Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Lakes east and west

Following my last update, this is what occurred:

I stumbled from the darkened internet cafe in Taishet following a rather large and excellent dinner. Their names reminded me of the old joke; did you ever meet Volga or Nastya? They were two girls from Siberia (and these are actual names). Once you got to know them, Nastya was actually rather vulgar, though Volga was nastier than Nastya. I could go on...

I sat in the waiting room and waited for it to get dark so I could go outside and look for Venus (easy), Saturn, and Mars, all of which are in a line. Unfortunately at this latitude and time of year, it never gets dark, so I have to rely on 'Thunderf00t' on youtube for important information. Outside the temperature fell to 16 degrees as freight trains rattled past, mosquitos buzzed around, and a TV blared a Russian dubbed version of 'The Island' (the crappy 1980 horror film, not the one with Scarlett Johansen). Eventually (4am, as scheduled) the train turned up and I found my berth, made the bed, and fell asleep. This time the obligatory corpulent woman apparently drank coke and something serious in her sleep, and was probably incontinent, judging by the smell. Usually the platzcart carriages take a few days to really stink, but this one had only come from Krasnoyarsk, about 9 hours away (I think).

No matter, I was too tired, and slept well. Woke up in the morning, made some breakfast (biscuits and chocolate), and about midday arrived in Bratsk. I had some difficulty contacting the couchsurfer there, so I bought a ticket that evening, and walked out (with my bag) and caught a bus towards the suburb of Energetik (hard g) and the dam. I went too far, but caught a bus back, getting twice the view. Once again, I walked back to the spillway, which is at least 100m high, maybe much higher. It was difficult to judge. The Bratsk sea itself is hundreds of km long. I crossed the road, dodging broken glass in my chinese sandals, and made my way down to the beach. Tiny dogs are very popular in Bratsk, and there were a few at the beach. Also, it seems, topless sunbathing has at least a few adherents, but again, not enough to make me homesick! Some way further down the beach, I was savaged by a dog that was about 10 inches long (tickled a bit), and as I was walking past 5 schoolgirls, finally someone said hi. Normally I only speak Russian on trains (captive audience) or to ask questions, but these girls were quite chatty, and with minimal dictionary work we chatted for about half an hour. The thing I found most difficult to understand (linguistically, at any rate) was their supposition that I looked like an actor. I thought not, but was flattered. Later, they asked if I liked twilight (pronounced doalit in Russian) and when I said 'my sister does', they then made the connection. They had thought (presumably from a great distance) that I was Robert Pattinson. I don't know if that's a win or an FML? I skimmed a few obligatory rocks, then turned back towards the buildings.

I wandered through the city between large prefabricated Russian apartments (fitted together like Lego) and eventually a technition explained that I was using the wrong number for phones on a different provider, etc etc etc. I fixed some numbers and got in touch with the couchsurfer Dasha, who it turns out, lived in central Bratsk, about 30 minutes away. No problem, I was an old hand at Bratsk marshrutka's (private buses licensed for public routes and cheap!!!). Soon we met. Dasha thought that I needed more walking in 35 degree heat carrying my backpack, so I got a tour of a new (50 year old) designed industrial town complex carved from the taiga, seeing many monuments, fountains, and other fancy stuff, and occasionally finding some shade to rest in. If I hadn't been covered in the grime of 3 trains, I would probably be very badly sunburnt. Also, I had cleaned up a bit, even shaving on the train with hot water from the boiler and a mirror made from an old hard-drive. So ghetto. Like when I sewed up my jeans, the provodnitsa was slightly bewildered, but also impressed.

Soon enough time expired and I made my way back to Padunski Perogi station. The marshrutka driver stopped, said the name of the station and vaguely pointed in the right direction. Having previously remembered the location of the station with respect to a timber mill and its two distinctive smoke stacks, I was okay. All I had to do was cross about 12 sets of tracks in the shunting yard then walk about a k down the line to the station. Lucky trains only leave 10 times a day! There was plenty of room to dodge as well. Once at the station I charged my phone, bought a rather uninspiring packet of Lays chips, and waited for the train. This time I was in berth 44, which is a short one next to a window across the corridor. Opposite me was a family of Uzbeks from Tajikstan, the father of whom works in textiles in Tynda. He and his wife, though of normal height, were rather slender - they slept side by side in a single berth without falling out.

Next morning I woke in time to stick my head out the window as the train wound up between very tall mountains, forest, and rivers, and then down towards Lake Baikal. As an engineering achievement, the BAM is on par with the English Channel Tunnel (maybe even better), and involves hundreds of tunnels, passes, river crossings, building on permafrost, etc etc. Finished just before Perestroika, it will probably not reach full utility for some time. Today I saw a slogan on a railway building shed in Severobaikalsk which said something like 'BAM, the building is each our biographies', probably with a connotation of immortality and legacy as well. Most of the people who live in the area now came here to build the railway, and have stayed despite the lack of work since. Different sections were built by different ethnic groups, many from central Asia, so each station has its own special architecture, normally in a fairly heroic style. Severobaikalsk station resembles a breaking wave.

I arrived, met the couchsurfer (and his charming girlfriend), and went back to their place. I took a shower (oh sweet relief), washed some clothes, etc. There was enough hot water to lather my hair, but not quite enough to rinse. Fortunately, I'm very tough. I went to the shops and bought ingredients for the usual dinner, which I cooked that evening to universal acclaim. Somewhere in between I talked my way into a kiddies music school (currently on holidays), located a grand piano and played as much as I could remember (alas not much), the first piano since Beijing (and that wasn't much good). There was enough for me to have fourths! In the meantime, however, we took a quick trip to the beach, where I skimmed rocks. This was besides the point, however, as I was standing knee deep in the largest, deepest, oldest, etc body of fresh water in the world. The sky merged with the surface of the water, right down to my ankles. Visible on the opposite shore was a chain of large mountains, easily 60kms away, but clear as day, seemingly floating in space. At that height, the horizon should be about 10km away, but the opposite shore was visible. Today, I crunched the numbers for this, but more later. The beach was lovely, and the outlook spectacular. Okay, so I haven't seen an ocean in over a month (today marks 32 days on the road), but still. Did I mention the water was mirror smooth, until I started throwing rocks in. One rock got 15 skips, but my technique has been a bit off ever since Lake St Clair in Tasmania last January. If it was ever on.

That evening we talked until 1am, and exhausted, fell into sleep. I slept on the floor (as usual), but this lino was the hardest yet. Did I mention that cooking was a challenge because the kitchen is rather under equipped - just one spoon, knife, and fork! This morning we awoke at about 10am (when travelling, every night is a Friday, every day is a Saturday), and I cooked a breakfast of omelette with 7 eggs, every spice in the kitchen, and saltanas. We left, I bought mobile credit, then found the cultural palace, in which I hoped to find a piano. No luck, but I found a large greenhouse (winter garden) with a wide variety of unlikely plants to find in a town only 30 years old in the middle of Asia, like American cactuses and banana palms and stuff. Also, the BAM museum had relocated to the same building and I recieved an incomprehensible tour regarding tunnel building, propaganda, lake baikal ecology and geography, and no mention of lives lost on the endeavour.

After this I took a marshrutka to the nearby town of Nizhneangarsk (which means bottom of the Angara). This is odd, as it's at the point where the angara flows into Baikal, later it continues via Irkutsk to the Yenisey, and thence to the Arctic ocean, part of the fifth longest river in the world. This town was planned as a middle point of the railway, so that it could be built in both directions without waiting for the link from Bratsk. To this end, a large port was built and several large buildings started. In a good example of an epic fail, the railway line arrived at the port from Bratsk as the port was finished, and the large prefab lego concrete buildings began sinking into the marshy delta almost immediately. I found the hospital building, abandoned in 1993 after it sank too deep in the marsh. I had a wander through the ruined vandalised building. It seems it functioned also as a tuberculosis sanatorium. Following the closure of the hospital, it moved to the hotel, and as I thus had nowhere to stay, I had to find a bus back to Severobaikalsk. The bus to Nizhneangarsk was memorable for the fantastic view and there being at least 10 emergency exits in a bus with only 8 rows of seats. The bus back (after a few hours of trying to find it) was memorable for a woman sitting at the back with a black and almost entirely hairless (except for whiskers and ends of ears) tiny dog. Wow.

Arriving back in Severobaikalsk, I bought some juice to recharge water and sugar, chilled for a while (reading my dictionary for kicks - only word I don't know so far (in English) is plaice. I know what it is now...). I walked to the beach, skimmed some rocks, sat and watched the lake. It occured to me then, about the crazy effect of the other shore being visible. What happens is that cold air near the surface of the lake is denser and has a greater refractive index, bending the light in accordance with the curvature of the earth. A back-of-the-envelope calculation is quite easy. The path length difference is directly proportional to the ratio of the respective radii. That is, for light at the surface and one metre higher, the path length ratio is 1/6000km, or one part in 6 million. The refractive index of air (according to Wolfram Alpha) at 23 degrees is 1.00026543 and at 24 degrees is 1.00026451. The difference is about 1 part in a million. Thus to achieve the required degree of curvature, so that the ground appears flat and the horizon at infinity, the temperature lapse rate should be 1/6th of degree per metre, or 600 degrees per km. The natural lapse rate, due to adiabatic expansion in tropospheric convection cells, is about 10 degrees/km, but if the earth's atmosphere were just a bit different, maybe the world really would look flat. Of course, near the surface of the lake, this lapse rate is more than achievable, and is responsible for, in effect, a reverse mirage occuring. In antarctica, the effect is well known, and if objects are on the ice for reference, the ground sometimes appears to curve upwards like a giant bowl. Distant ocean far beyond the natural horizon sometimes appears in the sky, often greatly distorted. Back to Baikal - with this in mind, I used wind ripples on the surface from a good vantage point nearby - the surface of the lake really does appear convex, and as the lapse rate is not perfect nor uniform, multiple images of the beach on the opposite shore exist at different heights and in different directions. My brain hurts.

Yura (CSer) reappeared and began to cook dinner. 3 hours later I think it is nearly ready. Tomorrow I will catch a train to Novaya Chara and explore the area between the Kodar mountains. Unfortunately the Akulan gulag is beyond my public transport capabilities to reach, so I'll have to track one down later in Kolyma. There are abandoned cities there which once had 20000 people (or 15 large soviet blocks, a bus station, a mine, and wooden temporary housing), I look forward to finding them. Likewise, I'll take a hydrofoil up the Aldan river.

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