Sunday, July 27, 2008

Gulag Jamboree

I know. I have been back for almost a week and I just posted this. Cut me a little slack here, I have been out there doing my damnedest to entertain you for the last two months. I need to wash socks and underwear.

Rural Siberia was awesome. I don’t know what all those political exiles were whining about, the weather was beautiful when I was there. Apparently there is at least one month a year were it isn’t snowing.

After getting off the train, my traveling companion and I hid out for the night in the Soviet-era medical school dormitory when one of her college buddies was living. That lasted a day before the babuski found us and packed us off to the dumpy bus station hotel downtown. It was the kind of place a former B-list Russian celebrity OD’s, but had reasonably priced laundry service, so all-in-all not a bad deal.

After a day of logistics, we decided we needed to get our Siberian vacation off to a rocking start - so we went to the Museum of Wooden Architecture! Which, and this may be my inner Risk-playing dork showing, was actually really cool. I will add a few pictures to let you see for yourself, but what isn’t there to love about wooden yurts? Then we went to Listvianka, which is a domestic Russian tourist trap known for its special omul fish. The fish almost made up for the total shit show going on around me. Russians are a people that live by the general rule that ones skirt should never be longer than your heels are high, imagine what beach-wear looks like. It isn’t so bad for young ones, as they are all skinny and beautiful. The problem occurs when no one mentions to you that you are no longer young and skinny and beautiful. Ladies over 50, please don’t wear thong bathing suits in public. Not even if you are Cher.

The next day we headed off to summer camp. In 1983, Nikita Bencharov was an all-Russia table tennis champion. In 1988, he visited a friend (who still hangs around the dining hall) on Olkhon Island in Lake Baikal, and decided to stay. Today, it is by the far best example of sustainable tourism I have ever seen. The place is a castle-like compound, designed in part Siberian carved wood, part what tourists imagine Siberian carved wood should look like, with kitschy folk art furniture in the new buildings. The place is eco-friendly, with all bio-toilets and steam baths. It isn’t dirt cheap (which keeps out the hippies), but contributes heavily to a community that has been desolated by the closure of the Soviet era fish processing plant. All meals are served in community dining halls and use ingredients from the local community – which sort of means omul for breakfast, lunch and dinner – but it is the thought that counts. The guests are everything from domestic Russian tourists to Midwestern American families – with kids and pets running all over the place (in a isn’t-this-homey-sort-of-way, instead of the why-doesn’t-someone-cage-these-things-sort-of-way.) There are lists of group excursions – jeep trips and hiking and biking – to sign up for, or you can just laze around the lake. And a bar that serves local beer. In short, everything a 28 year old kid wants in camp.

I spent five days out there, staying on even after my traveling companion left. I could drone on forever about the place, but instead I just posted pictures and will list the highlights.

(1) Scenery. I will let the picture speak to that.

(2) White Caviar. On the jeep trip to the north cape of the island, we stopped for an omul soup picnic. I arrived to lunch late because I had wandered off looking for seals, so I thought I got the dregs of the soup. But there in my bowl I had something that looked like a little round white tic-tac. Inquiring from the group of Russian tourists at the table, I discovered that I had lucked into white caviar, or boiled inquiring from the group of Russian tourists at the table, I discovered that I had lucked into white caviar, or boiled omul eye. (Name came about during Soviet times when real caviar was scarce in central Siberia.) They nodded approvingly as I enthusiastically popped it into my mouth. Eh.

(3) Yak Vodka. We went to a performance of traditional Buryat (local Mongolian-ish ethnic minority) folk music. The performance had the general feeling of a poorly staged middle school talent show, but there were highlights, including the late 90-something year old (somewhat senile) matriarch of the family telling us all to pass her pipe and go the hell away. And then there was the local vodka. It tasted like a cross between vodka and Tibetan yak butter tea. I don’t particularly like either one, but the combination made my teeth shudder.

(4) Swimming. So the legend of Lake Baikal is that if you stick your hands in, you will live an extra 5 years. You get 7 for your feet, and a full 25 if you manage to submerge your whole body. This is all on the condition that the shock of the ice cold water doesn’t kill you instantly. Seriously. It is the world’s deepest lake and it freezes over thick enough to drive over in the winter. This is some cold-ass water. Regardless however, with all my drinking and smoking and tropical disease thus far, I figured I had better suck it up and take the plunge. Tomorrow. Every day I found some reason to put it off. Then one afternoon, as I stood atop a 20 foot cliff overlooking the lake, I decided, forget it. It is just a silly superstition. I am not getting in that water. I hate the cold. Rather unfortunately for me (at least in the short term), I was so distracted by these profound thoughts, that I didn’t put my lens cap on straight. It popped off, bounced down the cliff, and splashed into icy Lake Baikal. *Son* of a bitch. So my friend laughed her (dry) ass off as I slide and skittered down the cliff, waded through the waist deep water around the rock point, and retrieved my lens cap from the (thankfully crystal clear) waters. Later that day I decided hell-with-it and took the whole plunge. Hopefully I won’t be cursing myself in 2097, when I am 118 years old.

(5) Rock Graffiti. In the summer, tourists use the bright chalky white rocks to spell out messages to passing boats on the green hill overlooking the main beach. We added our own little bit…

Then it was time to drift back home. The only other bit of excitement was the S7 Airlines flight. They used to be Siberian Airlines but had three crashes in less than a year. Putin made them sell all the broken ones and pick a new name. But other than being 2 hours late, the trip was uneventful.

1 comment:

Brian Crowley said...

Are you joking on the mix of Siberia and summer camp? Coincidentally, I was in a short-lived punk band named Gulag Jamboree.