Summer, 2003. By Lynn Cherny (May 2005)

My Summer Vacation in Siberia

My friend Ellen, stationed at the American embassy in Moscow in 2003, proposed a long weekend trip to Siberia during my visit with her. The Lake Baikal Siberian tour sounded intense but fun: Fly overnight from Moscow to Irkutsk, meet an English-speaking guide at the airport at 5am Moscow time, and drive five hours down the coast of Lake Baikal, the largest body of freshwater on the planet; take a ferry to Olkhon Island, stay two nights in fishermen's houses, visit shamanic holy sites and rock formations, and then reverse to Irkutsk and back "home" to Moscow.

No sweat for travellers like us. Her friend Carlton from the embassy was coming along, so it promised to be a social adventure.

Getting There—?

On the flight from Moscow, we were surrounded by beefy Russian men who drank and talked all night. The seats on these Tupolovs were folding seats, flimsy and uncomfortable. When the guy behind me moved, occupants of the three rows in front all knew it. Ellen and I declined the meal, later to prove a foolish decision. Here's one moral of this story, right up front: Expect unexpectedly long periods without food. Say "thanks" and eat the airplane food.

We felt chipper and excited, albeit a bit groggy, upon landing. For a major Siberian destination, the airport was rather dumpy and the tarmac was empty of planes. The air smelled of smoke, a rustic detail. Ah, the untouched countryside of the largest continent! The morning mist was evaporating and it looked like it might end up a warm day. Inside the airport, we held our noses over the pit toilets and peered around, wondering how to recognize our guide.

The other passengers weren't doing very much -- most were standing in line at the food counter that was already selling beer, the soda pop of Russia. We figured they were all waiting for a bus or rides; maybe the flight had arrived early?

Ecological (and Tourist) Disaster

airportSinister airport During the next hour, Ellen circled the interior of the airport and read a few posted notices that eventually confirmed her growing suspicion: We weren't in Irkutsk! We were in Bratsk, a town somewhere far to the north. A helpful airport agent explained that we had been diverted because of smoke from Siberian forest fires that had settled over Irkutsk and shut down the airport indefinitely. The fires had been in the news a few weeks earlier, but in Moscow we hadn't known they were still posing any problem. We must have missed the announcement of the diversion as we landed. None of us had Russian that was up to understanding speaker static at 5am.

A few hours passed, more planes landed, none took off. We met a young Frenchman from Paris named Michel who was on his way to Irkutsk as well. He had been there once before, in the winter, when he had hiked across frozen Lake Baikal. Now he was visiting a girlfriend. My French lasted for all of ten minutes with him, and then I lapsed into a doze on a bench.

Meanwhile, on another bench in the "international lounge," the governor of Nevada was stretched out, looking miserable. He was purportedly here on a visit to promote tourism and advise on "tourist infrastructure" (we were living the lack); his party included a Bulgarian professor and a taciturn American guide who was resigned and unsurprised by the unplanned layover. airportView from front of airport;
it says Bratsk
The governor was feeling unwell, having eaten something not fit for visiting politicians. Ellen did her diplomatic duty and offered him some Pepto-Bismol tablets.

It got much, much hotter. Ellen and I bought two triangles of spreadable cheese that looked like Russian Laughing Cow and a couple pieces of bread, the only food we'd had since Moscow. There was nothing left at the snack counter by this time.

The friendly airport lady helped Ellen reach our guide on the phone. We were much too far away from Irkutsk for him to pick us up, at least a day's drive, he said. We wondered if there was anything worth doing in Bratsk instead. Carlton's guidebook told us that Bratsk was the "ecological disaster of Siberia," airportBratsk town a place famed for strip mines, factories, and a huge dam.

Doug, Connie, and Mikhail to the Rescue

Early in the afternoon, Ellen came upstairs with the story that two other folks from the embassy had just landed, Doug and Connie, also headed for Baikal for a holiday. Unwilling to sit around, they were "arranging transportation" to Irkutsk. We gathered Michel and met them outside -- where there were now lots of cars and disgruntled travellers hanging out in 90 degree heat. Doug, whose Russian was very good, had chatted up Front of Airport, MikhailFront, Mikhail a young Siberian named Mikhail, who promised cars to drive us rich foreigners south to the city. (Mikhail is on the right by the car in the photo of the airport.)

"It's only about six hours," Mikhail said in good English. "There's a highway. And on the way, we will all stop for dinner with my friends. You can pay later, I trust you."

It required four cars and some juggling to get everyone in, including a newly acquired hippy from Connecticut who had a job teaching English in Irkutsk. airportGas in Bratsk Bumped from Doug and Connie's car to ours for the hippy teacher, Carlton accommodatingly shifted to a third car so Michel could travel with us (despite my lousy French, I felt protective of him). After handing over most of our collective cash as requested prepayment while we fueled up at the gas station on the edge of town (oh, this was what Mikhail meant by "later"), we headed out past Soviet-era apartment complexes. We noticed that we were now a caravan of three cars rather than four. We decided that Mikhail, who had Doug and Connie with him, had gone on ahead to prepare dinner with his friends.

The Vastness of the Taiga

Siberia is quite big. Large on a scale even Americans have difficulty taking in, especially Americans who are used to shrimpy European countries. The scenery was more varied than expected, offering misty stretches of low wetlands, the taiga forest of birch and conifers on hillsides, and empty green flatlands that could have been in the American plains. The road was a wide two-laner, paved but quite irregular in patches. We passed isolated houses of the traditional Siberian airportSiberian house wood style with elaborately carved shutters, looking poor but picturesque; far less picturesque were the ugly Soviet apartment blocks in the center of every new town. It was a steamy day, and we didn't see many people, apart from someone selling chickens at one intersection and an occasional over-dressed female foot-traveller at the side of the road.

Sasha, our driver who spoke no English, drove very fast to eat up the miles; his old Toyota had poor shocks and no seat belts airportTaiga in the back. He only put his own on as we passed the police guardia posts and he took it off again afterwards. I hung onto the handle above the door behind him with a white fist. Unfortunately, Victoria's Secret never stress tests their bras on Siberian highways, so I had to keep my other arm over my chest or else lose a breast in a pothole. Sasha rolled down his window and smoked, when he thought we were all asleep.

Eventually we drove into the fire. We passed through smoking, blackened woods and saw the occasional stubborn licks of flame nibbling at the charcoaled roots. It was ghostly, infernal. Hmm, I wonder if this road trip was such a good idea, I thought to myself. I didn't snap any photos out the window. Note to self for the future: Don't worry about saving memory card space for the "good photos" when you might be about to die in a forest fire or a high speed car accident in Siberia.

My chest gymnastics made it hard to sleep, but I still managed to doze on and off for a few hours. Michel slept beside me; he woke up once to ask in alarm, "Is that fire? Are we in the fire?"

In the early evening, the three cars in our caravan stopped at a small roadside store fronted by a dirt parking lot. We stretched and bought ice cream cones from a freezer for 25 cents, in wrappers that said "Sovietski." I would've eaten a moldy crust by then. There were no bathrooms. I think the men pissed in the back yard.

We found out we were only about halfway there, and it was nearly dark already.

Only Half Way?!?

We were a little slow to take in the implications of this combination of facts. Ellen proposed as we pulled out, "Let's just press on and skip dinner with Mikhail's friends." Sasha babbled at her in Russian, and the conversation got heated. All three cars had to pull over by the highway for a parlay-- during which Ellen discovered that none of our drivers had ever intended stopping for dinner and moreover didn't know where these alleged friends of Mikhail's lived!

Apart from the fear that we were victims of some kidnapping scheme, the practical complication now was that Carlton's airportSiberian housing bags -- including his passport -- were in Mikhail's car, and we had no idea how to rendezvous with them. Doug and Connie had hotel reservations somewhere in Listvyanka, a town on the shore of Lake Baikal, an hour south of Irkutsk. A Russian man in one of the other cars (whom we didn't remember joining the party) produced a cell phone, which miraculously had reception out there in the middle of nowhere. Ellen managed to contact our guide Leonid with it; he told us he would arrange a hotel for us.

We passed more Soviet bloc housing and crossed over a lake on which the smoke sat like a layer of insulation. The air became denser the further south we went. airportSiberian fields We knew the wind hadn't changed and the airport hadn't opened that day.

After it got dark, we lost track of time. We stopped once to stretch by the side of the road, three cars in a row with their headlights on, a film noir scene of gangsters up to no good. The full moon looked like a pale gold coin caught in the branches of ghostly birches. Mist mingled with the smoke on the flatlands, doubling the gloom. We lost reception on the phone. I was now digesting my stomach lining, and my bra had gone on strike over abusive labor conditions.

Around midnight, we finally hit the outskirts of Irkutsk and stopped at a gas station. The outhouse lights were off, so the women all peed behind some bushes for the first time since we had set out on the road. It was what, 8 hours of travel now? We didn't even know. After a bewildering drive through foggy suburbs to drop another passenger (I became progressively more worried about being kidnapped), we pulled up at the large Intourist-era hotel in the center of town.

Sasha had had enough of us by then and dumped us brusquely without farewells. It was 2am. Front of Airport, MikhailSiberian house

Checking In

Michel left for his girlfriend's. Ellen rallied herself for negotiations with snide desk staff, used their phone to call our guide Leonid and tell him we were there, got their rates table clarified, and finally begged them to let us check-in even without Carlton's passport. Burly men in suits -- bouncers -- watched from the door of the casino across the polished marble lobby. This could've been a shoddy set from a 1960s spy movie.

Front of Airport, MikhailIrkutsk

The room came to only about $35. The showers were nothing more than a spout over the tile bathroom floor, a bit suggestive of a gas chamber, but it was the best shower I've ever taken. The bed was lumpy and hard, but it was the best bed I've ever slept in.

Midmorning the phone rang; it was Doug in the lobby with Carlton's passport. Ellen ran down and came back up with their story. "You will not believe what happened to Doug and Connie. We thought we had a bad night."

Doug and Connie had been subjected to the Misadventures of Mikhail: Mikhail had circled for an hour waiting for us outside Bratsk (he said he yelled directions out the car window as we all left, but no one had heard him); they attempted to catch us on the road by calling ahead to police guardia outposts to get the three cars with foreigners stopped for them; they stopped at friends' who didn't want to entertain anyone and sent them away; stopped again, this time successfully, and stayed for six hours of a Russian feast complete with a break for swimming and a tour of a mine; and finally pulled off by the side of the road to sleep in the car in the middle of Nowhere (I knew where that was now) for the rest of the night. At 11 o'clock in the morning, they had only just arrived in Irkutsk. We had been sleeping for 8 hours in lumpy, hard, wonderful beds!

Another lesson here: Someone else is probably having a worse vacation than you are.

Listvyanka by the Lake

Having lost a day and a half, it was now impossible to get to Olkhon Island, but Leonid agreed to take us to the tourist town of Listvyanka on the lake shore. At least we would see the famous Lake Baikal, if not the island. He promised us he'd be able to find us accommodation, although it was a Russian holiday weekend Front of Airport, MikhailWooden architecture museum and we knew most of the hotels in this up-and-coming resort town were full. Listvyanka was where Doug and Connie had booked their weekend. We trusted him, though. (Well, Ellen did; I was more skeptical.)

On the way to the lake in Leonid's much nicer car, we argued with him about the benefits of wearing seat belts, which he didn't buy, although at least his car came equipped. By the sides of the road were small shrines marking either holy sites or accident sites. Front of Airport, MikhailWooden architecture museumWe stopped at a museum of wooden architecture and bought local crafts: pottery figurines of local gods and seals that were also, strangely, whistles. Leonid knew the artists and always brought his tourists to see them.

The celebrated Baikal lake view did not really pay off for us: the largest freshwater body in the world was entirely swathed in smoke, Front of Airport, MikhailFish sellers Front of Airport, MikhailLake Baikal edge so dense that we could only see a tiny sliver of water at the rocky shore. The fish market by the water was subdued, funereal in the low light. We could look at the round spot of the sun directly, it was so obscured; there were no shadows on the ground.

Front of Airport, MikhailFish for sale

We ran into Doug and Connie on the street, not a big coincidence in a town that size. They filled in some more details of their trip with Mikhail -- such as the part about the flat tire (luckily whilst pulling out of a drive, not at full speed), and the amusing bit about discovering their driver had no valid driving permit.

"So, was it fun?" Ellen asked.

Doug paused before answering. "Uh, it will have been, some day."

Leonid drove us to a lookout over the lake, where people had left empty beer cans on the ground and tied cloth strips to an old pine tree -- a common practice in holy sites there and pagan sites in Europe. (This page talks about this in the practices of the local Buryat people.) Front of Airport, MikhailHoly tree

Front of Airport, MikhailListvyanka

Staying at Lena's

After trying several hotels and finding them all full, the desk manager of the ugly Intourist hotel suggested we try the hotel doctor, who was interested in snagging extra B&B income.

That night, Lena, the doctor, put us up in her apartment, moving out of her own room into her son's to give us her double bed. Front of Airport, MikhailWhere we stayed the night The apartment complex looked like American slum housing, but was considered luxurious by the local standards, having good plumbing, modern appliances, and multiple rooms. She had recent electronics (TV, VCR, stereo) and her bathroom was stocked with imported soaps and shampoos from Europe. The brown floral wallpaper reminded me strikingly of motifs found in middleclass homes in the UK doing B&B in unfashionable areas.

Breakfast was a feast of a thousand dishes, including smoked fish, eggs, pasta, a potato dish. I stuffed myself while everyone conferred in Russian about our chances of getting a plane back to Moscow from the Irkutsk airport that day. My flight home to Seattle was in 36 hours, from Moscow. We considered trying to get me to Vladivostok, but of course I'd left my ticket in Moscow for safety. Carlton and I were united in being adamant that under no circumstances would we consider driving back to Bratsk. Ulan Ude was a day away by train, to the south of the lake. There was no guarantee that airport was open either. Front of Airport, MikhailThe lakeshore

Irkutsk Again

Leonid agreed to just take us back to Irkutsk to stress safely at the airport, but Carlton and I talked Ellen into first stopping at the marine biology aquarium on the lake shore. It turned out to be a hut holding a small swimming pool in which 2 young Baikal seals were swimming in endless circles for fish. Lake Baikal is famous for freshwater seals, called "nerpa" (for some years thought to be the only freshwater ones, but a few Finnish seals apparently count too). They looked happy, but a bit cramped. They had been found with no mother and were now growing up in captivity, performing for schoolkids and tourists. Their new aquarium was delayed by six months for funding reasons. "Funding reasons" can last forever in Russia. I was horrified at the realization that they would double in size, in this tiny space. Leonid seemed taken aback by our reaction.

Back in Irkutsk, we got the update at the airport -- no change, but airport expected to open later in the day -- and killed time at a meal and another couple of museums. We were all tired of talking to each other and of worrying. Front of Airport, MikhailIrkutsk house We gave Leonid a hefty payment for his troubles with us, camped out at the airport in 3 separate places, sucked the last few pages out of our novels, and waited for the weather to change.

An Unannounced Flight Plan

There was no news on the overhead screen about our flight status, but luckily I had a beer and had to go downstairs to use the toilet pit. I glanced up and noticed the flight number had appeared on a "now boarding" panel over the single exit door.

Via some sixth sense, the whole airport seemed to find out about this flight at the same time. The line for the gate turned into an angry mob, one of those crushes that kills people at rock concerts; everyone was desperate to get out of this gulag town on the one flight that claimed to be going. Front of Airport, MikhailIrkutsk woman

Ellen and I had lost our American-style faith in a business system that would guarantee us seats just because we held paid tickets in our damp hands. We shoved little children aside, elbowed old ladies in the kidneys, left footprints on other people's bags, and pushed our way to the front of the passport control line. Anticlimactically, after getting waved on, we ended up waiting around for a long time in a holding pen, sweat drying and coming down off adrenaline with the other Darwin prize winning humans who had gotten through. No officials made any announcements; it wasn't clear this door was even the correct door; but the crowd stood around patiently and tolerated the ambiguity. We Americans got even more irritable about this city and country. It felt very foreign.

Eventually we did get on an airplane and took off (I didn't care if it was going to Moscow or to China). In fact, we left only 2 hours past the original scheduled departure time. No other flights seemed to be leaving.

As we left the ground, the "fasten seat belts" sign over the aisle rattled loose and fell off onto the floor. I noticed flies buzzing around inside the cabin. Most mystifying of all, the flight was only half full, with all the passengers crowded into the front section of the plane. The flight wasn't even completely booked!? Ellen and I claimed entire rows to ourselves and stretched out on the folding seats, away from the large, drunk men. Carlton just ignored everyone and went to sleep where he'd been put.

Halfway through the flight Ellen whispered to me that she had noticed a man and a woman slip into one of the bathrooms together. The Mile High Club is apparently still popular in Russia.

Back to Moscow

Leonid had given us a bottle of vodka made from the waters of Lake Baikal, with which he meant us to toast the gods at the shamanic holy sites on Olkhon. We tossed down large shots of it in Ellen's apartment, to celebrate making it back alive and relatively on time. I ended up taking it home to Seattle with me, and used it to toast the end of stressful work days for months afterwards.

It was good, but tasted a little like lake water. Sometimes I thought it tasted like smoke, too.

Epilogue, on a Reputable Airline

On the flight home to Seattle from Moscow, I was sitting beside a fellow who was getting drunk as fast as possible on duty-free Bailey's. When he started talking, he told me he'd been volunteering in Siberian orphanages for the last two weeks as part of a Christian aid organization. It was the worst poverty and standard of living he'd seen in any of his years yet, which included stints in other third world countries. The hospitals had dirt floors and needed basic sanitary supplies. He was very happy to be getting out.

When the forest fires start every year, they just burn; there's no infrastructure there to put them out. I guess the local wood construction just burns too, if it gets in the way. The rumor he'd heard from a Swedish wood-buyer for Ikea was that the fires were started by Chinese lumber buyers, because burned wood sold for much less money but was still usable. Ellen tells me this is an oft-repeated but unsubstantiated rumor. Sasha smoked out the window while driving, and Leonid smoked at the wooden architecture museum right beside the "No Smoking" sign, so I don't imagine one needs corporate intrigue to account for the summer fires in Siberia.

Apart from the obvious travel benefits (a bottle of regional alcohol, some cheap crystal, some bootlegs and folk art), what did I get out of all this? I guess I can summarize:

Don't get into a car that doesn't have your bag with your passport in it • If your plane is rerouted, it's probably for something you should take seriously • Never turn down a meal, even on a Tupolov, because you never know when you'll get to eat again • Stash an extra novel in a sidepocket • Bring credit cards, debit cards, and mobile phones with all-world service • Pack tissues, granola bars, handi-whipes • Pepto-Bismol can come in handy in diplomatic encounters • Someone else's trip is probably worse, even if yours really sucks • Pack a sports bra, even if you're not at all the sporty type.