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On the Shore of the Sacred Sea

On the Shore of the Sacred Sea (1)

Monday - 3 Mar 2003
DURHAM , County Durham - British Isles

First glimpses of Siberia

I hate stereotypes. For example, "Siberia is a cold place, a sad place where Russians died in camps, a place of endless ice, fog, where people don’t smile, a never-ending vista of snow-bedecked trees and figures clad in furs, moving ponderously across below-freezing, trackless wastes". And, of course, the women are as soulfully beautiful as Lara in 'Doctor Zhivago'. I’ve lived and studied in France, but have only ever eaten frogs' legs in a London restaurant. I’ve never seen a bull fight in Spain, and I’ve sunbathed in Siberia’s warm, summer sun.

In August 2002 I won an Earthwatch Award to spend two weeks as field assistant to Dr. Igor Taganov of the Russian Geographical Society, helping him in his work to monitor the purity of Lake Baikal. It contains about a fifth of the planet’s stock of fresh water, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is one of the most ecologically sensitive places on Earth. Despite the USSR’s apparent attempts to pollute parts of it, the Sacred Sea, as it is often called, remains surprisingly pure, thanks to the strange behaviour of the minute life forms which live in this unique body of water over 1,600 metres deep and longer than England. Post-Soviet Russia is keenly aware of the need to preserve the Pearl of Siberia. This was a location it had been my ambition to visit since I’d studied Russian at the University of Durham (UK) in the seventies.

From Moscow to Irkutsk was a five and a half hour flight. We’d already done three hours from Heathrow to the capital. At about 5am, the Russians groaned at an announcement. “Too foggy”, I said to my English companion. “He’s taking us up north somewhere, to… Couldn’t make it out.” The Russians looked resigned. “They’ll send something for us, or fly us back”, we agreed. I felt ‘up north somewhere’ could be a long way. Accustomed to my tiny island, I had yet to come to terms with the immensity of Siberia, even after six hours flying over part of it.

The Tupolev banked, turned, dropped, and after forty minutes bounced along a runway. Spectral buildings, lights pricking through fog, and a burst of applause from the passengers followed. I turned to a chap a couple of seats away. He nodded delightedly: “Da, da, Irkutsk!” Relieved that we’d arrived at the capital of Siberia, the weather was a major let down.

Into the fog, through a dilapidated door in a crumbling wall and on to a derelict yard, we picked out other team members standing around Igor Taganov. In his sixties, sporting the trainers, tracksuit and slightly dishevelled look of the field-scientist who has a tent to get back to, his humour and friendliness were evident from the start.

“So, if we are all here we must go to Base Camp 1”, he finally called. Such was Igor’s style. Whatever we were doing, a peremptory, “So, now we have to go!” would catch us struggling out of waders, pulling on boots, or gathering nets. He opened the passenger door of a van, deciding I would sit there as I spoke Russian. He and a couple of others went by car.

Field Manager Sasha Lobanov drove us onto the Baikal’sky trakt, the long road’s slopes frequently threatening to halt the van. “It’s new, so I can’t go fast yet”, he explained. Ignorant about vehicles, I couldn’t explain to my companions why we almost went backwards at the top of each hill. “It’s the carburettor!” he complained, hands in the air as the van chugged up yet another incline. Approaching one such peak was a hand-over-the-eyes scenario as he pulled out at the top of a blind slope to avoid cows.

Big Creek (Bol’shaya Rechka) was a pleasant surprise. I’d expected to be pitching my tent and sleeping off jetlag in the woods, possibly hammered by one of Baikal’s legendary storms. Base Camp 1 turned out to be an extensive, modernised cottage, where we were greeted by Sasha’s wife, Tamara, and their eight year-old granddaughter, Anya, there to be regaled with a filling breakfast, before being shown to warm, homely rooms. Anya later on rebuked me for whistling indoors. It’s bad luck in Russia. In addition, we had noticed that it was now very warm outside, a situation which hardly changed throughout our stay, though one night the ‘Sea’ did treat us to a spectacularly thunderous light-show, during which our tents were well tested.

I never sleep after flights, so was soon out in the sun, wandering around Tamara’s well-stocked vegetable garden, before going out front and finally examining logs piled up by the house next door. These were destined to become intriguing sculptures. The most prominent was topped by the grinning head of Stalin, and I could only wonder if perhaps Yury Panov had had the last laugh. The eighty-year old artist had paid dearly for the privilege, spending twenty-odd years in a gulag at the pleasure of his tormentor for making jokes about communists. He now carves grotesque faces from the trunks of trees sawn from boundless woods. They stand outside his cottage, a mocking message to all who stop to stare.

“Every Siberian boy must learn how to hunt and next, how to build his own house”, was one of the first things Igor told us, finger knowingly in the air. He and his father had built a house, somewhere in the Siberia he loves. He’s a quirky, down-to-earth theoretical physicist from St. Petersburg, and expert on Siberian ecology, with a head full of folklore, herbal remedies, and irreverently amusing tales about the old Soviet days.

Big Creek is an unpaved sprawl of modern housing erected by post-Soviet nouveaux riches. Brightly painted cottages retain a traditional feel, and hotel-sized residences are evidence of the new order, exploited by many of the party faithful who kept their contacts and changed their coats after the downfall of the Communism which put them where they are today. I don’t think Igor has any more time for some of today’s leaders than for some of the former ones.

On the Shore of the Sacred Sea (2)
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