26 year old Canadian, Dutch resident travelling to every country in the world (111 so far) to become the first Canadian female to visit them all. Bestselling travel AUTHOR and founder of popular #TRLT Twitter chat.
A sudden nudge in my side jolted me awake as a rough, heavily accented voice shouted, “Passport! Passport!”
My mom and my two siblings, Ammon and Bree, began digging in their daypacks while he glared at them disdainfully.
I was grateful when Ammon, my eldest brother and our designated leader, reached out to deliver his passport to the guard towering over me.
“They look like they came right out of a movie,” Bree, my older sister and the dreamer in the family, announced. “Cool!”
I knew they were a hundred percent legit, but these guys could have scared me into believing my name wasn’t Savannah.
Even the small plastic vase filled with artificial yellow and white flowers made me feel spoiled.
We’d miraculously managed to compress our entire five-thousand-square-foot-home lives into a small storage unit….
….and four sixty-litre backpacks, move out of our rented house, and fly off to Hong Kong.
Chapter #2 “Making Headway”
“It sure is different,” Mom commented as we gawked through the glass. What an understatement that was! I felt like I was witnessing a miracle.
We had experienced a similar, drastic change travelling from China’s vibrant rice fields…
…to Mongolia’s camel-strewn landscape, but this definitely topped that transformation on all levels.
Just the night before, we’d fallen asleep travelling through a remote landscape filled with sand, tent-like homes called gers……
…and big friendly smiles shining out from dirt-smudged faces
Slender white trunks were etched with distinct black markings. Though the trees stood tall in silent beauty, the scarred bark gave the impression that lots of slumbering ghost stories lurked among them.
I was mesmerized by the little wooden cottages peeking out from the woodlands as if waiting to be stumbled upon by a fairy-tale character.
The train screeched to a halt thirty-seven hours after we left Ulaanbaatar, and we found ourselves in Irkutsk. Its quaint station boasted colourful old European-style buildings, something I’d never seen before.
I’d grown up with a houseful of foreign homestay students learning English, and my hometown – Vancouver, Canada – is made up of a myriad of nationalities and cultures, so being completely surrounded by Caucasians was a real novelty.
“Yeah, so… Irkutsk. Here we are. This is another spot on the Risk playing board,” Ammon stated as we walked.
“Wow, this is really European looking,” I said, finally taking my eyes off the people and admiring the architecture.
You’d never know from the looks of Irkutsk that the eastern side of Russia lies within Asian borders.
We were on a street – a real, honest-to-gosh, paved, tree-lined street. It even had stoplights, and that meant electricity – and refrigeration.
I chuckled as I thought back to the desert oasis we’d ventured into to retrieve ‘cold’ water, only to find lukewarm spring water swarming with tiny shrimp and frogs.
Chapter #3 “Too Much Too Little”
From Irkutsk, we travelled by car to Lake Baikal and then continued by boat to Olkhon Island……
……where we found a cozy, family-run guesthouse in Khuzhir, the administrative capital of the island and its five small villages.
The floral wallpaper almost made me feel I was at home with Grandma, but the faint smell of wood and earth kept me grounded.
I rolled out of bed, already fully clothed as usual, and wandered outside through the peaceful garden toward the main house.
We sauntered down the dirt road that passed through the centre of town.
Wooden homes with window shutters that were all painted blue, corrugated tin roofs and green picket fences lined the main road.
We ventured beyond Khuzhir and made our own path in the direction of the shore…
…where we found large-horned cows grazing on grassy plateaus high above the glistening lake.
We enjoyed a picture-perfect view of Shaman’s Rock from the steep edge, where the water below sparkled a deep blue in the summer sunlight.
“It’s twenty-five million years old, the oldest lake in geological history. At one thousand, six hundred and forty-two metres (5,387 ft), Lake Baikal is the deepest, and it’s among the cleanest in the world, too.”
It looked more than inviting enough for both a refreshing drink and a dip, and it made me think of my brother Sky, who is nine years my senior, and his dream to have a swimming pool filled with Polaris bottled water so he could swim and drink simultaneously after a hard workout.
“What?!” All three of us gasped. Leaning over the ledge, we discovered that the water was so clear we could see more than just the lake’s bottom.
“Lake Baikal is six hundred and thirty-six kilometres long (395 mi) and eighty-one kilometres wide (49 mi); the surface area is 31,494 square kilometres (about 19.5 sq mi). It is home to nearly two thousand species of animals and plants, two-thirds of which aren’t found anywhere else in the world. In 1996, the lake was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.”
Because it was recorded as being the deepest lake in the world, with a remarkable average depth of 744.4 metres (2,442 ft), it could only mean one thing: It was bound to be cold.
Chapter #4 “Revelation In The Flame”
After spending thirty-two hours on a north-west-bound train from Irkutsk, we arrived in Tomsk, one thousand, six hundred kilometres away (995mi).
Our quartet of dirty grumpkins left the charming aquamarine train station to find a home base.
Tomsk, located near the main Trans-Siberian rail circuit, seemed to have fewer tourists than the scenic city deserved.
Along wide, tree-lined streets was a mix of colourful, European-style brick and wooden buildings,…
…churches, and homes.
The array of pastel-coloured mansions rivalled any fantasy I’d seen at Disneyland.
Despite the array of gorgeously adorned buildings, Tomsk couldn’t quite disguise the fact that it was one of the oldest towns in Siberia.
In certain neighbourhoods, decrepit manors were buckling and slowly sinking into the welcoming earth.
Despite my predicament, I couldn’t help noticing the simple beauty of a clean sidewalk that lacked the dust, mud, and animal droppings I’d become accustomed to.
Hosting six universities
A wide walkway shaded by a beautiful birch grove led to the Great Patriotic War Memorial in Tomsk.
That’s about fourteen percent of her entire population at that time, and Russians accounted for roughly a third of all the casualties suffered in the Second World War.”
Knowing Sky was out there fighting made me feel like I was helplessly watching a game of Russian roulette.
It was too easy to imagine him as an open target, roasting beneath his heavy body armour in the Iraqi desert. We had absolutely no control over any of it.
Chapter #5 “Sorcha”
“Yes, there is one going there tonight,” he said after asking. “It leaves at 7 p.m., and it’s a fifteen-hour trip.”
This way was inevitably slower. Instead of one direct train, it would be a three- or four-step journey on various buses and trains that would take days.
“I read that the Semipalatinsk Test Site, where they tested nuclear weapons, started at the beginning of the Cold War. There were other nuclear testing sites in the Russian Cold War, but this one was really close to human settlements – only about a hundred kilometres (62 mi) west of the city.
At the next stop, we made an effort to introduce ourselves to her.
Hi. I’m Ammon, like salmon. The fish, you know? The name rhymes with salmon,” he said, awkwardly.