07 October 2009
Lake Baikal - Perfection
Our $3 public bus careens down a ride straddled on both sides by pine, aspen and cedar trees. It is fall and the leaves are changing in a brilliant display of how beautiful nature can be. I’ve hoisted my pack on my lap to make room for a man and his baby. He opts to stand instead, probably fearing the damage my bag might do should it roll off of my lap and into his child.
Andy and Charlotte have joined Matt and I for this part of the adventure - a two-day, one-night stint in Lystvianka alongside Lake Baikal - the world’s largest freshwater lake. The entire thing is drinkable (it tastes delicious) and has enough fresh water to quench the thirst of every person on earth for FORTY YEARS. It is on average 30 miles wide and nearly 400 miles long, surrounded by tiny villages and the largest forest on earth. Called the Taiga, the forest itself is three times the size of the Amazon and LARGER THAN THE CONTINENTAL UNITED STATES. Who knew Russia was so awesome?
After checking into our chalet nestled up on a hill overlooking the lake, the four of us spent the afternoon taking in the splendor and building up for our big swim. The most mesmerizing views came from atop a random ski lift we stumbled upon at the top of the mountain. Orange, read and yellow trees flowed seamlessly into brilliant blue water, ending abruptly at snow-capped mountains lining the opposite shore. It was otherworldly.
By now, evening was fast approaching. Charlotte, Matt and I decided it was time to “man up” (Andy was not so inclined, but offered to video and take photos). Our guide book told us of an ancient myth that swimming in Baikal adds 25 years to your life and hey, who couldn’t do with a few extra annums? We had asked our waitress at lunch where a good swimming spot might be and all she would say is “niet.” Too cold for even the Russians, apparently. Hogwash!
Moseying down to our own spot of choice, we ran into some Russians who had just emerged from the sea. They were enthralled. The three of us ditched our clothes in favor of swimsuits and - on the count of three - waded in together. Having a slight Channel-training advantage, the 9-degree water (47 degrees Fahrenheit) was still intense but not deathly.
A few strokes out I turned to find Matt screaming incessantly while heading to shore. Charlotte was only ankle-deep. “Come on,” I shouted. “25 years!” In the end we all made it in and have both a photo and video to prove our 70-second ordeal actually happened. In fact, on our second day we took a boat cruise on the lake and went swimming again - this time diving right off the boat (I’ll post video when I can).
Post-swim, feeling energized and rejuvenated, we returned to our lunchtime cafe to show the waitress our video. She smile broadly and began to laugh before returning to her more traditional, seriously serious demeanor. Then, mid meal, something happened. She came over to the table, pointed to me and said “Actor? Lost?” She was convinced that I was Matthew Fox! Matt burst into laughter and I said to her in Russian, “sorry, no.” She went back to the bar and spent the remainder of our meal looking over at me and smiling. After we’d paid the bill she produced a camera, pointed to me and said “picture?”
I obliged and just like that, the rumor began to spread through all of Siberia that Matthew Fox went swimming in Lake Baikal. Russia is SO FUNNY!