That’s how it is trying to get friendly assistance anywhere in Russia, we learned. Whether buying groceries or checking into a hotel, we were liable to get yelled at, extorted, cursed, or just plainly dismissed with an insulting wave of the hand for no immediately apparent reason other than for daring to enter the surly woman’s (and it was always a woman) general vicinity. I expected the saliva to fly at any moment.
But aside from that Russia was grand! We seemingly spent half our time on the train, at least five full days in total, but we were never bored, as the occasional monotony of the view from the window was easily forgotten while reading the (too) many books we lugged aboard. And the varied, yet always tipsy Russian or Mongolian gentlemen sharing our cabin were more often entertaining and generous than irksome.
The towns, Irkutsk and Ulan-Ude in particular, were nice too. Smoggy and gritty, yes, but strangely comforting all the same. CeCe particularly delighted in photographing the grey, weather-beaten Siberian buildings, and I relished the hunt for Soviet-era treasures within the sea of nesting dolls and other various Chinese-made tchotchkes. As a gift for CeCe’s dad Robert (rhymes with ‘debonair’), we almost purchased a bronze medallion four feet in diameter of Comrade Lenin, but the mental estimate of its delivery cost pushed it beyond our budget. Robert will just have to pick it up himself.
Certainly though, the unquestioned highlight was Baikal. Whether viewed from the train, a violently-vibrating coach bus, or from a cliff overlooking its shores and unseen mile-deep trench, it was astounding. On the three days we were given to explore, we journeyed to an amazing variety of natural places and saw all sorts of undreamed of colors. One species of conifer’s needles were colored an impossible shade of lime, more neon than pastel. In even the most barren of areas, the undergrowth was peppered with odd succulents and grasses of the most perplexing colors and dimensions. My only regret was that we weren’t able to visit the depths of the lake itself, as they say that 80% of its species are found only there.
Perhaps we’ll get to go back someday, but if not, we feel content knowing we’ve seen one of our planet’s greatest wonders.