Deadpan Looks By The Deep Blue Lake


This blog entry about the events of Wednesday, August 11, 2004 was originally posted on August 16, 2004.

DAY 298:  From what I had heard, many travelers on the Trans-Siberian Railway only stop once on the way from Moscow to the Far East in Irkutsk in order to see nearby Lake Baikal (rhymes with “bagel”).  The shimmering deep blue lake — the world’s deepest body of freshwater — was formed after a collision of tectonic plates.  It is believed that as the plates separate over time, the lake will get deeper and wider, forming the earth’s fifth ocean.  Until then, it still remains the one “must see” place in Siberia.

MY BAGS WERE PACKED BY EIGHT and Nina served me my obligatory breakfast at nine.  She wasn’t as much help about the buses like her travel agent friend Elena had told me she would; all she did was motion me that I’d better hurry or I’d miss the bus.  I had packed everything thinking I wasn’t planning to come back to Nina’s apartment — I was going to spend my final night at this stop not at her place but in Listvyanka on the shore of Lake Baikal — so I tried to give her back the key for the front door.  In another episode of miscommunication, she refused it — perhaps she didn’t think I’d spend the night there. 

I got to the bus station at ten hoping that the next bus would leave within the hour.  A taxi driver approached me with body language to take his cab.  He showed me the bus schedule on the wall for Listvyanka:  9:00, 14:30, 17:00.  I had missed the 9 a.m. and the next wouldn’t be for another four and a half hours.  He quoted me 1000 rubles for the 65 km. ride (about $34), which was about what Eugene at Green Express said it would be anyway.  I hopped in the cabbie’s ride.

FORTY-FIVE MINUTES LATER I was standing at the Hotel Terema on the top of a small hill overlooking the tiny village of Listvyanka with the blue waters of Lake Baikal just behind.  Around me were trees, mountains and little hours on dirt roads with gardens and farm animals.  Cows walked around as they pleased while roosters crowed in the distance.  Finally, I was in a Siberian countryside that looked not like New Jersey, but more like, well, Siberia, just without the snow. 

I went to the hotel reception as instructed by Eugene at the Green Express travel agency.  As predicted the young woman there spoke English — but wasn’t much help.  She didn’t even crack a smile or even a half-smile.

“Where is the outdoor center?” I asked.

“It’s here.  What do you want?”

“Eugene said that there’d be horses or bicycles that I might rent.”

“There are no bicycles,” she said deadpan.  Not even a smirk.

“Oh, Eugene told me there would be,” I said.  “And horses?”

“We have none, but maybe you will find [someone else’s] horses in the back.”

“Okay,” I said, remaining positive.  “I know you have no rooms, but another agent told me that I might be able to find a homestay around here.  Which way would I go?”

“I don’t know.  I’ve never rented a house before,” she said, again emotionless or even with a bit of disdain.

“Is it okay if I leave my bags here while I look for a place?  Eugene said that if I came here to reception, they’d sort things out for me.”

“You can’t leave your bags here unless you are staying at the hotel,” she told me after consulting with the other deadpan woman at the desk. 

I LUGGED MY BAGS for about forty-five minutes through the village, a tiny settlement relatively speaking, with a population of just 2,500.  There were only a handful of people walking around, plus a couple of cows.  I looked all over for those houses with signs on them for available rooms, until I finally found a sign on the main road for a B&B through the valley.  Walking another kilometer with my bag, I found the place with a sign in front with the English word “ROOMS” on a sign.

“U vas yest… uh, a room?” I asked the guy at the gate.

“Yes.”  The guy was Nicolai, a 23-year-old who learned English from being a foreign exchange student in Iowa, USA for four years.  “We only have rooms with two beds,” he told me with his Russian accent.  The accommodation was about $40 USD, reasonable for what it was.  “Oh yeah, you can also stay in a Mongolian yurt,” he informed me.  In the backyard were three traditional Mongolian yurts, big circular fabric tents constructed with a central pole and rope.  At only about $12 a bed, it was perfect — no one was staying there anyway; I had the entire deck of three yurts to myself. 

Nicolai’s parents ran the B&B, which was a fairly nice establishment compared to the little shacks down the road, and still not as Westernized as the bigger hotels like the deadpan Hotel Terema.  Nicolai told me about bikes and boats and that if I wanted to do a boat excursion on the lake that afternoon, I’d better get to the nearby port and check it out soon.

ALONG THE SHORE OF LAKE BAIKAL in Listvyanka — aside from the rocky beachgoers and villagers fetching pails of water (picture above) — were informational signs with facts about the lake broken down into bullet points.  Reading them, I learned a great deal about the body of water before me:

  • Lake Baikal is the world’s deepest lake, with a maximum depth of 1637 meters (over a mile)

  • it is the world’s oldest lake, aged 25 million years

  • it holds 20% of the world’s freshwater and 70% of the world’s drinkable water without purification

  • in 1996 it was declared a World Natural Heritage Site by UNESCO

  • the main industry in the area is paper and pulp production

  • the region holds the world’s highest concentration of signs with bullet points about Lake Baikal

The local tourist information office (the only one in town) sold me a ticket for a 2 p.m. one-hour boat tour on the lake to Port Baikal and back.  The group consisted of a Russian family, some guys from Greenland, a pair of women traveling together — one New Zealander, one Brit — and me.  Our guide was a young Russian woman who spoke basic English — she definitely knew the adjective “beautiful” because she used it to describe everything — and read us more bullet points about the lake like a grammar school student presenting a book report nervously in front of the entire class.  She acknowledged when she told us a pretty well known fact:  “Lake Baikal is the world’s deepest lake.  You know this…  Lake Baikal is the world’s oldest lake.  You know this.”  I didn’t mind the mediocre presentation; the scenery that surrounded me sufficed for it — especially after seeing nothing but modernized cities of Siberia thus far.  The waters were near crystal clear; even the foam coming from the back of the ship was more clear than white. 

Irene, the older, retired New Zealander didn’t seem too impressed with the tour and was pretty critical of everything — particular the claim that the local pollution of the lake is entirely the tourists’ fault, when industrial waste wasn’t exactly hidden behind the trees.  After the tour, Irene and her younger friend Gilley invited me to join them for coffee at one of the three cafes by the pier.


Gilly and I had beers instead, and we didn’t just have one round.  We sat out under the warmth of the sun, just being lazy over conversation.  We took notice that just like the staff at the Hotel Terema, the majority of the cafe staff didn’t crack a smile.  “Everyone here is miserable and cold,” Irene said.  “I fit right in here.”  She was a seasoned traveler, having done most of that traveling in the sixties when going around the world meant “just going to India and doing drugs for six months.”  In her older age, perhaps she was still stuck in the sixties, ending every other sentence with “man.” 

Her sardonic bitterness — which often transcended into humor — came with age she said.  She was the type of person who probably invented the slogan “Life’s a bitch and so am I.”  She had been critical for the entire ride through Russia, even telling off one of the guards at the entrance to Lenin’s tomb in Moscow who had been rude to her:  “Your punishment is that you have to stay in this country for the rest of your life!” she told the guard who didn’t understand.  Gilly was often humored by all of her travel companion’s snide comments, given that the recipient didn’t hear or understand — which wasn’t always the case.

THE PIER AT LISTVYANKA WAS THE CENTRAL MEETING PLACE of the village, where the boats, buses, taxis and tourists all convened.  A souvenir market was there too, next to a strip of food vendors selling the Lake Baikal specialty:  smoked or salted Baikal omul fish.  Smoke filled the air was hundreds of fish were freshly smoked by dozens of vendors, selling them right out of the smoker.  The enticing scent of the smoke was inescapable, which attracted the three of us to have dinner and more drinks instead of heading off to the Ecological Museum like we had planned.  It was about one US dollar per fish, and about $1.60 for some fried rice from a big happy guy that reminded me of Navid (Ecuador), who gave us free freshly-roasted tomatoes as a gift.  The three of us sat at a picnic table on the shore over dinner, swapping more travel tales.  The two of them were fairly well-traveled, especially Irene, who in her “twilight” years, had no intention of stopping her travels or plans to climb mountains. 

I accepted their invitation for a lake shore stroll and we walked along Lake Baikal, passed more little houses, cows taking over the road, a small wooden pier for smaller boats (HiRes) and a sad little zoo were Siberian black bears were poorly caged up.  We eventually made it to their “homestay,” which was actually an overpriced apartment their agency set them up with.  There we had tea as the sun began to set outside the window.  We went outside to another pier with our teas to watch nature’s transformation of hues, which turned the sky — and the lake’s reflections below — a shade of pink

NIGHT FELL AFTERWARDS, asking for a night out — my last night outside of a train compartment in Russia — and we ended up at the only bar visible on the main route, a rustic wooden place with a pool table and a fairly international crowd of about a dozen people. 

We sat at a table over rounds of Russian vodka and orange juice (served in separate glasses in Russia), served by another emotionless deadpan staff that wouldn’t crack a smile.  There we met a rambunctious trio of American guys from Vermont and New York that tried to taunt the staff with falsetto calls.  Still, nothing.  One of them told us he was of Russian/Polish ancestry and that his European relatives were notorious for keeping deadpan faces in any situation.

The temperature had dropped as the stars came out.  With no city lights, it was quite a display, all of them in the northern hemisphere present and accounted for — even the clouds of the Milky Way.  I didn’t have anything but a t-shirt on so my time stargazing was brief.  I bid farewell with my new friends of the day and bid them farewell when we split up.  They went back to their apartment to wake early to go to Irkutsk while I walked the one mile to Nicolai’s family-run B&B through the darkness with the sight of my breath in front of me at every exhalation.  I suppose it was fitting; for my last night in Russia outside of a train, I had finally found the really real Siberia:  a lake, trees, mountains, deadpan faces and all.

Next entry: Gangs of Siberia

Previous entry: No Aunt May

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Comments for “Deadpan Looks By The Deep Blue Lake”

  • Wow.. i’ve never been here without seeing a comment before me.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/15  at  12:58 PM

  • LOL Nicole - hey, you were first!
    Love the cows!  Very cute!  Poor bear :( 
    Erik - did you go in the lake?  I hear it is freezing cold, but you’re an adventurous guy, so maybe you did the polar bear dip thing smile

    Posted by Liz  on  08/15  at  03:18 PM

  • Wow great pic’s of the lake….now have to decide which one to use for my background.  I have been using one off the back of the boat of the ocean which was taken by Erik in Africa when he was scuba diving…..Great photography Erik!!!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/15  at  06:45 PM

  • Let’s put a Yurt in the backyard!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/15  at  06:52 PM

  • Does anyone else think that the interior of the Mongolian yurt looks like the inside of “I Dream of Jeanie’s” bottle?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/15  at  07:43 PM

  • I love the yurt - It looks like a teepee!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/15  at  08:36 PM

  • Great pics Erik!!  The scenery was amazing! I almost felt like I was there…almost…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/15  at  09:51 PM

  • Don’t you wish we had scratch n sniff screens?  I bet the smell of that smoked fish was amazing…........and ditto on the yurt Warren!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/16  at  02:30 AM

  • I agree with Warren - and my mom sounds a lot like Irene. And she wants a yurt too! That one looks a little more sturdy than the ones you can find in the Pacific Northwest…

    I like the little pier pic - it’s now my background! YEAY!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/16  at  03:06 AM

  • Oh! I like the cows… they’re tres bien.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/16  at  03:50 AM

  • That Bullet list was very informative! Expecially the last line!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/16  at  04:55 PM

  • LIZ:  Just my hands and feet…  I’ve done the “Polar Plunge” in Antarctica though… (see video at Videos section)...

    WARREN:  Agreed!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/18  at  12:29 PM

  • WARREN: Good call!

    ERIK: Perhaps you should have brought along a GT2004 Sweatshirt!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  08/25  at  01:57 AM

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This blog post is one of over 500 travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip 2004: Sixteen Months Around The World (Or Until Money Runs Out, Whichever Comes First)," originally hosted by It chronicled a trip around the world from October 2003 to March 2005, which encompassed travel through thirty-seven countries in North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It was this blog that "started it all," where Erik evolved and honed his style of travel blogging — it starts to come into focus around the time he arrives in Africa.

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Gangs of Siberia

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No Aunt May


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