Ancient of Lakes Part 1 – To The Water

Failed again at the loving people thing.  Uuuugggghhh.  I’m a little bit sick of myself with this thing, to tell you the truth.  My breakthrough can’t come soon enough.

The weekend after my camping trip to Amga, I visited an ice field, again on the other side of the river.  It was a day trip with a group from school.  I only mention it here because I was on a huge ice field in the middle of a hot summer, walking around on ice that was over a meter thick in some places!  Only in Yakutia.

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At the end of the ice field…see the depth of the ice?

Afterwards, we went to a popular swimming spot.  It took about two hours of bouncy, off-road driving to get there but the place was so crowded that we spent less than an hour.  This was after a few of us from the group played around in the cold but refreshing water for about twenty minutes.

Then it was time for my last camping trip of the summer: six days of hiking and camping around Lake Baikal, the oldest, largest and deepest lake on earth, as well as one of the clearest.  I had chosen to do this trip because I wanted to draw closer to God and I find that tends to happen in a big way when I’m immersed in nature.  I was feeling spiritually dry and wanted to rectify that.  Ironically, this was where I love-failed.  Again.

Two days after I finished my summer camp stint in mid-July, I flew to Irkutsk, which is located in south-eastern Siberia and is the jumping off point for visiting Lake Baikal.  To clarify, because this has been a little bit of a problem for my Western friends, Irkutsk has no relation to Yakutsk except that they’re both in Russia.  It’s in a totally different region that isn’t in the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia) at all.  Flying time between the two is almost three hours so they’re definitely not even close to each other.  This was my first time on an aeroplane since I had arrived in Yakutsk almost one year prior.  If for only this reason I was excited to set off.  I do so love journeys!

The day after I flew to Irkutsk, I met the rest of our group.  In all, we were five campers and one guide.  The other four campers were a German family: mom, dad, their eighteen year old son and sixteen year old daughter.  We spent that first day on a walking tour of the city centre, which was a nice warm up for our upcoming hike.  The next morning, we drove for four hours, including a one-hour lunch stop at a roadside restaurant, to our starting point.  There, we were given our tents, sleeping bags and mats, and the food was divided up among us.  Our guide couldn’t carry all that stuff and I guess porters aren’t a thing for hiking in Russia.

A quick side note.  There at our starting point, a man who lives in the area observed us standing on the path dividing up our provisions and decided to come over for a quick chat.  My Russian is still pretty basic but when I heard, “медведи ходит,” my ears perked up.  As soon as it was appropriate to do so, I asked the guide if that was what I had heard and he confirmed it.  People, the man said that there were bears roaming those woods.  I felt a brief frisson of alarm but quickly dismissed it because what was I going to do, not go on the trip?  Spoiler alert: we saw exactly zero bears for the entirety of the trip.

Lake Baikal was gorgeous.  I had a wonderful time camping, the guide was great, and overall – despite my love-fail – I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.  For the first time in my very limited camping experience, I carried all my own gear, for six days no less!  My gear included my clothes and personal items packed into my borrowed hiking rucksack (borrowed it from one of the lovely ladies from my Lena River camping trip), to which I strapped my sleeping bag, mat and tent.  By the way, I set up my tent all by myself every evening when we made camp, except the first evening, thank you very much!  I also carried a small portion of our food.  Our guide estimated that my rucksack weighed about 16 kg.

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Me and my borrowed rucksack with sleeping bag packed inside it, and tent and mat strapped to the outside

We spent the next six days hiking a total of almost 60 km.  Looking at a map, the distance we covered looks short, but I assure you that walking 60 km up, down and around hills over six days toting a heavy rucksack all the way is nothing to sneeze at.  My right clavicle and scapula were feeling the effects by day 2 but I found ways to make it bearable and didn’t complain.  After all, our guide had a pack that weighed far more than mine did, and was at least twice its size, since he was carrying most of our provisions plus his own camping gear and personal items.

I enjoyed most of what I saw during those six days.  We walked across forests and mountaintop plateaus.  We picked our way zigzag up steep slopes with me feeling like an awkward mountain goat the entire time.  We walked through the Siberian steppes where there was nothing but grass as far as the eye can see.

At one point, to get around an inconvenient cliff, we even had to shed our pants and boots.  Yup, you read right; we were only wearing our underwear and t-shirts, and had our boots tied to our rucksacks.  It was unexpected but thank God I was fully prepared, if you know what I mean, single ladies.  Then we had to walk about one hundred meters through the bitingly ice-cold water, one hand clinging to the cliff on the left and the other hand gripping a walking stick to help keep us from getting knocked over by the surf, which was pretty rough that day.  I’m marking that experience as one of the two best parts of the entire trip.  It sounds weird but it was pretty cool once I got out of the freezing water.  I prayed my way the entire way through because that water was cold, people!

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We came around that cliff pant-less through the cold and crashing surf

After that we had to walk for about an hour up and down more slopes carrying as many tree branches and random pieces of wood as we could manage to bring along because where we were camping that night had no trees nearby.  Oh, the joys of camping!

The other of the two best parts of the trip for me was on the evening of the second day of the hike when we camped on a rise just above a beautiful rocky beach.  The others spent a few hours that night chatting around the campfire but I spent most of that time lying on my belly or my back on the beach watching the lightning from a storm that seemed to be pelting the distant opposite shore.  Meanwhile, the moon shone on us from a perfectly clear sky.  It was phenomenal.

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I couldn’t get it all in one photo but the moon was shining to the right in a clear sky while a storm raged to the left

A last point of note is that the water in Lake Baikal is the cleanest natural water I’ve ever encountered.  For the first time in my life, I drank directly from a natural source, unfiltered and unboiled.  You heard me right.  Lake Baikal water is so clean that we refilled our water bottles every day directly from the lake.  Every time, the water was deliciously clean and refreshing, even the one day when there was a lot of algae near the shore so I got some in my bottle.  Yeah, I drank Baikal algae.  I’m fine so it obviously wasn’t a problem.

So I was enjoying my latest foray into nature, soaking in the sights, sounds and smells of that beautiful region.  What could possibly be wrong in this picture?

Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad; let the sea resound, and all that is in it.  Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them; let all the trees of the forest sing for joy.  Psalm 96:11-12 (NIV)

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