Monday, October 24, 2011

Back to Siberia: 3 days in Irkutsk and Lake Baikal

On the morning of our 4th day aboard the Trans-Siberian train, we arrived in the city of Irkutsk. This is a major city by siberian standards, but we weren't much interested in the city itself. We had chosen to stop in Irkutsk so that we could see Lake Baikal. (see map)

Baikal is the world's deepest lake, and holds 20% of the planet's fresh water. There are all sorts of statistics that you hear when you read up on Baikal, but the most surprising to me was this: there is enough water in Lake Baikal alone to support all the people on earth for the next 50 years. It's also home to the world's only species of fresh-water seal. Kind of surprising to think that most of us never learned about this place in school.

It took us about 6.5 hours to get from the city of Irkutsk to our final destination: a homestay in the tiny town of Khuzhir on Olkhon Island (an island in the middle of the lake).

We had to take a ferry to get there:

Our "homestay" actually turned out to be something more akin to a Bed & Breakfast. There was a small main house (where the owner and her family lived), a separate building with about 4 rooms (that's where we stayed), and a kitchen / dining room area.

It was a very comfortable place to stay, except for one convenience that was very conspicuously absent: indoor plumbing. Showers were creatively handled through a home-made gravity-fed camp-style shower (with water heated by the sunshine). Other bathroom issues, however, were solved in a more traditional way: outhouses. After only two nights in Siberia, Emily has decided that flush toilets are the most important invention of human history. Here's a look at the long walk from our room to the outhouse (imagine doing this during the legendary Siberian winters):

The town of Khuzhir (like pretty much everywhere on Olkhon Island) is right on the shore of the lake. During our stay, we took several long walks through the town and down to the small beach nearby. Emily remarked that walking through the town was like stepping back in time to the days of the Wild West.
All of the houses in the town were made of wood, and although they were mostly unpainted, their owners found a very unique way of expressing their creativity: their windows. Some were cut into pretty patterns (above) and some were painted with bright colors.
The charm of Siberian villages seems to be best expressed in their windows...or maybe in their advertisements (I'm guessing the circus was coming to town?)

On our second day on the island, we took a Four-Wheel-Drive tour of the island. (below is the sturdy Russian van that we rode in. The driver was very proud of his van and proclaimed that he would not part with it for less than 10,000 Euros).

Olkhon Island is about 70km long, but it takes quite awhile to traverse (owing to the primitive state of the roads). We spent all day driving from one lookout point to another, and got some great pictures along the way:

We stopped a number of times throughout the day to take little hikes along the clifftops:

You might have noticed the colorful rags tied to trees in some of these photos. Those rags are indicative of the spiritual importance assigned to those trees by the local "Buryat" people of Lake Baikal. They follow a traditional Shamanistic religion, which assigns spiritual powers to major landmarks (trees, cliffs, etc). Here's the tree at the "Shaman Rocks" in our town of Khuzhir:We found Olkhon Island to be quite varied in its terrain. There were patches of pine forest, wide open grassy areas (that had supported vast herds of sheep during Soviet times), and beautiful cliff-top lookouts from which we saw breathtaking views of the lake. In one of the grassy areas, we found some very unusual (and tiny) wildflowers:
Around noon, we stopped at a beautiful little meadow for lunch. Our driver hopped out of the van and told us to come back in an hour to eat. When we got back to the van, he had laid out a full lunch: salad, crusty bread with butter, and hot fish soup. It was surprisingly good:
When we returned from the day's driving tour, we had another surprise waiting. "Olga" (the owner of our "B&B") had prepared a "Banya" for us. For those of you unfamiliar with Siberian traditions, a Banya is a Siberian version of a sauna. Here's Emily's explanation of the process:

We only stayed in the Banya for about 20 minutes. It's an exhausting process of ducking in and out of a sweltering-hot room and repeatedly dousing yourself with icy water from the well. The local family looked disapprovingly at us when we emerged so quickly from the Banya (we noticed that they tended to stay in there for about an hour every night)

We then took another walk through the town, back down to the shore of the lake.
The local Shamanistic traditions assign varying levels of good luck to different places around the island. However, the highest level of luck is reserved for the lake itself. We were told that if you immerse yourself completely in the icy waters of Lake Baikal (it's only a few degrees above freezing, even in the summer), you can add 7 or more years to your life. I (Brad) decided to give it a go:

I felt more like 7 years had been taken off my life, but it was certainly an invigorating experience.

The next morning, we made the 6 hour drive back to Irkutsk (above is a photo of the road to Irkutsk). Early the next morning we were back on the train (a Chinese train this time) and headed for our next stop: Mongolia.
It was much more basic than the modern Russian train we'd taken from Moscow to Irkutsk. As we were now turning south (off the "official" Trans-Siberian line), we were no longer using electric trains. Here's a video of the engine-changing process just before we crossed into Mongolia:

It was a very sweaty 24 hours. We had a lovely little cabin (with a private bathroom!), but it was not air-conditioned (as the engine apparently couldn't provide enough electricity to run the A/C).
The temperatures hovered around 38 Celsius (that's about 100 farenheit), and we spent most of the day either sweating in our cabin or sitting at border posts waiting (and sweating) for customs officials to inspect our train with a fine tooth comb.

The next morning, we awoke to see Mongolian "Gers" (yurts) in the distance. It was a much different experience than Siberia and we'll write all about it in a week or so. In the mean time, feel free to comment. If you need a topic for comment, consider "translating" that advertisement we saw in the village of Khuzhir (what do you think that cross-dressing chimpanzee was trying to sell?)

Friday, October 21, 2011

Around the house

We have had a fun October here in Hong Kong. The fall weather has finally come and we are enjoying it immensely; especially eating every dinner on the roof. Brad's guavas have finally ripened and he is enjoying eating fruit off our balcony.

Brad bought me a rocker/recliner at IKEA (drastically on sale), which I LOVE. It makes our small living room a little squished but totally worth it. Rudy thinks that the chair was bought for him, but thankfully he is small and there is still space for me, baby bump and Rudy.

Our baby and my belly have grown a lot in the past couple weeks. I feel great and eating all the time. If Brad keeps up eating with me, he is going to gain a little baby weight too :-)

Pregnancy highlights the past two weeks include:
* getting a seat at the crowded bank because I am pregnant.

*getting my first promotional packet of "mommy milk" powder. Side note: people in HK love formulas and it is marketed to people of all ages....needless to say it sounds gross and I returned the "free gift" to the lady at the grocery store. She was appalled.

* feeling the baby move, and boy do we have an active little person.

* a 6th grader asking me if I was pregnant or "just getting fat" :-)

Friday, October 7, 2011

16 weeks pregnant

Cooler weather has come to Hong Kong and we are loving it! It has been especially nice to sit up on our roof garden. Rudy loves to play fetch (although it is more like him and Brad playing soccer) and run around in the open space. We feel very blessed with our new flat! I thought you would all like to see some pictures of all the plants that Brad has bought, although he feels like he still would like to buy more to create more of a "jungle" feel.

Rudy ready to pounce on the ball

Rudy waiting patiently (focused on the ball in Brad's hand)

Here are some 16 week belly pictures. I'm feeling very good and have an appetite finally! It has been fun to actually start showing and hopefully I can feel this baby move very soon. I have started telling my students I'm pregnant and I have had some funny responses. One girl wanted to know if I had started buying socks for the baby. I guess that is an important part of preparing for a baby here in Hong Kong :-) We can't wait for our Dr. appointment in November when we find out if we are having a girl or a boy and get to see our little jelly bean on the ultrasound again.