The next morning we woke on the train to find we were already at the border with Russia. This border crossing took ten long and dull hours, during which time we barely moved. We spent the day reading, sleeping, drinking lemon tea, playing backgammon and cards, and trying to chat to our travelling companions, one of whom bravely tried to teach me a bit of Russian.
Early the next morning we arrived in Irkutsk, the so-called Paris of Siberia, a grand old town with a surprising number of pizza joints. After a long search for somewhere to have breakfast we went to the Decembrist Museum, and were bossed about by a number of babushkas, one of whom followed us around, muttering, from room to room.
The next day we were on the move again. We went to the central market place to pick up a bus to Olkhon Island, in the middle of Lake Baikal. The trip took all day, squashed into a minibus with our bags strapped to the roof. We met a Belgian lady called Tine, who was on her way east towards China. The distances in Russia are humbling, especially for someone from the UK, our tiny speck of an island. After several hours we arrived on the shore of the lake and transferred to a ferry which took us out to Olkhon Island. Lake Baikal is the world’s oldest, largest and deepest freshwater lake, and contains 20% of the world’s unfrozen fresh water – a mind-boggling statistic. We were staying in Nikita’s Homestead, a backpacking hub in the island’s biggest village, Khuzhir. Tine stayed with us in the yurt we had booked, up the road from Nikita’s, which is a little village-within-a-village, full of wooden huts and a canteen where everyone eats together three times a day. As you can imagine, it’s a real international meeting place, and everyone soon gets chatting to everyone else.
Chris was happy because he spotted a piano in the canteen. He had been practicing a lot in China and had previously mentioned that he would miss playing while we were on the road, so now he went off to find out whether anyone minded him playing while we were there. He came back shortly afterwards with a stunned look on his face and announced that he would be giving a concert that very evening. Nikolai, the man in charge of musical entertainment at Nikita’s, had somehow talked him into it.
We went to the canteen straight away so Chris could practice. As, somehow, he hadn’t anticipated that he would be giving any concerts while we were travelling, he didn’t have any sheet music with him, so we both racked our brains for things he might be able to play from memory. We came up with some Joplin which he ran through a few times, then Nikolai appeared, playing the accordion, and dragged us off to a little wooden concert hall for the show.
Nikolai warmed things up on the accordion, accompanying two ladies singing Russian folk songs. Then Chris banged out a few Scott Joplin rags, very fast, to rapturous applause. He gave another performance a couple of days later, and played an impressive amount of Beethoven’s Pathetique from memory. His practice sessions in the canteen also reaped some unexpected rewards. The ladies serving food in the canteen were really quite strict about portion control and rarely handed out second helpings, but whenever Chris went up to ask for more he came back with a loaded plate.
We spent a couple of days on Olkhon Island lying on the beach, exploring the island, and generally enjoying the Siberian summer. Chris went off to play football a couple of times – Nikita’s has a regular fixture of travellers versus local schoolboys. A good, quiet, friendly few days. Every time I’ve heard that terribly famous bit of the Beethoven since then I’ve been transported back to that little sawdusty concert room at Nikita’s, in a muddy village in the middle of the lake, under a huge, starlit sky.