The grand finale of 6 days in Buryatia, which unfortunately left a bad taste in my mouth. . . .

Wednesday, Sep 30: Returning to Familiar Sights

Our fears were confirmed, meaning that the strong west wind from the night before hadn’t let up and didn’t show any signs of stopping, our hike to the top of the large peninsula on Baikal was cancelled. Looking across the bay to the peninsula from our beach, it was clear that the peak was covered in clouds and that even if we had done our hike, it would have been all for naught, since the promised 360 degree view would have been blockaded.

Packing it out: So instead, we ate. For about 2 hours. We had our kasha (oatmeal) with raisins and dried apricots and condensed milk, a delicious yogurt fruit salad (apples, oranges, raisins, and peanuts, topped with cinnamon), the rest of the butter cookies, chocolates, and so forth, topped off with the necessary tea. After we did the dishes and packed up, we climbed to the top of a lookout tower about 6 stories tall, consisting of wooden planks and ladders, and enjoyed the view despite the wind. To kill time and get our exercise in, Misha agreed to meet us at the mouth of the river (the ferry ride away from Ust’-Barguzin) with the van two hours later, to which we walked in about 2 hours.

Long walk on the beach: It was sunny and bright, and a sandy beach the whole way, and the wind blew big waves ashore, so it felt like any ol’ ocean beach. Elizabeth, the ecological go-getter of the group, picked up a piece of litter a few minutes in, and then a bottle, and then another, and soon, we (myself, Elizabeth, and Romany; Patrick decided not to participate in our project) found ourselves hands full of empty-vodka-bottle- and fishnet-filled, tattered plastic bags. The wind got pretty wicked and was tossing us and our payloads around pretty freely, so we eventually had to abandon our broken bags and take only the litter that we could carry in our bare hands with us. Though it was because we ultimately only moved the trash further down on the beach, and take a handful with us, we at least managed to make the first half of the beach nicer. Felt good to do our part to support the effort to grow the eco-tourism sector of Baikal.

Familiar places and faces: After the same ferry ride back to Ust’-Barguzin, we found ourselves again in the care of Aleksandr and Galina at our homestay there. Upon arrival, Aleksandr gave us a tour of their property, including the second banya and their little dining hall decorated with paintings depicting the Russian banya culture, also where the veniki (the dried branches you beat each other with in the banya) were hung to dry. Since we had an hour or two until the banya would be ready before dinner, Romany and I took a stroll around town where we were surrounded by the directionless flow of people walking home from school and work through the town’s colorful, mostly unpaved streets.

When we got back, the banya was ready. This was a special banya, called a banya po-chyornomu (a black banya, as opposed to a “white” one, po-belomu), which people generally don’t use anymore, and which, Aleksandr told us, plenty of Russians haven’t ever done. It’s prepared in a little domik, built out of full-width logs for insulation, with a stone oven, which looks like a pile of stones with a hollowed out area for an oven. The difference is that there’s no chimney, so the smoke just fills the domik as the wood burns, and escapes through a little hole cut out in the side of the house. So the entire inside is charcoal black, and really dark, which makes a cool effect when the coals blaze up beneath the stones and the steam rises. When the stones have been heated enough, you open the door to let all the smoke out, and when the smoke has stopped, you go in, shut the door, pour the water to make the steam, and so on and so forth.

So we had our banya, shower, and then delicious dinner and a few shots of vodka and toasts to health, us (the guests), and travel, and then it was off to bed.

Thursday, Oct 1: Almost Home

Happy Elderly Person Day! The polite way of saying that is, well, morphologically equivalent to “person who has lived ‘through.'” Unfortunately, we were traveling as and with the young, so no celebrating really took place. Bummer.

I felt a little woozy in the stomach, even before breakfast, but eating an oily egg and fish dish didn’t help, so I asked if Elizabeth had any medicine. She did. But bad question to ask. It was this clearish gel that you’re supposed to take a huge tablespoon of to “clean out everything” as she made a circular motion with her hand indicating the stomach. Just what I needed, right? Well, it took me about 5 seconds after barely swallowing the tasteless but slightly sandy compound, that it wasn’t going to make it as far as my stomach to do any “cleaning.” Made it to the restroom in time, and felt mostly better afterwards. So on with the day.

Vizit-tsentr: On our way out of Ust’-Barguzin in the morning, we stopped in at the not creatively named “Visit Center” of the Zabaikalskii National Park, in which we had camped out two nights before. A nice German girl, barely any accent at all speaking Russian, who had met her (Russian) husband when she was visiting the park about 5 years ago, gave us the run-down of the park’s flora and fauna, geology, history, and so on. After a browse around their display on the preservation of the Baikal seals and through their collection of stuff-for-sale, we got into the car for our five-hour (turned into seven with stops) drive back to Ulan-Ude.

Stop 1: Neat little complex about 35 km out of Ust’-Barguzin with an Orthodox church and a few other houses and a little museum built entirely out of wood in the traditional Russian Orthodox way by this woodworking artist–no metal nails, wood glue, or string involved. The church was closed for internal remodeling (which isn’t an infrequent occurence in Russia at all: “Remont idyot,” or “Remodeling is happening” is a common excuse for strange noises or smells from a neighboring room or for locked doors and detours), and there weren’t any tours that day, so we just wandered around for a bit and stretched our legs.

Stop 2: Random shore of Baikal with a rock that was famous for looking like a turtle jumping out of the water. Indeed. It looked like a turtle jumping out of the water. But that wasn’t why we stopped. . . Elizabeth, out of the blessed goodness of her Kansasan (word?) heart, shared her last stash of US-bought marshmallows and graham crackers (plus some Russian chocolate) with us, as we made s’mores over a campfire Misha whipped up for us. Plus apple juice. Yumm, and aww, America. . . .

Stop 3: Lunch in Goryachinsk, where we’d had lunch on our way there. Our last stop at a road-side cafeteria, which are good for a hot bowl of soup and a pirozhok (sometimes deep-fried ball of bread filled with meat, potatoes, or cabbage–so good), that is, if they’re not out of half the things on their menu. Also our last authentic Buryatian pozi, which consist of a half-palm-sized ball of spiced meat inside an almost rubbery type of dough or pasta wrapping, pinched together at the top but left open with a small hole. My theory for the existence of said hole is that it’s for ventilation, because the way you eat them is by biting another small hole in the side of the pozi, slurping the juice out of it (thus the need for the cross-wind through the pozi), and then eating it normally, usually with a mustardy horseradish-type sauce called gorchitsa.

Stop 4: Gas.

Big things in Ulan-Ude on a Thursday afternoon: As our drive came to a close, the color scheme changed from the grey, deep green, and golden yellow highlighted with the streaks of dirt roads and crystal white birch tree trunks, and into the grey fog of the mountains before Ulan-Ude, and then into the brown-grey smog of the city. Once we got into town, we drove up a hill along a street called “Panoramskaya” (yes, again, shamelessly stolen from “panoramic”) with another modern-looking datsan at the top. Getting there just as it was closing, we got to see the largest statue of Buddha in Russia. Ironically or not, it was the skinny version of Buddha, but in all his golden splendor in a huge hall with chandeliers, tile floors, and the rest of the typical contents of the Buddhist temples we’d seen. Happy with the sense of peace that a journey almost complete plus a Buddhist temple will tend to create, we spun our last prayer wheels, each rang the huge bell commemorating the visit of the Dalai Lama, watched the colors of prayer flags waving in the wind, and took in the view of the Selenga flowing through the city, just as the sun began to get low in the sky.

At this point in the day, I found myself in what seemed to be a communist plot. We drove back to the downtown area, where Misha and Elizabeth dropped us off to wander for an hour and a half while they unpacked the stuff at Misha’s apartment. On our walk along Lenin street (note, literally, every city, town, village, sparsely populated area in the country has a Lenin Street, and a Karl Marx Street, just like every good Soviet city), we saw, again, the largest Lenin head in the world, the arts center still bearing the Red star and the hammer and sickle in its decor, a cafe named “Carlos VII,” and a blue-domed church (being remodeled, of course), inside of which they were conducting a service for the blessing of the Elderly on Elderly People’s Day. Communist conspiracy number one: the communists–gerontocrats, propaganda symbols, Karl Marx disguised as a Spanish freedom fighter alias “Carlos VII,” and the Wizard-of-Oz-head of Lenin–were following me.

Misha and Elizabeth picked us up and brought us to dinner at the Chinese restaurant named “Omon” (which, we later learned in Baikal Studies, is the name of the river in Russia on which Genghis Khan was born). The restaurant, on the second floor, was a funny, awkward, long, dark room lit by soft overhead lights, red and green christmas lights hung over the windows, and a green laser light, which was part of the DJ’s set up. Note, no one was dancing, but the DJ was jammin’ nonetheless. It was a good tasting meal, and the fried pears and bananas were good for desert. But, had I realized that I had also fallen into communist plot number two of the day, I would have avoided the combination of sparkling water with a food-poisoned (. . . by the Chinese communists, of course) seafood dish.

We got to the train station at about 5 in the evening Moscow time (10 in Ulan-Ude, but you never would have known that from the clocks. . .), said our farewells to our guide Misha, and boarded our wagon. It was a pretty quick lights out, as we were all pretty wiped from the long drive, and long week.

Friday, Oct 2: Food Poisoning

Communist plot number 2: Successful. After 4 scenes in the train bathroom and one in the little room at the end of the car before you walk out the door onto the tracks crouched over a bag, I was down and out for the count. Elizabeth ordered me a taxi home (the other two came along with, since we all live on the same road), Tatyana Eduardovna gave me strong tea upon arrival, and I spent the rest of the day in bed, missing the classes at school that I didn’t really want to go to in the first place. Not that I would have minded exchanging the class time for the train ride back to Irkutsk.

Returning to Irkutsk in the drizzly, morning rush hour, though, was a strange feeling of homecoming, yet complete estrangement only in the fact that I felt moderately comfortable telling the taxi driver how to get to the front door of my homestay so far away from real home.

But it was a successful trip, I learned a lot, saw new things, and had my time to gather my strength for the three-week stretch (now just two weeks) of classes until the actual scheduled fall recess. In other news, Romany and I purchased our train tickets today for our trip to Mongolia for the week of fall break. The one-sentence preview of that trip: 36 hour train to Ulan-Bator; 2 days there in the capital of Mongolia in a $10-a-night hostel; 4 days being led on horse or camel back through the Mongolian steppes by natives (no English or Russian there) who will house us, armed only with a small phrase book; and the 36-hour train ride back to Irkutsk. Who’d a’thunk. . . .

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