Down the Danube

Thankfully, unlike my trek from Ancona to Zürich, I only had to catch one train to get me to Austria. I did have to travel from the western tip to the eastern tip of the country though, but travelling through the mountainous terrain did provide some pretty spectacular, picture perfect views. After the long day of travel I finally arrived in the beautiful city of Vienna and was greeted by my next Couchsurfing host. Kathi was the first female that I was staying with whom I had connected with through Couchsurfing – Susanna in Finland had been a family friend – but I had still found her within my search for hosts in the Queer Couchsurfing group. Robin had showed me how Couchsurfing can be used not just to find places to stay, but also to connect with people who had common interests. I decided that I would probably feel more comfortable staying with gay people while I was travelling, since most of my friends back home are gay, and they would be able to show me some of the queer hotspots – but up until now I had only stayed with other guys. It wasn’t a conscious choice – I think there were just more male hosts available, in general – but when I’d stumbled across Kathi’s profile I’d gotten a really good feeling from it, and she had happily accepted my request to stay with her. I had been tossing up between trying to visit Vienna, or travelling slightly more north to visit Holger – who I met in Barcelona – in Munich, but I had had trouble getting in touch with him, so once again my potential Couchsurfing host had been a real game changer in the direction of my travels.

View of the Austrian countryside as I sped towards Vienna in a train.

View of the Austrian countryside as I sped towards Vienna in a train.

There was a kind and carefree air about Kathi from the moment I met her at the train station. She was also relatively new to Couchsurfing, so she was pretty excited about having me stay with her. I think the fact that I was Australian helped win over a lot of my hosts – to all of them I must have seemed exceptionally foreign and exotic, all the way from that mysterious land down under. She explained some of the culture of Vienna and the basics of the city to me – such as the ringed town layout and the different zones – while we got caught the metro to her apartment, which she shared with two roommates. “The coffeehouse culture is a really big thing in Vienna”, she advised me. “That’s something most people want to check out. The centre Vienna is divided up into rings, in particularly the main ring that encloses the city centre. Most of the things you’ll want to see or do will be there.” I wondered how I would have coped on this trip I hadn’t had hosts like Kathi, Umer, Ike and Valerio to help know these things about their various cities. I imagine I would have done a lot of unintentional aimless wandering around – as opposed to a lot of the intentional aimless wandering around that I still did.

It was a Friday afternoon the day that I arrived in Vienna, and both of of Kathi’s housemates were away for the weekend. One of them wouldn’t bet returning until after I left, so rather than sleep on the couch in her bedroom, Kathi told me that she would sleep in her housemates room, so and that I could sleep in her bed and have the room to myself. It was more than I had been expecting when I had sent the request to Kathi, and it was probably one of the best set ups I’d had through Couchsurfing so far. As soon as we got to Kathi’s, I had a well needed shower – the countryside views through the Austrian mountains had been postcard-worthy beautiful, but the 7 hour trip had left me feeling less than fresh. “Be careful with the water temperature”, Kathi had said as I entered the bathroom. “It tends to just alternate between… Antarctica and Mordor.” I laughed, appreciating the reference. After the shower I joined my new host in the kitchen. “Are you hungry? I was thinking I could show you how to cook some traditional Austrian food, maybe.” I assured her that her national cuisine of schnitzel had made it down to Australia, but all the same it was fun to help out in the kitchen and do some cooking. We cooked the schnitzel and vegetables, and she introduced me to an Austrian drink called Radler. “It’s basically beer mixed with lemonade,” she said, placing a bottle in front of me. “You can mix yourself or buy it like this.” It was a little fizzy from the added soft drink, but the taste was extremely refreshing, the sweetness balancing our the flavour of the beer perfectly, and I enjoyed it much more than the Rivella I had tried in Switzerland. We sat and ate and chatting, getting to know each other as we downed a few bottles of Radler.

Kathi was particularly interested in picking my brains about the gay culture down in Australia. “What’s it like for gay girls in Sydney? Here, it can be really difficult for…” She was choosing her words carefully. “For more… feminine, girls. Like… sometimes I’m never really sure… You know, of where – and who – they are?” I realised she was talking about her gaydar – her ability to identify other queer people on sight alone. I must admit, the more feminine lesbians have always been the least obvious blips on my gaydar, but luckily stopping them had never been quite such a pertinent issue for myself. Kathi went on to tell me that queer girls also had less places to meet people, citing the recent pride festivities in Vienna, where there had been multiple parties aimed at all the gay men, and only one event that specifically targeted same-sex attracted females. I had to regretfully tell her that gender ratio of gay bars and parties in Sydney was of a similar level, though I won’t pretend I know much about the lesbian scene – not for the first time I pondered on the curious fact that the party scenes for gay guys and gay girls were so divided in the first place.

We continued to talk for hours about gay life, travelling and Couchsurfing, and even music. Kathi was learning how to play the ukulele, so as part of the condition of me staying with her I had promised her that I would show her a few tips I had picked up along the way. I was only teaching myself, but as an acoustic guitar player of nearly 10 years I didn’t have too much difficultly figuring it out. But before it we knew it, it had gotten quite late, so I said goodnight to Kathi and hit the hay after the exhausting day of travelling.

***

The next day, at Kathi’s suggestion, we caught the train north of her rather centrally located apartment to the banks of the Danube River. It was a gorgeous sunny day, and we had lunch at a little restaurant next to the river that served some excellent Austrian dishes, and of course, more Radler. That wasn’t the most exciting part about this restaurant though – after we had finished eating, I followed Kathi down to the small jetty that was actually a part of the restaurant. There, we hired a small electric motorboat and went for a cruise down the river. “There’s some nice views of the city from the water. Perhaps we could bring our ukulele’s and have a sing-a-long, or something?” Kathi had suggested the previous evening before we had gone to bed. I had told her that that sounded absolutely marvellous, so once we got out on the river I pulled out my ukulele and started strumming away.

The view of the city from out on the Danube.

The view of the city from out on the Danube.

The sunshine was streaming down on us as I worked my way through the small repertoire of songs that I had managed to teach myself over the last few months, and Kathi steered the boat up the river. We passed a couple areas that were substitute beaches for the Austrians – the idea of living in a landlocked country with no nearby coastal area still seemed so odd to me – but I have to say, they weren’t as nice as the riverside swimming areas in Zürich, probably because the water in the Danube wasn’t quite clean enough to be drinking quality. But it was still beautiful, and Kathi told me how she often comes down here to bathe in the sun and go for a swim. When we reached a wider part of the river, Kathi killed the engine and we just floated for a little while, watching others glide by us on their paddle boats, and soaking it all in while I strummed away on the ukulele. “It’s so nice,” Kathi said between songs, with a huge smile plastered across her face. “It’s just a nice, holiday feeling, to have the ukulele going in the background while we’re out on the water in the sun.” It was no tropical island getaway, she but was right. Kathi didn’t even end up playing her ukulele, and in the end I was just playing random chords to give the scene a nice and cheerful soundtrack. On our way back to the jetty we passed many boats full of other people, both locals and tourists, and they all smiled at us or exclaimed with delight when they saw or heard the ukulele. It really did feel like a scene from a movie, or even a travel brochure, but it was so much fun, and I couldn’t have thought of a better way to spend the afternoon.

Kathi took a sneaky photograph of me while I was playing the ukulele.

Kathi took a sneaky photograph of me while I was playing the ukulele.

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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.