On the Shore of the Sacred Sea
On the Shore of the Sacred Sea (2)
“Once, the KGB told me to report to them”, he explained, mischief in his eyes. “So, I went. You don’t say no to KGB. They said, ‘There is a witch in the south, and she is poisoning people. Here is her poison. She calls them medicines. You analyse them for us, then we arrest her’.” He chuckled as he described the disappointment on their faces when he reported back that her so-called poisons were genuinely harmless. Fish, so important in the Russian diet and their folk tales, seem to have played an important role in his life, and not only the unusual fish of Baikal. “During the siege of Leningrad”, he told us, “German shells exploded in the Neva and all the fish floated to the surface. We’d get them. We survived”.
Base Camp 2 was Big Cats (Bol’shiye Koty). Cats are fishing nets. Hiking along a sixty-foot drop (there are no railings on Baikal’s nature trails), after our first day’s work, Igor announced that he would show us round. “There are many interesting things here”, he exclaimed, “but I keep the best for last.” Off we went to a minute chapel, the field laboratory where we’d work for a young biologist, Maksim, and on to a large, open square. “Here there was a concentration camp”, Igor announced. “But only for foreigners. See, for Russians this place was Miami Beach, so they got sent to Arctic. And now, the best place.”
A couple of streets away, he banged on shutters and within minutes we were handing over roubles to a broadly beaming Natasha in exchange for bottles of cold, palatable Russian beer. Packs on the ground, we enjoyed it as the locals turned up for provisions at their 'corner shop' and two kids rattled around the streets on an ancient quad bike.
We camped on a plot of land in Big Cats belonging to a local family. Two very small children, their parents, grandmother and a cat, Misha, which once spent an age throwing a luckless ground squirrel around the garden, were our hosts for a week. They struck us as gritty, hard-working people. Seryozha went with bull-headed determination at the completion of his wooden house all the time we camped near it.
Twice we were treated to a banya, an outhouse in whose ante-room you strip off, stepping through a small door into the sweltering heat of the kind of sauna the pioneering Cossacks would have used. You fill a tin bowl from a tap, getting the hot-cold water ratio just right, pour it over yourself, throw some onto the stone stove to get the steam going, repeat the procedure, and luxuriate. After days and nights in the open, indulging in the sort of washing my mother called a ‘cat-lick’, it was bliss.
The night before we left, we were handsomely spoiled. We’d already tasted smoked omul (a salmon-species), done barbecue-style in Sasha’s garden, but our last meal was a real party. The Russian word 'mir' (as in the space station) can mean ‘world’, ‘peace’, and, historically, a small community. This was 'pir' (a feast) 'na ves’ mir', ‘for everyone’, ‘for the world’, ‘for us out there’, however you choose to translate it. The table was set for champagne, caviars, fish, vegetables, fruit, meats, and Tamara’s freshly baked bread. In the centre stood a tea urn. And there was vodka. Vodka with honey, herbs, fruits, and an utterly delicious home-made one looking and tasting like port, served in a decanter in the form of a brown bear. Toast followed toast. “Always we drink most vodka with the starters”, explained Igor, “then less as we eat more.” We toasted each other, the expedition, hospitality worldwide, you name it, and, of course, the weather.
‘God’s high up and the Tsar’s a long way off.’ For me, this ancient proverb sums up Siberians. They are independent, hardy, very much their own people, and hospitable, as are most Russians. The people of this immense tract of land near the Sacred Sea treated us well. The land itself seemed kind to us. Even the weather had smiled.