Berghain

“Well, that sucks,” said Dane as we walked down the lose gravel path away from the warehouse, the techno beats throbbing through the walls and bleeding into the night air with a haunting muffled sound.
“Yeah,” I said with a dejected sigh. “I know how much you were looking forward to it too.”
We’d just been denied entry into Berghain, what had commonly been described to me by my friends as one of the most exclusive nightclubs in Germany, possibly the world. Donatella had assured me that it wasn’t really that hard to get into. “Dress down – they turn away people who are really dressed up, or big groups of really obvious tourists, or too many women. Any women in high heels, usually. Two gay guys though, you’ll be fine, you should definitely get in.” By definition it wasn’t a gay bar, but the techno and house music scene that thrived in Berghain usually attracted a lot of gay people.

As we walked from the bus stop, we were giddy with excitement. The night in east Berlin was eerily quite, and as we passed the remains of the Berlin Wall on our way to the club, we joined in with a somber moment of silence. The only sounds were our footsteps, but after a short while Dane whispered, “There… Can you hear it?” The pulsing of the beat was reverberating in the air around us, and I had never felt such a strong combination of excitement and nervousness. The doorman at Berghain was renowned for being incredibly intimidating – part of the reason why they barely ever gave you a reason for being denied entry. A simple “No, not tonight,” was enough to completely shut you down and send you away from the line with your tail between your legs.

Usually the line to get into Berghain on the weekends is massive. Wait times of up to 3 or 4 hours are not uncommon, which makes it even more of a kick in the guts for those who don’t get in. However, my insider knowledge from the local Berliners had informed us that Sunday nights were generally a better time to go – the crowds were better, less tourists, the lines were shorter, and the experience would be a little more… authentic, I suppose. So Dane and I arrived on a Sunday evening, at around half past midnight. We put on our game faces, marched up the path to the door to confront the bouncers.

There was an awkward moment of silence where nothing happened. Usually a bouncer automatically asks for your ID, but this tattooed, skin head, mountain of a man just sort of stared us down for a moment. After a few moments, Dane finally spoke up: “Can we go inside?” he asked rather casually, though I knew he was just as nervous as I was.
“Do you have stamps?” the bouncer asked.
“Ah… no.”
“If you don’t have a stamp you won’t be coming in.”
“Oh…” Dane paused for a moment. “Should we come back later, or…?”
“If you don’t have a stamp, you won’t be coming in.”
“Right… Okay, thanks.” There was nothing else we could do but turn around and walk away. Maybe it was just the cluelessness that radiated from us. Maybe it was because Dane’s accent was too obviously foreign. Maybe it was because my pupils were the size of dinner plates. Maybe it really was just because we had arrived too late, and they weren’t letting any more new people in. It was a disappointing start to the evening, but we took the night elsewhere in Berlin. And luckily for me, it wasn’t the end of my experiences with Berghain…

***

Flash forward to the following Saturday night, Micha’s birthday at Rauschgold, and I was talking to his friends about where I’d been in Berlin, and what I still had left to do. Berghain was constantly being brought up in that conversation – I recounted the story of Dane and I being refused entry, and the general consensus was that we had left it a bit too late for a Sunday night. “You can easily go earlier,” someone said to me. “It’s not like the partying stops during the day.” Back in Sydney, my friend Blythe had told me to go at 10 o’clock on a Sunday morning, as that was the only time I was guaranteed to get in. At the time I had laughed at the idea of going to a nightclub at that time – I mean, who actually arrives at that hour? But I was finally beginning to realise just how correct she had been. Some of the Micha’s friends said they might even be going to Berghain the following evening, so I exchanged phone numbers with them, glad that I would have someone to face the supremely intimidating bouncer with again.

After stumbling home at 4 in the morning and passing out on my bed, I woke up just before noon to a message saying that the others had decided to skip Berghain because the weather outside was so nice. It was a valid excuse, given that Europe had just come out of a five month winter and no one really knew how long this gorgeous warmer weather would last. But it meant I was left to consider the prospect of visiting Berghain on my own, yet as a solo traveller it was the kind of thing I had grown used to. In the end it became a decision of ‘now or never’. I had already stayed in Berlin an extra weekend for this – I couldn’t afford myself another one. So I jumped on the U-Bahn and found myself back in east Berlin at around 1:30pm, bright sunshine beating down on my back. When I got to Berghain, there was no line to speak of – just two burly looking bouncers by the door: the notorious one from last time, and another equally menacing looking man. I walked up to them and encountered the same awkward silence I had when I was with Dane, but after a couple of seconds the main bouncer spoke to me: “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?”
I understood the German, but I had to reply in English, effectively proving my answer as I said it. “No…” I prepared myself for the worst.
The bouncer looked me up and down. “How old are you?”
“Twenty-one,” I answered quickly. I was completely sober, but I wonder if they could tell that my whole body was practically quivering with nervousness.
“Do you have ID?” he eventually asked, and I quickly whipped out my drivers licence. The bouncer studied it for a moment, and then looked up at me, handed the licence back, and motioned for me to enter the club.

I was almost in shock. Suddenly there were more faces, people telling me to move here, pay here, get your stamp here. It was all a blur, but I did as I was told and tried to look not quite so clueless. I found myself in a cavernous, dimly lit room where a cloak room was available, and moved out through the following door. I was plunged into a room of darkness and was basically rendered blind since I had come from the bright sunlight outside, so consequently the first thing I did was trip over a milk crate. Yes, a milk crate. All I could see in the limited light was a huge table that covered in dozens of empty glass bottles, a fair few of which had fallen to the floor and smashed. It was hard to register that this was actually a club, when it really did feel like some dirty abandoned warehouse. I stood still for a moment, the reverse of a deer caught in the headlights, and waited for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. The area I was in was sparsely populated with a few groups of people, so I ascended the stairs and began my exploration.

Berghain is huge. You’d kind of expect that from a warehouse, but I had definitely underestimated the size of the place. After going up the first flight of steps, I reached the main dance floor. It was packed with people, many of whom were decked out in outfits of leather, latex, rubber and denim, as well as being in various states of undress. There were more bare torsos than a Grindr grid, but thankfully all of them had heads. The spirit of kink was very much alive in Berghain, which was part of the reason I had so badly wanted to visit the club. I personally don’t have any affliction with the fetish scene, but working in the fetish store back home had left me feeling like I was still somewhat part of the scene via association. For the first time, I was seeing the leather vests and harnesses that I used to sell in their natural habitat, and I felt a strange sense of pride for these beautiful, perverted, kinky people. Yet I was still a little overwhelmed by the whole thing, so instead of diving straight into the crowd I veered to the right and found a bar room that was sort of separated from the main dance floor. I got a beer and sat down on a bar stool, observing my surroundings as I chugged it down. Despite it being very early in the afternoon, I felt far too sober to be in this environment, because from what I was seeing it would have been totally legitimate to believe it was 2 in the morning, the time when most normal people are at nightclubs.

The bar room I was in was relatively empty though, and so I wandered up a nearby staircase… and found myself in a coffee and gelato bar. I know, I did a double take too. Everything else about the room fitted the style of the dank, grungy underground venue, but there in the midst of it all was a gelato cart, long halogen bulbs lighting up a variety of colourful flavours. I spent a few moments pacing around the small room, pinching myself and trying to convince myself that my beer hadn’t been spiked with LSD. I was finally convinced the scene was real, but decided I wasn’t in the mood for ice cream, so descended down the steps and back into the bar. I got another beer, and with it I walked out into the dance floor room and mingled my way through the people. Berghain has a sound system that is in the Top 10 in the world, and when you’re on that dance floor you can literally feel the music. Every beat in the bass line pulses through your flesh, coursing through your bones and blood. The feeling is ecstatic, and you can’t help but surrender your body to the music and become a slave to the rhythm. It was incredible, and while I’m normally not the biggest fan of electronic music, there was something about this place that made it seem like playing anything else would be just wrong. The vibe, the people, the music – everything just clicked. I now understood why they had such strict door policies – if this place became full of tourists, only wanting to see it for the sake of seeing it rather than being a part of the culture, than the whole thing would quickly be destroyed.

Because it really does feel like some kind of ecosystem, a separate world of its own that operates in its own way, on its own time, completely independent of the outside world. And despite the strict selection process it takes for some to get inside, once you’re inside there are basically no rules. The best way to describe what goes on inside Berghain, I believe, is that there’s no one who is going to say “No, stop, you’re not allowed to do that.” As long as you’re not hurting anybody or being violent, you can do pretty much anything you want – with the exception of taking photos, which is completely prohibited. But if you saw some of the stuff that goes on inside Berghain… well, it makes perfect sense.

I made my way up a staircase to another dance floor room, a second space I would later learn to be called Panorama Bar, technically a separate venue within the huge warehouse but often opened up to join with Berghain. There were windows up there, and every so often the automatic blinds would flash open in time with the music and bathe the party goers in the afternoon sunlight, the only hint that the world outside still existed. I sat down at the bar and ordered a Long Island Ice Tea – the beers weren’t kicking in fast enough. As the bartender mixed my cocktail, my gaze turned to the guy next to me, or more specifically, what he was drinking. He had been served a glass of hot water, and proceeded to take the tea bag he had been given and brew himself a cup of tea, right there at the bar. It was at that point that I told myself I really needed to stop being surprised by the things I saw here – I mean, I had stumbled upon a gelato cart! Yet unsurprising, brewing a cup of tea on the nightclubs bar wasn’t the last thing I saw that would surprise me…

As I sat at the bar, sipping my drink, I watched the crowd dancing. It was the weekend of pride, so it was quite obviously a very gay crowd, though I couldn’t say I had any other experience at Berghain to compare it with. But one person in particular caught my eye – a girl, as it would happen. She was wearing a short, black backless dress with an attached hood that was draped over her head like a shawl, though it did little to hide her long, golden curly locks, which cascaded out from the hood to frame her face. Her eyes were closed, and her face had an expression of pure fun and enjoyment as she danced to the beat. Add to all this the fact that she was surrounded by a ring of half naked gay men and I could have sworn I was looking at the doppelgänger of Georgia, my best friend and fag hag from back home in Sydney. I felt an instant gravitational pull towards this woman, so when I finished my cocktail I got up and finally moved onto the dance floor. I danced over to where Georgia’s look-alike was dancing – I didn’t really expect to talk to her or anything, but there was just something about her vibe that was creating a carefree atmosphere, where everyone just danced together with the music.

While she was holding my attention captive, it seemed like I was attracting some for myself amongst a few of the shirtless men in her ranks. Eventually one of them coaxed me into joining them in their shirtlessness, and inevitably there were was some mild fondling and a few stolen kisses on the dance floor. The man in question was a tall, burly and bearded Italian, and on several occasions he even lifted me up above the crowd level while I was in his embrace. He probably told me his name – I don’t recall it anymore – but I remember asking him who the golden girl was. “Her? I don’t know, I’ve just been dancing here with her and these guys.” I just laughed, and felt a little better knowing that this circle of friends seemed to be no more than a collection of beautiful strangers. However, the Italian stallion made a move to leave. “I have to go to the bathroom to take some speed with my husband.”
I shouldn’t have been surprised. I actually wasn’t surprised about the drugs – crazy party scenes like this are known for having every drug under the sun. But open relationships, and marriages in places where they’re legal, seemed to be particularly common, especially in scenes like this where freedom and liberal sexuality was just a part of life. But when it slaps you in the face like that, a bolt from the blue, you can’t help but feel a little taken aback. I kissed him goodbye and sent him on his way, but when he returned a while later he slid past me with a sulking expression on his face. When I finally got a word with him, he said glumly, “Yeah… My husband doesn’t really want me talking to you.” Across the room a spied a short, stern looking Brazilian man shooting me a look so cold it could have frozen Hell over twice. I had no time to deal with jealous husbands, so I left the stallion to the probable shit storm he had brought upon himself.

***

At some point in the afternoon, either during or after the scenario with the Italian and his husband, I had a nap. That’s right, a nap in a night club. I was still fairly hungover from the night before, so I was feeling a little tired. All the levels of the Berghain warehouse complex contain smaller rooms full of couches and seats and all kinds if holes in the wall where people can sit and chill out, relax, and yes, even go to sleep. Considering the possibly of having your possessions stolen while you sleep, it’s not exactly something I would recommend, but it wasn’t exactly something I consciously chose to do either. It sort of just happened. I know that having a nap is probably the least exciting thing that I did in Berghain, but I just wanted to point out again how very little anyone cares about what you actually do in the club. In any club back in Sydney, and most other places I’ve been to in the world, if you look like you’re falling asleep on a couch, security is going to come over and ask you to leave. But at Berghain? Nope, I casually woke up half an hour later to someone asking me if I was okay, curled up on a sofa. Feeling a little disorientated but somewhat refreshed, I stood up and made my way back to the dance floor. In retrospect, sleeping at Berghain is potentially very common – when the doors open on Thursday night the don’t close until Monday morning, and I’ve heard war stories of people who have gone in and come out at both of those times, living inside the club for the whole weekend. Granted, most of them are probably high on ecstasy, but I wouldn’t believe that I was the first person to ever take a short power nap within those walls.

At this point it was getting on into the late afternoon, or early evening. The dying light that seeped through the blinds in Panorama Bar was the only indication that the sun had begun to go down, but it made no difference inside – the partying carried on. I eventually found myself dancing near the girl with the golden curls – much like my friend Georgia, this woman seemed the create a gravitational pull that drew in all homosexuals. Once again she was surrounded by mostly half naked men, but from the other side of the circle, one of the few that was wearing a shirt caught my eye. I glanced his way a few more times, and eventually I caught him looking back. What followed was a ritual I’d been a part of numerous times in numerous nightclubs – the subtle but sure eye contact, the casual dancing to the music while slowly shifting your way through the crowd to position yourself just a little bit closer to them. Eventually we came face to face. He was a little shorter than guys I normally went for – a centimetre or two shorter than myself – but he had a defined muscular jaw with just a hint of stubble, and hair that was cropped short and styled slightly messy. But it was his eyes that got me – they were bright, icy blue, yet there was a fire behind them that lit them up and made it almost impossible to look away from them. It was an instant connection, and it was a short amount of time before shirts came off and lips collided.

We danced for a while, then moved from Panorama Bar to the main Berghain room and danced some more, our bodies being audio-assaulted by the beat. Then this beautiful stranger, leaning into my ear to be heard over the music, asked if I wanted to go down further still to the ground floor. Keeping in mind that that level is where the majority of the clubs hidden dark rooms are tucked away in miscellaneous corners, I enthusiastically agreed. As we descended beyond the levels of the dance floors, and bass lines that coursed through your body, we were finally able to exchange words without needing to shout at each other, and after our first verbal introductions I learnt that his name was Ralf. What happened next, however, didn’t involve a great deal of talking. I have to admit though, that after my experiences in the dark rooms at Toms, I decided that I’d much rather put a face to a name, and then see the face of that lover when… well, I’m sure I don’t need to paint that picture for you. So we took a seat on one of the lower level couches, in an area that was far less populated, but by no means secluded or discreet. On paper it seems like a rather seedy thing to do, yet I was overcome with a ‘when in Rome’ attitude around the fact I was at Berghain – also, Ralf may just have been the most beautiful thing I’d ever laid eyes on, so self-control was limited. It was pure, unbridled passion – never mind that by the end we had attracted a small audience. Afterwards, as Ralf drew in for one final kiss, with me flat on my back and him straddled over me, he kissed me on the forehead and whispered in my ear with a playful grin that showed off his perfect smile: “Well look at that – he’s a romantic, too.”

***

I ended up spending the rest of the night with Ralf. We went back upstairs and had a drink – I had another beer while got some water – and sat down in one of the non-dancing rooms and had a bit of a conversation and got to know each other. Ralf, who was German, confessed that he’d been surprised to learn that I myself wasn’t German, and I laughed and told him he wasn’t the first person to think that. Ralf himself was Swiss-German, yet had spent half his adult life in Sweden. After chatting for a while longer, we decided to go and dance some more, and who should we run into again but that mystery golden haired girl. “That girl! Who is she?” I asked Ralf. “You were dancing with her when I saw you.”
“Her?” Ralf replied. “I don’t actually know her. I lost the friends who I came here with… But we were joking, saying she was like the queen of the gays.” That she is, I thought to myself, but as he said it Ralf chuckled and flashed a smile that inevitably led us to another trip to the ground floor, for reasons which need no further elaboration. Returning to the upstairs bar for a drink, this time I decided it was my turn to rehydrate a little. Ralf got a water for me, and a Coke for himself. I must have mentioned something about not eating since that morning, because a tinge of concern crept into Ralf’s expression. “Are you hungry? There’s a garden restaurant downstairs. It’s getting late but it might still be open, they usually have some cakes and things.”
“Hold on… There’s a garden in this club?”
“Well, it’s outside, but it’s still part of the club.” He smiled, stood up and took my hand, leading me towards the stairs. “Come, I’ll show you.”

And so that’s how I found myself in the garden outside Berghain, my head nestled into Ralf’s lap, staring into the starry night sky that had replaced the bright blue sky from when I had entered the warehouse. There hadn’t been any food left, so I just got another beer and we took a seat on the long, wooden tiered benches in the garden beside the club. We continued to talk there, going deeper and deeper into the details of our lives. However, there was one particular topic that would leave a profound impact on me that evening.
“So… you don’t drink, do you?” It was a suspicion that came from the combination of not seeing him order an alcoholic beverage, and seeming… well, not so drunk.
“No… No, I don’t,” he said simply.
“Like… ever? Did you ever drink?”
He laughed at that. “No, I’m not a recovering alcoholic,” he joked. I smiled, and just laughed with him. I know it sounds stupid, but it was probably one of the most shocking things that had happened throughout the entire evening.
“But… you don’t mind other people drinking?” I said cautiously, glancing down at the beer bottle clutched in my fingers. A lot of the non-drinkers I knew were quite anti-alcohol in general principle, so I was having trouble reconciling this characteristic within Ralf.
“Well look where we are – obviously not!” he chuckled.
“That’s okay,” I said. “It’s just, this is the last place I expected to find a sober person!”

The conversation continued on the topic of drinking and alcohol, and it got me onto talking about the drinking culture in Australia.
“I used to shake it off, say it wasn’t that bad. But now… I don’t know, back home I could never go into a club without being at least mildly shit-faced, mostly because I know if I was sober I wouldn’t be able to stand half the people there… because almost all of them are just so shit-faced!” It’s a kind of cyclical trend that can sometimes be hard to pinpoint until you actually remove yourself from the equation and see it objectively. “Here in Germany, and even in Berghain… I mean, there are people off their faces, but everyone still seems in control, you know? We have so many problems in Australia because they get so drunk and lose control. There’s a lot of alcohol-fuelled violence in Sydney.”
Ralf nodded in agreement. “Right, and it was the same in Sweden. Alcohol is so expensive that they drink at home first, and half the time they get so drunk they never even make it to the club. But I think in Germany, if someone was to get that drunk… It’s almost considered rude, or annoying. You know, to be so drunk that you can’t look after yourself. Most people don’t want you around if you’re like that, so if you get that drunk you usually just go home.”
“Yeah, I guess so…” I thought back to many of my nights of drunken debauchery back home, and the amount of times I’d seen friends so wasted that they literally needed help just standing up. “I guess it’s this idea that we can’t have fun unless we’re drunk, and point of the night is to get as drunk as possible.” I redirected my abstract stargazing to look at Ralf in those beautiful blue eyes. “But I guess that’s not always the case here.”
“No,” he smiled down at me. “No, it’s not.” It only occurred to me that while I had had a few beers and a cocktail at Berghain, it had been over the course of many hours, and I myself wasn’t that drunk. Yet I was managing to have an amazing time, even up on the dance floor, moving to the music in the crowds of sweaty people and losing myself to the rhythm and the beat. And I suppose it was rather ironic that here, in a wild club that is known for being full of patrons that are high on one kind of drug or another, I was having the epiphany that you didn’t need to drink alcohol or get absolutely wasted in order to have a good time.

Suddenly a slight wind kicked up, but it was enough to send a chill through my body. I was only wearing a singlet and shorts, so even the warmth of Ralf’s body wasn’t enough to get me by, so we picked ourselves up and moved back inside. On our way back in, I saw two guys standing in front of the extremely intimidating bouncer.
“You’re not coming in tonight,” he said in that firm, authoritative voice of his.
“Ah, okay, so… How do we get inside?” one of them mumbled, a thin brave façade over what was obviously a nervous wreck of a boy.
“Did you not hear what he just said?” piped up the second bouncer. “You’re not getting in!”
Even though I’d been in a similar position the previous week, I couldn’t help but smirk to myself a little, knowing that I’d finally, after the long anticipation, made it inside Berghain.

***

Back inside the club, Ralf and I retreated to the top floors of the complex. We danced some more, but our relaxing time out in the garden had really slowed the pace down a little bit. We moved to one of the smaller adjoining rooms, where lots of people were chilling out and hanging around, and found some space on one of the couches. We made out for a little while, but then ended up lying down and cuddling for a little while, and I eventually drifted off into a light sleep. I think Ralf might have dozed off as well, because we were both startled awake be a commotion coming from above us. I looked up to see a man snorting a line of cocaine from the back of the couch that we had been lying on. He took his time to make sure he got every last morsel, before casually walking away. I looked at Ralf, bewildered. Going to the toilets to take your drugs was one thing, but this guy had very publicly consumed his cocaine for the rest of the club to see. Ralf just laughed and shrugged his shoulders. “Welcome to Berghain.”

We laid back down for a while, but eventually I checked the time. “Wow, its nearly one in the morning. I’ve been here for nearly 12 hours!”
“What time are you leaving tomorrow?” Ralf asked me. I had mentioned that this was the last item on my Berlin bucket list, and that I had told myself I should leave the following day.
“Well, there was a train I was planning to catch”, I said to him. “But I don’t actually have anything booked.” Ralf just smiled, and I already knew that I wouldn’t be leaving Berlin tomorrow. “So I suppose I don’t have to leave.” Once again, Lola’s prediction was echoing in the back of my mind. Darling, you’re never going to leave…
“I would ask you to sleep over tonight, but I rode my bike here,” Ralf said. “But if you did stay, maybe you could come over tomorrow night? I’ll make you some food – you haven’t eaten all day, your mother must be worried about you if you’re not eating right!”

I just smiled and nodded. “That sounds lovely.” At that point we decided to call it a night before we actually did have a sleepover in Berghain. We exchanged numbers and said goodbyes, and Ralf set off on his bicycle as I climbed into a taxi. Despite being petrified about going alone to face the big scary doorman and get inside this legendary club, my first Berghain experience actually turned out to be fun, diverse, enlightening, and in general just simply amazing. I had already fallen in love with the city of Berlin, but my time at Berghain was the cherry on top that would earn Berlin the title of my favourite city for a long time to come.

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Lake Baikal: Scenery and Saunas

As enthusiastic as I am about efficient public transportation, our train out of Ulaanbaatar had been making such good time that it was actually ahead of schedule, and we arrived in Irkutsk almost a full hour before the expected time. Normally that wouldn’t have been such a bad thing, but we had been due to arrive in Irkutsk at about 8am, which meant we ended up waking up at 6am for our arrival at approximately 7am. No matter the season, Siberia is still extremely cold at 7am. It was hard to believe that only two weeks ago I had been sweating it out in South-East Asia. To top it all off, the fact that we were early meant that our guide wasn’t even at the train station yet, so we all sat around in the terminal building, shivering and shaking and waiting for him to arrive. I had made the mistake of not changing out of my thin material Thailand fisherman pants before getting off he train, so my legs were feeling ridiculously cold.

Eventually Konstantin arrived to meet us at the station. He was a tall, board-shouldered guy, and his face was almost always sporting a wide, slightly goofy grin. He was particularly upbeat and cheerful that first morning in Irkutsk, which was a stark contrast to how the rest of us were feeling. That didn’t dampen his spirits though, and he herded us off into the bus and took us to our first stop – our registration. Even now I’m not entirely sure what this registration business is all about, but it involved us having to part with our passports temporarily, and a small sum of money permanently, in order to receive an official stamped slip of paper with the details of our accommodation. We were told this would happen in every city, yet when he asked Konstantin – or Kostya for short – he shrugged his shoulders and through a sheepish grin replied, “I am not sure. My country does some strange things sometimes. Maybe in case you are a spy?” He chuckled, and there was nothing we could do but laugh along with him.

***

While we had gotten off the train in Irkutsk, it wasn’t where we would be spending the bulk of our time in Siberia. After our registration, we travelled for about an hour on the bus to Lake Baikal, the largest freshwater lake in the world. At its deepest point it is 1642 metres and tip to tip it’s 636 kilometres long, with a surface area of 31,722 square kilometres. Tim explained to me that it is so big it has a trench at the bottom, caused by the gap between two tectonic plates. As we emerged from the forest and into the small town, the lake stretched out and off into the horizon. The morning was a little overcast, and the clouds hung so low that the other side of the lake was hardly visible, and we could have easily been looking out onto the open ocean. After stopping to shower and refresh ourselves at the hotel, which was more of a quaint little B&B, we met back down by the lake for lunch. Russian cuisine isn’t too different from Mongolian, especially out here in Siberia, but I had a traditional Russian salad that absolutely blew my mind. It was essentially just a salami salad that was drowning in sour cream, but both creamy food and fresh vegetables were things that hadn’t featured too heavily in my diet lately. Dan commented that I practically inhaled it. I asserted that it was a talent.

Overcast morning at Lake Baikal.

Overcast morning at Lake Baikal.

After lunch we went on a short walk to a nearby lookout with good views of the lake. Or at least Kostya told us it would be a short walk. “Not far, just… hmm… 10 minutes.” Maybe we were all just walking a lot slower than he was used to, because it took us about 20 minutes to walk down the long main road to get to the base of the hill, which we had to walk up in order to get the chairlift which would take us to the very top. The sun had finally showed up at this point in the afternoon, but we were all rugged up in our warm Siberian clothes, so the result was a bunch of hot and sweaty tourists slowing undressing as we ascended the hill. Once we reached the chairlift, we were also given the option of walking to the top. Given all the walking we had done just to get there, and the fact I played my hill climbing card back at the Great Wall, I felt that I was well within my right to cop out and take the chairlift. Regardless of how we got up there, I was glad we did – the view of the lake with mountains bursting out of the horizon in the distance was well worth the small effort to get there. “I’m kind of glad he lied about how close we were,” Alyson commented as we soaked in the view. “I feel like we we’re all so tired that we mightn’t have done it if we’d known.” The sun had well and truly emerged from the clouds, and the afternoon was brilliantly picturesque. Despite the effort, it was ultimately relaxing, and as we sat down in the sunshine with some cold beers, I was thankful that we were staying in remote countryside again, rather than a bustling city. The downtime surrounded by nature was doing wonders for us all.

Chairlift up the hill.

Chairlift up the hill.

Clear view of the mountainous horizon from the look out - its was hard to believe it was the same day that it was that morning.

Clear view of the mountainous horizon from the look out – its was hard to believe it was the same day that it was that morning.

Me looking pensively out across Lake Baikal.

Me looking pensively out across Lake Baikal.

***

My favourite thing about our entire stay at Lake Baikal was probably the sauna at our hotel. After the trek back from the lookout, Tim, Dan, Claire, Matt, Jen and myself all got changed into our swimmers and headed for the steam room. It grew a little chilly as the evening rolled around, although it would remain a bright twilight for hours, but inside the sauna we were sweating it out at temperatures of about ninety degrees Celsius. Kostya joined us, dressed in nothing but a skimpily clad towel, to help operate the sauna, but he also had another surprise. Traditionally, in Siberia they use soaking bunches of birch leaves to throw water onto the hot coals and create the steam, and the branches have another purpose. After soaking them in hot water, the bundles of leaves could be used as tools of massage. We all took turns to lie down on one of the wooden benches while Kostya brushed, tickled, and gently whipped us with the birch tree branches. The smell of the foliage also seeped out from the leaves and hot water and mixed into the steam, creating a pleasant aromatherapy atmosphere in the sauna.

After a little while the heat would become overwhelming and we would have to step outside to cool off a little. Sometimes we would just step out into the outer room, where there were showers to rinse off, and other times we’d leave the building in which the sauna was located entirely, to let the Siberian chill tingle our hot steaming skin. When it came time for my birch leaf massage, we’d just returned from the outside air, and so the heat of the sauna enveloped me and dragged my body movements down to a crawl. I climbed up onto the wooden seat, laid face down, and waited for the massage to begin. Obviously it wasn’t a hard or deep tissue massage, but the feeling of the warm, wet leaves being dragged across my back was a peculiar sensation, somehow simultaneously relaxing and invigorating. Though the highlight was when he got to my feet – we had been standing out in the cold, and my feet had probably lost more warmth than anywhere else in my body. Normally my feet are quite ticklish, but as Kostya covered my feet with the dripping birch leaves they were filled with a warm sensation that felt so good it was almost paralytic.

After getting me to roll over and continuing the massage on my chest and arms, Kostya threw the branches back into the bucket of water and said, “Okay, let’s go shower!” By this, he meant step out of the sauna so he could douse you with clean, fresh water. Now, I’m not saying that I was exactly attracted to Kostya, but it had been a while since I’d been half-naked and sweaty with another man after getting a massage, and he did have quite a good physique – as I’d been unpacking that morning, I’d watched him and another guest have a push-up competition and let me tell you, the boy’s got guns. So I may have been a little flustered when the two of us stepped outside.
“Cold or hot?” Kostya asked me. I wasn’t sure what he meant.
“Cold… or hot?” I repeated back to him like a parrot.
“Water for shower,” he said as he pointed to the buckets. “You like hot or cold?”
“Um, warm?” I put my hand in the bucket he’d indicated to me hot, and instantly pulled my hand back out. “That’s cold!”
Kostya laughed. “Is not cold, just feels cold, ’cause… hot from sauna.” He made me feel to cold one, which felt like ice in comparison, to prove his point. “So, cold?”
“Yes but… that cold,” I said as I pointed to the warmer of the two buckets.
“So you want hot?”
I couldn’t believe how much I was stumbling through my words for such a simple decision. “Sure, bring it on,” I finally said. I was most likely going to squeal like a little girl either way, and the cold shower was quickly becoming more of a necessity.

“Okay – one, two, three!” Kostya said as he reached over me and tipped the water over me. No matter how warm he said it was, I was still a shock to the system and I’m fairly confident I let out a loud yelp as he doused me with water, washing away the bits of twigs and leaves that had stuck to me during the massage. Kostya just laughed and threw some more water on me. Cold as it might have been, it was actually amazing – the drastic change in temperature does wonders for your pores and skin, and leaves you feeling like a whole new person. I skipped away from the sauna slightly shivering in the Siberian air, but on the whole feeling like a million bucks. It was the highlight of my time there, to the point where I even went back the next night with Kaylah, Alyson, Rach, Marti and Tim.

***

Dinner also proved to be a new traditional cultural experience. On the morning we arrived in Irkutsk, Marti had attempted to pump us all up a little bit. “You guys ready to eat some dill-icious food!” She’d explained that Russians love putting dill in all their cooking – I didn’t know how I felt about that, as it wasn’t a herb I could recall coming across too often, and so couldn’t think to whether or not it was a taste I enjoyed. As we sat around the table to eat a meal that the hotel owner had prepared for us, there was a ripple of laughter around the table as the plates were set down in front of us, the generous servings of chicken and rice topped with an even more generous serving of dill. “Looks dill-icious!” Marti said through her big smile, and we all laughed along and enjoyed what was actually a delicious home cooked meal. I actually use the word ‘delicious’ a lot in my general everyday discussion of food – yes, I talk about food a lot – so the rest of the group probably thought I was intentionally overing-using the pun and persistently beating the dead horse. I swear I wasn’t, guys – it was just was delicious.

The local vodka featured heavily during our stay at Lake Baikal.

The local vodka featured heavily during our stay at Lake Baikal.

But it wouldn’t have been a night in Russia without vodka – and we’d stocked up. We started at dinner and kept going into the night until it finally got dark, which actually wasn’t until after 11pm. There wasn’t exactly anywhere to go and party though, in this remote town, so we just sat around the dinner table talking. Slowly but steadily, the numbers began to wane as people headed to bed, and as the group become smaller and more vodka was consumed, the conversations turned a lot more deep and personal. In the end it was just Tim, Alyson, Kaylah and myself, and I feel like that night was a pivotal point in our group bonding. We’d all been together for over a week, and while it was surprising how well you get to know people when you spend so much time with them, I feel like it was those moments of candid confession and revelation that turned most of us into not just travelling companions, but also good friends.