Baikal freshens up road-weary Maine cyclists

Posted July 24, 2009, at 8:55 p.m.

Editor’s note: Sedgwick native Levi Bridges and friend Ellery Althaus of North Truro, Mass., have embarked on a 10,000-mile cycling trip across Asia and Europe. Bridges is filing weekly updates for the BDN.

For six weeks, we have ridden through rugged mountains across eastern Siberia and the details which dapple the landscape here are now quite familiar. A hawk soaring above me or large rivers winding through the wilderness are common sights. I spot the first sign of changing geography one afternoon. It appears in the form of a seagull flapping its wings.

When attempting to ride a bicycle across an entire continent, the sight of a major body of water is the sign of progress. I have greatly anticipated the moment when we will reach Lake Baikal, the world’s largest freshwater lake. From the Sea of Japan, we have cycled nearly 2,400 miles across Russia to get there. The sea gull’s presence confirms that this important landmark is now only miles away.

Baikal is the oldest lake in the world, resting in a rift valley formed by the divergence of two tectonic plates 25 million years ago. More than 300 hundred rivers and streams feed Baikal, filling a giant basin which is more than a mile deep and contains 20 percent of the world’s unfrozen fresh water. On a map, Baikal looks like a skinny crescent moon carved into the center of northern Asia. Gazing at this image in a world atlas invariably inspires an alluring sense of intrigue.

We near Baikal on a sweltering afternoon, cycling over numerous bridges built over clear mountain streams flowing northward into the lake. Each one gives me that same anxious feeling of imminent discovery one has while playing hide and seek as a child, when you have searched everywhere and the remaining places your opponent could be are few.

While riding along, I do a double-take as I casually glance at a small Siberian village to the right and see that a small road between simple log cabins leads to a great expanse of periwinkle water glimmering in the sun instead of deep green forests. Smiling and excited, I triumphantly push the pedals onwards to the small town of Babushkin, where we plan to camp by the beach tonight.

The stifling heat of a summer afternoon in Siberia challenges the chilly images one associates with central Russia. Entering Babushkin, I pass typical Siberian homes painted in vibrant blues, greens, and, sometimes even oranges and yellows. By their sides, little boys, barefoot and shirtless, chests deeply bronzed by the summer sun, scamper down dusty dirt roads carrying fishing poles toward the blue water. A cool breeze rustles the green leaves in the trees along the roadside.

I momentarily feel like I am back in the dinghy Caribbean coastal towns I visited while traveling in Venezuela a year ago. When we enter Babushkin’s only cafe, I almost must restrain myself from saying the typical Spanish greeting “buenas tardes” to the waitress. Instead, I utter the harsh sounding “zdrastvootye” the Russian word for hello.

When I stepped foot in this country last winter and began studying Russian, some of the first words I learned were cold, snow, and scarf. Those words are useless now. In the cafe, Ellery and I consult our Russian-English dictionary to formulate a question, which I once never imagined asking in Russian.

“Can you tell us where the beach is?” we ask the waitress almost laughing.

Babushkin is tucked between towering mountains rolling into the lake. We cycle down a dirt road to the shore where men fish in small dinghies bobbing on the water. From here, you can see dramatic mountains which ring the lake’s opposite side. Baikal is the deepest lake in the word, but its immensity can be deceiving. Although it contains more fresh water than all of the American Great Lakes combined, its surface area is smaller than Lake Superior.

Baikal makes me feel like I’ve returned home. Smooth, gray rocks, each about the size of a small turtle shell, cover the shore and lead to freezing cold water. A sense of familiarity overtakes me here; it seems like I have been whisked halfway around the world to the rocky Maine coast I grew up near.

Riding to the beach’s end, an amiable man runs to the road and welcomes us.

“Are you the Americans riding bicycles across Russia?” he asks.

The smiling stranger is named Alex, a Russian from St. Petersburg. He saw us on national television when we started our trip in Vladivostok, Russia, almost three months ago and recognized us.

“My wife and I took a trip to the Russian Far East to visit family and now we are driving home across Russia,” he says, adding that he’s happy he has seen us on the road home.

Today is Alex’s birthday, and he invites us to a celebratory picnic with his wife Tanya. Russians are expert picnickers and the spread of olives, cucumbers, cheeses, and meats which Tanya has set out on a blanket upon the beach is no exception. Among the typical fare. Tanya slices an Omul, a fish found only in Baikal related to salmon. Fish is a significant part of Russian cuisine, and Omul is raved about all over the country. Tanya hands me a piece of the smoked fish, and, as soon as I place it in my mouth, I understand what the fuss is about.

“Eta ochen, ochen vakoosna!” I say uncontrollably. “It’s really, really good!”

Baikal’s age and isolation have produced some of the most diverse freshwater species on earth; the lake contains more than 2,000 different types of plants and animals, 1,200 of which are only found here. Among the more exotic Baikal residents are the Baikal oil fish, a translucent deep water fish which melts into a pool of bones and oil when exposed to sunlight, and, the Nerpa, freshwater seals.

We dine with our new friends under a sunset that lasts for hours. During early summer in the northern hemisphere, there are only several hours of complete darkness each night. The orange light of dusk glows in the sky until nearly midnight. The beauty and longevity of the setting sun is the key ingredient that makes Russian picnics so special.

We stay up well into the night picnicking, exchanging stories from the road, laughing, and making toasts to our new friendship with the older couple. Finally, Alex proposes that we go for a dip in the chilly lake. Baikal is frozen for so much of the year that the water remains extremely cold. A brief splash in the water can make your extremities begin to go numb. We all jump in and then run out. Tanya stays in the longest.

“I worked as a stewardess when I was a young woman,” she says emerging from the water at last, “and we often flew over Baikal. I have seen this lake many times, but tonight is my first time actually swimming in it.”

Each of us has waited a long time to arrive at this unique spot. I feel so lucky to be here in such good company.

“It was my dream to meet you,” Alex tells us before we go to sleep. “This has been my best birthday ever.”

I look at the rocky coast from my tent one more time before turning in. It uncannily resembles my far-off home. Baikal is a very special place, I think, but making new friends can be more poignant than absorbing the details of the landscape.

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