the church. Within a minute two militsia men stride over. The first has the kind of tone I usually associate with border guards and Bond villains.
"Why are you sitting down?"
"It's Easter. I've been standing inside this church for two hours trying to make sense of old Slavonic. Now my legs hurt and I want to sit."
"Ah, you're foreign. Where are your documents? Where are you from?"
What with the combined headiness of spring nights and Easter, I have forgotten my passport. I begin to put my case, hoping that in the minds of militsia men the spirit of Easter has more to do with forgiveness and less with arrests and torturing. I mention that I am from Australia. The eyes of the second militsia man light up.
"Do you know Kostya Tszyu?" he says.*
For half an hour the second militsia man and I discuss Kostya's last fight, a surprise loss against English welterweight Ricky Hatton. We also talk about the second militsia man's army days in Chelyabinsk, where recently there was a hazing scandal. The first militsia man wanders away. He seems slightly disappointed.

Back inside, the priests and choristers are working in shifts. In your Orthodox service almost everyone is hidden behind the iconostasis (gilded altar screen), so you get only glimpses of priests and altar boys doing whatever it is they do when they're not singing at you in old Slavonic. From where I am standing I can see the shadow of the choir conductor. This is both interesting and slightly spooky.
In the foyer some of the Armenians have organised a trestle table. It is piled high with painted eggs, post-Lent kuhlich cakes and bottles of mulled wine. Ignorant and tired, I look forward to a morning banquet.

The congregation has roughly halved since the beginning, although new people are still drifting in, looking Byzantine and crossing themselves. The liturgy is becoming familiar, with the same bits recurring. Sometimes I think I am on the brink of understanding. Other times I think some more about video shops. Now and then the priest appears and calls 'Christ is risen', to which everyone replies, basically, 'yes'.

Just as I have devised an interesting scheme for bootleg DVD rental, the old women hustle off to fetch their food baskets. The priest emerges from behind the iconostasis with a silver bucket. As the babushkas scramble for position he begins splashing around a slightly murky looking liquid, sanctifying willy and nilly whatever gets in his way. The holy water plays havoc with the candles.
Only when everyone has had their food blessed can we finally go home. I learn there will be no banquet. Slightly disappointed and hungry, I leave surrounded by people clutching to their chests sanctified eggs and sanctified cakes and sanctified bottles of wine. For people who have been on their feet almost six hours, they seem a little too contented. I suspect the incense.

*Kostya Tszyu is the only cultural link between Russia and Australia, possibly in history. When cornered by strange and friendly Russian people, we are almost always badgered with boxing questions long before the conversation turns to the Sydney Olympics or kangaroos. Both Kathy and I are very literate on the topic of Kostya Tszyu.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

пасха (n. Easter)

We're six days into Holy Week which, to judge by greeting cards, is celebrated with much less enthusiasm than, say, the Day of the Defenders of the Fatherland.
Russian Easter is a week behind the Western church, of course. Normally I'd seize the occasion to wheel out my Julian Calendar bandwagon (made of wood and runs on the blood of heretics) but this time we're only seven days off and not the traditional 14.
Probably there's a reason for this. Perhaps the vernal equinox takes its time getting to Siberia. Perhaps the Patriarch lost a bet. I bet you can find out on the internet. Happy Easter!
The church services start around 10pm tonight. They'll run right through to Sunday morning in what promises to be a marathon of incense and murmuring. I will be taking along my thermos.

Friday, April 21, 2006

the cleanest town in Siberia

On Monday, possibly in a bid to placate its embittered international students, our faculty announced an excursion to Angarsk.
I told our Chinese neighbour, Shun. Shun said, "It's the cleanest town in Siberia."

You'll remember that Shun is the man who thinks Irkutsk State Tech Mineralogical Museum is the best museum in Russia (me: 'You've not been to St Petersburg, have you?') so I took this with some reservations.
On Tuesday, our history teacher heard about the Angarsk trip. She said, "You'll love it. It's the cleanest town in Siberia."
First thing Wednesday morning we piled with 30 Mongolian and Chinese students into a school bus. Forty-five minutes jiggling our bones on the highway west and we were in Angarsk.
And here's the thing. Sadly featureless though the town was, and ruined though its biggest attraction, the clock museum, was by bossy and pedantic staff, we did notice how clean it was. The four-storey stucco apartment blocks, they were clean. The roads, they were free of syringes and industrial waste. The manholes, they were covered and secure. Each of these things set it apart from Irkutsk.
Only on the way home did we realise what probably keeps Angarsk's street-sweepers in beer money. Three kilometres out of town, hidden slightly from the road by birch forests, is Russia's second biggest oil refinery - run by Yukos, if signage is anything to go by. Its dozens of squat metal silos stretch for a kilometre along the roadside.
I understand 'oil refinery' is not everybody's leaning tower of Pisa, but why no one mentioned the second biggest one in Russia when they told us about Angarsk is beyond me. Is 'cleanest town in Siberia' really so catchy?

Trying to name this post just now, I think I've answered that question.

Thursday, April 20, 2006


I think I've mentioned nerpas before. I may even have mentioned that Irkutsk has a nerparium, amazingly the first of its kind in the world. I have been niggling Kathy for months to go with me to the nerparium. On Saturday she gave in.

When we arrive a few minutes late the show has started. Our guide is a 20-year-old with a head microphone and remote control. She is finishing a spiel. In a tiled pool with roughly the dimensions of a wardrobe, two nerpas (Russian plural: nerpy) are bobbing, like seals but somehow... rounder. Our guide fingers her remote control. A tape player strung from the ceiling strikes up a tinny salsa.
We miss the introduction of the first nerpa, which to hand movements from our guide begins interpreting the salsa in a manner I have not seen since Russia's Dancing with the Stars. The second nerpa is Tito. We learn that he is named after Dennis, the first space tourist and not, as I had hoped, the much-loved Yugoslav communist. Tito is enormous. He is the Marlon Brando of nerpas.

When the salsa is over we learn some facts about nerpy. Nerpy are 50% body fat which, looking at Tito, is no surprise to me. They breathe through enormous nostrils, which open like blowholes then shut tight underwater. There are more than 50,000 nerpy in Baikal, which is 2000km from an ocean, and still nobody has worked out how they got there. I personally think they evolved from Nikita Krushchev.
"Now the nerpy will sing," says our guide, firing up the Soviet-era anthem Glorious Baikal, Sacred Sea. 'Sing', we realise, is nerparium for 'snort through their enormous valve-like nerpa nostrils'.
After the singing there is maths. Tito answers sums by splashing with his fused gunmetal grey nerpa flippers. For five minus two he splashes twice.
"He's a nerpa," says our guide. "He's not very good at maths."
The tape player kicks in for more dancing. The thinner nerpa thrashes, spins and leaps. Tito is the brains of the outfit. He twists a little. He is not so much with the dancing.
As the nerpy switch from waltz to lambada I get to thinking. The pool in which the nerpy perform up to eight 45-minute shows, five days per week, is no bigger than a shipping container. I feel this could have two effects. It could depress the nerpy, perhaps leading them to shed or increase their 50% body fat, according to their psychological make-up. Or perhaps something primeval within the nerpy could remind them that their natural home measures 630km from end to end. They might consider their tiny pool and believe not that their home has shrunk but in fact they have grown, somehow having evolved into a race of giant, immensely gifted supernerpy, dominating a strangely tiled Baikal.

The supernerpy play football. This is unconvincing.
Finally Tito is handed a paintbrush and we get what we have come to see. Tito chose to paint of his own free nerpa will, one day seizing a brush during a training session and letting loose on a nearby canvas. When he is having bad days, such as when he squabbles with his nerpa companion, Tito paints with bold, angry colours, sometimes even smearing the finished job in contempt with his flippers. Today Tito paints with yellow, green and red. He is having a good day.
An eight year-old thinks Tito's painting resembles a basketball match. In my opinion, she is mental. Tito's painting looks much more like Yevgeny Kafelnikov.

Kathy is yet to agree but I hope to make our outing to the nerparium an annual tradition.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

think like a Siberian

The referendum results are in. Still early figures apparently, but according to MosNews, nine in 10 Irkutsk voters gave the thumbs up and in Ust Ordinsky's formerly autonomous okrug, 98% voted yes and the only person to forget to vote was an unwell grandmother with anarchist convictions. I don't care about the politics here; the possible unfairness of the vote, the implications for Buryats and other minority ethnicities Russia-wide. All I can think about is - bridge!

ps. for those keeping count, Krasnoyarsk merged with the Evenki and Taimyr autonomous okrugs last year, not with Tuva. The mistake was made by a copy boy, who has been beaten.

Sunday, April 16, 2006


объединение (n. unification)

Today is referendum day. I know because an enormous van just drove past reminding us to vote.
"I'm foreign," I yelled, hanging out our fourth-storey window. "My political rights here are limited."
Truth is, we cottoned on some time ago that today was referendum day. I don't know precisely what it was that made me twig: the nightly television broadcasts, the young folk canvassing at bus stops, or the fact that for months every square inch of available wall space, including within our student hostel, has been plastered with 'vote yes' material.
The referendum was Putin's idea. Russia is divided into oblasts (regions), of which Irkutsk oblast is one. Nominally outside the political reach of the oblasts are a number of autonomous okrugs (districts), named after the okrug's (sometimes) dominant ethnicity. Putin's Yedinaya Rossiya (One Russia) party began a few years ago to encourage dissolving these districts.
When Putin popped round to slander Irkutsk a few years ago ("dirty"), he mentioned by the by that Krasnoyarsk oblast, just next door to the west, was looking rather spanky in comparison.
"Do you know how they made everything so nice?" said Vladimir Vladimirovich. "They had a unification, with the Tuva Republic, and after that there was all kinds of investment and funding. You guys should do that too, with the Ust-Ordinsky Buryat okrug. Tell you what, if you do, we'll sling you some money for schools, kindergartens, hospitals and - here's the biggy - we'll finish the bridge over the Angara, the one they've been building for seven years."
The slogan most common around town is the slightly abstract 'думай по-сибирски' (think like a Siberian) which means 'vote yes for the merger'. Others are 'together we choose the future' (vote yes), 'unify Russia' (yes), 'don't miss the future' (yes, and don't sleep in on referendum day) and a host of blunt variations on the theme 'vote for the damn merger'. I think my favourite is a rhyme created especially for our university: 'referendum dela fsekh, tak schitayet polytech' (the Polytech thinks the referendum is everyone's business... vote yes). I like this because I am always more comfortable if I know where my university stands on the issues.
Putin's speech is replayed each night on TV. He is usually followed by the Governor's chief aide, whose urgings (do you want the bridge or don't you?) are for me somewhat dulled by the fact he looks like Leonard Cohen and seems to have been reanimated for the occasion.
So today the people (but not the foreign people) vote. The people of Irkutsk vote as well as the people of Ust Ordinsky, which to me seems rather like polling Russians on Chechnyan autonomy. Interestingly, Tanya, our occasional limpet, has just popped in and will be voting 'no', so perhaps not everyone will do as they're told. But will they get up on time? This is the question I have.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

day seven

Bolshaya Krupnaya Guba (big sudden inlet) river - Slyudanka (16km)

Katya makes breakfast with some of the leftovers anchoring our sankies. I contribute a can of sweetened condensed milk, the most important find of this trip so far as I am concerned. It is delicious with biscuits and the basis of an excellent rice pudding. Katya's second ingredient is pasta, which makes me worry our dinnertime advice that pasta can be combined with anything has been taken too literally. The result falls into the well-worn Russian category 'not as bad as expected', although it is a universe ahead of the meat and buckwheat of breakfasts past.

The night has brought a second storm, snowless but as fierce as Wednesday's. We wake, as is sometimes our routine, smothered in canvas with the important pieces of our camping stove lying outside in the snow.
The outer part of the tent is shredded. Everyone is surprised. It was held together with newspaper and everything. I help Dennis gather the pieces that have caught on nearby birch trees.
"The tent did its job," says Dennis. Except for its collapsing and occasionally letting snowmelt seep through bits of our sleeping mats, I agree.
"So, you just replace the plastic and the newspaper every year, then?"
Dennis looks at me as though I have just told him I would not like any pig fat with my pasta and condensed milk. "Why would we do that? We used the sheeting last time and it will be good for next year. Of course, we'll need some more sticky tape."
Our marathoning friends finish their pasta and trot off along the railway tracks.
"Build socialism!" says Katya. They promise to try.
The rescue guys have drilled our water hole. Besides chainsawing old railway sleepers for firewood and occasionally collecting people who have
fallen through the ice, this is the rescue guys' sole function for the trip. In the mornings they snooze and drink coffee. Around lunchtime they load everything into their snowmobile and drive to where we will be spending the following night. In the afternoons they get on with their backlog of snoozing.
This morning they have thoughtfully drilled our drinking hole not in Baikal itself, where the water is purified by more than 300 species of very tiny crayfish, but in the thoughtfully-named Big Sudden Inlet river, which has goop. In the kernel of my brain, still keeping working hours despite the chorus of pain going on outside its windows, I am aware this may be bad. Eyeing the 400m walk to the lake proper and back, I shut my eyes and fill the thermos.
We begin walking at 10. I feel a flood of relief when Lena Stanislavovna announces the decision not to walk, as planned, two hours along the shoreline to the tourist camp at Angasolye. Instead, in exchange for a late lunch, we will cut directly across the ice to our finish point at Slyudanka.
By now, my legs are moving in a manner I had hoped not to experience for another 50 years; 60 if I'd played my cards right. Usually after I have exercised while unfit I need 10 minutes to shake the stiffness in my muscles. Today it is more than two hours. My feet, while retaining their essential beauty, are leprous stubs, covered with blisters I have treated by wrapping in bandages and ignoring for more than two days. Ulrich and Kathy are in a similar state, although their feet are not as naturally attractive.

Slyudanka materialises from the glare. The skifields rise to its east, where two years ago Vladimir Vladimirovich (Putin, to foreigners) payed a visit, taking the time to slander Irkutsk as "dirty" and its governor "lazy" and compare it unfavourably to fashionable Krasnoyarsk. In January here two French tourists died.
We walk on, resting five minutes per hour, following the tracks of the rescue guys' snowmobile. Slyudanka is a dirty town built around factories and the railway. Close enough to so that we can make out the power poles, the snowmobile tracks jag to the right. The rescue guys have approached the wrong end of town. This is fine for them but for us an hour's diversion. Mentally, I poison their coffee with river goop.
It is not quite three o'clock when we set foot on the shore at Slyudanka. We have walked 140km: three and a half marathons in six days. A 12-year-old who has finished the hike despite receiving sunburn on his eyeballs sits and cries on his sanky. There are a handful of other prone figures. Max celebrates by swinging his sanky around the ice. Sasha takes people for rides. Neither Kathy nor Ulrich nor I can move.

The trip back to Irkutsk on the local electrichka line is the first time in six days we have had any free time. We learn that Katya can sing. Lena Stanislavovna has a son in the army. Midway between Kultuk and Irkutsk, in the middle of the taiga, there is a funpark.
It is 8.30pm when we reach our station. As we stop to buy milk we are spotted by three leather-coated men. They each have a beer.
"What have you lot been doing?"
"Hiking," I say.
"Really? Only, we saw your red faces and backpack and sankies and wondered if you'd been to the theatre."
I look at the men. I am unable to decide whether they are being funny, or provocative, or neither. I realise that I do not care. Since a point midway through the afternoon when I stopped having to manually manipulate my legs, I have been dreaming of a bath and my bed. Kathy and I hobble up the steps of our student hostel and sleep for two days.

Monday, April 10, 2006

day six

kilometre marker 115 - a river, somewhere (24km)

Despite it having been seven months since we arrived in Irkutsk, all wide eyes and refugee bags, still there are mornings when Russia feels a strange and fathomless land and Russians a species unto themselves, with their queuing and street faces and unnecessarily pointy shoes. This is such a morning.
"How are you doing?" says Maxim, a 16-year-old apparently fathered by the roadrunner. We have pulled our sankies 100km in four days and he is, I swear, jogging to catch up to me. I wait for him to add, "meep, meep" and evade an anvil.

"I'm alright," I say, lacking the strength to translate, 'I walk as a man made from lava.'
"Bit tired, but not too bad. How are you, Max?"
"Great. Not tired at all. I've been near here before, a few weeks ago when there was a ski marathon. We raced from this side of the lake to the other side. 45km in 12 hours. It was great fun. I'm going to do it again by myself in a few weeks. In summer we're going to hike in the Sayan Mountains. Are you going to come and hike with us in summer?"
Keeping to myself my actual summer plans, which are to spend five months roadtesting the different ways not to go hiking, it dawns on me that Max is not the only one whose tune strikes a merry countermelody to my own. Except for a few of the younger kids and a teen or two with an obviously stiffened gait, there is nobody besides ourselves on this trek demonstratably feeling its effects.
In fact Sasha, the group oaf, spent much of yesterday towing kids around for larks on his sanky and this morning, Katya's begoateed boyfriend is carrying her rucksack while dragging his own sanky with her sitting on it.
It's clear to me these people are either denying their pain, or drawing their strength from the Russia gene, whose under-researched benefits also include immunity from vitamin deficiency and paperwork. I know which one my money's on.
The sun beats down all morning, but the air temperature is cooler and rather than push through the snow covering the ice on this part of the lake, our sankies are able to slide across its frozen crust.

Baikal narrows towards its tip, and in the mountains on the southern shore we can make out some of the settlements. Since yesterday morning, by far the most visible has been Baikalsk. In the shadow of snow caps, Baikalsk is best known for its pulp and paper factory, which belches waste into the lake and a permanent haze along the shoreline.
The factory was Krushchev's vision. He wanted to "put Baikal to work" because although it was a loyal lake which loved its country and went to all the parade days, rumours had reached him it was underfilling its quotas.
In the eighties the factory triggered Russia's first real environmental movement. This generated so much popular support the government was forced to strap on some filters. For years there has been pressure to close the plant, which in any case is apparently not that profitable. To judge by the smoke plume drifting towards us cross the ice, this hasn't happened just yet.
It's almost lunchtime before the sun burns through the snow crust. In moments the hike changes from a merry scoot (if you are Sasha) to a sorry trudge (if you are us) through six inches of snow and slush. Several of the boys decide this is the signal to remove most of their clothes. They make a pink and raggedy column of army pants, dog tags and handkerchiefs with eye holes. The girls decide full upper-body nudity is undignified, so they will walk in their bras.
We keep our clothes on as changing them would involve stopping and then somehow reactivating our limbs. Also, it is two degrees above zero.
"Matthew, do you have your camera ready?" says Lena Stanislavovna. "There's something very interesting ahead."
"Bras?" I ask.
"No, no. Some of the most famous dachas on Baikal. The first one we'll see is the biggest. It belongs to the Minister, and is sometimes used by the Governor of Irkutsk province. It has eight satellite dishes. Eight! You might want to take more than one photograph."
Instead, I take this:

For our last night we camp by one of Baikal's countless feeder rivers. The tent is shaping much as I feel. Bits of plastic have torn loose since the storm, and several of the newspaper articles are becoming unreadable. This seems to me one of the downsides of newspaper as outdoor shelter material. It's alright for holding your tent together, but what happens when it's snowed all night and you want to read the obituaries?
Potatoes are peeled and carrots and onions already on the boil when a freezing wind begins whipping into the valley. Over a hill first one and then two men arrive, bounding over the earth in running shoes and tiny backpacks.
They are marathoners, as it turns out, for we are in Siberia and this is the obvious occupation of two men in the middle of nowhere, at 9 o'clock at night, with no supplies and no means of shelter. They have light sweaters in case it turns chilly. They are heading for Slyudanka along the railway line.
"Want some food?" asks Dennis, after handshakes all round, except with the women, whose hands, though pretty, are to be admired rather than shaken.
"Of course, yeah!"
"Want to sleep in one of our tents?"
"Great, yeah!"
The first marathoner has a '1917 Bolshevik revolution' flag sticking out of his backpack. The second has a flag with a dove of peace.
We are far too tired to question them further.

Tomorrow: THRILL at the end of a journey! LAUGH at traditional Russian wit! WITNESS a small child's pain!

Sunday, April 09, 2006

day five

cape Tolstye - kilometre marker 115 (28km)

We wake after the storm to a clear sky and perfect stillness. From our camp high above the rockface we can see the morning sun lighting the snow peaks on the western shore. I enjoy this as I poo on the railway tracks.
For the next two days, we will be following the krugo(circum)baikal railway. When it was finished roughly 100 years ago, the krugobaikal completed the original Trans-Siberian line. Before, the tour companies had problems selling their 'Moscow-Vladivostok, except for a little bit' packages.
The autocratic and bearded Alexander III built the line using Italian labourers (in time they were discovered to be a poor choice of building material and replaced with bricks). They blasted across rockfaces and tunnelled through cliffs, laying a line almost 100km across the kind of terrain that, if you were shown it while the Italians were in another room, would cause you to laugh and smash a vodka bottle, praising the famous Russian wit.
The sad part is that, after barely a half century in service, the krugobaikal was abandoned. Plans were approved for a hydroelectric station in Irkutsk, a new railway was needed elevated above the river level and, rather than mess around on the Angara, they ran a new, sensible line direct to Kultuk on Baikal's southwestern toe. A railway to nowhere, the krugobaikal had one of its tracks torn up and was spared its other one only because planners decided there was an off chance it might be used. It is unclear if the planners added " berry pickers, mushroom hunters and daytripping Russian tourists," but this is what you get if you leave yourself open to history.
If you like grandiose engineering and railway tunnels, which on both counts I do, it's one of the finest examples you'll see.

The day's hike begins with the unusual sensation that my legs have been buried for thousands of years and become petrified. I deceive them into movement with promises I am aware I cannot keep. We are late starting and I am not the only one banging on about the railways.
"You know Matthew, there are 33 tunnels," says Lena Stanislavovna. "The longest one's over 80 metres. It was such a rough job to build. Did you know they did it in two years? How's your mood this morning?"
"Alright," I answer, and immediately feel untrue to myself.
"We'll have our first break in an hour. There'll be a hill where we stop. You should climb it and take a photograph. You'll find it very interesting."
Now master of the 'th' sound in my name, Lena Stanislavovna has been keen for me to climb and photograph many things. Since Listvyanka I have made a rule of declining on account of the paralysis gripping my lower limbs. This in no way impacts Lena Stanislavovna's enthusiasm. When we round the next cape the side of the hill is on fire.
"Often happens at this time of year," she says. "You should take a photograph. There's no snow on the hills anymore and the ground underneath is completely dry. When there's a strong sun it's perfect for burning. Right now, the sun is strong."
This is true. Since day two the sun has shone almost continually, and the faces around us are monuments either to its strength or hugely inadequate skin care, or both. My own nose has the distinction of having burned not only on its regular outward extremity but on the underside, the sun reflecting off the ice and scorching my nostrils. Several of the Russians have dealt with the problem by sacrificing their handkerchiefs, like so:

I think you'll agree the menace of the cut is offset almost completely by the lily pattern on the material. Kathy and Ulrich have chosen a different approach, folding little squares of tissue paper to tuck beneath their sunglasses. The result is that at various points on the trek I have the impression of being followed by two large, black-eyed birds.
I have opted for the full-head wrap. Beneath Ulrich's ski goggles, which I have borrowed after having somehow lost both a scarf and my own sunglasses, I wrap Katherine's scarf around the entire lower half of my face. This makes me feel both mysterious and clammy.
It is an exhausting day on the hike. We press on for almost 10km further than usual.
"We're putting in more today so tomorrow will be easier," says Lena Stanislavovna, skipping up alongside me with an inhuman vitality. I shoot her a look of withering disbelief. I realise the look is not going to work with the scarf.
A 12-year-old named Kolya walks beside me for a time. With identical questions to a q&a we shared near Bolshye Koty, he asks me how many times I've been to Baikal and where I've been. When I'm finished, Kolya says, "So, are you from Australia? Because, one of my friends says you're from Austria and we have a bet."
I clear up for Kolya the Mozart/crocodile hunter issue and he trots away. I realise his friend is Yelena, who seemed confused a few days back when she sent a smattering of German our way and we weren't altogether forthcoming.

The sun is already low ahead when we find a vehicle road on the ice, probably linking Listvyanka with some of the dachas on the southern part of the lake. It's compacted snow and ice and compared with the last five days, very easy going with the sankies. Even so, 7pm has passed by the time we make camp high above a pebbly beach and before Kathy and I can get dinner underway the sky is growing smokestack dim.
Drying socks and shoes is as usual something of a priority. After viewing the blisters on the toes of my left foot, I spend half an hour remodelling my boot into something more resembling 'boot'. I settle for 'clog'.
We serve dinner by torchlight. Besides compliments, there is general surprise that we have combined fish and vegetables and pasta without so much as a thought for cheap, processed lard-meat.
"Fish and pasta: I didn't know that could be done," says Katya, our group's regular chef.
We explain that almost anything can be combined with pasta including, as Armando Ianucci has pointed out, canned tomatoes plus any single vegetable for an acceptable evening dish. Katya is thoughtful. My heart knows she is wondering whether tushonka counts as 'any single vegetable'.

Tomorrow: 1917!

Saturday, April 08, 2006

day four

Listvyanka - Cape Tolstye (22km)

The morning of day four is like waking on Survivor the morning after tribal council. I know this from hearsay, not from having become hooked on Survivor just about the time Rupert began talking to coconuts and stayed, to lasting self-disgust, for every tortuous minute of all-stars. Hearsay.
Anne 'second syllable' the Finn has departed as planned, reducing our foreigners' brigade to three, and our group - our group is a shattered group. The hike's second teacher, Galina Feodorovna, was wrecked by day two and has left in the night for Irkutsk together with Slava, our fix-it boy, who it turns out is her son. By counting the empty places at breakfast we learn that overall 15 others have quit, including the eight Russian members of our group.
Over buckwheat and tushonka I take some encouragement from this. I have spent half the morning patching blisters but at least we are not the only ones finding things tough. Only as the purple block juice is served do I realise the probable consequences for the rest of the trip if we have only now shed ourselves of the weak.
We load sankies at 9.30am. For the first time we hike not along the shoreline but out across open ice, to an enormous cape (named Tolstye, I am pleased to report, on my map - Cape Fat) from where the lake turns west towards the Tunka valley. All day, when we glance back, we will be able to identify Listvyanka by a single building: the sherbet yellow, eight-storey, unevenly balconied hotel nearing completion next door to the school building. Oh yes, it's attractive.

Listvyanka was a fishing village before folk from Irkutsk came and built their dachas, expanding the town along the lakefront. Most people stopping off on the Trans-Siberian these days make their way here for a view of Baikal, a museum filled with luminous, pickled things from the deep, a fish market, a couple of caged bears and a de-antlered moose named Martha. Oil and gas money is most likely behind the dachas which keep popping up on the hill fronts. There is a walled castle complete with functional turrets and - my favourite - a candy pink church/palace that I like to think is tribute to the work the guy who built St Basil's did after Ivan the Terrible ripped his eyes out.
We make steady going on two or three inches of snow. The snow is fresh but even and the ice below is almost perfectly flat, a first for the trip. To our right the Angara, unfrozen, pours out towards the Arctic Ocean: the only river to leave Baikal.
It's more than four hours before we rejoin the shoreline. Trying to distract from the pain in my heels and calves and where the belt has broken skin on my thigh bone, I work out a way of judging distance by measuring the mountains with my sunglasses. I wonder if I am on the cusp of invention: perhaps like trigonometry but useful. I realise I am at greater risk of eye burn.
At 2pm we make a camp fire and meet the brigade we will join to form our new group. They are a brigade of eight, not nearly as cosmopolitan as our brigade but better with tents. They have a leader, Dennis. Dennis wears his camouflage trousers slightly too high and reminds me of Kostya Tszyu. We mix tushonka with potatoes and soup spice. Dennis uses a hunting knife to stir in the pig fat.
Dennis's brigade keeps to itself. This is fine with our brigade. We are rationing our energy and we have realised speaking costs us calories. If our brigade wants anything, we will blink.
The afternoon passes under windless skies.

Towards 6pm we round Cape Fat, towards which we have been walking on and off for almost nine hours, sadly oblivious to its amusing name. The lake opens before us, a series of smaller promontories before another huge cape, pale in the distance. On this side a gale is driving the snow from the ice. We slide into camp from various directions.
"Take a stone, heat it in the ashes, then just pop it inside your shoe," says Dennis. He is explaining how to dry my boots, which, like most people's, are drenched at the end of each day. "An hour or so and they'll be fine."
I try the stone procedure on Kathy's boots, remembering that self-sacrifice is one of the cornerstones of a good relationship. Her boots seem to survive. I pop stones in my boots.
After dinner we wash our tushonka and pasta down with a thick, sugary tea. To our giddy delight which we mask, for dignity, with faces of dried-out exhaustion, we learn that our new group comes equipped with a tent which has a stove. Not the kerosene stove of our old group, which mocked its forefathers with its weak, heatless flame, but a wood-burning stove with chimney and metal bit for the tent roof. While we set the stove and secure (oh, words) the tent with ski poles and newspaper and rope, Dennis gets the weather forecast on his mobile phone. The night will be -3, and the next day close to zero. There is the possibility of snow.

I wake around one in the morning. In my sleep I had been half-convinced I could hear the snow hitting the outside of our tent. When I open my eyes I am sure. The roof pole is lying across my knees. Canvas is flapping inches above my face. The wind is a roar. For the next three hours I lie half asleep as the storm crashes on. At one point the stove collapses, and I roll into my sleeping bag, brilliantly abrogating responsibility by mimicking a deep-sleeping foreigner. The chimney falls across the roof, then rolls into the snow. Dennis ties the door shut with boot laces.
The wind stops. and there is silence for a moment. Then, out on the ice, the storm hums and rises and comes hurling towards us. We wake up semi-smothered under fabric like parachutists.
As we pick ourselves clear in the morning I find my left boot some distance from where I had left it. I check it for dryness. The underside toe has melted into a corrugated pattern. I refuse to accept this as penance for letting Dennis look after the stove.

Tomorrow: what Italians are good for. Why we don't know anything about Mozart.

Friday, April 07, 2006

day three

Bolshie Koty - Listvyanka (30km)

"Do you have tushonka in Australia?" a teenager named Liza asks me, as we stir lard-clotted mystery meat into our breakfast.
"Oh yes," I reply. I do not add, "it's for cats."
Liza is in our group. To simplify things on the hike, we are divided into groups and also, within groups, brigades (Russian: brigad), of which Kathy, Anne, Uli and I are one. Other brigades are assigned to specific tasks, such as getting the fire going, cooking, making sure there is enough newspaper on the tent. Not our brigad. We are a brigad unto ourselves.

The wind is full in our faces when we leave after nine. We haul our sankies through six inches of heavy snow. It is two hours before we come in view of Bolshie Koty, small and churchless on the flats of a frozen river. In the centre of its bay we stop for a rest. As our brigad believes that no brigad member is an island, entire of itself, and that the death of one brigad member diminishes us all, in our case by a minimum of 25%, we share our drinking water around.
That is, we try.
"Nelzya!" says Lena Stanislavovna. "Drinking not allowed."
"Why not allowed?" we ask. We are also an inquisitive brigad and thirst after knowledge.
"It's cold water. Very bad for your throat. Not allowed!"
Lena Stanislavovna is 50 years old and indestructible. She was born in a village on the rail line to Bratsk, the daughter of a man who built trains and a woman who made stoves and - probably - repelled single-handedly a regiment of Nazis. On leaving school she travelled two days west to a teaching institute in Tomsk, making her the third person I have known to have graduated in a place named after a Womble. She has two gold teeth (which is nothing on one of our rescue guys, who has the full set) and small black eyes which glint as she talks to you. In my case this is frequently, as I am the only foreigner whose name she has remembered. If you are not fit to the degree where everything is so tightly honed you are liable to pop an eyeball, she is a very bad person to be leading your hike.
"Matthew," she says. "You know we're running a bit behind. By this time last year we were halfway to Listvyanka. The best thing is to work hard today to make sure we make up the time. It won't be too much trouble. If we skip lunch we should be in Listvyanka by three."
This is the first lie.

We march on, brigades and groups, our enormous Russian flag and one tireless ginger dog, a foundling from the east coast of Baikal. 3pm passes. My afternoon brightens when I develop a method of moving my sanky forward which requires the movement of none of the joints in my legs. Two thirds of the group is obviously flagging. The other third is personified by Sasha, a 17-year-old bear-man who has been ahead of me all day. Sasha walks with fists at his side and his sanky rope knotted carelessly around his shirt, for he feels no pain. His grey woollen beanie he wears high on his head, for he feels no cold. Sasha regards the frustration and weariness of others with interest, for although his emotions are simple, he enjoys the quirks of his fellow man. If I was working in French period cinema and casting village oaf, I would cast Sasha. At 4pm my belt snaps. 5pm passes.
"The first two days are always the hardest," says Lena Stanislavovna, materialising out of the snow alongside me and mistaking my look of unfocused resentment for welcome.
"Some of the later days will be 15, even 10 kilometres. Easy. We'll be setting up camp sometimes at three in the afternoon. Last year people had time to climb a mountain."
These are the second, third, fourth and fifth lies.
5.30pm has passed before we round the last fir-covered false cape to Listvyanka and it is six before the town finally swings into view: observatories high on the hills, the roasted skeletons of ships and factories; a hotel which would once have become the most tasteless building in Listvyanka had it not been built too close to the cliff edge and abandoned to become the most tasteless ruin in Listvyanka. We haul sankies onto the pebbly beach behind the fish market.
Later, as we manouevre our legs onto camping mats in the local school's basketball hall, listening to the interesting sound they make resonating off the pine, Lena Stanislavovna comes over for a chat.
"Matthew, do you have purple block juice in Australia?"
"I believe we do not have purple block juice in Australia," I say. "And, physically gutshot as I am, I would like you to tell me what it is."
"Purple block juice," says Lena Stanislavovna, "is a block of what to the foreign eye looks like purple soap. It is rock hard but when you carve it into a saucepan and add boiling water, the result is juice as though God himself had squeezed it from his orchards. You must try purple block juice."
I have tried purple block juice. Purple block juice tastes like unset jelly.

Tomorrow: how to turn good, wet shoes into bad, dry shoes. What is the sound of one tent flapping?

Thursday, April 06, 2006

day two

Bolshoye Goloustnoye - not quite Bolshie Koty (20km)

We wake in a classroom, under a board reading 'geroi nedelyi' - 'heroes of the week'. Andrei is geroi nedelyi for his breakthrough work with the timetable. Outside in the corridor the majority of our hiking group is running up and down shrieking. Somehow we have expected a mix on this trip of families and regular folk. In fact it is us, a dog, three rescue workers, two teachers, and 50 of their students, aged 10-22. We decide Marina has used the subleties of language to deceive. We forgive her when she brings us carrots.
At 8.30am we head for the river Goloustnoye, a short cut to the lake.
The buckwheat, sleeping bags, six kilograms of mashed-up cow parts and so on we pack inside a rucksack. The rucksack we lash onto our sanky (sled, but you'll agree sanky is the better word) with all the rope we have and all the scout knots we remember. I remember the always-functional 'many times' knot. (I once knew sheepshank. Was sheepshank useful?) I hook a rope from the sanky to the canvas belt around my belly.

Look closely here. I am merry.

The first hour is mayhem. The ice on the river has formed slopes, making it almost impossible to pull a properly weighted sanky. Our sanky, while glinting attractively in the early morning sun, is weighted like Gerard Depardieu. By the time we skip out onto the lake, an hour in, the sanky has tipped a handful of times, had its ropes re-tightened and been given several good talkings to. On top of this, our koshki (crampons) have developed a tendency to stay behind us in the ice every 20 minutes or so. We solve this as we now solve all problems: by strapping them on with rope.
I fall in behind Slava, a cheery, camouflage-wearing, born-up-a-tree-with-the-secret-of-fire 16-year-old, and Lena Stanislavovna, a maths teacher.
Fields of ice blocks a few hundred metres in from shore keep us hugging the coastline. It is four hours across snow and ice before lunch.
"Last year we were here by 10am," says Lena Stanislavovna.
In mid-afternoon a field of torosy widens before us. It is kilometres across. There are cliffs on the shoreline. On approach, my sanky tips lamely on an ice crack. The sanky and I exchange words. We agree it will need to work harder.
The torosy is, basically, agony. Every 15 metres or so is a process of walking backwards over ice blocks, manually hauling your sanky which would otherwise flip and in any case often still does. After almost an hour I have sore arms, sore calves and a sanky whose runners have ripped partway away from their frame. My mood is not lightened by descriptions of last year's hike, when it was 'ice and good winds all the way'.
"Last year we were way past this point by lunchtime," says Lena Stanislavovna.
Late in the afternoon it becomes clear we are not going to reach our camping spot at Bolshie Koty. Lena Stanislavovna is concerned. My sanky and I do not care. We are striding along snow-dusted ice, a thousand miles an hour with a gale at our backs. We pass the lads with the giant Russian flag.
"Which country are you representing?" I ask, trying a little joke. "It's Russia," they answer. "Right," I say.

The sun is low when we turn towards shore. Crossing a single line of torosy, where one sheet of ice has pushed up against another, I feel a pull on my sanky as if it has snagged on an ice block. I look back as I haul it clear. There is a new hole in the ice and the back of my rucksack is dripping slush. I head to shore before I can think about this much.
We will share our tent with the 8 other people assigned to our group. The tent has an inner lining and a pot-iron kerosene stove which, although heavy and unforthcoming on the key issue of heat, will require us to rise in shifts to tend it in the witching hours. The outer part of the tent is painters' plastic sheeting held together with newspaper. The tent is secured by our ski poles, which we use each night to force new holes in the sheeting and tie down with rocks.
As we get the fire going, there is a call on the rescue guys' CB. They roar off in their snowmobile with their dog. They are exactly like Kathy's current favourite Austrian TV drama, Alpysky Patrul. When they arrive back they have Marina. She is wearing somebody else's clothes.
"Fell in," she says. "Up by the torosy. In to my chest. The only thing that stopped me going under was my ski poles."
We offer her vodka until the fire gets going. A look of shock comes to Marina's face.
"Have you given some to the spirits?" (Marina is, you'll remember, a Buryat - although it's not only Buryats round here who will fuss about whether the spirits have been placated).
"No," we say. "We haven't opened it yet."
Afterwards, warming up tushonka, we see that Marina has taken a cup of water and is sprinkling it around the campsite: on trees, on rocks, in gullies. "Very bad," she is saying. "Very bad."

Tomorrow: why you shouldn't drink water. How to make juice from a soap block.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

what we did on our holidays

The Sunday morning before last, Kathy and I left for a seven-night, six day hike, starting from Bolshoye Goloustnoye, partway up the west coast of Baikal, and pulling sleds to Slyudanka, in the south. Here is a map of the route on which, due to scale, not all geographical features are represented:

These two days past we've spent lying in bed, sometimes getting up to rub cream into our sun-scorched faces but for the most part almost literally unable to walk. I promise you, it will be much more fun vicariously.

Day 1: Irkutsk - Bolshoye Goloustnoye

The night before we leave the clocks go forward, so although it's only 8am when we catch our tram for the Irkutsk Institute of Agriculture, to us it's an ungodly 7 in the morning.
Ulrich, Katherine, our Finnish friend Anne (accent the second syllable and it sounds more Scandinavian and less Famous Five) and I are together. Anne is along for two days, Uli, K and I for the whole shebang. We wait outside rusty iron gates opposite town hospital no.3, built the year Stalin died and still sporting hammer and sickles. I would like neither of these things, even as emblems, in a place doing operations on me. After my experiences in the polyclinics, I would put it past no Russian doctor to begin surgery with the words, "We'll just hold you still with this curved, shiny blade, and then..."
In the week preceding the hike we have worked through an enormous shopping list. We have the hiking essentials: a cheap aluminium sled topped with wooden slats, ski poles, rope, sleeping mats, sunglasses, a half-remembered competency with knots. The bulk of the food is as follows:

  • 12 cans tushonka (processed meat)
  • 9 cans sweetened condensed milk
  • 1kg grechka (buckwheat)
  • 1kg rice
  • 1kg yellow porridge/cous-cous crossover
  • 2kg pasta
  • 2kg potatoes
  • 4 cans fish
  • 12 pkts soup mix
  • 4kg croutons
  • 4kg chocolate

Noteable I feel in hindsight are the absences of fruit and vegetables and the dearth of alternatives to meals founded on meat processed of its identity and goodness, trucked to Ulan Ude, rolled in pig fat and squeezed into anonymous tins with a picture of cow on them. Stamping our feet in Irkutsk's blackening snow at 7.30am, the chocolate seems most important.
The main debate among Uli, Anne and K and I has been over footwear. Not so much our boots, which are fine, but what to stick under them so that we stride over the ice more in the manner of, say, Roald Amundsen than, say, Pingu. Marina, our contact for the hike and one-time host in Bolshoye Goloustnoye, raised the topic a few weeks back.
"You'll need spikes, of course"
"Right. The kind that clip on the underside of your shoe?"
"No, little ones are better. Just individual spikes, 1-2cm."
"Do you know an outdoors or camping shop where we can pick them up?"
"Won't need that. Any hardware shop will do."
"Hardware... wait. We're talking... screws?"
"Screws, yes. I thought you understood this."
"You just screw screws into the underside of your boots?"
"10-12 in each boot will do the job"
"But don't the boots break?"
"Sometimes, sure."
Anne has opted for the screws. Somewhat mutinously, Uli, Kathy and I have bought crampons (koshki in Russian - little cats). We figure koshki may not be as ideal for the conditions but probably won't result in shredded boots and screws halfway up our bone marrow. On each of these counts we will be both right and wrong.

Tomorrow: the hike begins. How will the koshki fare? What holds together the worst tent in the world?