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.

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One Night In Ulaanbaatar

The sky was bleak and overcast as we disembarked from our 36 hour journey and found ourselves on the platform at Ulaanbaatar train station. Most of us were still dressed in our pajamas and our comfortable clothes from the train, so the lack of sunshine was particularly chilling. “Spot the people from the Southern Hemisphere”, Tim joked as we stood around shivering, waiting for our tour guide to make themselves known. It didn’t take long before we found Oko, a stylish looking Mongol woman who did a quick head count before ushering us out of the station and into the car park. As we climbed onto the minibus that would take us to our hotel, Oko started the round of introductions, and it was refreshing to hear her voice ring through the entire vehicle. Snow’s rather timid nature meant that anyone sitting at the back of the bus generally had absolutely no idea what she was saying, as she was just so soft-spoken. We arrived at the hotel and all rushed upstairs to take our much needed showers. I was sharing a room with Tim, and I let him shower first. “Just a warning,” he said as he emerged from the bathroom, “the hot and cold water symbols on the tap are the wrong way around, and it took probably that whole five minutes for the water to get slightly lukewarm.” He looked refreshed, to say the least. However, I was lucky enough to find that Tim had been heating the water up for me, and consequentially enjoyed a nice hot shower. So much that when I decided to get dressed, I thought shorts might be a suitable choice. I looked out the window to discover the sun had come out, so anticipated it might get a little warmer. On the way down the hotel stairs, I ran into Tracy, one of the Australian women. “Oko just told us its gonna get to about two degrees,” she warned me, while doubtfully eyeing my attire. “Ah.” I turned on the spot and marched straight back up the stairs to change into my jeans.

***

Despite opting for the warmer clothes, it was still an absolutely freezing afternoon in Ulaanbaatar, yet we still trekked it out to do a little bit of sightseeing. Even Lonely Planet books describe it as an “ugly cityscape”, and I don’t feel as though I’m one to challenge that description. There are a few cool looking skyscrapers, but on the whole it’s a fairly dull and plain looking city. We trudged through the windy streets until we reached Sukhbaatar Square, probably one of the few pleasant looking places in the city. It was the main city square, and despite it being dark and gloomy, the space was full of children riding bikes and roller skates, as well as family groups and other pedestrians. However, because it was an open square the wind chill was absolutely horrendous, and there more jokes about the obvious Australians in our group. I myself could not stand still, overcome with involuntary shivers and shudders, cursing the fact I’d left my thermal shirt back at the hotel.

The "ugly cityscape" of Ulaanabaatar.

The “ugly cityscape” of Ulaanabaatar.

In Sukhbaatar Square, with the Mongolian Parliament House in the background.

In Sukhbaatar Square, with the Mongolian Parliament House in the background.

Statue of Chinggis Khan in front of Parliament House.

Statue of Chinggis Khan in front of Parliament House.

Statue of a horseback archer the Mongolian Empire was infamous for - this sculpture also depicts Chinggis Khan's son.

Statue of a horseback archer the Mongolian Empire was infamous for – this sculpture also depicts Chinggis Khan’s son.

We crossed Sukhbaatar Square to the Mongolian Parliament House, the outside of which is adorned with statues of Genghis Khan, the famous Mongolian leader, and his sons and grandsons. It was interesting to learn that his Mongolian name is actually Chinggis Khan, and that the English translation that the Western world is more familiar with is completely non-existent in Mongolia. We went through a short tour of the small building, but there wasn’t a great deal to do or see, other than a few small facts about the history of Mongolia that Oko shared with us. After that we got in some taxis and went to a nearby monument called Zaisan Monument. It was a structure that, like many buildings and cities in this country, was built for the the Mongolians by the Russians. We had to climb up quite a few stairs to get to the top, which was rather unpleasant in the wind, but despite being quite a dull city the vantage point provided a good view of Mongolia’a capital city.

View of Ulaanbaatar from Zaisan Monument.

View of Ulaanbaatar from Zaisan Monument.

Standing with the actual monument.

Standing with the actual monument.

Detailed mural that ran around the main platform of the monument.

Detailed mural that ran around the main platform of the monument.

At the base of the stairs to the monument was a man with a huge trained eagle perched next to him. I was reminded of the leader of the Huns from the Disney movie Mulan – it seemed that the reliving the films from my childhood wouldn’t end in China. For a small fee you could wear the heavy protective glove and hold the eagle on your hand. I was captivated by the powerful bird of prey, and wanted to give it a try. The eagle was remarkably heavy – it took most of my strength just to hold it up. The birds owners began waving his hands up and down and saying something to me in Mongolian. Oko translated: “He is saying to move your arms up and down, to make bird fly.” Using the remaining strength in my arm, I dropped it down and raised it back up as best I could under the weight of the eagle. It’s wings flew out to catch the air, and it flapped them a few times, as though it was about to take flight at any second. Luckily it was well trained, so it didn’t, and I handed back the eagle and removed the glove. My forearm still felt sore from the grip of its talons – I couldn’t imagine how painful it would be to feel those claws on unprotected skin.

Making the eagle fly.

Making the eagle fly.

The last attraction we saw that evening was a performance of traditional Mongolian music and dancing. I was unable to take any pictures, but many of the dancers wore elaborate costumes, though it was the music in the show that I enjoyed the most. The Mongolian folk music was created from an orchestra of drums, horns, and what appeared to be their cultures versions of string instruments such as harps, violins and cellos. The songs were actually quite beautiful, but the most remarkable and culturally diverse part of the performance was the singers. Throat singing, where vocalists are able to create and sing two notes at the same time, and quite literally play their throats like instruments, is a common feature in traditional Mongolian music. I wouldn’t exactly say that the sound was beautiful… but it was definitely interesting. After the show came dinner, which I was extremely excited for. Let’s just say I have an enthusiasm for meat, and Mongolia would be a difficult, or at the very least boring, place to be a vegetarian. We sampled the local draft beer, named after the one and only Chinggis, and I probably ate my weight in different traditional Mongolians foods. I didn’t try the horse meat though – it wasn’t offered in very many dishes, so I figured it must be quite a delicacy.

When we ordered a draught beer, the waiter asked "Big Chinggis?" We nodded enthusiastically.

When we ordered a draught beer, the waiter asked “Big Chinggis?” We nodded enthusiastically.

***

As we were walking home it began to snow a little bit. It was exciting for the first few moments, as we saw the white flecks flutter down to land on our clothes – then it sunk in just how absolutely freezing it was. We scurried back to the hotel to warm ourselves up. Once Tim and I were up in our room, I cracked open the Chinese ‘good health’ alcohol – that became its official name, since the entire label was in indecipherable Chinese characters – and mixed it up with with some Coke. “I think it might be a kind of whiskey, maybe?” I said as I took a few tentative sips. It had an herbal aroma to it. “Kind of like the Vietnamese make Mekong whiskey?” I took a swig from the bottle to get the full force of the flavour. I must have made a face, because Tim laughed and asked for a taste. He sniffed the bottle at first, and scrunched up his face as the aroma filled his nostrils. “Wow, okay…” He poured a small amount into cup and threw it back. After a moment of contemplation, he said “It almost tastes a bit like echinacea, doesn’t it?” I had to laugh – he was right, but the taste was growing on me. Tim and I sat up a bit later into the night, chatting about travelling and our lives back home. During a few group conversations back in China, we’d both casually revealed that we were gay, although this was one of the first times we had really gotten to talk one on one. It hadn’t really occurred to me before now, but now I was thankful that I wasn’t the only token gay person on the tour. We talked about our travels, about turning Grindr on in foreign cities, and I shared some fears and concerns about the official Russian stance on homosexuality. We even talked about home in Australia – Tim was from Melbourne – and discovered we had a few mutual friends, as is the small world that is the gay scene. After initially holding myself back a little bit for the beginning of the tour, it felt good to open up a little more and really be myself during the whole ‘getting to know you’ process, something that would only get easier from here on in.