Building Trails, or Trying To, In Baikal, Siberia
Story and Photos by Joshua K. Hartshorne
The first trail at Lake Baikal in Siberia was built by inmates of Stalin’s GULAG prison system. Despite the best efforts of local bureaucrats, my experience in June of 2004 compared favorably – despite the fact that our project was hijacked, we had an armed minder, our food shipment disappeared and we were marooned.
I joined the Great Baikal Trail Association as a volunteer the previous November. After a long Siberian winter spent preparing what was to be the association’s second field season, I was excited to see an actual project.
The GBT is a proposed thousand-mile (1600 km) network of trails that will finally make one of the world’s few remaining pristine natural wonders available to foot traffic, hopefully taking some of the pressure off the government to built roads.
We, seventeen crew leaders and volunteers, had just finished loading onto our bus at the remote village of Severobaikalsk, ready to head to the more remote “Kholodnoye region” to begin our project, when the Severobaikalsk Department of Tourism rang, demanding we divert to plant trees on Yarki Island instead. When our local coordinator balked, he was told, “Do it, or you will never work in the Severobaikalsk region again.”
However, by the time we had reached the shipyards in Nizhny Angarsk (half an hour north of Severobaikalsk) the itinerary had changed again. The Tourism Director, soon known by the descriptive epithet of “Goldteeth,” arrived, redirecting us again to improve an existing trail on the opposite side of the world’s largest lake, after which we would go to Yarki Island to plant trees.
Goldteeth, along with a ranger armed with four dogs and a taped-together shotgun, would be accompanying us.
The Crazy Russian Work Ethic
It was night by the time we had camp pitched at our new, unexpected but admittedly beautiful location. The crew leader, Zhenya, called a meeting to explain our work schedule: 9 to 5 or 6, with breakfast at 8.
Goldteeth broke in. “The trail is long,” he said. “We need to clear several kilometers a day. It doesn’t get dark until 11. Why should we stop working before that?”
It took some doing for Robin, the senior crew leader, to convince him that despite the fact he had all the shotguns, volunteers weren’t going to work 14-hour days.
Robin felt Goldteeth’s 14-hour motives were not necessarily sinister. “Russians have a crazy work ethic,” she confided to me. I was surprised. My experience was that Russian’s abysmal salaries were commensurate with their work habits, but I had only spent winters in Russia.
We concluded that Russians work from dawn to dusk. In the winter, there is no dawn, and in the summer there is no dusk.
When we awoke the next morning, Goldteeth was gone with the boat that brought us. Volodya, the army-fatigued taped-shotgun-toting ranger was still there. We set to work on the trail.
Sweat and Ice
Work was hard. Trees and shrubs needed be cleared and the trail bed leveled. Most of it ran through taiga – Russian forest – but in places there were tundra-like clearings, where the ground-covering moss was so deep we finally despaired of digging through it to reach dirt.
The first thing that happened after our first day of trail building was that two of the German volunteers took off their clothes and dived into Baikal. One of the more adventurous swam out to one of the small icebergs still floating in the bay (in June!) and climbed on top of it.
A Russian woman by the name of Sveta had her swimsuit on and was heading to the water when she abruptly turned around and headed back. “They’re not wearing any clothes!” she exclaimed. “Make them put their clothes on so I can bathe!”
Robin just laughed. “You want an international project – that’s what happens.”
“The Europeans get naked,” someone piped in.
The Food Starts Running Out
Not having expected to be quite so far from civilization, we didn’t bring a full supply of food with us. Goldteeth had promised to send more provisions by boat in a few days. We waited. Nothing came.
We later learned that the men hired to bring the provisions over by motorboat had been unable to do so due to high waves. They never thought to tell anyone at the base that they hadn’t delivered the food, nor did they try to bring it later.
When we were dropped off at the beach at the foothills of the Barguzin Mountains, we were told a ship would come to pick us up after lunch on the 22nd. That morning, we packed up our gear and our tents and sat down on the beach to wait. The Germans skinny-dipped. A few of us played cards.
We saw nothing on the water – not our boat, nor anyone else’s. Northern Baikal is sparsely populated, and June is still early in the season.
We pitched our tents. A few of the Russians and I played guitar.
The Ghost Ship
The next morning Baikal was covered in fog. The restless crew leaders sent us to the woods for a morning of work on the trail. There wasn’t much to do, though, since we’d run out of gas for the chainsaws; our planned project hadn’t really called for them.
When we came back to camp for lunch, a ship passed in the heavy fog. At first we thought it was our ship, but then the sounds got farther and farther away.
An hour or two later, as we napped on the beach, we heard the ship approach again. Soon it was visible. It was our ship. They had been told to come on the 23rd. The source of this confusion remains shrouded, as it were, in fog.
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