The east shore of Lake Baikal, like always, was shrouded in mist all the way up above the peaks. Out on the water in the morning, the wind bit with a determined late season chill.
The captain stood broad shouldered, square-faced and hale with a crew-cut and a Reebok jacket, and I liked him right away. Not a lick of English, but he made us coffee with water from a big painted teapot below decks and offered pelmini that we coveted but politely refused. Couldn't be sure we wouldn't be eating his own lunch.
Over the weekend the jetty at Listvyanka had been packed with trinket vendors and mongers of exotic Siberian fish like omul and grayling. On Monday morning it stood deserted except for a bibulous bottle recycler and three or four ships' mates and dockhands, loitering around stale cigarette butts and wrappers.
The new week crept up in autumnal dampness, the clouds in stratified layers. Surveying the dock and our little ship, the Poruchik, the Gilligan's Island theme edged into my head. Ours was a four hour tour – a simple west to east crossing of one of the world’s great lakes.
A white, blue and red tricolor flapped above the Poruchik, a deisel-burning forty-foot cruiser with two cabins below decks and a separate galley and mess. Must have started life as a fishing boat before they retrofitted it for charters, with benches, tables and chairs, and there were liqueurs and vodkas and a TV below.
Larch, pine and beech rounded rocky outcrops up the hills along shore. After an hour the Poruchik came alongside a settlement called Bolshoi Koti, the last, tenuous human imprint. From there, north for six hundred-odd kilometers of lakeshore, primeval forest reigned impenetrable.
For some time the Poruchik aimed for a promontory I couldn’t find on the map, and finally swung hard to starboard for the crossing. A low blanket of gray from the west, from Irkutsk, replaced the sunshine of the last two days.
There were arrangements for later. Someone from Ulan Ude "will meet you at Kluevka (a place you are going to). This is definitely." Made it like the Russian Autonomous Republic of Buryatia was a foreign country, not the other side of the lake.
And who knew, maybe it would be.
When at last we swung away from the snug western shore and into open water, the temperature plunged. In an hour and forty minutes, the mountains of the Ardaban Range east of Baikal loomed tantalizingly close, breaking above the clouds.
Back home, imagining Exotic Siberia, I thought it would be fun to "get out on the lake," like it would be fun to have a nice piece of candy. But Baikal’s gunwale gray middle slapped us humble, tossing and pounding the Poruchik to make clear that it's a mighty inland sea. Finally, out in the middle, all you could do onboard was just hold on.
We made our way into Ulan Ude just in time to walk the parliament square before dark. Kids giggled at a massive Lenin head there. ("It looks really funny with snow on top.")
In the Soviet era women watched each floor. You’d leave your room key with them and pick it up on your return. This hotel still employed Soviet-era floor ladies, whose job it still was to mind our business.
Our floor official, in a light print dress, sat behind an official desk. More wryly than officially she explained our extraordinary good fortune. Because of “environmental conference” with “important delegates” (the lobby buzzed with them), they’d turned on the hot water.
We were battered and a little worn as we slumped into chairs after dinner and tuned in the ten o'clock news. There was a sports report. It was interrupted by curious pictures we didn't quite understand - it was all in Russian, of course - and then sports returned. A few minutes later they interrupted the sports again to show pictures of the second plane slamming into the World Trade Center.
You can buy photos from the EarthPhotos.com Russia
These stories are from the eventual book, Common Sense and Whiskey: Modest Adventures Far from Home
, by Bill Murray.
So far in the series:
Chillin' in Greenland
Crossing Lake Baikal
Blazing through Tibet with Noodle Boy