Common Sense and Whiskey, the Book – Chapter One

Here is Chapter one of Common Sense and Whiskey, the book. We'll publish each chapter over the course of the summer. You can order the entire book direct from EarthPhotos Publishing, or at Amazon.com. The accompanying photos, and additional commentary are available at The Common Sense and Whiskey Companion.

 

1 LAKE BAIKAL, SIBERIA

Like always, the eastern shore of Lake Baikal, the Sacred Lake, the Pearl of Siberia, was shrouded in mist all the way up above the peaks. Out on the water, in the morning, the wind cast a determined late season chill.

The captain stood broad shouldered, square-faced and hale with a crew-cut and a Reebok jacket, and I liked him right away. Not a lick of English, but he made us coffee with water from a big painted teapot below decks and offered pelmini that we coveted but politely refused. Couldn't be sure we wouldn't be eating his own lunch.

Over the weekend the jetty at Listvyanka, a bedraggled tourist town on the lake, had been packed with trinket vendors and mongers of exotic Siberian fish like omul and grayling. On Monday morning it stood deserted except for a drunken bottle recycler and three or four ships' mates and dockhands, loitering around stale cigarette butts and discarded wrappers.

The new week crept up in autumnal dampness, the clouds in stratified layers. Surveying the dock and our little ship, the Poruchik, the Gilligan's Island theme edged into my head. Ours was a four-hour tour – a simple west to east crossing of one of the world’s great lakes.

The Poruchik, white, blue and red tricolor flapping above, was a diesel-burning forty-foot cruiser with two cabins below decks and a separate galley and mess. Must have started life as a fishing boat before they'd retrofitted it for charters, with benches, tables and chairs, and there were liqueurs and vodka and a TV below.

Pine forest stretched around rocky outcrops up the hills along shore. An hour after the Poruchik set sail, we came alongside a settlement called Bolshoi Koti, the last, tenuous human imprint, and then, north for miles of lakeshore, lonely primeval forest reigned.

For some time the Poruchik aimed for a promontory that wasn’t on my map, and then swung hard to starboard for the crossing. A low blanket of gray from the west, from Irkutsk, replaced the sunshine of the last few days.

There were arrangements for later. Someone from Ulan Ude "will meet you at Kluevka (a place you are going to). This is definitely." Made it seem like the Russian Autonomous Republic of Buryatia was a foreign country, not simply the other side of the lake. And who knew, maybe it would be.

The temperature plunged when we swung away from the protection of shore and into open water, and after an hour and forty minutes, the mountains of the Ardaban Range on the far side of Baikal loomed tantalizingly close, breaking above the clouds.

Back home, imagining exotic Siberia, I naively thought it would be fun to "get out on the lake," like it would be fun to have a nice piece of candy. But out in its gray middle, Baikal slapped me humble, tossing and pounding the Poruchik to grab our attention and insist that it's a mighty inland sea. Finally, all you could do onboard was just hold on.

We ate a lunch of bread, tomatoes, sausage, cheese and onion down below, and wished we hadn't. We went out for air. When I went back down to clean up, bottles, plates and chairs littered the floor.

Eventually we made the eastern shore, and found our way into Ulan Ude with just enough time to walk to the parliament square before dark. Kids giggled at a massive Lenin head there. ("It looks really funny with snow on top.")

The hotel still employed Soviet-era floor ladies, whose job it was to mind your business. Ours drolly noted our extraordinary good fortune. Because of “environmental conference” with “important delegates” (the lobby buzzed with them), they’d turned on the hot water.

So, a day at an old Soviet hotel in Ulan Ude and a quick trip out to a Buddhist monastery. Tomorrow we’d climb onto a train to Mongolia. We’d been on the road for days. Just needed a little rest. We were battered and a little worn as we slumped into chairs after dinner and tuned in the ten o'clock news.

There was a sports report. It was interrupted by curious pictures we didn't quite understand – it was all in Russian, of course – and then sports returned. Minutes later they interrupted the sports again to show pictures of the second plane slamming into the World Trade Center.

•••••

 

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