Mornings came early. We reluctantly emerged from our sleeping bags, quickly trying to replicate their warmth by pulling on jackets and hats. Then, unzipping the tent and brushing against the dew, we emerged into the chilly Siberian day, still a shadowy grey under the trees. Warm kasha, porridge, of some variety waited for us in a big bucket under the green kitchen area tarp, along with bread, cheese, jam, and meat slices for the non-vegetarians. I fumbled with the instant coffee and topped its bitterness off with an overly generous helping of sgushyenka, sweetened condensed milk, my favorite. My thermos kept this gloopy beverage a little too warm a little too long, and by the end I was gulping it as to not be late.
The bleariness surrounding breakfast time evaporated soon enough, and it was another day on the Great Baikal Trail.
Sunscreen on (you can get sunburned in Siberia, you know), bug spray on (the mosquitos are enormous and tick-borne encephalitis isn’t something to scoff at), damp hiking shoes or boots on, bandana on, gloves in the pockets—ready. With varying levels of tardiness, we rushed to make a circle where we celebrated the “person of yesterday” with hugs. Then off we were already, tramping through the campground, around the cliff Vityaz, through the woods, and to the bog, where we were constructing a trail through the squishy muck and the beautiful, already turning golden in August birches.
Doesn’t sound fun? I’ll forgive you for thinking so based on this description so far. And I’ll concede that camping in the Siberian wilds for two weeks might not be everyone’s cup of tea, or in my case, coffee. But, I—often unreasonably squeamish and not a fan of dirt—I had the time of my life. There are a few places that reach into my chest and tug, and the area surrounding Lake Baikal has weaseled its way onto the list.
So, yes, we tugged up the wet top layer of the marshy ground, splattering ourselves with mud when our pickaxes caught and whipped up a chunk of wet grass. It took around five of us to finagle firmly rooted tree stumps out of the earth. We developed blisters on our thumbs from repetitive bark scraping while evilly eager ants attacked and enormous mosquitos buzzed around. Our boots filled with mud as we sank into the ground.
But we laughed and laughed, becoming exceedingly more silly by the day. We sneakily hunted for little gifts for our secret friends. We played “who am I?” in an amusing mix of Russian and English. The clever Yulia guessed “werewolf” after only two questions; we figured each other out quickly as our personalities bloomed and settled into their spots on the crowded bench. And we sang a lot, with varying levels of talent, but with lots of gusto and no embarrassment. We belted out the Beatles and the Sound of Music and Russian folk songs. So work wasn’t really as much work as going through the admittedly tough motions with a crew of jolly friends. And it was interspersed with tea and candy breaks, as you do.
Thanks, Masha, for the video!
After our morning three hours of work we plodded back to camp for lunch. And after lunch we changed into bathing suits and jumped in the frigid stream to temporarily rid ourselves of the mud splatters and for an actually needed cool down. Saner people than I limited themselves to one or two dips in before drying off in the sun.
We had an afternoon break, during which we could do productive things such as laundry or journaling, but more often than not I got wrapped up in equally productive games. Productive, I say, because I drew my friends closer and, yes, remembered my ere-faded Russian.
Before we could quite register the time passing by, it was time to work again. We would do another three hours before dinner at 7:30pm or so. Ravenous after, we would scarf down our soup and then queue up for the bucket shower or, better yet, banya. Three of us would enter the steamy room, sit and sweat, and then rinse with our buckets. Happily we had the option of stove heated water before the cold night descended, but I’m crazy and chose the cold water. Then, refreshed, we were ready for an evening of sitting around the fire and singing some more before trundling off to our tents around midnight.
I curled up in my beloved sleeping bag and got not quite enough sleep (but no matter!) before the next busy and glorious day. There was no need for internet to while away the time. The two weeks flashed by. I felt like it was a long time because new friends felt like old ones quite rapidly; I felt like it was no time because I didn’t want it to end so quickly and it did. So, you see, these days camping and trail building in Siberia were anything but boring. And they were nothing but beautiful (okay, sans the huge mosquitos). I sit here listening to ДДТ, a staple band of our campfire songs, and look forward to whenever it is that I am able to go back and do another project with some of the best people there are.
I laughed when I told people I was off to camp in Siberia for two weeks. I still laugh because it sounds crazy. But the craziest things are often the most amazing. They root themselves in your chest and stick tight and are part of you, holding you up.