Against The Wind-When It Screams, It Howls 08/23/2009
Heading west from Novosibirsk, a giant industrial city located in central Siberia, the earth becomes flat as the spine of a drunkard asleep upon the floor. One can turn in any direction and see the same thing: a seemingly never-ending expanse of prairie land without the slightest dip, hill, or rise in the terrain.
We have cycled 3,800 miles here from the Pacific Ocean. This is the beginning of the steppe, a vast expanse of grassland and swamp that consumes much of the Central Asian part of Russia.
Twenty years ago, an American writer for National Geographic named Mark Jenkins arrived here with a group of cyclists crossing the former Soviet Union. Before embarking on our trip last winter, we contacted Jenkins and asked him what problems we might confront. Jenkins replied with an informative e-mail, but ended his electronic epistle with a cautionary tone. “One more thing boys,” he wrote, “riding from Asia to Europe, the westerlies, prevailing winds in the northern latitudes, will blow against you on the steppe. We battled strong headwinds that significantly slowed us down. I would seriously consider going the other way.”
Ignoring advice given by one more experienced than yourself seems foolhardy. But in order to follow Jenkins advice, we would have had to start our trip one year later in order to slowly ride across Europe in the middle of winter and arrive in Russia during spring. Neither Ellery or myself were willing to put off our trip.
We decided to ride against the wind.
Slow Going: Ellery Pushes Against The Westerlies, Eastern Siberian Plains, Russia
Decisions are easily made when you are thousands of miles away from real life situations. Riding out of Novosibirsk, we cross a bridge above the Ob River, one of the largest waterway’s in Asia, which flows thousands of miles northward into the Arctic Ocean. As the buildings of Novosibirsk and the Ob disappear behind us, the Russian Federal Highway trails away into flat steppe. The sound of whipping wind soon replaces the city clamor. It seems to blow against me harder with each passing mile. Most days, I can keep my bicycle moving around 16 mph. Today, I struggle to do 12 mph, and soon find myself breathless.
Cycling along the steppe presents some of the hardest challenges we have faced yet. The first months of this trip were spent riding rough dirt roads over rugged mountain ranges in Eastern Siberia north of China and Mongolia. During that stage, I dreamt of one day arriving somewhere with flatter land and better roads. Now that dream has become reality and presents new hardships.
While riding a bicycle, your stamina depends upon taking short breaks from pedaling. On a flat stretch of road, or downhill, I take small rests. Riding on the steppe, billowing winds gain speed over thousands of miles of flat land. You must pedal constantly against them to maintain a decent speed. If you rest for a second, the bike instantly comes to a stop, and you must use even more exertion to get yourself going again. You tire quickly here and move slower. Sometimes just maintaining 10 mph seems impossible.
The steppe is mentally more challenging than it is physically. Before me rests the ultimate tease: flat earth and good roads. The image before my eyes sends gleeful messages to my brain, telling my legs that we can finally move faster. The wind is an invisible obstacle which forbids my legs from accomplishing what my brain thinks my body can do. You must exercise extreme patience and try to believe that the wind is not a malicious creature. To stay positive, I remind myself that the wind and I are just two natural forces who momentarily are traveling in different directions.
The Barren And The Beautiful: Fields Of Sunflowers And Wheat On The Steppe Are Interspersed By Interminable Expanses Of Swamp
The Siberian plains are all at once a beautiful, captivating, desolate, and tough part of the earth. The area is sparsely populated by humans and each day we rarely see more than two villages. Between these scattered outposts we occasionally pass through rolling fields of golden wheat and sunflowers whose myriad crowns of yellow pedals glow vibrantly on the earth like shining constellations in the night sky.
Much of the steppe is not as visually stunning. The region is mainly covered in lowlands filled with interminable stretches of swamp. For miles on either side of the lonesome road, groves of dead birch trees rise from pools of brackish water like the skeletal remains of prehistoric beasts stranded in the muck. A thick layer of green algae covers the water, obscuring what mysteries lay beneath like a thick shroud of velvet.
These expanses of swamp are not lifeless; birds thrive here. In Siberia, we have mainly seen birds of prey. But the plains abound with a fantastic array of fowl. Majestic wide-winged black and white birds peck at the roadside and soar into the air when I intrude into their habitat. Mallard ducks bob in pools of algae. Song birds fill the trees, and, in marshy areas, where stands of reeds fan out into endless swamp, small brown birds resembling sand pipers eye me from the roadside. Their presence here can make you imagine the marshland belongs to a long tidal inlet in New England or section of the bayou along the Gulf coast.
An Endless Swamp In Siberia Stretches 1,000's Of Miles To The Arctic Ocean
This colossal swamp is inscrutable. Each day, I have trouble conceptualizing its immensity. I would prefer to believe that a seashore lies at the distant point where the plains collide with the sky. But this is Central Asia. There is no sea for thousands of miles. This flat swampland stretches from here to the Arctic Ocean.
At night, we make camp, and the swamp’s fiercest brethren, mosquitoes, attack us in swarms. Bugs here are startlingly numerous. Stepping into the woods on the steppe is an almost hallucinatory sensation. In seconds, hordes of mosquitoes pour forth from the trees, bushes, and forest floor, in such vast numbers it looks like entire particles of the earth have become weightless and are flowing toward you. I wear a bug net around my face and chest to protect me. As I set up my tent, they buzz around my head like magical winged fairies and sprites, excited by the presence of this strange traveler in their land, who speak to me in a static language I cannot understand.
We move slowly through this strange environment. The wind hinders our progress. One day the breeze shifts behind us and we ride across the steppe with ease. We cover as much ground as possible. By nightfall we complete our longest day yet: 136 miles. The headwinds return the next day stronger than ever.
Finally, we reach the city of Omsk in the middle of the steppe. My jaw nearly drops when the city’s buildings come into view. I have spent so much time gazing at flat earth, I nearly forgot what the real world looks like.
Every day we are getting closer to Europe, closer to civilization. If we had taken Mark Jenkins advice, we would be exiting the developed world now, instead of nearing it. Despite the challenges, I am excited about our direction of travel.
Nevertheless, if years from now, someone were to ask me for advice about riding a bicycle from Asia to Europe, I would feel obligated to give them a cautionary admonition.
“I would seriously consider going the other way,” I’d say.
Mosquitoes Gather On My Tent For Warmth In The Morning
Limitless Horizons: A Rainbow Stretches Over The Plains, Western Siberia, Russia
My alarm rings at dawn. After riding over 3,500 miles, another day has begun.
I drowsily peer through my tent window. Outside, the dark image of my bicycle appears like a charcoal drawing etched on a rosy horizon. Heavy dews are rare in the middle of summer making for ideal camping conditions. Instead of futilely waving our rain fly's in the air to dry them, this morning my riding partner Ellery and me simply eat breakfast, pack our bags, and hit the road.
Our day begins cruising up and down rolling hills which undulate into foggy valleys. Descending from the hills, I can barely see while speeding through thick fog. Beads of moisture collect on my thin wool pullover and glimmer like gemstones when I rise up the next small hill back into the sunlight.
By 8AM the sun rises above the treetops and the fog evaporates. The suffocating feeling of rising humidity replaces the cool air of early morning. Droplets of sweat soon pour from my brow, roll down my cheeks and neck, and soak my shirt. By midday, the hot sun makes central Siberia feel like a tropical island. The swooshing sound of my legs turning the pedals becomes barely audible amidst the shrill buzz of cicadas. The sound of insects chirping is a natural soundtrack to a sweltering summer day. It is high summer in Russia and it's unmercifully hot.
Most people associate Russia with wintry visions of St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow with people traipsing beneath its colorful spires wearing large fur hats to protect them from bitter cold. Before leaving for this trip last winter, Ellery and I discovered how much these images permeate many Americans' conceptions of Russia.
"We are going to ride bicycles across the entirety of Russia and then into Europe," I told people.
"You can't do that!" many commonly responded, "won't it be winter there?"
Menacingly Beaufitul: Enormous Thistles Grow Wildly Alongside Russian Roads
The misinterpretation that Russia rests under a spell of eternal winter is not entirely unfounded. The average winter temperature in Siberia is below 0 degrees Fahrenheit, and can often dip to minus 30 or more. In late June, we frequently cycled past rivers with frozen ice still melting along the shoreline. Long winters here cause the identities of the four seasons to blur together.
These statistics once made it hard for me to believe that hot summer days existed in Siberia too. I recall curiously reading classic Russian novels in which the authors describe humid summer scenes that contradict the frozen world one distantly associates with Russia. A simple passage in Leo Tolstoy's famous novel Anna Karenina, which describes the character Levin happily mowing his fields on a sultry summer day, particularly stands out to me now. "In this hottest time," Tolstoy writes, "the mowing did not seem hard to him. The sweat that drenched him cooled him off, and the sun, burning on his back. . .gave him firmness and perseverance in his work . . . the scythe cut by itself."
Although Tolstoy wrote in the 19th century, as so often happens in the rural country I pass through, I find that the country of today greatly resembles that of yore. During summer months, Russian men remain almost permanently shirtless because of the scorching heat. Many are so tan it appears they have remained half naked since the first warm day of spring. I cycle by them working in their gardens, or cutting hay fields with long scythe's collecting it in large piles. They wave as I pass then return to labor under the hot sun.
The vision of men using scythes sticks in mind. I'm continually amazed by how little rural life in Russia has changed over time.
Man On Horseback Herding Cows By Buddhist Temple, Central Siberia, Russia
Russians, not surprisingly, relish the heat. Many build small saunas near their houses to enjoy during winter months. In cities, I'm often appalled riding on stiflingly hot buses where windows remain shut even in summer. I sweat profusely next to women wearing thick sweaters. Russia is a land of extremes; its residents possess an equal tolerance for intense hot and cold.
I cannot boast the same stoicism. We have long since readjusted our riding schedules in accordance with the muggy weather, rising at dawn to cover ground early, and resting during sweltering afternoons.
The summer solstice may be long behind us, but in the northern hemisphere, light still remains, in the sky now until 10:30 PM even in the middle of August. The intense amount of daylight causes high temperatures. By 3PM riding a bicycle along burning asphalt feels like standing in a frying pan. Some days, even by 6PM, it is so hot we must stop every ten miles to cool off.
I often feel like we are the only ones seeking shade. Even on remote sections of road, we spot people everywhere. Many drive miles from their villages to gather berries in distant fields and clearings. They pick strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries which grow abundantly in the wild, and sell them on the roadside. Each time I ride over a bridge above a river or stream, I see hordes of people picnicking, swimming in the water, and fishing. It seems the whole country is outdoors in the blistering weather.
Fields Of Wildflowers Blaze Upon The Landscape
When the heat becomes too intense, we sometimes rest in fields out in the middle of nowhere. Soon a smiling stranger with a basket of berries, or an old shepherd walking with a herd of cows, whipping them with a switch made of grass, inevitably passes by. A Russian summer is different than in America. Here there is an excess of land that seems to belong to nobody. People here are free to graze their animals where they like, and pick berries wherever they grow. The movement of people is not limited by property boundaries and 'No Tresspassing' signs.
In Russia, life abounds during summer. We cycle past entire fields filled with wildflowers that are all the same color. In the distance, these expanses of flowers appear like purple or yellow lakes. They brilliantly emblazon the horizon, forcing me to appreciate the wonders which these scorching days create.
'The proliferation of plant growth here seems magical,' I think to myself.
It is not long before the spell begins to break. During the final days of July, the reverberations of the earth spinning on its axis become palpable in the return of colder nights. In the mornings, I now find my tent covered in heavy dew, the first sign that summer is concluding.
In the first week of August, we notice that some leaves are already changing color. The days are no longer as hot, and we can now ride anytime, undisturbed by the heat. Men begin wearing shirts again. Folks now sell mushrooms they gather in the forest by the roadsides instead of berries.
The almost supernatural summer months in Russia are fading, slowly falling victim to cooler fall weather. Only two months ago, I saw ice floating down a river. Now the peak of summer in Russia already seems intangible. A magical time which exists only in rumors and story books.
Past And The Present: Some Siberian Farmer's Still Cut Hay With Scythe's
Herds Of Horses Roam Free, Central Siberia, Russia
Within The Enigma 08/23/2009
Winston Churchill may have put it best when he famously described Russia as, “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Cycling along a rough dirt road in the middle of Siberia, I finally begin to understand what he meant.
To say Russia is immense would be an understatement: The country contains one-eighth of the world’s total land mass, spanning northern Asia and Europe. We have now traveled 3,000 miles across Russia on bicycles, but we are only halfway across the country. Cycling the length of Russia is equivalent to driving from New York to Chicago nine times.
Gazing at a map of Siberia is a visual playground for your imagination to run wild; there is simply so much space that one can only speculate what exists within its borders. With so many miles still ahead of us, and the quality of the roads here still subject to frequent changes, we can often only stare at our map and hypothesize about what future obstacles may confront us.
Major Siberian cities are often separated by 500 miles of forest and rural villages. The one federal road that crosses the country continually changes form. At times we ride along a road resembling a major U.S. highway, but as you stray farther from civilization, it often transforms into a mere country lane filled with potholes, or a rough dirt road. On a map, the federal highway appears as a single red line. But what this bright splash of rouge really signifies in reality remains a constant mystery.
Pigs Roam Free In A Small Town, Eastern Siberia, Russia
Before arriving in Russia, we knew road quality in eastern Siberia would slow our progress. More than a month ago, for 500 miles, the Russian Federal Highway dissipated into a dirt road until we reached the city of Chita. For three weeks, we traveled through remote country between small villages with no running water or indoor plumbing. During this section of the trip, while looking on our maps at the vast sections of Russia fanning thousands of miles westward toward Moscow, I imagined a more developed world would appear after Chita with paved roads and small towns with flush toilets instead of outhouses.
Obtaining accurate information about the reality of the road ahead can be extremely difficult. Most people who we speak with are villagers who have never strayed far from their place of birth. Oftentimes, our most reliable sources of information come from young Russian men we meet from the Russian Pacific Coast, who make a lving by investing in cheap used cars imported from Japan and drive them into central Russia to resell for profit.
Several weeks ago, we met one such driver named Alex who had driven cars across the length of Russia four times. We sat over several vodka's and examined a Russian map together, then asked him questions about the road ahead. As he spoke, I listened to his words as if receiving an oracle’s proclamation.
“Soon you will reach sections of road with no pavement again,” he said, pointing to a section of central Russia spanning nearly 600 miles. “There the off-road sections are not as long as before, but the road quality is even worse. This is a very poor section of Russia,” he explained.
His answers caused my fantasy that we would soon enter a more developed world to disintegrate like a sand castle beneath a crashing wave.
Several hundred miles down the road, Alex’s prediction became reality. One afternoon, I spied a car in the distance with a hazy cloud of beige dust trailing behind it. I immediately knew we were headed for more off-road.
Now You See It, Now You Don't: Pavement Comes And Goes
There are few things so disheartening as regressing. In the coming days, we hit the odd juxtaposition of paved roads interspersed with rough dirt roads. We assume these strange transitions exist because frost heaves and brutally cold Siberian winters destroy the roads so much that construction crews only have time to cover bad sections of road in remote areas with gravel instead of repairing them.
For four days we continue down some of the worst roads we have encountered yet. Clouds of dust emitted by passing vehicles coat my body in filth. I try tying a handkerchief around my face to avoid breathing in the dust, but the summer heat is too intense to put anymore clothes on. When trucks drive by, I simply hold my breath. Removing my sunglasses at the end of the day, I discover that my eyes are the only area of my face not covered in dirt. I look like a raccoon.
Hitting a stretch of good road here, I speed up in a vain attempt at escaping this part of Russia, and then suddenly must brake to swerve around a stretch of potholes. At one point, we hit a several-mile section of road constructed of large concrete blocks which have been ripped up from an old airport runway and recycled on the road before me. I must ride slowly to avoid hitting bits of rusty rebar which jut out into this makeshift road and might puncture a tire. Clouds of huge horseflies and mosquitoes surround me as I slow down, whirling around me in circles like satellites revolving in the earth’s orbit. I try to swat them as they bite me, but it only slows me more.
As our second day ends, we reach a small village of several hundred people. We locate the one store in town and stock up on food. As we walk out, the women who run the store offer to call the principal of the local elementary school to let us sleep there. An hour later, I am unfolding my sleeping bag on the floor of a large log cabin-style building which serves as the local school.
That evening, I sit in the schoolyard and observe the village around me. Several goats and a cow graze freely by the sides of buildings. Strangely, I don’t exactly feel like a stranger here. I grew up on a small farm with cows and sheep as a child in a small town in Maine called Sedgwick and attended kindergarten in a two-room schoolhouse built in the 19th century. I often become frustrated when Russians in these villages assume that I come from a modern American city and have led a very different life than their own. When I tell them I that I grew up in an old farm hourse, in a small town about the same size as this one, they don’t seem to believe me until I tell them it is located somewhat close to Boston.
‘‘Oh, Boston,” they finally say with glimmers of recognition in their eyes.
“Do you have roads in America like the ones here,” they routinely ask.
“Yes, many,” I reply, recalling dirt roads running through blueberry fields behind my house that I used to ride my bike on as boy, “but the difference is that our highways are paved.”
Ellery and I set forth from the elementary school the following morning and continue down a gravel road which resembles a logging trail. We make jokes to brighten the rough start to another day.
“How can Russia, a country with a seat on the United Nations Security Council and a member state of the G8, along with countries like France and the United Kingdom, not achieve what countries like Guatemala and South Africa have done: put one paved road across the entire country?” we say laughing, yelling at the trees.
In two more days, we arrive in the city of Krasnoyarsk. We are now halfway across Russia.
“After Krasnoyarsk, the road finally improves,” Alex told us before we parted ways.
From there we continue, further within the enigma.
Quick To Swerve: Innumerable Pot Holes Keep You On Your Toes
The Russian Federal Highway: The Main Road Which Freight Trucks (Like The One Pictured Above) Use To Cross The Country
Riding The Piglet's Tail 08/12/2009
Over one year ago, I met a young American named Eric in Bogota, Colombia riding a bicycle loaded with camping gear. He was a Harvard graduate and former computer programmer who had abandoned his comfortable life to seek adventure. His goal was to cycle alone from the Arctic Circle in northern Alaska to the southern tip of South America. He had already spent a year riding through Alaska, Canada, the western U.S., Mexico, and Central America.
Eric became very excited when I told him about my dream of biking across Asia and Europe. We went out for lunch to talk about the endeavor in a small run-down cafe near Bogota's central plaza looking out at the Andes mountains.
"How much training do you recommend I do before starting?" I asked earnestly speaking over a lively salsa tune blaring in the background.
"None," he replied brusquely. "To be honest, I had hardly done any riding before starting this trip. I just knew I wanted to do it, so I flew to the Arctic Circle and went for it," he said in a carefree manner while devouring a plate of rice and beans.
"Don't get me wrong, the first few weeks are rough," he warned. 'But your body will quickly get used to it," he said with a wise glimmering look in his youthful eyes.
"People you meet must be amazed by what you are doing," I said.
"When I tell people about my trip, they usually just shake their heads and say, 'Wow, that's a long ways."
Nearly a year after we spoke, my riding partner Ellery and I began our trip on a cold April morning on the Pacific Coast of Russia. After an entire winter hardly riding my bicycle, we laboriously began climbing up and down coastal mountains on our first day. Each mile was a struggle. I could only get my heavy bicycle up each hill by pedaling in the easiest gear, stopping for frequent breaks. In these moments, I drew a sense of solace from my conversation with Eric in Colombia. It repeated in my head like a catchy advertisement.
"Don't worry about training, you'll be fine in a few weeks," he had said.
"I just can't wait to experience what riding this bike will feel like a month from now," I said optimistically to Ellery while rubbing my sore muscles at the end of that strenuous first day.
89 days have now passed since that arduous beginning and we have completed over a quarter of our trip. The most remote sections of Russia with the worst roads now rest behind us. Some of the most difficult sections of this trip are over.
We begin our 89th day on the road speeding along a flat valley. A light rain falls gently upon my skin. It is a welcome relief at the onset of another muggy day.
For the past week, we have been slowly following a coastal road in eastern Siberia along Lake Baikal, the world's largest freshwater lake. A steep mountain soon swallows the valley and I slowly begin climbing upwards. Before the first winding mountain turn, I stop to take in one last glimpse of the breathtaking green hills which spill into this beautiful lake below.
Fish Vendors, Lake Baikal, Eastern Siberia
Near me several old women sell fish by the roadside. I grew up on the coast and I feel comfortable on Baikal. I love how the cool breeze blowing off the water reminds me of my summers in coastal Maine. For an instant, I don't want to leave; we won't see another beach for almost 4,000 miles until we reach the Black Sea. But the road ahead invariably holds great experiences and new faces. I turn my head and hop on my bike.
Today we will witness a significant change in the landscape. For over six weeks, we have crossed mountain ranges spanning northward out of China and Mongolia. This morning we will do a six mile climb and then continue over smaller mountains for 70 miles. By day's end, we will descend from the mountains for good. During the next month, we will cross rolling hills, swamp, and steppe, the flat prairie land of western Siberia. Sluggishly moving up the mountain, I become excited by this development.
Small Mountain Village, Eastern Siberia
Halfway up the first climb, the light rain turns into a downpour. Even riding in heavy rain is a gift when traveling in a characteristically humid Siberian summer. Cool droplets of water fall on my shoulders with a heavenly sensation and drain down my arms in miniature rivulets. Near the mountain top, we stop to pump up Ellery's rear tire, which has developed a slow leak. I stand, back arched, feet planted in the muddy hill, holding both heavy bikes upright while he pumps the tire. My body is so hot from riding that slender wisps of steam radiate off it, floating amidst a torrent of summer rain.
Just before we reach the summit, the rain stops and the humidity instantly returns. Soon I'm sweating again and can't wait to feel the cool breeze of the first descent. Riding a bicycle over time only feels like a more and more efficient mode of transportation. I have learned to move through mountains as quickly as possible, shifting to the toughest gear to gain velocity down a hill, then maintaining my speed by moving to easier gears as I try to race up the next one.
My leg muscles are now specially trained to move the bike quickly. Bicycle travel feels efficient now, not slow. Running through the gears as I ride my bike reminds me of driving my old stick-shift truck. As we we finish the six mile climb, I victoriously slam the bike into the toughest gear. The chain moves with a loud clank, like a door slamming shut or a gun being cocked, shattering the silence of the still mountain air. I am off, flying down the mountain like a bullet.
The combination of gravity and the incline of the hill pulling you and your bicycle downwards is pure freedom. In a series of mountains like this, it is often over in an instant and you're climbing up the next hill. You lose yourself in the rhythm of going slow and fast, fast and slow, shifting from a tough gear to an easier one, continuously moving forward.
By late afternoon, the traffic intensifies with people returning home after a weekend relaxing near Lake Baikal. They pass by me winding around mountain turns which curl like a piglet's tail. Finally, the repetition of mountains is broken by a five mile descent onto flat land. I yell and scream with excitement as the bicycle effortlessly rolls forth down the mountain. Reaching the bottom, I look back at the familiar sight of a small marsh standing below a backdrop of towering mountains. I will miss this beautiful section of Russia, but my excitement that we have successfully moved into another geographic zone drowns my nostalgia.
'Eric was right,' I think now, 'bicycle travel does eventually get easier.'
That night, we arrive in the city of Irkutsk to rest. Over time, I have found that although the scenery changes on this trip, my interactions with people remain similar. When they see my bicycle with its huge orange panniers, they just want to know where you are coming from and where you are going. Answering this question can become monotonous.
Standing in the center of Irkutsk, a man approaches me and my bike with the same introductory query.
"We're riding from the Pacific to Atlantic Ocean," I say routinely in Russian.
The man just shakes his head.
"Wow, that's a long ways," he says.
The Last Mountains Disappear Behind Us
Typical Sign Warning About Fire Danger
The Seagull 08/12/2009
For six weeks, we have ridden through rugged mountains across eastern Siberia and the details which dapple the landscape here are now quite familiar. A hawk soaring above me or large rivers winding through the wilderness are common sights. I spot the first sign of changing geography one afternoon. It appears in the form of a seagull flapping its wings in the sky.
When attempting to ride a bicycle across an entire continent, the sight of a major body of water is the first mark of progress. I have greatly anticipated the moment when we will reach Lake Baikal, the world's largest freshwater lake. From the Sea of Japan, we have cycled nearly 2,400 miles across Russia to get there. The sea gull's presence confirms that this important landmark is now only miles away.
Mountain River Flowing Into Lake Baikal
Baikal is the biggest and oldest lake in the world resting in a rift valley formed by the divergence of two tectonic plates 25 million years ago. Over 300 hundred rivers and streams feed Baikal, filling a giant basin which is over a mile deep and contains 20% of the world's unfrozen fresh water. On a map, Baikal looks like a skinny crescent moon carved into the center of northern Asia. Gazing at this image in a world atlas invariably inspires an alluring sense of intrigue.
We near Baikal on a sweltering afternoon, cycling over numerous bridges built over clear mountain streams flowing northward into the lake. Each one gives me that same anxious feeling of imminent discovery one has while playing hide and seek as a child, when you have searched everywhere and the remaining places your opponent could be hidden are few.
While riding along, I do a double take as I casually glance at a small Siberian village to the right and see that a small road between simple log cabins leads to a great expanse of periwinkle water glimmering in the sun instead of deep green forests. Smiling and excited, I triumphantly push the pedals onwards to the small town of Babushkin where we plan to camp by the beach tonight.
The stifling heat of a summer afternoon in Siberia challenges the chilly images one associates with central Russia. Entering Babushkin, I pass typical Siberian homes painted in vibrant blues, greens, and, sometimes even oranges and yellows. By their sides, little boys, barefoot and shirtless, chests deeply bronzed by the summer sun, scamper down dusty dirt roads carrying fishing poles towards the blue water. A cool breeze rustles the green leaves in the trees along the roadside. I momentarily feel like I am back in the dingy Caribbean coastal towns I visited while traveling in Venezuela a year ago. When we enter Babushkin's only cafe, I almost must restrain myself from saying the typical Spanish greeting 'buenas tardes' to the waitress. Instead, I utter the harsh sounding 'Zdrastvootye' the Russian word for Hello.
When I stepped foot in this country last winter and began studying Russian, some of the first words I learned were cold, snow, and scarf. Those words are useless now. In the cafe, Ellery and I consult our Russian-English dictionary to formulate a question which I once never imagined asking in Russian.
'Can you tell us where the beach is?" we ask the waitress almost laughing.
Mother And Child Beach Combing, Lake Baikal, Eastern Siberia
Babushkin is tucked between towering mountains rolling into the lake. We cycle down a dirt road to the shore where men fish in small dinghies bobbing on the water. From here, you can see dramatic mountains which ring the lake’s opposite side. Baikal is the deepest lake in the word, but its immensity can be deceiving. Although it contains more fresh water than all of the American Great Lakes combined, its surface area is smaller than Lake Superior.
Baikal makes me feel like I’ve returned home. Smooth, gray rocks, each about the size of a small turtle shell, cover the shore and lead to freezing cold water. A sense of familiarity overtakes me here; it seems like I have been whisked halfway around the world to the rocky Maine coast I grew up near.
Riding to the beach’s end, an amiable man runs to the road and welcomes us.
“Are you the Americans riding bicycles across Russia?” he asks.
The smiling stranger is named Alex, a Russian from St. Petersburg. He saw us on national television when we started our trip in Vladivostok, Russia, almost three months ago and recognized us.
“My wife and I took a trip to the Russian Far East to visit family and now we are driving home across Russia,” he says, adding that he’s happy he has seen us on the road home.
Today is Alex’s birthday, and he invites us to a celebratory picnic with his wife Tanya. Russians are expert picnickers and the spread of olives, cucumbers, cheeses, and meats which Tanya has set out on a blanket upon the beach is no exception. Among the typical fare, Tanya slices an Omul, a fish found only in Baikal related to salmon. Fish is a significant part of Russian cuisine, and Omul is raved about all over the country. Tanya hands me a piece of the smoked fish, and, as soon as I place it in my mouth, I understand what the fuss is about.
“Eta ochen, ochen vakoosna!” I say uncontrollably. “It’s really, really good!”
Baikal’s age and isolation have produced some of the most diverse freshwater species on earth; the lake contains more than 2,000 different types of plants and animals, 1,200 of which are only found here. Among the more exotic Baikal residents are the Baikal oil fish, a translucent deep water fish which melts into a pool of bones and oil when exposed to sunlight, and, the Nerpa, freshwater seals.
We dine with our new friends under a sunset that lasts for hours. During early summer in the northern hemisphere, there are only several hours of complete darkness each night. The orange light of dusk glows in the sky until nearly midnight. The beauty and longevity of the setting sun is the key ingredient that makes Russian picnics so special.
We stay up well into the night picnicking, exchanging stories from the road, laughing, and making toasts to our new friendship with the older couple. Finally, Alex proposes that we go for a dip in the chilly lake. Baikal is frozen for so much of the year that the water remains extremely cold. A brief splash in the water can make your extremities begin to go numb. We all jump in and then run out. Tanya stays in the longest.
“I worked as a stewardess when I was a young woman,” she says emerging from the water at last, “and we often flew over Baikal. I have seen this lake many times, but tonight is my first time actually swimming in it.”
Each of us has waited a long time to arrive at this unique spot. I feel so lucky to be here in such good company.
Tanya Swimming In Baikal
“It was my dream to meet you,” Alex tells us before we go to sleep. “This has been my best birthday ever.”
I look at the rocky coast from my tent one more time before turning in. It uncannily resembles my far-off home. Baikal is a very special place, I think, but making new friends can be more poignant than absorbing the details of the landscape.
Sunset, Lake Baikal
Tanya Holding The Infamous Omul Fish
Little Jingles On A Mountain Top 08/04/2009
One month ago, we approached an arduous seven mile ascent up a precipitous mountain. Reaching the top, panting and exhausted, I pulled off the road. A large freight truck reached the summit and proceeded down the other side. As it passed, I heard my friend Ellery yell in surprise behind me.
Prayer Flags Hanging From A Tree, Buryat Republic, Eastern Siberia
The Buryat people have lived in this part of Russia since time immemorial and today are the largest minority ethnic group in Siberia. Their roots are Mongolian and they are still considered the northernmost Mongol group, numbering nearly 500,000 people. Most Buryat's live in the Autonomous Republic; the territory was annexed from China to the Russian state in the early 18th century.
The Buryat were originally a nomadic people who herded animals and often lived in yurts, cylindrical tent like dwellings covered in felt or skins. During the Soviet period of Russia, the Buryat Republic was industrialized and nomadic ways of Buryat life began disappearing. Today, most Buryat's live in the Republic's capital Ulan-Ude.
Several days after reaching the Republic, we enter Ulan-Ude and I reexperience the chaotic sensation of navigating the busy roads of a city on a bicycle. Amidst whirling traffic, I notice a change in the Russians walking along the sidewalks. Here, blond women and rosy-cheeked children are replaced with ethnic Buryat's. The people here are beautiful. Their olive skin accentuates the natural hues in their deep eyes; the long black hair of Buryat women seems to shine luminously in the sunlight.
Young Buryat Girl Playing A Traditional String Instrument, Open Air Ethnographic Exhibition, Ulan-Ude, Russia
Nearing the center of town, a brand new and distinctly Asiatic building comes into view next to a shopping mall. It is one of those iconic Asian buildings, like the kind you expect to see on the cover of tourist brochures for trips to China; the edges of the roof curl upward like the corners of old linoleum. The building was finished so recently that the yellow tiles on the rooftop still gleam freshly in the afternoon sun. In a Russian city, the building looks out of place, and appears tawdry at first glance. Judging by its gaudy exterior, I mistake the building for a cheesy overpriced Asian restaurant; but it is actually a brand new datsan, a Buddhist monastery.
Like many Mongolians, most Buryat's follow the Tibetan branch of Buddhism, which in 1741 was first recognized as an official religion in Russia. By the beginning of the 20th century, the Buryat Buddhist church grew extremely large and forty-eight datsans were built in and around Ulan-Ude. After the Russian Revolution, when Soviet power sought to turn Russia into an atheist state, many Christian churches and Buddhist monasteries were destroyed.
Buddhism is an integral aspect of Buryat culture. Since the Soviet Union's end, practicing Buddhists in this part of Russia have steadily increased. Today, the surrounding hillsides around Ulan-Ude gleam with the curved roofs of newly constructed datsans.
In Ulan-Ude, we are taken in by a young Russian girl named Maria, whose family came to Russia from Germany several generations ago. One afternoon, we visit the Ivolginsk Datsan, a large complex inhabited by Buddhist monks, outside the city. The datsan is situated in a beautiful valley ridged by high mountains covered in mist.
When we arrive, a light rain falls upon the earth. We enter the premises and visit the datsans by walking along a small pathway. Between each building, prayer wheels, cylindrical wheels on spindles often made of wood or metal, stand in a rows. In the Tibetan branch of Buddhism, spinning the wheels as one walks by has the same spiritual effect as reciting a prayer out loud. As I stop to study the Sanskrit images on one wheel, I almost jump in surprise as a monk clad in a burgundy robe passes by me spinning the wheels. Watching him in the pouring rain, I feel like I am really standing in Asia for the first time.
A Building In The Ivolginsk Datsan
The next day, we tour the Open Air Ethnographical Exhibition, a large outdoor museum in a field near Ulan-Ude with displays of reconstructed traditional Buryat dwellings. Strolling along a wooded path, we observe a small tepee made from bark. The construction reminds me of learning about Native Americans in Maine during the 5th grade. I remember going into the woods and gathering bark to make a diorama with tepees. Recalling how our teacher taught us that it is believed the first people who arrived in North America might have originally crossed on a now nonexistent land bridge from northern Asia, I look at this tepee here and the theory seems more plausible than ever.
In the Buryat Republic, you can almost sense the migratory patterns of humans over time. Europeans who moved to remote sections of Asia live alongside Buryats whose ancestors may have populated North America. As humans move, their ideas and ways of living spread; I find ethnic Russians here who practice Buddhism, and native people whose distantly related forefathers could also have inhabited America living nomadic lifestyles in tepees.
Even as a traveler, it is impossible to move through the world without acquiring new habits.
Leaving Ulan-Ude, we begin a long climb on our bicycles up a steep mountain. Arriving at the top, I reach into my pocket, grab some coins, and throw them behind me. The jingling of several rubles on the pavement faintly echoes behind me is I speed away into the valley below.
Prayer Wheels Spinning, Ivolginsk Datsan
Replica Of A Buryat Tepee, Open Air Ethnographical Exhibition, Ulan-Ude, Russia