I don’t know the rules of this environment and it scares me more than a little. I am standing on a frozen Lake Baikal. Ice and snow stretches ahead until it hits the mountains in the distance that encircle the whole lake. My children are playing about 100m ahead of me. Small black specks against this openness that seems bigger than it is due to how cold and hostile it feels. The little thermometer and compass I have on my bag says somewhere around -15 degrees Celsius but I can’t read it properly because I don’t have my glasses on. I probably couldn’t read it anyway at this temperature because my eyes are watering. There is a wind as well so the real temperature is probably something a little lower. I have taken one glove off to take photos and my hand doesn’t work anymore. I can barely put the lens cap back on. My brain knows what it wants my hand to do but it just sits there dumb and slow.
I am only 200m from shore but I have a feeling that that distance is irrelevant. If you went into the water it wouldn’t matter if you were 10m from shore. I am walking gingerly across the ice and this sick feeling in my stomach says that this is not normal. I keep expecting one of the little black figures in the distance to suddenly disappear.
My brain – shaped in a land where ice only comes from a freezer on a hot day and a good “dump” of ski fields snow is 20cm – just doesn’t understand how this all works. I just don’t know the rules.
All environments – whether they are social, man made or natural – have rules. If you follow the rules then you make your way through that environment successfully. I have grown up on the ocean so one glance at a beach and I could tell you where the rip is, where is dangerous, where the sand bar is, how big the surf is, what the wind is doing and whether you should swim or not. After a while surfing you notice elements of the ocean so acutely that you can identify different water types and waves around the world just from a photo. You can turn up to your local beach on a big day and even if there is a lull in waves you just “feel” that it is bigger and that any moment now a larger wave will come through.
I have seen people right near me almost drown in an environment that I feel perfectly safe in. A swimmer flopping against a rip with sagging energy who refused my frantic instructions to swim sideways not towards shore. A surfer in Indonesia who ended up 200m out to sea because he didn’t understand how the water flowed around the reef. A friend who almost went under in waist high surf because she underestimated how energy sapping it is to be hit by 5 waves in a row. They don’t understand the rules and don’t know that there is sometimes a very very fine line between a fun surf and drowning.
But now I am that person. I have absolutely no idea how this works. Would they warn us if we shouldn’t walk out here? Do the cars driving on the ice mean it is ALL safe or are they locals that drive in very specific places? Is this considered a safe time in the season to walk?
My rational brain says run away but I go with the belief that the hostel owner would have said ( in a thick Russian accent) “Do not walk on the lake!!” If there was real danger.
This is one of the most surreal ands beautiful landscapes I have ever seen. But just to add to my levels of anxiety the bloody stuff cracks all around you. We Australians don’t know this stuff but frozen lakes are not quiet things. They groan, they crack constantly, there is sudden sharp noises. Ellie saw a crack appear in front of her. So we are staring down into a black abyss beneath our feet as cracks fire off all across the ice around us.
But this is just the normal physics of a huge expanse of constantly expanding and contracting interlocked chunks of solid mass. You look closely and the black abyss that seems to be merely centimetres from your feet is actually sitting beneath about 2m of solid ice. It is absolutely and endlessly fascinating.
After a while we (well, I) relaxed enough to play. The girls sat on huge blocks of ice as I pushed them and sent them spinning across the beautiful expanses. The girls were lying and sliding across the ice on their tummies. I took photos of everything I could and felt frustrated that I couldn’t capture it properly. It is really too big, too wild, too amazing.
But we are back on the train now. We spent a few days in our first Russian city Ulan Ude getting used to walking on ice and getting a feel for this country. It was a mix of exploring the town (and the largest head of Lenin in the world – tick) and the girls getting some down time to just potter around me the lounge room of the hostel. From there we jumped on the start of the real Trans Siberian. The actual stretch of track from Vladivostok to Moscow. A one night train from there to Irkutsk and then a few nights down on Lake Baikal. Thank god the girls got real snow as they were beginning to think I’d lied to them about seeing the stuff. But we got it. Proper, thigh deep, perfectly sculptured drifts of snow laying all around classic Siberian pine trees and birch trees (well that’s what they looked like to me). The only draw back was that being so cold the snow is too dry to make snow balls….but you can’t win them all.
Right now I am sitting back on the train as we head to Yekaterinburg. The famous city where Tsar Nicholas II and his family were executed after the 1917 Russian Revolution. (We worry about barbaric Islamic fundmentalists these days but even Lenin and his noble Bolshevik revolutionaries were executing children in the name of ideology 100 years ago). But you can’t visit the house because Boris Yeltsin had it demolished in 1977 because he was worried that it would become a rallying place for monarchists. Another little piece of history erased due to the fear that these totalitarian states all seem to have about the people expressing their will. It is a common element across the world we have passed. Any regime based on fear is also strangely constantly afraid itself. Like deep down they KNOW that what they have doesn’t really work and that what they are doing is against the normal forces of society or humanity.
We have been locked in a little four bed cabin for about 35 hours. We still have about 15 to go. We haven’t done too badly to tell the truth – and if this family unit can survive days locked in a space 2m x 3m then we can survive anything.
I just looked up and the landscape is the same. Vast open white fields of snow with leafless winter trees – their black trunks stark against the snow at the bottom but white against the sky up the top. It is endless but for some reason it is constantly fascinating.