There is a shock to your system that comes from seeing natural wonders. Maybe you know it. Your chest constricts in a good, excited way. You grin. You can’t tear your gaze away. It’s as if your eyes know that this is something extra special, and they need to lock on as long as they can, soak everything in before you’re gone again. And even when you do return, the feeling is the same. Some things are, happily, hard to get used to.
It was our “rest day,” though it turned out to be more adventurous than restful. No matter! After breakfast we gathered our day packs and began the two-hour hike to the electrichka train station. We were going to the shores of Lake Baikal and thus were in quite high spirits. Once we reached the station, many of us whipped out and turned on our phones to take advantage of having cell reception and to let others know that, after a week of no contact in the Siberian woods, we were alive and thriving. Once on the train, Anya peered over at me and stated, “we’re becoming people again, not champignony.” We had readily adopted the moniker champignony for ourselves—a play on the English word champion through the Russian word for mushrooms—and it fit. We were dirty, persistent little mushrooms leaving the forest for the modern world, even if this world was only indicated to us by the use of cell service and the presence of non-campers on the train.
But the wild is always there, once you realize, nor does it ever quite disappear. As we approached our destination, we were able to catch glimpses of Lake Baikal out of the leftside window of the train. Everyone turned their heads. It’s near impossible not to. Even though I had already visited the lake, I felt a thrilling rush.
The train stopped and we disembarked on a hill above the town of Kultuk, on the southwest corner of the lake. Immediately we were swallowed by a grand landscape. Us, on the hill. Wildflowers lining the path, leading the way down. The village, waiting at the bottom. And the lake, a glorious base for it all, with threadlike clouds drifting in the sky above, mountains peering through across the way. We excitedly rushed down the slope, our speeds varying by the amount of photos we couldn’t help but stop and take.
We made for the shores of the lake. Some of us started preparing our lunchtime snack, but others of us donned our swimming suits and joltingly eased ourselves into the lake’s frigid grasp. We squealed and splashed around, but after a few minutes our discomfort ceased and we excitedly reveled in the fact that we were, very actually, swimming in Lake Baikal, the world’s oldest and deepest freshwater lake containing some of the clearest water. And more than that, you can sense its majesty, its pull. It’s very rare that I’m so excited about swimming.
After drying and snacking, we set off to hike along the now disused Circum-Baikal Railway. The only train that runs these days is a cute tourist train. We clambered over the tracks on foot, taking uneven too-long or too-short strides to step from one tie to another. The railway rose until we were elevated just above the lake to our right and surrounded by the plethora of wildflowers. Don’t let anyone tell you that Siberia is just a cold place. It can be, but it is more. The yellow, purple, blue flowers shivered under the sun; the railway stretched out before and behind; the lake spread out below, elegant, clear, and a perfect hue of blue.
We simply walked along the railway, passing the occasional house framed by birches and one abandoned train station. We passed through several tunnels beside the tracks—not for trains but instead to manage meltwater from the snow, which could produce landslides. We picked some flowers. We sat at a picnic table and had a snack and played a game before walking onward. Eventually we reached the village of Staraya Angosolka, some ten kilometers from Kultuk. There, we had a short break, spreading out below the small village church and on a dock protruding from the shore. Hopes for more snacks were dashed when we learned the village’s grocery store—and cultural museum—had, unfortunately, burned down about a year before. Left was a banya, a campsite, the church, and houses scattered around. To get to the electrichka stop, one closer than where we had disembarked, we had to hike some more: through a beautiful birch forest, up a tiresome hill, and there we were.
While we waited for the train with tired legs, Elizabeth pulled out her music player and, sharing earbuds, we sang along to the shuffle. I hadn’t listened to music for a week. It sounded even grander after its absence, so once we boarded the electrichka I pulled out my phone and listened to Beirut as we pulled further away from Lake Baikal.
It wasn’t until 11:30pm that we arrived at camp for dinner, our journey lengthened by the dark and by missing the first turn off to camp, oops. We were allowed some extra hours to sleep in the next morning before work, and we all gratefully wobbled into our sleeping bags after our full day of walking over 15 miles.
Just walking. Traipsing along amid the wildflowers, the path reaching out in front and behind. The big world around. The birches looking down. The wisps of clouds floating by. Just looking. The mystical lake, placid beside you, quickening the heart. It’s places like these that lock on and remind the world how wondrous it can be. Don’t pass them by; let them take hold.