As my kamikaze coach driver bombed down the one-lane highway from Irkutsk I marvelled at the distinct lack of snow chains, breaks and general caution utilised by Russian road-users. However, despite the fact that we appeared to be skidding rather than driving to our next destination, I was struggling to keep my eyes open.
The latest train trip and an intense border crossing had taken its toll and my only motivation to stay awake was the prospect of catching first light over Lake Baikal from the steamy bus window.
My initial welcome into Russia a few hours earlier had been steely at best. Border officials attempted to dampen my misplaced enthusiasm. A middle-aged lady with a plaited hairdo meant business as she flung open the cabin door. Smiling was probably my first mistake and it drew a venomous reaction from my new adversary. “Look me!” the woman shouted gruffly. The process of checking passports and stamping miscellaneous documentation was laborious, but questioning the system wasn’t worth the risk. We were there for as long as they wanted us to remain.
With all the bureaucracy of the border now behind me, fighting back the tiredness was a small price to pay for the view that greeted me around the final hair-raising corner. A razor thin swirl of the brightest orange sky silhouetted ominous, ragged mountains surrounding the lake’s shores. As first light arrived, snowy peaks became pricked with pallid yellow light as smoke-machine bursts of mist started to rise up from the dark blue waters. The effect was surreal.
Lake Baikal is not only the deepest lake in the world, but also boasts over 600km of coastline, giving the appearance of an inland sea. In fact, in the distant future it will become the world’s fifth ocean as its tectonic plates gradually split Asia in two. In Siberia’s mid-winter, this magnificent body of water will completely freeze. For the time being however, gentle waves lap a pebbled shoreline, throwing up hundreds of local shrimp that struggle and pop bright pink against smooth icy stones. Local men with weathered faces throw over a line and await their catch, dragon’s breath leaving their mouths slowly and rhythmically. They have time.
The 2,000 strong population of Baikal’s most popular lakeside town, Listvyanka, undertake their daily routines at a slow pace. Schoolchildren amble their way home and women in furs stride along the main road, to no destination in particular. Stopping to pass the time with a familiar face seems to be a significant objective, second only to the expert navigation of dangerously slippery patches of frozen slush. Walking into a restaurant or store is, for the new visitor, fraught with confusion. Have I just disturbed someone’s night in front of the TV? Is this an establishment at all? No one seems very happy so maybe I should return later? I eventually learnt not to hesitate, and once settled at the only table, service was swift and simple and sometimes even accompanied with a slight curl of the lip.
What the town lacks in human activity, it thoroughly makes up for in its canine life. Howls, hollers and yappy barks of all variations perpetually stippled the silence of the valley, bouncing off the hillsides as echoes in perfect cannon. From my chalet balcony the voices reached a nightly crescendo and I could make out tiny shadows galloping from the safety of one fence to another in the dusk. As I was to learn from a close encounter with these special locals, their excitement is infectious. Their yelps of glee never ceased as they pulled my sled through powder at precarious speeds. Bounding under wintery branches, ducking around corners and kicking up the snow into my beaming face.
From Russia, with a new-found love of dog sledding!