Lake Baikal's Babushkas and Their Tasty Smoked Fish
Day 37: I haven't sampled all the world's railway station public address systems, but I think the PA in the Siberian town of Ulan Ude stands a very good chance of being the most annoying. Announcements begin with the first melodic refrain of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas," a tune whose merriness is debatable in the first place. They come fast and often--at least two a minute--and at six in the morning, the thought that runs through my head is that the woman making all these announcements had no idea what she was in for when she applied for the job. She is busier than Jack Welch.
There are trees now. Big, proper northern pine trees. The train is winding through large, rounded mountains bearded in pine, with patches of snow high up. Later that morning, we hit what will be the first Siberian town. It has a shanty look to it--lots of grey wooden houses with tin roofs all crowded together, as though trying to preserve warmth. The odd larger structure passes in and out of sight, but most of them appear abandoned and in ruin. There's a river, a big moving highway of water clogged with ice. The mountains get taller, with pointed snowy peaks that puncture the cloud cover.
By mid morning, we reach the geographical event that everyone has been waiting for: Lake Baikal. The stats on Lake Baikal can't help to impress. It is deepest freshwater lake in the world. It holds a surprising percentage of the world's fresh water and, if tipped on its side, could supply the world's largest rivers with water for a year. It has its own population of salmon, and its own population of freshwater seals--now endangered--who eat those salmon. Or something like that. I watched a nature documentary on Lake Baikal about a year ago and am reciting the geo stats as well as I can remember.
Lake Baikal, the highlight of my second day on the Trans-Mongolian Railway
Today, Lake Baikal looks very much like what it is: a frozen lake. It is a very big sheet of ice, grey and desolate, but with its own kind of uncluttered beauty. On the shore, rotten ice grows over everything like moss. In places, the wind has pushed the frozen lake surface into great geological upheavals that display their layers like a cross-section in a textbook.
There are more signs of humanity than there are actual humans. I see two men out on the ice, squatting next to a hole, fishing. Later, there is a canvas tent about two hundred meters off shore, but no sign of people. There are trucks and excavators standing unused by the side of the tracks. There is a steady line of houses next to the lake. Despite their waterfront property, the houses don't have the happy perches of cottages. They are grey like the lake ice, but far sadder to look at.
I think I'll skip my swim
I had been told tales that when you pull into a Siberian railway station, you can get off the platform and buy delicious goodies peddled by salt-of-the-earth Russian babushkas. For months, I have been readying myself for containers of hot borscht and perogies with sour cream. Slavic food is often criticized as being too rich, fatty and heavy with meat, but I'm the kind of eater who thinks these are actually points in its favor.
We pull into a station and there are the babushkas. The platform is thick with them. They are not selling pirogues or borsht but fish. It is smoked fish, the little salmon of Lake Baikal. When the train opens its doors, the press of fish sellers is such that you cannot exit. I walk to the open door and feel like a politician at a press conference, only instead of journalists I am faced by Russian grandmothers, and instead of microphones they are pointing preserved fishes at me.
An attempt at communication fails. All the grandmothers start talking at once. Just then, the Russian businessman from the next cabin appears by my side. He points at a babushka, who's fish are unwrapped and sitting in a little basket, and nods his head. I hold up two fingers. She puts two fish in a plastic bag. I hand her a fifty-ruble note. The Russian businessman nods his head. There has been a transaction. I take my fish and return to my cabin.
Thanks, Mr. Mayor
The Russian businessman stops by on the way to his cabin and by motioning with his hands communicates that I ought to eat the fish now rather than let it sit. He returns a minute later holding old newspaper. I invite him in and he lays the fish on the newspaper and shows me how to eat it. The Russian businessman breaks off the head and opens up the belly. The flesh peels away the spine and tears off chunks of flesh leaving the skin behind on the newspaper. He has eaten these fish before, I think to myself. I have a package of Wasa crackers I bought in Beijing. There is no cream cheese, but the fish is fresh enough and good enough that it doesn't matter.
The Russian Businessman's name is Anatoly, and he is not a Russian businessman. He is the mayor of a little town called Sayansk in Irkutsk. He is the first mayor I have ever met. I speak no Russian, and his English is just slightly better than that, but we manage to communicate. We talk about Siberia. There are no tigers near Sayansk, Anatoly says, but there are further west. There are a lot of bears, he tells me, and says that bear soup is good, rubbing his tummy to drive home the point. I tell him I am Canadian and he grins and says, "Hockey." I say, "Vladislav Tretiak," the name of the superb Russian goalie. Anatoly smiles.
Anatoly returns to his cabin. I scratch my nose and realize that my hands stink of smoked fish. I go to the bathroom. The bathroom has an ingenious tap, which I discovered the night before. It is the first bathroom tap I have discovered that truly solves the problem of how to shut off the water without touching the faucet that's been pawed by grubby hands. With this tap, all you have to do us press up on a metal lever for the water to come spurting out. When you release the lever, the spurting stops. I arrive at the bathroom and the tap is broken. Someone has wrenched it off the pipe and it's now lying on the rim of the sink like a dead animal by the side of the road. For the next 3,000 miles, my hands will stink of smoked fish. I think of the tap--its ingenuity and its brutal fate--and at that moment it sums up much about Russia.
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