Breaking the ice

Camping for boys
March 16, 2011
A lesson in leadership
March 18, 2011

Breaking the ice

SSC_0316.jpgI disembark from the train at 6:15am at Irkutsk.  In the last 24 hours the cabin next to mine has been occupied by two police officers (the police seem to use the railways extensively) – they spend their time watching non-stop violent cop movies (entertainment or training?).  Their room smells like a warm Oxfam shop on a wet day and they radiate hostility – I am glad to get off.

Listvyanka Village is about 70km outside Irkutsk and sits right on the shores of Lake Baikal, the largest freshwater lake in the world.  The lake is 400 miles by 40 miles and over 500ft deep and is formed from a geological crack between two tectonic plates that are moving apart – so it’s getting bigger.  It is also frozen solid to a depth of 1 metre for five months of the year.

Any preconceptions I had about this being a poor rural Siberian town are misconceived– this is a prosperous place fuelled by heavy and light industries and tourism – employment is high – cars are new and many families own city and lakeside homes.  My ipad count so far (in about 7 hours) stands at 3.

My guide is Ivan, from Irkutsk– he tells me he has made the train journey from Moscow-Irkutsk some 30 or 40 times as a tourist guide.  “The biggest problem is Australians,” he says, “they drink too much beer and then get off the train in the middle of nowhere.” – yep, like Earls Court.

I ask if it is possible to walk on the frozen lake – he laughs and takes me to an area where the local youth have marked out a racetrack on the ice and are racing BMW 4x4s.  There is an official ‘ice road’ that provides a short cut across the lake and this is tested regularly for thickness and safety, however most people don’t bother with this and in the months when it is frozen they take the shortest direct route from one side to the other.  When I ask what time of the year people stop driving on the lake he says, straight faced, that there is no fixed date but it continues until somebody’s car goes through the ice – then they stop.

He also tells me that the crustaceans that live in the water are so efficient at clearing up organic debris that if anyone does disappear in the lake there is almost no point looking for them after the first few hours as there will be nothing left.  Then, without any hint of irony, he recommends I try the freshwater shrimp while I am here.

We pay a brief visit to the old state-owned ‘Tourist Hotel’ (now closed) which, in Soviet times would have been the only sanctioned place for tourists to stay.  Furthermore they would not have been allowed out of the hotel grounds and would only be driven there via a prescribed route on which all the buildings were freshly painted.

The Lake Baikal Research Institute was well funded by the Soviets and has amassed a huge wealth of knowledge about the wildlife, geography and geology and natural history of the region.  It also led a number of ecological campaigns to stop pollution and preserve the vast number of unique species that live here.  Nowadays the institute struggles to receive funding in a free market economy and the future of many of its research projects is uncertain.

Like everywhere else they are having to make choices about where to make cuts but they are not quite clear what the impact will be – all of which feels a bit like driving on the ice until someone falls through.

9 Comments

  1. Carol says:

    Like the beard! you look like your Dad:)

  2. Kati says:

    Alarmed that your itinerary seems to end in Bejing. Are you actually planning on coming home?

  3. Gerry says:

    Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

  4. Allan says:

    Any more comments about the beard and I will definitely be staying in Beijing – particularly if I can find an Irish pub (there must be one)

  5. LYNDA SMITH says:

    AS I haven’t seen you for a long time I was amazed how much you look like your Dad. I read your blog with interest every day. Are you flying home or are you coming back on the train?

  6. Ryan Boroughs says:

    I thought you packed a razor? 432 visits! Ace!

  7. Technical Support (AKA Paul) says:

    Good isn’t it Ryan, that’s 432 visits, from 139 different people who between them viewed 1,504 pages.

  8. Carol says:

    Hope you are sure about the time zones now – I definitely do no want to hear from you at 4 am tomorrow morning!!

  9. Allan says:

    It was 4.30 you lazy mare and I’d been up for hours!

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