Four days and five time zones later we arrive in the Siberian city of Irkutsk. Much to my surprise I’m a little ambivalent about disembarking the train. As I step out into the cold and onto the platform, I’m acutely aware of the people, the noise, the enormity of the world around me. Luckily, we’re bypassing the bustle of Irkutsk today and getting right on a bus and heading about two hours out of the city to the small town of Listvyanka.
It is early morning and our group is quiet as the bus travels along a narrow road surrounded by dense birch forests on either side. I imagine Baba Yaga – a witch from Old Russian folklore – could be living in those deep, mysterious woods in her famed hut that moves on chicken legs.
Taking the Plunge
Undeniably the biggest draw of Listvyanka is Lake Baikal, the world’s oldest and deepest freshwater lake. Although barely noticeable on a map, Lake Baikal is enormous – more of a sea than a lake – and contains 20% of the world’s unfrozen fresh water. It is also home to several indigenous species including the world’s only freshwater seal, the nerpa seal (this isn’t particularly relevant to this blog, I just love seals).
A few of us stroll through the open air market which is mostly full of trinkets and dried omul (Baikal’s signature fish), but the real excitement today is about who is getting in the lake. Jumping into Lake Baikal is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. Its healing waters are said to be a kind of fountain of youth and I suppose my inner romantic wants to believe the act would be somehow baptismal. After all, am I really going to travel thousands of miles in part to see an allegedly mystical lake and not get in it? No. That would be stupid.
As we approach the shore in the already freezing weather and start to strip down to our bathing suits I begin to rethink what qualifies as “stupid.” Even so, I always keep my promises to myself (it’s one of my favorite things about me) so into the lake I must go. Scott, Sabrina, and I wade into the water, take a quick dunk, and hurry back to shore where we frantically begin to pile our layers of clothing back on. I think of great literary figures who transcend the mental constraints of their old life after a water immersion – Fahrenheit 451’s Montag, The Awakening’s Edna… the list is endless. So far the only thing I know with any stunning clarity is that I’m effing COLD. Armed with this not-so-profound knowledge I hightail it back to our lodging and figure if I’m no more enlightened than when I jumped into the lake, I’m still ahead of most people I know and that’s good enough for me! Maybe my “new life” will start when I warm up…
I Get Spanked
In Listvyanka we have a homestay with a gentleman named Nikolai (yes, another one!) and his wife. After our almost-arctic plunge we make our way back to the house. Nikolai does not speak much English but he is extremely friendly and animated so we usually get the gist of what he’s trying to convey. His home is, in short, heaven – impeccably decorated, warm and cozy, and has a shower (something I haven’t seen in almost five days)!
Before dinner Nikolai is treating us to a quintessential Russian experience: a banya. Through a series of exaggerated gestures Nikolai – clad in a wool felt sauna hat and light colored speedo – explains the process. Our group begins by squeezing into the sauna and one by one people step out to escape the heat. With just Scott and I left, Nikolai begins phase two which involves me lying on my stomach on the sauna bench while he hits me with birch branches. After a moment or two he asks if “it’s good” and I say, “da” (yes). A menacing laugh escapes his lips and immediately after I feel a big THWACK as the birch branch hits my bum. The beating continues for a few minutes.
Let me tell you, nothing will make you evaluate your choices in life like lying face down wearing a sauna hat and a bikini while a small Russian man in a speedo spanks you with tree branches. Why did this trip seem so necessary to my human experience? Why couldn’t I just buy property or have a baby like everyone else?
My thoughts are interrupted as Nikolai hurries Scott and I out of the sauna and instructs us to jump into the pool on the porch (the careful reader will note this is my second icy plunge of the day). Afterwards, we sit outside in our bathing suits on a nearby bench admiring the surrounding forest – Sabrina’s earlier comment rings in my head, “It’s like a Bob Ross painting! Look at all those happy trees!”
I feel happy too. Happy in this small, silly moment thousands of miles from home.