Starstruck in Siberia

Midnight solitude on Muhur Bay, Lake Baikal, Siberia.

Midnight solitude on Muhur Bay, Lake Baikal, Siberia.

It was a result of passion; our evening at Muhur Bay. Art, possibility and camping gear aligned like Orion’s winking belt, and delivered us to the shore of the bantam sea, or “Small Sea” strait that is separated from most of Baikal’s impossible gallons by mysterious Olkhon Island. Siberia’s black velvet is pierced by vibrant light; Baikal’s fathoms are mirror-like, reflecting the galaxy’s darkness back into a moonless night, magnifying countless crystal suns. Awesome.

Our intrepid crew each burn with a passion to capture impressions of transcendent wonder in a digital box. Tonight we are three star hunters. Oleg, my old friend from Irkutsk, is a contractor, and budding photographer.  Alexander, a new friend from Ulan-Ude, is photo-correspondent for our local news agency, and this Alexander, whose longing since boyhood is to sail among the cosmic luminaries. Alexander talked us into three empty seats on a bus hauling volunteers to evening berths, 50 km north from the ethnic festival we were covering.

Alexander and Oleg, about to hop the bus.

Alexander and Oleg, about to hop the bus.

Our northern hemisphere’s June evenings have been set aglow by Venus and Jupiter dallying on the western horizon. My desire to capture them over Baikal was thwarted by the hurry up and wait of festival admin drama. But hey! Do yourself a favor and look west about forty-five minutes after sunset, while it is still June. When you see Venus, you will know why she is goddess of beauty. Above her and left, about the width of your fist held at arms length, Jupiter shines golden.

Regardless of my missed rendezvous with Venus and Jupiter, the whole priceless sky had revealed herself, and Saturn remained all night. Original works of interstellar jewellery, the pearls of Cassiopeia, the Corona Borealis, Pegasus, and the Big and Little Bears (Dippers) glistens in our lenses. I can see for miles and miles and miles. Campfires have sprung up around the western end of the bay, speaking back to starlight. The boys made for a boat in dock shining sweetly in lights in Muhur Bay. But the proximity of fire on the beach under the starlit universe transfixed me. Two Russian families were absorbed in the warm glow of firelight discussion. I asked permission to photograph their vodka enhanced reverie. They accepted, expressing astonishment at an American appearing out darkness at their campfire.

Russian friends enjoy a pleasant June evening under the stars.

Russian friends enjoy a pleasant June evening under the stars.

Tour bases and campfires light the Western horizon beyond Muhur Bay.

The Milky Way over tour bases and campfires on the Western horizon beyond Muhur Bay.

Like the beginning of a good thriller, this photo suggests the otherworldly sound of death's approach.

Like the beginning of a good thriller, this photo suggests the otherworldly sound of the approach of the fearful unknown.

And that is the night’s tale. The star hunters shuttled between shore and campfire, between the silent solitude of water lapping a stellar sky, and laughter around a friendly fire. The sun began painting the eastern sky at 2:30 am. It was a battle to turn in, as pinks and oranges rallied toward Saturn’s early morning perch. I set my alarm for four thirty, to capture sunrise on Baikal, a phenomenon not to be missed. Two days of road weariness conspired to hood me in sleeps realm. At 5:15 the insistent solar star roused me. The sky was already bright as day. Silver water set off the charcoal shore that faded by degree in lightening shades of grey toward the horizon. We couldn’t keep our fingers off the shutter buttons, such was the morning’s magnificence. Finally we opened cans of silky pacific caught saury, to eat with black bread. We packed our tent, collected our camera gear, and hightailed it back to catch the bus full of sleepy headed volunteers. Our star hunt was successful; we were witnesses to wonder.

2:45 am. Incoming dawn.

2:45 am. Incoming dawn.

Muhur Bay, Small Sea Strait, under the morning shine of our Solar star. 5:49 am.

Muhur Bay, Small Sea Strait, under the morning shine of our Solar star. 5:49 am.

What remains. 6:07 am.

What remains. 6:07 am.

A fisherman works the waters on the horizon in Muhur Bay, on the Sacred Sea.

A fisherman works the silver waters of Muhur Bay, on the Sacred Sea. The mysterious Isle of Olkhon lies behind him.

Siberia: unfortunately off-season in most people’s minds.

Steel Wranglin’ Vaqueros

Sasha cuttin' rail with a diamond bladed saw. I waited four nights to get this shot!

Sasha cuttin’ rail with a diamond bladed saw. I waited four nights to get this shot!

These boys bulldog steel!

Between cigarettes, these boys bulldog steel!

Sparks turn contemplative in the ambient glow of Uncle Vanya's cutting torch.

Sparks turn Lyoha and Seryoga contemplative in the ambient glow of Uncle Vanya’s cutting torch.

Opportunity knocked this fall. Actually, she bucked. Like an unbroke ten ton bronc, she rudely threw me about the cabin of the Ulan-Ude city tram, which is why I had taken to calling the tram lines in our region of the city “Rodeo Drive”. Accent on the first o. The steel rails climbing Bald Hill in Shishkovka, our gritty part of the city, humped and divoted their way up to our tram stop where we deposited ourselves; stumblers on solid pavement, eyes all a spin. Now I didn’t pay it no mind, riding roughshod up and down, back and forth between the city center. My gallop called forth the west where hard grinnin’ men lose their hats and seats on busting out beasts. I could feel the fairgrounds dust grit between my pearlies.

I failed to recognize that ride as opportunity, that is until the day I saw the iron vaqueros in their wheeled excavators, track loaders, and cranes converging like jaw licking wolves on a horse with a bum leg. The rails were about to make their exit, under cover of the Siberian night. Lacerating steel with blades and torches, men doing heavy work, that friends, is opportunity knocking to a fella bent on shooting his camera.

Uncle Vanya has got a fiery glint in his eye. Bolt cuttin' like nobody's business

Uncle Vanya has got a fiery glint in his eye. Bolt cuttin’ like nobody’s business

With bated breath, I slapped together my gear, slid into my long johns, and went to scout up the boss. The boys were cutting that steel, kicking hot sparks like meteors into the dark. That is what I wanted to capture. But permission from the headman would put me in everyone’s good graces. Who wants to agitate gents who fling rails like they were toothpicks, right?

Clearing the ties of extra weight. Each span of rail was approximately twenty yards in length.

Clearing the ties of extra weight. Each span of rail was approximately twenty yards in length.

Hammerin' spikes home like it ain't no thang.

Hammerin’ spikes home like it ain’t no thang.

The boss, Alexander, was pleased to make my acquaintance, in part because we were тёзки (tyozki) which means we have the same name. Alexander in Russia is as common as Jason in the States. I meet a passel of “samely named” hombres out here on the steppe, and it’s always a pleasure. Really. When a stern faced Russian breaks into full grin while bestowing a hearty handshake proclaiming “We are tyozki!”, you find yourself in friendly territory. Play your hand right, and you will win a new friend. In Siberia, finding a friend is better than finding Kolchack’s lost treasure.

I told Alexander what was on my mind, and he gave me free-reign to the work-site. He told me his crew would be rustling old track to lay down new from 8 pm to 6 am the next four days. Siberian Jackpot! Four glorious nights of dusty, diesel fueled steel wranglin’, amen.

It was time to meet the bread and butter of Ulan-Ude, a salty group no doubt, friendly, funny, and ready to share what they do with someone genuinely interested. Each night when I showed up out of the gloom to shoot more images, they met me with a grin. They were glad to have the American around, to joke with, ask questions of, and maybe show off just a bit to. If they were showing off, it was their skills, slangin’ sledges and rails like they were first graders visiting kindergarten again.

The Iron Vaqueros of Siberia. L-R Munkho, Lyoha, ?, Sasha "Handmade", Andrusha, and Seryoga

The Iron Vaqueros of Siberia. L-R Munkho, Lyoha, ?, Sasha “Handmade”, Andrusha, and Seryoga

Uncle Vanya, and Sasha whose last name literally means “hand made” were cutting bolts. Down the hill another fella operated a pavement saw, built by the hand of Sasha “Handmade” with miscellaneous parts found at the shop. Now that is Russian ingenuity! I clicked, clicked, and clicked torches and saws spitting flaming steel for the stars. When I showed Yulia, (my wife), a few images, she immediately suggested that the boys should be wearing protective masks. I queried Uncle Vanya on that very point, my answer coming in the form of an uninterested shrug. Around here, protective gear is for softies. About the only thing Uncle Vanya needed was a lit cigarette. If he had a smoke in his snout, his torch cut like butter. Now, when Uncle Vanya and I breached the subject of pike fishing, well . . . his eyes lit up like two cancer sticks burning bright, in the forests of the night. In heaven I know where I’ll find Uncle Vanya. He’ll be snaggin’ great pikes near the banks of the River of Life!

Uncle Vanya has a magic torch. And he thinks protective gear is for sissies.

Uncle Vanya has a magic torch. And he thinks protective gear is for sissies.

Uncle Vanya shows his golden tail.

Uncle Vanya shows his golden tail.

Sasha, Andrei, Munkho, Lyoha and Sergei are bruisers. It was something watching the boys set upon new rail, line it up, ram it flush, bolt it in and spike it home. Real steel wranglers. It’s a manly pleasure, using combustion, pneumatic pressure, and torque to put tons of steel were you damn well please. When their minds were set, they became like a single being willing the steel to do their bidding. Each knew the other so well that barely a word bawled over the wail of steel rail under sledge hammer. Business. Got. Done.

Munkho, ready to dig to . . . hmm, China isn't that far . . . Oh, I know! Puerto Natales, Chile! It is the anitpode of Ulan-Ude. Antipode? Global opposite.

Munkho, ready to dig to . . . hmm, China isn’t that far . . . Oh, I know! He’s ready to tunnel to Puerto Natales, Chile. It is the anitpode of Ulan-Ude. Antipode? Antipodes are two spots directly opposite one another on the globe.

Munkho takes a breather. He looking like a stoic Greek philosopher-poet. He was full of funny stories and quick retorts.

Munkho takes a breather, looking all stoic Greek philosopher-poet. He was full of funny stories and quick retorts.

While the boys waited for the Alexander the crane operator to lasso the next span of rail into place, or the excavator to tear up the old rail bed, we shot the breeze. Subjects for confab included river spearfishing, ale, the Ukraine, English study, profanity and other Russian language specifics, the fairer sex, similarities and differences between Siberia and Montana/USA and of course vodka. I find myself satisfying similar questions time and again, but I don’t sweat it. Them questions are expected. I am the lone ‘Merican they have chanced upon. I answer those questions faster than I can bulldog a steer, granted, I ain’t never bulldogged no steer!

This is another Alexander, crane operator. He could lay thirty tons neatly on your head. He fulfilled every boys dream when he let me climb on his crane!

This is another Alexander, crane operator. He could lay thirty tons neatly on your head. He fulfilled every boys dream when he let me climb on his crane!

Alexander, crane operating angel.

Alexander, patron saint of heavy construction and steel workers. He’s got a halo and everything.

I hung out with those boys for hours. I enjoy immensely the opportunity to kick it with Siberians, it’s a pleasure. Recording authentic people in their element is how you get to know a place. Politicians, oligarchs, and movie stars? Reckon I’d rather you pluck my teeth with pliers! Give me the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker every time. Now them are people!

I called her an evening, and ambled into the homestead just as wife was pulling piping banana bread out the caboose. She said, “You wanna treat the boys?” First and only time those fellas get hot from the oven, home made and hand delivered sweet bread from an American in Siberia. I’d stake my life on that. The boys offered thanks, demolished aforementioned bread and got straight back to business.

Four hours and several spans later, with all new track laid, Rodeo drive was transformed. I thank those boys every time I take a smooth tram ride home. After five nights of slavin’ in rain and snow, they stretched their weary bones, rubbed their sleepy peepers and packed it in. With only one thing on their mind, they mounted their diesel equines, and road off into the . . .  *ahem* sunrise, lookin’ for a bed to bunk in.

Ridin' bolts of Rodeo drive. (The streets is really called Young Communist St.)

Ridin’ bolts of Rodeo drive. (The streets is really called Young Communist St.)

Seryoga has a knack for whackin' track into place. Andrusha, right, gifted me whole bag of home roasted pine nuts. Thank you Andrusha!

Seryoga has a knack for whackin’ track into place. He patiently answered all my questions, and seemed to quietly will the tracks into their bed.  Andrusha, right, gifted me whole bag of home roasted pine nuts. Thank you, Andrusha!

Sasha "Handmade" was a master with many tools, and wasn't too shy to pick up a shovel.

Sasha “Handmade” was a master with many tools, and wasn’t too shy to pick up a shovel.

Now you seem him, now he's gone. Uncle Vanya vanishes into the dark Siberian night.

The ghost of Uncle Vanya appears and vanishes into the dark Siberian night.

Adventure? New experiences with new faces is a rousing form of social adventure. You mightn’t have the coin, occasion, or inclination for transcontinental jet-setting, but that’s OK. A someone adventure can’t be more than a few doors down from your familial stomping grounds. Going new places is grand. Learning new folks grander yet. World exploration by befriending her people in your own back yard has never been easier. Travel the world you might, but you will never know a place, if you don’t engage her people. So engage people, people!

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_prompt/be-the-change/

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_photo_challenge/new/

Smiling Faces at Altargana

Part 3 of “10,000 Miles to Altargana; Festival of Nomadic Culture”

Shivery was the Night

Shivery was the night who delivered me from sleeps catacombs unto the bright light of morn. A dark angel materialized just minutes after I struggled from my insufficient huddle sack, to serve breakfast. Black leather, black jeans with dark tresses and a steaming pot of buuz! Every nomads sweet dream is to be served savory meat dumplings the moment you roll out of bed. Dark angel of breakfast, please visit again!

This dark angel provides steaming meat dumplings (buuz) to newly awakened and frigid breakfast eaters such as myself.

This dark angel provides steaming meat dumplings (buuz) to newly awakened and frigid breakfast eaters such as myself.

Insecurity was my companion the evening prior. My encounter with a whole encampment of unknown Buryats triggered a feeling that was, well . . . comfort zone-less. In Siberia, my Russian language aids me well in finding common ground quickly. The Mongolian Buryats speak little Russian. Even with years of practice finding equilibrium in a foreign culture, it is never easy. You feel naked in your fear. My desire to dine led to my running across contentious Buryats. They were upset with each other over food preparations in their food yurt. Struck with my inability to communicate, I imagined their anger venting on my obviously bumbling other-worldliness. So, instead of finding dinner, I fled. Hurriedly striding the dark night, I searched looming shadow tents for my people.

Relationships are vital in voyaging the sea of culture, especially in new and unexpected situations. A community of Buryats to “embed” in was, for me, paramount. Faces you recognize, who willingly return your smile does your heart good. I attribute my survival overseas thus far to benevolent insiders who took me under wing and forgave my cultural blunders.

Color coded Buryat Family. Gram and Gramps - café au lait, Pop and Son - mint, Mama and her lass - azure.

Color coded Buryat Family. Gram and Gramps – café au lait, Pop and Son – mint, Mama and her lass – azure.

Color Fever

Morning, of course, brought a different perspective. Smiling eyes and smiling faces welcomed this stranger. People were pleased to meet me, and my camera acted as a passport to their hearts.

Grandma musician preps for performance.

Grandma preps for performance.

Musicians and singers practiced in our platoon sized tent; meanwhile the whole encampment pulled on boots, braided hair, and adorned themselves in traditional finery, (what I like to call steppe bling). Declaring themselves “put together,” they flocked toward a rally point. That rally point became an instant garden, each arriving Buryat adding a floret to the sprawling meadow of rapidly multiplying flowers.

Buryats gather in the marshaling area. It's a parade, where the people are floats.

Buryats gather in the marshaling area. It’s a parade, where the floats are people.

This is the traditional dress of Shenehen Buryats, Buryats who fled to China (Inner Mongolia) in the 30's to escape Bolshevik Repression.

This is the traditional dress of Shenehen Buryats, Buryats who fled to China (Inner Mongolia) in the 30’s to escape Bolshevik Repression.

Because, the opening of Altargana would soon transpire, vines began creeping from different “instant garden” rally points. Colorful battalions of Buryats hailing from homelands in China, Siberia and Mongolia marched for the stadium under banners proclaiming their region and tribal totems. To the general delight of marchers, I ran willy-nilly in color-fever, recording the procession.

Jaunty banner bearers ready for duty.

Jaunty banner bearers ready for duty.

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Foiling the gate keepers with my participant credentials, I popped through the gate holding back a flood of Buryats. The stadium was a beehive of activity. People of every age perched in the stands grinning, frowning, pointing and pouting at the foreigner taking their photo. All plausible shades of brocade flirted in sunlight as its wearers milled about the infield in degels, traditional raiment of Genghis Khan’s descendants. Imagine thousands of bronze Asians sporting dazzling floor length smoking jackets, with an iconic conical blue hat fringed red, brimmed with black velvet. You got the idea. Normally I would be green faced with envy. Who doesn’t want to look this cool, right? But, as I am the owner of such an array, gifted to me by a fine Mongol in the Gobi desert, I can hardly complain. He even got the color right, green.

Oh to see what their eyes have seen. As you might gather from this image, blue is the favorite color of Buryats.

Oh to see what their eyes have seen. As you might gather from this image, blue is the favorite color of Buryats.

Chingis Khan’s Legacy

For those unaware, Dadal, the small village where Altargana took place is known as the birthplace of Chingis (Genghis) Khan. Further, you must know that according to Buryat history, Chingis Khan’s grandmother was Buryat This gives them as strong a claim as any to his legacy. (For more about Chingis Khan follow this link: Chingis Khan’s Legacy)

Chingis Khan waves to his great grandchildren in his homeland of Khentii province, Mongolia.

Chingis Khan waves to his great grandchildren in his homeland of Khentii province, Mongolia.

Silk and peacock feathers. These dancers demonstrate the greeting respected steppe royalty would receive.

Silk and peacock feathers. These dancers demonstrate the greeting respected steppe royalty would receive.

These are Glory Days

Altargana celebrates the cultural aspects of being Buryat, yet it is more. It is memory. Altargana cannot help conjuring life on the Mongolian Plateau, (which includes a good portion of Buryatia and the southern part of the Irkutsk region), a time when horses equaled life, when your bow both fed and protected you, and when vast tracts of wilderness were audience for whom you WOULD belt out song. That is what you will see if you go.

I lingered at wrestling in the Central stadium watching stout Buryats in outfits generally reserved for superheroes. Naked except for red or blue “speedos” and boots virtually knee high, an outfit to tickle Superman’s fancy, evoking his winning grin. These heroes tested minds and mettle against one another in matches lasting seconds. Or twenty minutes, at which point referees intervened and put the wrestlers in a hold, to jump-start the match. Matches are surprising, quickness and a deft mind are just as likely to win the day as straight up strength. Until placing rounds, multiple contests take place in simulcast. With numerous titanic struggles to keep eyes on, the ebb and flow of a bawling crowd embellishes the competitive grappling, leaving a wonderfully chaotic impression careening through your marbles.

Match winner soars on the thermal of victory per tradition.

Match winner soars on the thermal of victory with eagles wings as per tradition.

Horses are family too. Here a much decorated horse gets an admiring gaze after his win.

Horses are family too. Here a much decorated horse gets an admiring gaze after his win.

I couldn’t stall longer for the first vocal notes of the singing competition already wafted on ether. I ran off to cheer on my boys Shineft, Bayasol and Saruul. The venue for singing was tight. Squeezing through a packed house, my camera granting me passage, I found a perch right up front where they could see me. Dang could those boys sing! Saruul won silver and Bayasol won bronze, but I believe I enjoyed Shineft’s performance most, because he grinned at me when he stepped on stage and winked back at my wink of support. I felt like a proud papa watching his boy sing!

R to L. Bayasal, Saruul, and Shineft discuss their performances, or, more likely, discuss which girl in the competitions was hottest.

R to L. Bayasal, Saruul, and Shineft discuss their performances, or, more likely, discuss which girl in the competitions was hottest.

Celebratory toasts and song light up the darkness of the Khentii steppe.

Celebratory toasts and song light up the darkness of the Khentii steppe.

Clu-clu-clumping hooves and whisssh-thwaping arrows, gave a martial seasoning to laughter and applause. Appreciative audiences enjoy drama, sport, and beauty contests in the far-far reaches of Chingis Khan’s boyhood stomping grounds. Forty-eight straight hours of steppe drama!

Yohor Makes Us One

The sun brushes romantic across the Khentii Mountains all birch and cedar, festive hullabaloo turns into song. Even as clouds converge, voices issue forth from tents and gers where champions and friends have gathered with family to toast triumphs. Triumphs must be acknowledged with toasts. Toasts are not toasts without serenades. I’m talking about serious serenading here. The rain that began to steadily patter in no way drenched the hours of laughter, merriment and congratulatory speeches accompany the filling of glasses and emptying of bottles. All this was punctuated and perfected with song. Many sang into the wee hours. But I could not miss the moment I had been waiting for since before I left the States. Yohor. Yohor is traditional Buryat circle dancing. In the stadium around a pointy nest of logs five meters high the closing ceremonies were on. Across darkness some of my new friends and I ran to catch the final attractions. Singers sang, dancers danced. Sky lanterns floated above the peoples heads into the Milky Way. One hungry little match struck and logs that loomed in shadow gave way to a tower of bonfire. Everything falls away, fear, gender, race. All is forgotten in a sublime gathering of “we”. People grab hands of people they have never met, and twirl, twirl with them, twirl! Imagine hundreds of humans spinning about the fountain of flame. For fifteen real minutes I am running hand in hand with I have no idea whom in utter peace. That must be the kind of peace human hearts long for, a peace to reign over all.

Yohor (Circle Dance) in the rain. The culmination of Altargana 2014.

Yohor (Circle Dance) in the rain. The culmination of Altargana 2014.

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Postlude:
The rain kept up all the next day. Our bus was one blessed little dirt berm away from rolling, the results of which would have been a tossed salad of musicians, singers, dancers and yours truly lying upon the rain soaked steppe. Arm in arm, I slowly traversed potentially lethal stretches of bus ending quagmire with an elderly woman and her cane. Finally she set her face, damned the consequences and road out the hairy spots with the driver. Brave Buryat Grandma. Long was the road back to Ulaanbaatar.

Find Part 1 of “Altargana” here: 10,000 Miles to Altargana

Find Part 2 of “Altargana” here: Adversity is 375 Miles to Altargana

Pack your bags if you dare! Altargana is in Ulan-Ude in 2016.

Converge

Retracing Baikal’s Ice Crucible

25 million years old according to Scientific estimates, she looks as pretty as a princess!

25 million years old according to Scientific estimates, she looks as pretty as a princess!

A short but good sleep, and I awaken predawn. Disengaging my pajamas (a down parka) with difficulty from my blue kazoo (sleeping bag), I leave my snoozing comrades with camera in (mitten bound) hands. Snapping the wonder of our solar star rising over the wind-driven plain of ice on Baikal is AWESOME.

Marius slept under the cold stars and next to a warm fire. I doubt he was warm though.

Marius slept under the cold stars and next to a warm fire. I doubt he was warm though.

Kesha was always on point, and saw to it we got fed well. Here he gathers ice for tea.

Kesha (Innokenti) was always on lead sledge, and saw to it we got fed well. Here he gathers ice for tea.

Baikal is a venerable sea. Known as the “North Sea” during the Han dynasty, battles were fought on her shores between the Han and the Huns, ancient inhabitants to this area around 119 BC! According to scientific estimates, Baikal is the oldest lake in the world, a mere 25 million years old. Snap! Snap! I snapped Old Glory until frozen. Coffee calls from the fire.

Just off Olkhon's Eastern shores fault action thrusts huge ice slabs up for admiration.

Just off Olkhon’s Eastern shores fault action thrusts huge ice slabs up for admiration.

Sasha and Vanya wave at you, and give some perspective to this ice jumble.

Sasha and Vanya wave at you, and give some perspective to this ice jumble.

The magnificence of this blue ice is . . . magnificent!

The magnificence of this blue ice is . . . magnificent!

We pack, luncheon, stow gear, disembark! Straining at the traces to move quickly across naked ice, with thirty miles still ahead, we are all go. We gain the hummock field that had us near despair the day previous. Clearing that labyrinth, on trudge we to nightfall. The wind whips as we drive heavy screws into ice to anchor our tent. Stars marshal in millions, peering down on us through cosmos jet black. Bone penetrating cold drives us into the tiny enclosure of our nylon domicile to toss and shiver and shiver and toss until dayspring. Oh Shackleton, my Shackleton, why did I read your tale? Near morning as we lay awake freezing, we cackle at the absurdity of sleeping on a solid sheet of sounding ice. What do I mean by “sounding” ice? Follow this link if you have never heard the strange sounds ice makes.

Ready for our second go at Baikal's ice box.

Ready for our second go at Baikal’s ice box.

How easy it is to pull a sledge on naked ice.

How easy it is to pull a sledge on naked ice.

The wind carved snow cover on the lake.

The wind carved snow cover on the lake.

Preparing for our last night on Baikal. It was North Pole like.

Preparing for our last night on Baikal. It was North Pole like.

Babylonian star catalogues list Orion as "The Heavenly Shepherd". The Shepherd tends to our shivery encampment.

Babylonian star catalogues list Orion as “The Heavenly Shepherd”. The Shepherd tends to our shivery encampment.

The only way to conquer this wicked cold is to get this expedition under way! I shed my frosty sleeping sack and stuff, strain, struggle into frozen boots. Our gear is hooded in hoarfrost. The promise of sleeping this eve in a warm yurt with a full belly drives us forward.

At lunch Marius, a friend from Romania relates to me his struggle of two nights past. The trek across Baikal had been rough, and he didn’t relish returning through the same ice bin of suffering again. Seeing the distant lights of habitation somewhere on the isle of Olkhon, he hatched a plan to escape our expedition, make his way to one of these homesteads, arrange transportation to Irkutsk, and catch the train back to Ulan-Ude! But he didn’t have enough money, and he needed a place to stay in Irkutsk. Since I have lived there, he thought I could furnish him with a host and a loan. He seriously considered making his escape! I burst into laughter with Marius at this idea, partially from commiseration, and partially because I couldn’t get my head around the lengths he was willing to go to avoid re-crossing Baikal. An enduring spasm of mirth cavorted in our bellies, now that we knew Marius, and the whole crew would survive our crossing.

The only way to conquer hummocks is by force!

The only way to conquer hummocks is by force!

Another team hits the hummocks.

Another team hits the hummocks.

The north wind blows, freezing our lunch break, and our expedition soldiers on. We become automatons, pulling the traces until we are spent, and then pulling three miles more. Our water freezes, and we are reduced to eating snow. Pain is ignored, vision tunnels, I will stop when I step on the eastern shore. But our team stops now, for a tea break! Gaaaah!

A stop for tea and . . .

A stop for tea and . . .

Ibuprofen. In the Fatherland they make it pink.

Ibuprofen. (In the Fatherland they make it pink.)

The end is in sight, but the team is flagging. I quarrel with Sasha over chatter and focus. I reason that the time to shoot the breeze waits in camp beyond the shore. So let’s shut up and get there! And we do, willing our sledge through the last field of hummocks to be met by cheers of the teams ashore. But we don’t stop; we drag our burden on into camp to deposit it where it need move no more. Only then do we slip the traces, and hug our rejoicing comrades. Now for a hot meal, a hot sweat*, (*Russian Banya), and a bed of oblivion.

A wood burning stove and a bunk bed. Spoiled rotten.

A wood burning stove and a bunk bed. Spoiled rotten.

A Long Haul for Olkhon

Campfire by moonlight on Olkhon island in Baikal.

Relishing the glow of a warm blaze on the Isle of Olkhon after 2 cold hard days of trekking.

The sledges are packed; their loads ratcheted into place. Sleeping bags, tents, thermoses, packs filled with minimal amounts of dry cloths and necessary gear, boxes of canned meat, dry soup, noodles, rice, sweet biscuits, cookies, and tea make up the balance of each burden. Our expedition is at hand. Into each set of traces slips a man, and one after another, the sledges began sliding toward the ice-bound shore of Lake Baikal. We wave to well wishing friends collected along the start of our route. Just off shore, we gather arm in arm to place our lives in the hands of our Maker. Now into the teeth of Baikal!

Sledge teams crossing the snowpacked ice of Baikal.

Having cleared the first ice hummock field along the eastern shore, we get underway.

The Holy Nose Peninsula in winter on Baikal.

The Holy Nose Peninsula always stands watch over our northern flank.

An Oriental maiden is winsome Baikal. Lake Baikal is Medusa. A glimpse of her concealed shores will leave a man gasping at her exquisite expanse. Her enchanting allure has led many to perish in her frigid storm frenzied waters, or on the arctic desert of her frozen agua. Baikal = danger, but her magnificence is > than her danger. When you partake in the grandeur that is Baikal, you will become aware of an indescribable majesty; a power that rent the foundations of earth to purposely lay Baikal in her basin. Your heart will fly to this Creator.

Sunset over the team on Baikal's ice.

Sunsets and sunrises over a mirror of ice are wonderful to behold. Time to set up camp for the night!

Ice hummocks. Stubbornly they oppose our sledges, blocking, bashing, and halting our progress. Even after yesterday’s work of hammering a path through them, they still had their way. But we were hopeful of naked ice. Clearing the hummock field we set off southeast on soft-crusted snow for the coast of Olkhon, largest island and most sacred place on the Sacred Sea.

Setting up camp on the ice of Baikal at dusk.

Setting up camp on a pleasantly lit sheet of freezing ice.

Our toils end at sunset. Progress, eight kilometers out of forty-seven. (A thirty-mile total taking into account hummock fields.)

Have you ever made your bed on a frozen sea? The ice speaks spooky. (Click on this link to hear how ice sounds while you lay upon it.) 5521 cubic miles of water ominously smacks the bottom surface of your ice mattress. Many years ago I read “Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage”, a story of desperate survival in the Antarctic. While sleeping on the ice, I “conveniently” recalled the instance where an ice lead opened under one of the tents dunking an unsuspecting sleeper in the sea. With a mile deep trench of water below my bed, ask me if I slept well!

Glowing steam from our night camp kitchen on Baikal.

I was so busy photographing the glow of burner and headlamps in the kitchen steam, I nearly missed dinner and had to scrape my portion from the bottom of the cooking pail.

Breakfast is a piece of frozen bread, frozen cheese, and two FROZEN slices of salami. And hot tea. Break camp, repackage sledge, fill thermos, off!

Pushing our sledge toward Olkhon island on Baikal.

Day 2: the push to Olkhon. Oleg in the traces, Timur and I on push.

Our moustachioed Ukrainian captain, Oleg Ivanovich gaily chats his way across the kilometers. Laughing, scolding Vanya* and stopping for tea are his main endeavors aside from pushing the sledge most of way. His constant chatter originally miffs me, but soon his golden heart shines through. (Besides, I tend to think everyone talks too much.) It’s amazing how sharing a bit of suffering can turn someone into a friend you would go anywhere with. Oleg – a tribute to the Ukrainian people.

The team considers it's approach to the island of Olkhon on Baikal.

Eyes on the prize. L to R: Timur, Oleg, Sergei (Expedition Commander), and Sanya.

Valera sports an ice mustache.

Valera sports an ice mustache.

Timur our most experienced member had already made several winter crossings. We got on splendidly, laughing a lot, freezing together taking pictures of the black velvet and diamond sky and sharing the frustrations of trying to put up a tent in sub-zero temps while fighting the wind. Timur’s Russian throws me for a loop. That is until I notice native speakers also asking him to repeat himself, hah!

Sanya, at sixteen was on his second crossing. He and I took turns at the lead pulling the sled. When he focuses, we cruise. When he starts talking, we falter. Vanya often gets Sasha’s goat, (his specialty) and twenty-minute arguments ensue. This went on until we all invite Vanya to catch the team ahead of us. Invitations flow freely. Sanya and his brother Dima usually drill for water at lunch stops. They drill through a meter and a half of ice in about ten minutes. When my lunch kit was packed at the bottom of our sledge, Sanya found me a cup, spoon and bowl in a heartbeat. Twice.

That brings us dear thirteen-year old Vanya. Parentless and full of energy, un-needed advice, ridiculous questions and always ready to argue, he was our expedition’s anchor. Wrestling him earned me my first black eye in decades. As our sledges spread across the ice, he often brings up the rear, and we end up waiting for him, slowing the whole expedition to a crawl, until we start sending him ahead. (Yes, to heckle other teams.) Though he drives us nuts, everyone loves Vanya, and when we finally make the eastern shore after 60 miles of sledge pulling, we heave Vanya into celebratory air.

Resting on the ice of Baikal.

A brief respite before lunch.

Barefoot on the ice of Baikal.

Keeping blisters at bay Misha changes socks before lunch.

Soup on freezing lake Baikal, Siberia.

Hot soup is ready and in your belly almost simultaneously. Kesha and Vanya shovel their soup.

Lunch break on a mile deep trench of water.

Lunch break on a mile deep trench of water.

On naked ice, pulling sledges is pretty easy, as long as you have crampons, or poor man’s crampons, screws screwed into your boots. Soft-crusted snow is another matter demanding the pushing and pulling of multiple team members who continually interchange places as they get tired and take breaks. The Holy Nose rose far to the north, a marvelous mountainous peninsula of sacred significance second to and on the opposite shore of Olkhon. Olkhon imperceptibly creeps closer with every step. In the evening we finally find our long-awaited naked ice, which gives wings to our sledges. The first sledge makes Olkhon a good 45 minutes before we do. They set up a blinking beacon to guide the other sledges in and start a fire. A FIRE! I had been searching the shoreline for thirty minutes in anticipation of a campfire to zero in on. Finally flaming into sight, it gives my heart wings.

Island of mystery on Lake Baikal, Siberia.

The Island of mystery draws closer footfall by footfall.

Pressing for Olkhon island after sunset on the ice. Baikal.

Our path leads to Olkhon. The sun has set, and we’ve a pull ahead of us yet!

Campfire and stars over Olkhon island, Siberia.

The campfire and stars burn through the cold of Olkhon Island. Our tiny valley home on the island.

My down parka, as a rule rebuffs cold like an angry badger rebuffs house guests, yet while making camp, my veins become ice choked. After tent pitching I stumble all a shiver to the fire and hunker down to wait dinner. Hot chicken and pasta puts everyone in a fine mood; and we encircle the fire drying boots, pants, socks and whatnot, laughing into the wee hours.

Find Part 2 of this story here: “Retracing Baikal’s Ice Crucible” 

Firelight on frozen Olkhon island, Siberia.

This campfire made the 60 mile trans-Baikal trek worth it. Share a laugh with us!

The moon over our campfire on Olkhon island, Baikal.

The fool moon smiles on camp.

Expedition members on Baikal prepare for a long winter's night.

Expedition members prepare for a long winter’s night.