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14

Siberia - Lake Baikal & Irkutsk
25th - 28th Dec

I found the train journeys very useful at times as leaving Ekaterinburg at 4 am on the 23rd and arriving 3,369 Km later in Irkutsk at 9.30 am on 25th there was nothing to do for over 2 days. This gave me plenty of time to rest, catch up on sleep, do background reading on my next destination, write or just do nothing. On one of the days I wrote for 2 - 3 hours in the morning in my bunk and then as people started to stir in my cabin I took myself off to the restaurant car for another 5-6 hours doing more of the same. I felt the benefit of not speaking Russian too as far from feeling lonely or isolated it provided me with the valuable opportunity to spend time on my own and I revelled in it. Apart from a few niceties I could be left alone for hours on end. When my train arrived at Irkutsk my guide, Sveta, was waiting for me on the platform; she asked me how the journey had gone and I replied excellent there was nothing to do; she looked surprised and later told me that this is often the tourists' main complaint.

I shared a carriage with Nicolia and Alexandria, two engineers. Nick spoke a little English but once again the phrase book, photos, lap top and maps served me well. On the last afternoon they invited me to join them for lunch, when Nick showed me a video of his fully operational train engine which both he and Alexandria were running some form of test on whilst it was in motion. From what I could gather it was a hobby rather than anything to do with a business but I couldn't be sure as the language barriers around this were proving to be too complicated. Once we had eaten they insisted on paying, I have learned that it is futile to let politeness get in the way and resist. In fact most people carry food and without exception one of my fellow passengers had given me something to eat of some description despite me only being able to offer fruit in return which wasn't usually taken up. Before we parted Nick gave me his address and invited me to stay but with only 1 night in Irkutsk I wasn't able to take him up on his offer.

The time differences where the cause for some confusion as at one point it felt like I was between 3 different zones. The first being Moscow at +3 GMT, as all the trains work on Moscow time irrespective of where they are in the country. Ekaterinburg is + 5 GMT which my watch and body were set to, but I was on my way to Irkutsk which was +8 GMT and would arrive there the following day. The train being on Moscow time and us being on route somewhere between Ekaterinburg and Irkutsk at any given point I had absolutely no idea what time to work on, yet it really didn't matter I slept when I was tired, be that during the day or otherwise, woke up when I wasn't and ate when I was hungry.

Sveta took me to Listvyanki, a lovely small tourist village 40 miles north of Irkutsk on the bank of Lake Baikal. We went to my accommodation, a traditional wooden built Izba constructed around a brick stove which was usually in the centre of the home so that a part of the stove was in every room making it cosy even during a Siberian winter. Zoga, my host, was a native Buryat one of the indigenous peoples of Siberia. Washing and bathing takes place in the traditional Banya which is a steam room as apposed to a sauna so each evening Zoga would prepare the Banya and after a walk through the garden in the snow I would take a sauna and bathe.

As Zoga would be cooking for me for the next 2 days inevitably the subject of my diet came up. Both Sveta and Zoga told me there were no vegetarians in Siberia as they believe that it not possible to survive without eating meat. Which may at first seem reasonable until you notice that far from everybody is carrying large amounts of body fat to see out the extremely harsh winters, quite the contrary, many are in fact slim. I would later learn that in Mongolia which was to be my next stop, it is a belief that vegetables are considered bad for you. So testing times were ahead.

Lake Baikal is one of the largest lakes in the world being 636km long, not far off the length of England, and could supply the whole of the worlds drinking water supply for 40 years if it was the only source of water left. It is also the oldest lake as it was formed over 50 million years ago and has many shamanistic and other religions myths and legends associated with it. Shamanism being native to Siberia and Mongolia.

When first I met Sveta I got the distinct feeling that there was a lack of enthusiasm, which as we were going to spend the day together I noted it and then parked the thought. Later I learned that 'I wasn't her job' as her friend had called in sick she was just standing in but as we chatted and got to know each other she relaxed and we discovered we had much in common in our thinking despite our completely different backgrounds. I learnt much about life before and after Perestroika which led to the demise of the old Soviet Union. A couple of her comments that I found to be the most significant as we discussed the situation in Siberia were that previously life was hard but at least everybody knew that they would have work and enough food for themselves and their family, but despite times being hard people and friendships were of primary importance and there was a strong community spirit and unity. The difference being since 'capitalism' has been introduced there were now more poor and homeless people and she had noticed that people are now prepared to lie and cheat their friends just for money and that the old values of people and friendships have changed for the worse.

In the UK it was Christmas Day; they wouldn't be celebrating it in Russia until the 7th of January being Russian Orthodox so today was just another day in Siberia. This suited me fine as I have never been a big fan of this festival and even less so since my departure from the UK and the challenging of accepted mind sets. But it was a day for contacting family and friends and wishing them all the best in their celebrations, but as the Izba consisted only of wooden partitions for walls stopping a foot short from the ceiling there wasn't much privacy so I went out to find a quiet bar where I could make some telephone calls and catch up on my journal without disturbing anybody at the house.

I decided to visit a bar Sveta had pointed out to me that afternoon about 20 minutes walk away on the edge of the lake. I had been in the bar 2-3 hours when 2 young guys arrived distinctly the worse for alcohol dressed in Police looking combats, they had arrived by car and the laws in Russia are very strict concerning drink driving as it is illegal to drive with any level of alcohol in your system. (I later learned that it was a common trick for people passing themselves off as police to stop cars and extract money or documents from the drivers.) Unfortunately as I was sat near to the cigarette machine and they needed change it got me noticed, so I gave them the change they required but they then took a seat at my table in a bar not short of empty tables. They had interrupted me but I wasn't really given a choice. One spoke good English and within 15 minutes they had invited me to take a 'Short walk by the lake' with them despite it being about 11pm and probably -30 to -35c outside. When they could see I wasn't going to take them up on their extremely generous offer they suggested a drive.........No I don't think so. They reassured me by saying we wouldn't be long.....so what was the point then? The guy who spoke English was translating for the other who was the more dominant of the two. Doubting their motives I tried to stall them by informing them that it was Christmas Day in my country and I was going back to my accommodation to speak to my family but I would be happy to meet another time. Whilst this seemed to work for a while it eventually led to the Russian speaking guy telling me that he would 'Kick my ass' if I didn't come with them - I simply repeated it wasn't going to happen tonight and was happy to take them up on their offer of a tour at a later date. I then made my way to the toilets and whilst there could hear their voices outside the door followed by the slamming shut of the exit door to the bar. They had obviously thought I had made my escape and hence dashed out to catch me; I thought it prudent to hang fire for a few minutes until they were long gone. When I emerged from the toilets the staff called me over told me they were 'Bandits' and as the Bar was due to close they offered to drive me back to my accommodation, when I declined their offer they insisted and took me back to my Izba anyway.

So this was my 2nd tricky situation in only 7 days, which is a shame that my encounters with the two people in Red Square and again these in Listvyanki could make me suspicious and taint the way I interact with people I meet subsequently. Sadly it is the case that our previous experiences do cloud our judgment. Whilst I endeavour to remain vigilant and to learn from these, for every one person that seeks to get-by without too much concern if that is at the direct expense of others, there are plenty more open, honest, friendly individuals who genuinely want to help and share in whichever way they are able, and as a result they would feel they receive much along the way. It is these encounters that make life much more colourful. In the past, if I had been, or am in the future too quick to judge, then I would no longer have the amazing experiences and meet the wonderful people I have so far enjoyed. The following day I took a walk in the hills and by the lake. I walked for several hours and reflected on the previous evenings events and also that afternoon in Moscow, contemplating what I could have done to avoid those situations, my conclusion being that I couldn't have. These kinds of incident have arisen in the past and will continue to arise yet I have to trust that I will be able to spot them in time and deal with them as wisely as possible to avoid any unnecessary danger. I recognise that I must not foolishly put myself at risk but denying myself the beauty of what my journey truly has to offer by being less open in the future would be the real crime.

During my walk whilst -25c outside it was the strong wind across the lake biting into my face that made it feel very cold so I was glad to call into a cafe for a hot coffee before my walk back. In the cafe I met a couple from the UK also taking a month to do the Trans-Siberian route, and heading in the same direction West to East as many go in the opposite direction and start in Beijing. The strange thing being these were the first tourists I had met since the start of my trip; I would later meet them again as I was arriving and they were leaving Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. After my walk, as it was only a small village and not wishing to come across the guys from the previous evening again finding myself in another situation I would have to deal with - prevention seemed much more sensible than cure - I went back to the Izba early for my session in the steam room before departing for Irkutsk city the following morning.

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