Legends from our own lunchtimes

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Feel the Surreality

Lake Baikal is big. It's coastline is about the same length as Queensland's, yet it doesn't make a dent in the even more vast Siberian landscape.

And it's deep. So deep that it holds twenty percent of the world's fresh water. No one bothers to turn off water taps if they live on its shores.

And it's Cold. So cold that the golomyanka, a scale-less fish which lives in it's depths and whose body comprises almost entirely oil, begins to melt at six degrees. Six degrees of separation, literally, of its skeleton from the remnants of its body.

And it's home to the fattest seals that exist anywhere on the planet. They store so much fat to get them through winter, when the lake is frozen, that they look like grey beachballs with toy noses stitched on.

Listvyanka is not so big, in fact it is quite a small village on the shores of the lake, close enough to the tourist path to be friendly in summer, cheery even when the sky is blue, but one hesitates to guess what it must be like in the depths of a Siberian winter, when the lake is hidden under two metres of ice, and the ice hidden under even more snow.

Our homestay was on the shores of the lake in Listvyanka, in a classic Soviet apartment occupied by an elderly widow. It is "owned" in all probability by the government, but with a government offer to sell to its occupant for the princely sum of two hundred and fifty US dollars, a small fortune in Siberia, we wondered whether or not she'd buy it. We communicated in our best grunts and laughter and sign language, and dined heartily on Omul, the prized Baikal eating fish and blini, pancakes which form part of the traditional diet of the region.

She'd moved in to a friend's place to make room for us, two couples in her two roomed apartment, and in return we brought two of the handful of warm days she experiences each year, and a small handful of the dollars she needed to become a woman of substance.

After breakfast, we climbed the highest peak we could find, returning an hour or two later, pondering the surreality of being under cloudless skies in a place which lives under snow, with fat seals and fish that melt, and a water supply that is boundless.

We opened the front door to the apartment, and knew she too had returned, as the radio in the kitchen was what could only be described as 'blaring'.

Somewhat astonishingly the song was blaring in English.

Better than that, it was a classic Beatles number blaring away in the Siberian summer, a classic from a time when it was not just the climate that was cold.

"Back in the USSR."


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