The paint was peeling or completely stripped by the relentless Siberian winds, exposing bare, weathered wooden siding and thick frames of shuttered and broken windows on the small low houses. Dirt kicked up from the gravel streets clung to everything. Stuck onto trees and shabby houses with the oily black smoke spewing from passing military trucks and Ladas; and burning plastic emanating from the chimneys of houses stretching haphazardly in every direction. We were lost, but hopeful we would find the makeshift minibus station soon.
At the edge of the potholed parking lot, leafless oak trees overhung a few odd vendors hawking beer and expired snacks out of tiny makeshift shacks constructed from salvaged boards and tin. A small collection of dilapidated yellow and white mini busses - some idling, some half torn apart, formed a ring around a group of fat Russian men shouting and waiving bits of paper in the air. Jonas and I conspicuously made our way into the thick cigarette smoke, unsure of how we would be received or if we could get a ride to where we wanted to go.
Immediately a few of the men rushed over yelling “Baikal, Baikal, Baikal!” - the only obvious place a couple of foreigners like us would be heading to in the area. Grabbing at our shoulders, one of the men pulled my backpack off and thrust it into one of the idling vans and it was settled, we were going with him.
Springs protruded from the torn back seat which we were hurriedly ushered into only to wait for 20 uncomfortable minutes while the bus filled to beyond maximum capacity. The rear door holding our backpacks was tied closed with a shoe string and our obviously intoxicated driver half fell into the drivers seat. He turned around and gruffly slurred something in Russian and peeled out of the parking lot, tires scraping the wheel wells as his vodka tainted breath hung in the air frigid air.
The van bounced down an icy road towards the low angle October sun at a reckless clip as diesel exhaust slowly filled the cabin forcing us to open windows for a few breaths of below freezing fresh air. We skidded from side to side as our driver, throwing caution to the wind, accelerated past anything in his path around blind corners and up steep hills. I was sure we would go careening like an errant rocket into the birch and alder forest at any moment, so I occupied my mind by watching the shoelace holding the rear doors closed, stretch to the point of breaking with every jolting pot hole we struck.
After a white knuckled hour we crested the final hill and descended into the sleepy town of Listvyanka. A bustling tourist hub in the summer, the town was now almost deserted with most shops closed and boarded up with the frigid temperatures of Siberian Autumn. None the less, we were excited to be alive and off the road, so to celebrate, we cracked the screw cap of an undistinguishable bottle of vodka and drank as we wandered around the small fish market in the centre of town. Every stall was the same - selling dried endemic omul, hanging in the last few rays of afternoon sun.
- October 2008