Finding Nemo

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Taiga Train

I'd been on the train for over 48 hours. And at some point, I'm not quite sure when, I stopped looking out the window. Because the view never, ever changed. Trees, trees, and more trees. We traveled through a tunnel of wood.

Sure America has a bit of taiga, but as they say in Russia: it is puny capitalist taiga.
Taiga: from sea to frozen sea

This, then, was the endless Siberian taiga. It stretches from the Bering Sea all the way across Asia and into Eastern Europe: twice the size of the Amazon. The trees can be so thick that is difficult to even walk through, full of mud-pits, ticks, brown bears, wolves, and the unfortunate descendants of the White Russians. But perhaps it is most famous because Bear Grylls went there and, well, just watch the video...

"An eruption of cold fluid, gristle, blood..."

Although Russia is the biggest country on earth, its population and growth (and power) is kept in check by the simple fact that most of the country is uninhabitable by normal humans. Temperatures in Siberia range from -80 to 104 deg F. Yes, that is not a typo. The only people who live here are the nomadic reindeer people, a few indigenous tribes, and backpackers who have gone a little nuts.

Watching it all go by out the train window is mesmerizing and somewhat claustrophobic. You can't really see the landscape, you are in a Taiga Tunnel that never ends. I can see why Paul Theroux in the Great Railway Bazaar finally lost his marbles here, lonely, tired of traveling, and, well, he was horny.

Over the tracks and through the woods, to Lenin's House we go...
I had to admit, I was starting to get lonely on this train. Where were the crazy Russians offering me all the vodka I could drink? Where were the hot but rude train stewardesses? Where were the adventurous backpackers? Theroux's journey in the 70's was turning out to be nothing like mine.

Across from me sat a mother napping with her young kids. She spoke no English, and I was having trouble suggesting that we should both get naked and streak the train.

With no other options, I turned my gaze back to the window and watched the never-ending taiga tunnel roll by, like an old cartoon where the scenery is on repeat.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Sea of Siberia

Upon old blue
Yes Lake Baikal is very old, a mile deep, strangely full of seals, and crackling with Shaman magic. But that's not what a trip to the Siberian Sea is all about.

It was about midnight on my last day on the island, and I found myself in a campfire circle with a bunch of Russians. Most were from the European side, and for them the long journey to Siberia and Lake Baikal was quite the adventure. An enormous bottle of cheap local vodka was making the rounds, and at this point it was nearly empty. And then, a guitar chord.

Twaaaaanng. It was more than a little out of key. An old man boomed out in a gravely voice, "Nikolajjar!" He began to strum, and soon everyone was singing along to some well-known Russian ballad. It was bouncy and dark at the same time, kind of like if Bob Marley had woken up, seen three little sad birds, and decided to do some Reggae in E minor. The bottle made its way into my hand, those around me whispered, "Blaguii, veetch!". Good, drink!

"Capitalist American pigs were singing...  bye bye, American pie... "
I thought to myself that things couldn't get any more awesomely Russian. And then the accordion appeared. Nothing, and I mean nothing, evokes Eastern Europe like the accordion. To be honest, I'm not a fan of the instrument. Cats yowling at 3am are slightly more pleasant. But tonight, on this cool Siberian night, it was the ice cream on the pie.

There is more to Olkhon Island of course than singing along to accordions and yelling (what you hope means) "one more!" during the applause. The main island has dramatic cliffs on the north end festooned with Shaman blue ribbons. There are sand dunes, mud pits, far-off misty mountains across the lake, horseback riding, pine forests, salt ponds. In other words, there is pretty much every type of terrain on earth packed into a single place. It's a hiker's nirvana.

Siberian sunset
Near the main tourist village there is an irresistible spit with a towering boulder mountain covered in bright orange lichen. All the Russian tourist try to impress their girlfriends by clambering up to the top, although it is actually extremely dangerous. I almost fell to my death leaping across one of the gaps. Most of the portlier old men are content to lounge atop the lower boulders in their speedos, sunbathing and watching their incredibly attractive (and much younger) girlfriends bounce around in bikinis.

But my trip was not complete until I did the most manly thing there is to do around here. And that is to plunge into the frigid water screaming like a little girl.

After I stripped down to my skivvies, I stood there at the edge of the water. I couldn't muster up the courage. Then I noticed some ladies nearby were watching. There was only thing to do.

It was the most impressive doggie-paddling and howling the girls had ever seen. I'm pretty sure of it.

Good thing I had on skivvies. I wouldn't have impressed afterwards.