Russia is a country where one must be prepared to surrender their plans in an instant, when adventure/opportunity comes a-knocking. So when Vika said “Mushroom picking tomorrow?’ I asked, “Where do I have to be?”
Early the next morning, I met my Mother-in-law, Nina, coming in from Ulan-Ude, at the train station, sent her on her merry way home to Yulia, and I hopped the Electrichka (electric train) headed toward Yagodny stop. The Electrichka always carries an eclectic mix of gardeners headed to their summer cottages, hikers, mountain bikers, mushroom/berry/pine nut gatherers, some fishermen perhaps, wanderers and ne’er-do-wells, bottles in hand. Sometimes the train will stop near a settlement of dacha’s (summer cottages), to offload the vegetable tenders. At other times, the train stops in the middle of what would appear to be nowhere, but is in fact somewhere in the Siberian taiga, where you can watch the gatherers and adventurers get off the train and disappear into the boreal forest in like seven seconds flat!
On the train I hooked up with Dima, Vika, Tanya, Vika’s mom, Galina Dimitryevna and numerous friends of Vika’s family, who are all a knowledgeable, able, and very entertaining lot. Galina is a dear and jolly lady with vast knowledge of the taiga, a fabulous cook, and if your stranded in the forest will come find you, and fix you right up. That owes to the fact that she has worked for the Ministry of Emergency Situations for years; she does search and rescue!
After quickly repelling from the train car to solid ground, we set off toward mushrooms, trekking through lush green growth. Right on cue, the rain began to sprinkle, drip and patter on us. Now friends, it is a myth that only ice and snow can be found in Siberia. For three fleeting months, the land literally bursts forth with fruit. It seems where last week you saw bare branches, this week they are laden with ripening cherries, gooseberries or raspberries. It’s a mad dash between people, bears, squirrels and birds to pack away for the loooooooooonnnnnnng approaching winter.
Unbeknownst to me before our train ride, we actually had a specific destination. A cabin built by the elder generation in ’79 and ’80. As we walked, I received two educations. The first was on the history of Siberians resettling in New Zealand before the Revolution: the second was on types of mushrooms, where one finds them and what to eat varying species with. Our crew hiked, chatted, dripped and plucked our way several kilometers to a well built cabin (left side of the Trans-Siberian railroad if headed east, somewhere between Krasnoyarsk and Chita!) A quick costume change and . . .
Shazaam! In the time it takes to sneeze, our crew had, from scratch mind you, borsht, wild herb and vegetable salad, and fried bread, spread out before us. For garnishing they included salted cucumbers, homemade raspberry or black currant jam, bread, cheese, salami, pork fat, tea flavored with black currant leaves, wine and a bit of vodka literally piled on the candlelit table! We ate and laughed and laughed and ate! Delectable.
After luncheon, mostly people settled down for a nice nap. Dima and I on the other hand, went a searching mushrooms and came back soaking wet, again! To our great pleasure, the Banya, a true Russian bathing experience, was blazing and ready for a good steaming, which we did with relish. In between our steaming sessions we sat in the rain and told stories. (Prior to our baths, we hung our soaking cloths in the banya. The blazing stove had that room extremely hot drying our cloths in about half an hour.) The girls got up; we had tea, and made our way back out of the taiga. We did stop for about twelve minutes to eat black currents, which was our downfall! Descending the last hill, we saw our electrichka pull into the stop . . . . . . . . and pull out without us! So we did what any good Russians would do, made a fire, put potatoes in the coals, cut up vegetables, kielbasa and laughed for two hours until the next train pulled in.