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.
Tagged: camping, friends, great baikal trail, lake baikal, olkhinskoye plateau, Russia, siberia, singing, travel, volunteering, voluntourism
Finally, photos and something more substantial about the trip! Sounds wonderful and I understand entirely how much you enjoyed it!
Yes, it was great! I still have one more post coming on Lake Baikal and then on to the rest of my adventures.
Beautiful, Leah, as always. You manage to keep all of these memories, feelings, and observations fresh and alive as if we only just returned. I am always so grateful to read your posts and feel transported back to our temporary home in the Siberian wilderness. :)
I’m so glad you enjoy reading the posts! One more coming up about our “rest day.” :)
What an amazing experience! I travelled to Russia last year, but only visited Moscow and St Petersburg – looks like I was missing out! :)
I would definitely recommend getting to Lake Baikal whenever you can, but it takes some more effort to get there! The first time I went to Russia I only visited Saint Petersburg, Moscow, and a few other cities not far from them. Russia is just so huge that it warrants at least several visits, I think! :)
I really enjoyed reading about your adventure. The details make the writing come alive. Thank you.
Thanks so much! I’m glad you enjoyed.
Your blog is spectacular, and I am now a devoted reader. Your writing is, in a word, perfect. I’m enthralled, and looking forward to more. I found you via your comment on my Go Girl article. Thanks for writing, and for looking. The internet (and world) are a better place for your sight.
Wow, such a nice comment! Thanks, Hannah! It means a lot, particularly since I really enjoy your Go Girl column. I’m happy to now be following your blog as well!
Love this blog! Makes me want to disconnect myself from my computer, my work, my cell phone, and soak in the organic beauty around us. Thanks for reminding me how wonderful out world is!
I’m really glad you enjoy my blog! And haha, yes, writing this stuff makes me want to break away too, which is slightly ironic!
Leah, thank you for your hard work at the Lake Baikal and thanks for writing this amazing story! I love the song! It’s contagious and I sang it for a week.
I feel like I should thank Lake Baikal for just being such an incredible place. :) The song is sooo catchy isn’t it? Now it is stuck in my head, haha!