Travel December 2011

Siberian Paradise

At play in Russia’s “Sacred Sea”
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Stefan Volk/laif/Redux

One recent autumn evening, in the bosom of Siberia, I stood outside a modest log cabin perched on the shore of Lake Baikal and prepared to lose my clothes. The mercury hovered in the low 40s, and a chill, foreboding breeze kicked up off the lake. Aspens, Siberian firs, and yellowing birches cloaked the surrounding hills. My friend Sergey Bikkinaev and I leaned against the railing on the cabin’s front porch and peered, through the dusk, across an inlet of the world’s deepest lake.

From where we stood, at Lake Baikal’s southernmost end, the distance to the northern tip was roughly the same as the distance between Baltimore and Boston. Containing about a fifth of the world’s unfrozen fresh water, the banana-shaped lake covers a surface area bigger than Belgium—or any of about a hundred other nations. Not long ago, the film director James Cameron, taken with the lake’s scale and purity, explored it in a submarine. Sergey had apologized for not arranging a sub, vowing instead to help me discover the mystique above the water’s surface.

A few days earlier, Sergey had greeted me at the airport in Irkutsk, the gateway city for lake visitors. Irkutsk sits halfway between Moscow and the Aleutian Islands; I had crossed five time zones overnight on the red-eye flight from the capital. “Ah-lo, Nee-ko-las!” he hollered across the terminal.

Sergey is a 40-year-old yachtsman with tousled brown hair and a wide, if sheepish, smile. In the summer months, he runs boating trips for tourists (mostly Russian). In the winter months, he repairs the vessels and takes the odd construction job. He downplays the severity of the winters, but folks, this is Siberia: the season is long and raw. Sergey and his ilk are a hardy bunch. When the lake freezes over, around January, boats on the water are replaced by minivans that tear across thick ice with inner-tube riders in tow.

The locals refer to Lake Baikal as the “Sacred Sea.” Its shores are sparsely populated, but laden with sites considered hallowed by local shamans. Environmentalists fear that rapacious Russian businessmen are itching to transform the pristine wilderness into a Slavic Atlantic City, but development like that is a long, long way off. Although the shoreline is lengthy—unfurled into a straight line, it would stretch a distance comparable to that between Washington, D.C., and Dallas—it has only a few towns of any significance. In a region short on restaurants and clubs and cafés, nightlife—such that it is—revolves around the bathhouse, or banya. Saunas like these are a staple of Russian life, but on Lake Baikal, the banya is the primary attraction.

Sergey had promised me two things: a delightful evening of sweat, nudity, and beer; and a refreshing dip. He had in mind his cousin’s banya, which he boasted was the finest around. My initial thought, when we parked in front, was that the cabin looked innocuous and bucolic, like something made of Lincoln Logs. Smoke billowed from the chimney. The porch faced the lake, which spread out below, in the darkness, like a gigantic tub of blueberry juice. A wooden staircase led to the water’s edge and onto a short dock with a half-submerged ladder at the end.

Inside a kind of unheated antechamber, Sergey cracked open a beer for himself, one for me, and one for a fisherman friend of his, also named Sergey. He then told me to strip down. Sergey handed me a thin cotton loincloth to wrap around my waist, along with an ear-flapped wool cap that was emblazoned with a red star on the forehead. “I think you are the first American boy in this banya,” he said. Being a rookie, I was to get the full treatment. That meant sweating, cooling, sweating, and cooling again—with stints of masochism thrown in for fun.

We passed into a second, purgatory-like room and then quickly into a third chamber, called the parilka. Here, Sergey instructed me to lie flat, facedown, across a pine bench. He ladled scalding water onto a pile of rocks that covered a wood-fired stove, kicking up a nasty steam (the wool cap was to protect my ears and head from being burned). Then the lashing began.

Brandishing bouquets of eucalyptus and birch twigs, the Sergeys thrashed my back and legs. A crude aromatherapy, exfoliation, and massage wrapped into one, the experience was euphoric one moment and torturous the next. After five minutes, unable to stand the heat or the punishing twigs any longer, I jumped up and ran out the front door, onto the porch, down the stairs, to the end of the dock, and, in a single motion, untied the loincloth and leaped into the dark air. I formed a cannonball and clenched my teeth before splashing into the giant Siberian lake. My heart seized. After treading water for a second, I climbed the ladder in a frenzy and grabbed a towel. Then, like a junkie chasing his first high, I spent the next three hours repeating the process. Eventually, with my fingertips shriveled, my head light, and my body covered in eucalyptus leaves, I called it quits.

“What? We are just getting started,” Sergey scolded. But I was on the verge of passing out. It seemed Sergey was right after all. He had told me when I first arrived that a week in Siberia was long enough to study a Siberian man, but not long enough to make one. For that, I would have to come back—though maybe not until after the winter.

Nicholas Schmidle is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and was an International Reporting Project fellow in 2010.
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