Let’s pick up my story where I left it two days ago… I did in fact finish my train journey without having read a single page of my many books. My last full day on the train was again spent talking to people, mostly the Danish who I had now established an excellent rapport with. We discussed all, from Scandinavian health care systems to George Bush’s “War on Terror”, divorce and my mother’s intents on marrying me off. When I went to sleep the train was carrying us through rolling hills and tight turns and the “Standard” vodka Ilya had recommended, put me into a very deep sleep. When I awoke early in the morning we had passed into flat lands heralding the arrival of Irkutsk. Very soon, grasslands and forests were replaced with industrialization and more frequent human settlements.
I should mention that Dasha and Natasha had alighted late the previous evening in Tayshet. I had helped them with their luggage and said goodbye. Three days and all our communication had been in sign language and rudimentary English and Russian. I told Dasha to email me if she wanted to practice her English. That left only Mila and I alone in the compartment. Finally the Irkutsk train station approached and another part of my journey would begin.
Before I had left Edmonton, I had arranged to meet a fellow named Anton to take me trekking near Lake Baikal. He had emailed to say he would meet me at the station and I had wondered if that would be the case. Before I disembarked, Elena (the cute Providentsia) wanted to exchange postal addresses, which we did. I’ll have to drop her a line, she’s a nice girl and I suspect it will be good for her to have an English pen pal. The Danes and I all tipped her and Roman for their excellent service and both Elena and Roman insisted on having photos taken with me for their memories.
When I stepped out of the train station, I had nothing to fear. Anton was waiting for me. Anton runs a personal and private Baikal Trekking company and is quite the accomplished young man. At the age of 26 he has a medical degree from Irkutsk University, his father is a professor of history at the University and Anton turned to tourism as his preferred way of life as it (oddly enough) pays better than being a doctor. This past winter he been roped into an expedition to cross Russia from Baikal through to Moscow by dog sled with a French adventurer (Nicholas Vanier). During that time he had met a Canadian from Whitehorse, Yukon named Rock Boivin who was apparently quite the character. An accomplished climber, Anton is planning to do a mountain bike / mountain climbing expedition this coming winter to one of the more difficult mountains in the area through which the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM) Railway runs through. He is planning on filming the adventure and I have promised him contact information for the Banff Mountain Film Festival before I go.
The plan for the next four days: Anton was going to take me to different places around Lake Baikal where we would camp and trek. Sounds great. Note that I was now going about 5 days without a shower. Irkutsk as a town was nothing incredibly special. It was somewhat industrial, filled with cars from Japan (cheap reconditioned cars) and the streets reminded me more of Asia than Europe. In fact the Mongoloid faces of Buryat people were everywhere, as are Chinese people. This is quite ethnically different from the Caucasus. I suspect that I will not run into people wanting to take a photo of a brown guy here!
We first drove north in Anton’s four-wheel drive van to a small town (Usforda) to drop into an ethnographic museum so that Anton could give me a brief insight into the culture and history of the area. From there we turned off onto a side route and drove towards the lake. Lake Baikal is a tectonic lake, the world’s deepest freshwater lake and is about 1.6km deep at its deepest. The lake contains about 20% of the world’s freshwater supply. Oddly, according to Anton, the locals do not have myths about any monsters living in the lake like the Loch Ness monster.
During the drive I mentioned to Anton that I had yet to run into a many Canadians so far. At least not Canadians from Canada. Lo and behold I had only just spoken these words and then stepped into a cafe in a remote part of this region where I ran into Canadians. I was outside looking at some of Anton’s photos, remarking on how similar the mountains were to Canada’s Rockies and four Quebecers overheard me and came over.
So next we journeyed on forest roads to the valley of Sagan Zaba. There were roads riddling the hillsides in this region. Several times I thought my life was over as the van became airboune and landed several feet in front of a bump. Anton had warned me that the secluded cove we were going to trek to would have some archeologists this summer, but I was not prepared at all to what was about to happen.
About a twenty minute hike to the lake, which was shrouded in fog (I was beginning to doubt this fabled lake actually existed), I saw two flags looming in the distance. One was a partial Canadian flag with the second red strip ripped and missing, and the second was Russian. WTF? As I got closer I unfurled the Canadian flag I had with me which brought one of the archaeologists (Mike Metcalf) running, presumably as confused as I was.
“Hi. Yes this is a Canadian/Russian Archaeology dig.” he said leaning on his surveying pole.
“Where are you from?” I asked wondering how it was possible to run into such a dig in the middle of nowhere.
“Edmonton!” He said. I was stupefied and at a loss for words I also lost the ability to use proper sentencing.
“Hi Edmonton!” I said.
“Yes, I am from Edmonton, where are you from?”
“No, no, I meant I’m from Edmonton too!”
What is the statistical probability that I would find a remote secluded cove on Lake Baikal near Irkutsk, Russia in Siberia where there was a team of archaeologists from the University of Alberta, Department of Anthropology. I wish I could have bought a lottery ticket today. I think I will have to drop them a new flag when I get back. The team had been digging all over Baikal every summer for the past 5 years and would be here for five more years. It’s a pretty impressive project from what I can see though in its infancy at this particular site.
Anton and I set up camp and wandered around looking at 4000 year-old pictograms carved into the lake walls here and cooked a hearty supper and drank cedar filtered vodka. As the cold air fresh from the lake swirled around us and surrounded by the smell of fresh pine, I slept like a baby.