The Blue Heart of Siberia

PREVIOUSLY PUBLISHED 14 November 2011 as On The Road

Omsk, Russia

Standing outside a pseudo-Italian restaurant I waited for my guide to arrive. Drizzle was settling on my eye lashes and inside my bones. A man across the road stood staring, probably at my clear lack of preparation for Omsk weather. I lit a cigarette. Blowing grey smoke into a comparably grey sky, a man emerged.
‘У вас есть запасные сигарету? ‘, he asks.
‘Oh,’ I mumbled, my eyes hopelessly explaining I don’t speak Russian.
‘Oh,’ breaking into English, ‘do you have a cigarette?’ he repeats. I give him one. We exchange smiles and names.
‘Nice to meet you’, I say.
‘You’re a tourist?’ he enquires. I nod. He takes a long drag from his cigarette…
‘WHAT are you doing in SIBERIA?!’ he roars with laughter.
Standing outside a pseudo Italian restaurant in Omsk while rain soaked through my jacket, my choice of destination did seem absurd. When I had thought of Siberia previously, I imagined industrial snow and furry hats. What I didn’t anticipate was Siberia’s heart. You hear stories of tourists being duped by corruption, yet I never met any ill will. But the heart of Siberia is not just in people. It is also the clearest, deepest, most voluminous expanse of fresh water in the world. Practically a sea, sparkling like a sapphire, Lake Baikal is a lake even larger than some countries. Situated close to the western shore of Baikal is a small gem named Olkhon Island. It was on Olkhon that I discovered the heart of Siberia.Arriving with the setting sun after a turbulent drive over the countryside, I went to locate my bed. Gandering across the dirt track streets I met wandering cattle grazing freely between wooden houses. My host kindly led me to my room and introduced me to his family. Night fell quietly. Across the cloudless sky, a clamour of stars fought for space in the sky. I took a walk in the blinding dark, guided by bonfires that illuminated the cliff coast. I fumbled in my pockets to find I had forgotten my lighter. I stumbled over knolls, precariously close to the cliffs, towards the nearest camp.
‘Zdravstvuite’ I managed in imitation Russian.
‘Hello!’ replied a young man. ‘Come, come, sit with us!’ I was ushered into the circle and introduced to at least fifteen names, of which I can remember not a single one. Here sat a collection of Russians, Belarusians, Kazakhstanis, even a French woman. My host plied me with roasted sunflower seeds, hot tea (because ‘vodka and cigarettes are evil’, I learned.), sweet sunflower halva, dark chocolate, dried apricots, and glorious warmth. The lady to my left sat on the lap of her boyfriend. The fire crackled and as though on cue, she began to sing. Our circle fell silent to the tragic melody. It was an old folk song about Baikal, she told me later.

Few of the travellers in this group had met before the creation of the bonfire, nor would meet again. But for one night, in the blue heart of Siberia, we were family.

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