Irkutsk: Paris of Siberia

Winter sunset, Irkutsk, Siberia

Pervomaiski region of Irkutsk. This scene continuously reverberates inside my head as a city on the very edge of the earth. Probably not what you expect from the Paris of Siberia, but striking all the same.

The Paris of Siberia, that is Irkutsk. I wrote on the wonders of Irkutsk several years back, it is worth a read. Here are some beautiful photos of the city who rests on the banks of the blue Angara river.

http://tigersontearoad.wordpress.com/cities-on-tea-road/irkutsk-paris-of-siberia/

Orthodox church in Irkutsk.

A lovely vision off the beaten path.

 

Sunny Skies of Siberia

The Clouds on Tea Road

A blue khadak finds temporary rest under the eternal blue sky of Mongolia.

A blue khadak finds temporary rest under the eternal blue sky of Mongolia.

The Great Tea Way begins in a stone gate in the Great Wall of China, wends across the Gobi sands, intersects the great and remote steppe of Mongolia and Siberia, Russia’s massive Boreal forests in Asia and Europe, and by way of Moscow’s shining cupolas perseveres on toward the Baltic coast and the white nights of St. Petersburg. Tea Road is the places and the people who lived and live along that route. I have spent ten years living on Tea Road, in three cities that played a major role in the tea trade, Irkutsk, Ulan-Ude (formerly Verkhneudinsk) and Ulaanbaatar (formerly Urga). Each city has it’s own flavor and group of characters that contribute to the history and culture of Tea Road. On the pages of this blog you will find many of their stories. So come to the Siberian Orient, it’s yours for the opening here.

Chopping Baikal ice for camp fire tea, always and essential in wintertide and sumertime alike.

Chopping Baikal ice for camp fire tea, always and essential in wintertide and sumertime alike.

Clouds and stars compete over the vast frozen basin of Lake Baikal in March. Yes, one of those tents is mine!

Clouds and stars compete over the vast frozen basin of Lake Baikal in March. We are sleeping on the ice.

Siberia and Mongolia’s azure skies are steeped in the myth of antiquity. Their legends and beliefs are wrapped in the vault of the sky. The first story I recall is the Buryat tale of the archer who finds a wife. Three celestial sisters decided to descend to the earth for a bath. They lit on the beautiful waters of lake Baikal as swans, and then shed their swan clothing to bathe. Seeing these lovely maidens, the archer was enchanted. He hid away the cloths of one of the sisters, and she became his wife. After bearing him many children, she tricks him into returning her swan attire and off she flies back into the heavens. Ghengis Khan himself worshipped Tengri, Eternal God of the blue sky. Blue is a holy color to the Nomads of Asia. When you go to visit, especially to people who are more traditional, you will recieve a blue khadak, a scarf of silk as a sign of honor.

Golden Buddha stands under a lovely sky in Zaisun, Ulaanbaatar.

Golden Buddha stands under a lovely sky in Zaisun, Ulaanbaatar.

There are more days of sunshine in this area than virtually any place in the world. This vast oriental blue sky is a majestic backdrop on which winnow scudding white billows, above green or fawn hills and the camps, caravans or cabins of the people, who make Tea Road place. Here are some images of clouds and the skies they sail upon over the place called Tea Road.

When I first came to Siberia, this seen from Universitetski, the region where I lived, seemed to me the edge of the earth.

When I first came to Siberia, this scene overlooking Pervomaiski from Universitetski, the region where I lived, seemed to me the edge of the earth.

Ice skaters revel in the chill, next to the historical icebreaker "Angara" on the Angara river, Irkutsk.

Ice skaters revel in the chill, next to the historical icebreaker “Angara” on the Angara river, Irkutsk.

A gloaming sky over the ancient capital Urga, now Ulaanbaatar.

A gloaming sky over the ancient capital Urga, now Ulaanbaatar.

The Angara River Embankment in Irkutsk, a place for people to stroll and chat.

The Angara River Embankment in Irkutsk, a place for people to stroll and chat.

Older than the Old West, it's the Ancient East, Terelj, Mongolia.

Older than the Old West, it’s the Ancient East, Terelj, Mongolia.

Orthodox churches bid farewell to the sun in Irktutsk. Many churches in Irkutsk were built by the fortunes of Tea Merchants.

Orthodox churches bid farewell to the sun in Irktutsk. Many churches in Irkutsk were built by the fortunes of Tea Merchants.

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.