Gertruda, Gertruda, Gertruda
Three words. Gertruda, Gertruda, Gertruda. A matriarch from Kazakhstan, who along with her daughter, Tatiana, and her grandaughter, Anna (15 years old), made my three days in Baykal’skoye so much like a home away from home. In a village of 1000 people, some descendents of the original Evenki people, Gertuda with her female proteges, fed me potatoes and vegetables from their home gardens and fish from the lake. The town is almost entirely made of wood. And there is one paved street in town. Motorbikes with side cars laden with helmetless families tear about. Many house fronts have elaborate carved and brightly pained window frames, the contrast with the plain age-stained dark pine planks and/or logs. The first two days were misty, cloudy and overcast. But this didn’t stop me exploring everything. On the first day after arriving on the morning bus from Severobaykal’sk I was given a hearty potato and egg breakfast and then shown my simple room out the back. Their toilet, a simple squatting arrangement over a watery drop pit, doubles as their fertilizer source for the gardens. But I wondered what the impact of the entire village’s un-sewered state was having on Baikal’s waters. Gertruda’s son, Konstantin, was visiting from Almaty, Kazakhstan, with Olga (his partner I later presumed) and her two young pre-teenage daughters I walked in the rain that first afternoon, doing a part of the Baykal’skoe walk to the north and back to town. Up over a big headland shrouded in mist. I stood at the cliff above Lake Baikal’s waters and stared out into mist. Below I could see the crystal clear waters lapping at the cliff base. The green of the shallow rocks grading to deep blue and black beyond. Back at the family home in the middle of the village of wood and side-cars, dinner was served of whole boiled lake fish. Afterwards I played the young girls some songs on the guitar and they were busy filming on their mobile phones. The two young girls visiting from Kazakhstan replied, at their mother Olga’s insistence I think, with a couple of exquisite pieces on the home’s piano. The next day at one point I found myself on a lonely stony beach being attacked from above by feisty black-hooded seagulls, while trying to re-encounter the roe deer I’d just seen emerge from the taiga thicket to drink at the emerging river’s edge. When the birds ceased their bothersome dive bombing for a moment, I scanned the deep shadows and greens of the forest for any sign of the little lone deer. It had stared at me for a few seconds before walking into the forest away from the bank of the stream that burbled past my feet through a small inlet and over stones into the lake. With the wind in my back (the storm was brewing off the lake from the southeast and I’d hunkered down on the small inlet side for some shelter of sorts) I was starting to get cold, so I walked back into town, taking the old bridge road out to the collapsed wooden bridge. I then followed the straight flowing main river Rel up it’s massively incised channel in pure river rocks and boulders. Seeing these rocks gave me a sense of the river’s occasional might. Approaching the new bridge I’d crossed to the south earlier in the day I realised the errors of my ways: I was actually on an island with two major river crossings to contemplate. I could have walked back the hour downstream, but I decided to find a large sturdy walking pole, and with my laces tied and boots slung around my neck, I commenced the first crossing. Before half way my feet were freezing. And now it was raining. On the second main channel crossing the water rose above my thighs and over my rolled up jeans. (Little did I know my phone was in a side leg pocket, which I’d forgotten to stow in my pack for the crossing. However, the next day back in Severobaykal’sk, I would well and truly take care of my phone – in a terminal fashion.) The sheer force of this amount of water against my legs was starting to make me worried I’d lose my footings, with many of the river bed stones being covered in mosses. But I made it. And then in the rain I quickly donned my socks and boots over frozen wet feet and set off up the banks through the forest, over the old dilapidated bridge, for the half hour walk back to town. This my second and final night the family prepared their banya for me and I entered alone into a small bathhouse come laundry room (a hut with cow manure daubed into the cracks between planks to stop the draughts), with a box-like wood stove pushing out some serious heat. Water in various buckets, A small wooden bench to sit on. And hand ladles to douse myself with water of my temperature choosing. It was cosy. And exhilarating to exit into the fresh moist night air. My last day I wasn’t sure if I’d get up earlier enough to catch the morning marshrutka toward Severobaykal’sk, in order to jump off and do the full Baikal Traik walk back to Baykal’skoye. But I did in relaxed fashion and with another wonderful Gertruda breakfast. Olga then packed me off with fish pies and special fish, rice, onion and spinach pastry bread thing’os! It was a bright sunny day – the clearest since I had arrived 5 days ago. And after alighting the bus and walking in from the main road I spent too long at the start looking at Russia camping culture at the so-called eco-village. And massive leeches in Sluydanka Lake. As well as making friends with a Lake Baikal hobo in his vagabond camp, along with his two at first aggressive dogs. A real character, He showed me how the big ant nests I’d pointed out were full of largish but non-biting and/or non-effectual biting ants. With both his hands on the ant mound he demonstrated with his hands quickly covered in swarming ants. I followed suit. It would have been a strange sight to see! And so I was rushing it a bit in the serious heat at the end knowing that I had to make the 18:00 bus from Baykal’skoye back to Severobaykal’sk. A yellow scum sat accumulated on the surface of the shiny water’s edge. It seemed to be all the pollen from the pulse of flowering trees. The hike was undulating through cleared forest, past rocky promontories and wooded hills. Towards the end with the last hill before Baykal’skoye in sight I burst onto a clear felled zone with steep bare hills plummeting into the blue green depths of the lake. Cattle tracks ran like terraces around the sweeping containers as the sun beat down. My lack of lip cream was sorely missed. And my decision to hold off on the swim was now beyond reprieve. I made a bee line down tithe water’s edge and ripped off all and carefully but as quickly as I could stepped awkwardly over the rocks into knee deep water and lay down. Ahhhh! I saw the GBT volunteers arrive and I dressed and waded off across the patched expanses and picking up a dusty road followed it into town, where Gertruda was waiting with a final meal and a kindly written and under valued bill. I tipped her an additional 500 rubles. On the was back having just bought the only cold drink available (a terrible artificial lemonade) I saw Olga, Konstantin and the girls out walking and said my last good byes and a family photo. I caught the last bus back to Severobaikalsk and sat next to a young chap who showed me photos on his phone while I showed him mine.