that neighbourhood feeling

The most surprising thing about living in Tokyo is how often you can forget that you’re living in a city of more than 13 million people. High-profile locations like Shinjuku and Ginza and Yoyogi are only one aspect of the prism. Most of Tokyo is a series of neighbourhoods that feel surprisingly contained, where people just live ordinary lives.

Early last year I was cycling home after work one night, and the man who runs the hardware store by the station was packing things away out the front of his shop. He glanced up, dropped what he was holding and called out to get my attention. I screeched to a halt (literally – my brakes needed some work) and tried to understand what he was saying.

“You bought the saucepan and broom and baguette last month, right?” he said. Actually he didn’t say baguette – I remembered later I’d bought a bucket, which sounds almost identical in Japanese, especially when you have no idea what’s going on.

He was saying something about money. He hurried inside and retrieved a little plastic bag holding a calculation on a slip of paper and some cash, at which point it all became clear – he’d overcharged me ¥1500 and for the past month he’d been holding onto the change, waiting for the chance to correct the error.

“It’s good I saw you,” he kept saying. “Yokatta, yokatta.” (He also kept apologising.)

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In this most populous city in the world, people live in their tiny apartments and narrow townhouses, and take their kids to the local kindergarten, and shop in the closest supermarket, and ride the same train to work, and it’s possible to see the same people around and maybe make friends with some of them. You can forget the city you’re in. Soon after I’d moved here, I was living 30 minutes west of Shinjuku, frequenting just a couple of neighbourhoods for study and work. And one day I went to the top of Tokyo Tower and looked out across the city and saw the expanse of flat-topped buildings squashed together, the occasional temple or park or stadium breaking it up, spreading to the horizon like a little Lego city. I realised then how small a part of the city I had been occupying. Two years later, I often still feel like I am just scratching away at the surface, getting a little deeper and finding more threads to tie together each time I head out.

One reason it’s easy to spend your life here in only a few places is that there is so much packed into each small area. There are six drycleaners on that same shopping street. Six. About as many fruit and veg sellers. Small, neat gardening shops, the odd bar, Italian and French and Indian restaurants, a coin laundry, a couple of electric appliance stores, a record store, ramen shops, convenience stores, a second-hand furniture store. An old woman sells mochi from her storefront, behind which can be seen a big shadowy kitchen. There is a ballet school. A YMCA. Medical clinics and dentists. That’s just off the top of my head and the street’s only about a kilometre long.

But if you look above your head and below ground you find that there is even more. Coming from a mostly ground-level country with neatly separated buildings, you eventually learn that if you can’t find that yakiniku place that the map says is here, look up – it’s probably on the seventh floor of that narrow brown building you’ve walked past twice. If you’re looking for somewhere to eat in the business district, go underground; there’s a rabbit warren of restaurants and shops down there. One warm summer night, Ian and I decided to spend the evening around the station. We started at an old-school kissaten coffee shop with faux-European shutters and lacy curtains that smelled of cigarette smoke thanks to the unenclosed smoking section. Like lots of these old cafés, the pleasure comes mostly from feeling like you’ve stepped back a few decades – and occasionally from a reasonable drip coffee or a pineapple parfait. After wandering about some more we decided to explore a basement that I’d never ventured down into. Half a dozen restaurants were hiding down there, and we ended up at a tiny Kenyan place. And when I say tiny, I mean tiny. Four, maybe five, seats were squeezed in between the sliding glass door and the counter, behind which a chatty Kenyan woman welcomed us, switching into Japanese for her other customer – who it turned out could also speak Swahili and English – explaining the menu, telling us where she buys her lamb chops, recommending a chilli and garlic condiment that nearly blew my nose off, and telling us how she came to marry a Japanese man and move here 25 years ago. We left later than planned, marvelling that we’d walked around here so often and never known that under our very feet there was a Kenyan woman cooking up nyama choma.

The neighbourhood feeling engendered by such close proximity is something I will miss now that I’ve experienced it. It means there is a frisson of life in the most ordinary of errands. It means a certain familiarity in a city that very easily lets you be anonymous.

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Maybe this is deceptive, though. It can make you feel like you belong – and maybe you kind of do – but for all of the formal politeness, reflexive kindness and genuine friendliness (yes, friendly; it’s not a word that usually springs to mind when we talk about Japanese people, but they are so often warm and chatty), hospitality doesn’t extend to the home all that often. This is partly because of a lack of space in many cities. As someone who lives in a 30-square-meter apartment with two chairs, I sympathise. I look forward to the day when I can once again invite more than one person over at a time.

But I reckon it’s also the strong sense of privacy. Rent inspections are not a thing here. My friend Ibuki tells me that when she moved to Australia she was shocked to learn that a stranger would regularly coming into her home to look around. I guess that is a bit weird, I thought to myself for the first time.

What this closely guarded privacy means is that for special occasions, people go to restaurants. And restaurants oblige. It’s the easiest thing in the world to reserve a private room for 20 with a set course meal. A work colleague wanted to organise a movie night. In Australia, we’d see who could offer up their lounge room and flat-screen for the evening, but lacking this option, she hired out a function room set up with couches and tables, a wall-mounted TV, a karaoke set and a DVD player, and a banquet style dinner was delivered as we watched Murder on the Orient Express. There are whole buildings dedicated to such “party rooms.”

But I’ve started to feel like this tendency to meet outside the home – whether coincidental or intentional – maintains a certain distance. To invite someone into your home is to open your life up to them a little. It’s relaxed in a way that no restaurant party can ever be. It peels back a layer between you and your guest.

I recognise that I see things this way because of the culture I grew up in, but it seems common to Westerners. A few months ago, we ran a story in the paper I work at about the growing popularity of “home parties.” The Japanese article we were translating reported that, wanting to save a little money, relax and enjoy making themed table settings, women are – wait for it – inviting their friends over to their houses to celebrate birthdays or special occasions. My fellow foreign colleagues and I looked at each other in bemusement. “Isn’t that just … a party?”

But for all this, the Japanese do know how to have a good time. You haven’t seen them let loose until you’ve been to a company work party. I love it when summer rolls around because it means throbbing odori dance festivals and drinking ice cold beer on balmy nights.

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Despite the heat – or perhaps because of it – when the weather starts to heat up, people relax. Sometimes you walk over to the 7-Eleven on the first really hot weekend in July and there’s a party going on: the staff members are wearing red haori jackets and chequered headbands and handing out free popcorn with every purchase. Outside two others are selling tiny round watermelons out of an inflatable pool filled with ice water. It’s 34 degrees and 81 percent humidity. Of course you buy the damn watermelon. And when the teenage boy selling it to you asks where you are from and what you do, with that combination of politeness and curiosity so often found here, you chat briefly before walking away, watermelon in one arm, popcorn in the other, feeling a little less anonymous.

 

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flower show

Japan may look like a country, but it’s really just one big flower show. Flower festival after flower festival – you can plan your year around them. Cherry blossoms may be the main act, but this place is nuts for flowers of any kind.

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Fortunately, I am also a bit of a flower nut – it’s an accepted fact between Ian and I that he has fewer photos of my face than of me crouching in front of a pretty bloom.

When the trees were painted over in luscious green a few months ago, and the tall grassy weeds had taken back the bare ground of empty lots, the warm weather brought a cascade of flowers. The trickle of blossoms starts back in January, of course, with the darling, dark pink plum blossoms and sunshine yellow canola.

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(It’s actually field mustard, not canola, but I’m a farmer’s daughter, OK?)

The cherry blossoms follow but they’re just the beginning; peak flower season starts as soon as they’re gone.

Each month there is something new – wisteria presented in tunnels of cascading purple, mounds of pink and white azaleas on every roadside, fuschia pink moss phlox at the base of Mt. Fuji, half a million baby blue nemophila rolling over hills, artfully arranged tulips and daffodils, tiny peach-coloured poppies scattered among the weeds, an iris garden created by Emperor Meiji for his wife, piles of hydrangeas at smaller shrines, fields of sunflowers and red poppies … Hokkaido in the summer has a literal rainbow field, planted with lavender and various other flowers in stripes of colour.

Did I mention Japan loves flowers?

There are events and calendars for when each flower will start blooming and fields planted months in advance so that when the time comes visitors can stroll through perfectly cultivated blossoms. People (myself not excluded) travel just to see these displays.

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What is this obsession with flowers, and perfectly displayed ones at that?

There’s probably a few cultural elements at play. A more formalised society, the appreciation of order and tidiness that is a part of that. A sense of the importance of beauty in everyday life, which is seen in the way people present themselves and their homes as much as in the fact that it’s as easy to find a florist as a ramen shop in many neighbourhoods.

I’d also venture that people are a little more connected to the seasons here. Fresh produce in the shops follows the seasons more closely, giving you a sense of the wax and wane. Each season has its shun, or seasonal ingredients, which are heralded in supermarkets and restaurants with special menus and displays – piles of peaches and grapes and cherries in the fruit section in summer, tiny whitebait topping bento boxes in late spring, persimmons everywhere in autumn and mandarins everywhere in winter. There is this day called uchi no hi (day of the ox) every summer, on which people eat grilled eel on rice, believing it gives you energy in the summer heat. The one exception I can think of is hothouse-grown strawberries in winter. At that time of year, cream-covered shortcakes piled with glorious red berries are everywhere; there’s a cake shop near my station that sells only these cakes for a few months.

And even if all of this doesn’t keep the seasons in mind as you go about your daily life, at the least it provides an extra layer of enjoyment. I’m always being greeted with a new flower or fruit or meal particular to that season or month or day. And it means that even in busy Tokyo, there’s always an opportunity to stop, slow down and smell the roses – literal or otherwise.

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summer song.

Late August.

The dead bodies are appearing more frequently these days. On the side of the road, under trees, in puddles after a shower of rain. Lying on their plump bellies, eyes bulging but unseeing. Blue-green marks on their heads, wings shimmering. Sometimes partially flattened by a car or bike. All of them are so much bigger than you might expect. Cicadas.

Millions of them. Every summer they crawl up from the depths of the soil after years spent underground, growing, biding time, waiting for their turn to come up and sing in a tree. Their chorus began with the warm weather and they’ve been singing through the rainy season into the hot, steamy days of the typhoons.

Cicadas in a Japanese summer mean hundreds of insects chirping and humming and whirring wherever there might be trees. Even though we don’t have so many of them in Perth, they sound like summer to me. They’ve become the soundtrack to my life here, so constant and pervasive I feel like there was never a time before the cicadas. Sometimes it’s a delightful chirp that perfectly accompanies a summer evening on the balcony. Other times it’s a thunderous, pulsating descant that creaks up and down a scale like an engine speeding up and slowing down.

They seem shrillest in the early mornings, which I discovered when I started getting up just after 6am to do the national radio exercises with a group of old people in my apartment complex. It started like this. One Sunday morning, over the cicadas, the sound of a radio announcer’s voice followed by a jaunty tune not dissimilar to that of the BBC radio series ‘The Archers’ floated up to my bedroom, where a fan was blowing air over my half-asleep form and out the open screen door next to my futon. The song meandered into whatever dream I was having, and for a few moments I luxuriated in the feeling of being just awake enough to know that I was still asleep. Suddenly I sat up. “Calisthenics!” I said out loud. “It’s calisthenics!” (Whether that’s what actually came out, given I had been sleeping a moment earlier, who can say, but that’s certainly what I meant.)

Radio calisthenics is one of those uniquely Japanese things that I wanted to do as soon as I heard about it. Every morning at 6:30am, an NHK broadcast of gentle exercises plays on radios around the nation. During summer, in homes and parks and school grounds and – in my case – danchi tennis courts, people young and old gather to spend ten minutes moving together. The rajio taiso, as it’s called in Japanese, has been running nearly uninterrupted since 1928. It’s an institution. I’d heard of these local gatherings, but had no idea where to find one until I was woken from my slumber. Of course I had to join in.

So there I was, stretching and swinging my arms and doing star jumps at 6:30am every morning with a dozen or so old Japanese people. I felt so nervous – completely out of proportion to the task – when I went down the first morning and asked if I could join in. What if I was meant to sign up beforehand? What if I couldn’t understand what they said? What if they all looked at me like the tall, pale, redheaded foreigner that I am? These little apprehensions come up from time to time in a country where I don’t know all the customs or speak the language fluently, but the only thing to do is dive in. It panned out just fine, of course. (It always does, in some way or other.) They happily gave me a card with space cartoons on it to get stamped every day, and I shyly crossed the court, receiving a few bows and smiles from people as I passed. And after a week of seeing the same faces every morning, I felt a little bit more a part of things.

My radio taiso only ran a little over a week, but summer continues on and with it the cicadas, no matter that they seem to be dropping like the proverbial. I’m starting to wonder when they stop. Do they ever stop? Will summer go on forever? I won’t mind so much if it does. It’s humid yes, upwards of 80% many days, but I love the small freedoms of summer. Never having to leave the house with more than one layer of clothing, cycling the streets on balmy evenings, getting the washing dry within the afternoon, that lovely kind of napping you do on hot afternoons when time feels like treacle. I don’t love the sweaty upper lip any time I walk for more than five minutes but it’s a small price to pay for summer festivals with pounding drums and swirling dancers, and ice cold miso cucumbers and kakigori shaved ice, and thunderous rainstorms and lush greenery, and radio taiso and singing cicadas. I can feel the end approaching – for the cicadas too – but at least for me, there are more summers to look forward to.

everyday fuji

The other day I glanced outside to admire the fading light and realised I can see Mount Fuji from my bedroom window. I’ve lived in this room for two months now and I’ve never noticed it before. Doesn’t that seem strange? It’s to the right of my window so I have to turn my head and gaze across the used car yard opposite, past the low-rise buildings and strings of power lines into the far distance south-west of Tokyo. It was a clear evening and the sun was silhouetting the mountain and I can only think that this is why I just noticed it.

It was 4.30 pm – sunset – and like clockwork the public speakers on the streets around Fujimachi (coincidentally for this post, the area I live in is literally called Fuji Town) began to play their daily song. It’s a pleasant tune played at precisely 4.30 pm every day so that we all know it’s the end of the day or something, like an electric version of church bells in old-time villages.

And there was this moment where I was like I AM IN JAPAN, because I was having a rush of excitement about the fact that I could see Fuji-san and in the same moment that little song was playing, a daily reminder that we’re all in this together, which is such a Japanese sentiment. (When I visited Caitlin in Himeji the neighbourhood speakers were right outside her house, cheerfully waking everybody at 7.00 am and marking the end of the day at 6.00 pm; why it’s 4.30 pm here I don’t know, but I have no doubt there’s a reason, there’s always a reason.)

I haven’t written any posts about Japan since I arrived more than two months ago, which seems strange to me after posting every couple of weeks all year. It’s not like there’s nothing to write about – this place is foreign and fascinating, beautiful and befuddling – but I’ve been watching and thinking and not feeling able to write about it just yet.

Japan is both strange and familiar to me. It’s familiar in that I recognise it from photos and videos imported into Australia my whole life, in Japanese classes and travel stories and Ghibli films: the wood and fibro houses in cream and brown; the rows of brightly lit signs stacked one above the other in Shinjuku; the elegantly curved tiles on temple roofs; the sliding fusuma paper doors; Harajuku girls and buttoned-up salarymen … the list could go on.

Of course it’s strange too. Sometimes that strangeness actually comes from the fact that I am experiencing things I’ve only ever seen in images or heard in stories. But other things are both new and strange. When I first arrived I instinctively thanked the cashiers in shops after paying and receiving my goods, before I realised that nobody else did that. The same impulse kicked in when I walked into a shop and the assistant said “irasshaimase”, which I’m told translates as something vaguely akin to “please come in”, and so I would nod and smile and maybe even say hello. But again, nobody does that here. And pretty quickly I noticed that the shop assistants were rarely looking at me as they said it, and continued to say it even after I’d been browsing a while, and sometimes a person was employed to simply stand at the front of the store yelling “irasshaimase!!” and I admit this is starting to get on my nerves but I’ll save this particular topic for another time.

Most of the time it’s just ordinary. I’m enjoying the slide into familiarity – discovering where to buy the freshest and cheapest fruit and veg, working out which combination of trains gets me home the quickest, having a local ramen shop, noticing that the same cashier works the midnight shift at the kombini, realising that I now instinctively turn around backwards to remove my shoes at the door, ready to slide my feet into my pre-turned slippers.

So those moments like the one where I stand at my window and thrill at the sight of Fuji-san are not everyday, they come and go, but when they do come I grab onto them and say to myself, I AM IN JAPAN.

mother russia and her children

In Russia I am so often in a state of high emotion. I am teary more often than I have been all year, and my mood swings up and down in a way it never did before. The highs are pretty damn high and the lows are never very low, but all the same. I blink back tears when the prodovnitsa on my first train trip corrects me on the disposal of toilet paper because I feel so foreign and because she says it so kindly. (In Siberia used paper is binned rather than flushed, for plumbing reasons.) By the time I get to Vladivostok I am choking up at the sight of a mournful dog then moments later feeling so elated at the beautiful view that I could skip down the street.

It seems appropriate really. This is Mother Russia after all. A country that evokes strong feelings across the globe, that has produced beautiful symphonies and bloody revolutions, that is full of big cities, big cars, big landscapes, big politicians. Russians themselves can be the coldest of cold and the warmest of warm.

And whenever I sit down to write about this country, it is Russians that keep taking centre stage in my stories. I gave the people little thought before arriving, hoping only to chat to a few locals along the way. Perhaps I had some preconceptions, and certainly I had some concerned friends and family waving me off. But from the taxi drivers who go to great lengths to deliver me to hostels that seem to be in hiding, to the locals who take me under their wing and feed me and walk me home, I have never received so much kindness from strangers before.

Outside of Moscow, most people don’t speak English, but sometimes I come across someone who does. Tonya is one of them. I arrive in Ekaterinburg late in the evening and after the taxi driver has finally tracked down the hostel (no sign or building number and an entrance that is actually on the other side of the building and therefore on a different street – how I would have found it on my own is beyond me) I gratefully drop my bags in the pink and white dorm. A couple of girls are lounging about on their beds. They are chatting in Russian and I feel a bit lost until Tonya says, “Where are you from?” We talk, slowly, and I immediately feel the warmth of simply being welcomed in a foreign land. Tonya is big-hearted and funny. She refers to my boyfriend as my “love man” and her hometown in the north of Siberia as her “little fairy town”. When I compliment her on her English she says she is so grateful to her high school teacher for teaching it to her that she could kiss said teacher, and then mimes it. She also helps me by translating for the hostel staff when I find that their promise of “visa support” is not the critical visa registration I need. Mostly she just puts me at ease, telling me how much the bus fare will be and asking how my day was. The morning I am leaving for the train I hoist my enormous pack onto my back and Tonya says, “You are strong, like Russian woman.” I promise – in the way travellers always promise, with the best of intentions – to visit her town one day, and then I am off on the next train.

In Irkutsk, I take the ever-erratic local matrushkas into the centre each day, looking at the weathered wooden buildings with their bright, carved window frames. I walk amongst the gold-leaved silver birches on an island in the middle of the River Angara. And at night I return to my modest little hostel where Nina, an older woman with dyed blonde hair who flutters about like a mother bird, is entranced by me. Every time we speak she says “beautiful girl” and occasionally puts her hand on my hair. There’s nothing special about me, I’m just exotic here. On the hostel wall there is a big world map and we exclaim together at how far I have travelled from home. Despite the excessive attention, she is sweet. She feeds me any time I’m in the kitchen, offering tomatoes, sunflower seeds, chocolate, fruit. One morning she feeds me smetana on bread and I discover it is a kind of delicious soured cream and my new favourite thing. I joke through sign language about there being a composer with the same name. She laughs. Our primary form of communication is gestural, unless she can rope in one of the staff to translate for her. She nods and laughs a lot, almost frantically. She is also incredibly devout. One day she emerges from her room with a blue scarf around her head holding a small book with an image of the Virgin on the front. She shows me and kisses the image before returning to her room to say some very long prayers. In the evenings I hear her praying in the alcove, murmuring fast and low. When I say I am also Christian she crosses herself then points to the ceiling and says in clear English “same God”. Yes, I agree. She mimes dancing and waving her hands at the word “Protestant” and I cross myself and fold my hands solemnly and say “Russki khram” and she laughs at this. She laughs at almost anything I say.

The morning I leave for Lake Baikal, Nina is not yet awake, so I write her a note and bequeath her my smetana.

After the mini bus picks me up we lurch around Irkutsk collecting other passengers before we finally head off to Olkhon Island. We are from all over the world – France, Germany, the United States, Hong Kong – and I realise these are the first foreigners I’ve met in weeks. For the next few days I don’t meet many Russians, but I do meet Kolya. I’m aware of him before I meet him, drinking vodka and arguing about politics in one of the other tour buses also driving around, looking at Lake Baikal. He’ll talk to anyone who wants to, smattering a bit of German amongst his Russian, which is surprisingly helpful. Later that night I’m sitting in the bar at Nikita’s Homestead with some other travellers and Kolya sits down opposite me. He proceeds to make sure we are friends, orders beer and cold smoked omul’ fish, and shares them with me. I’m surprised by how good both the beer and the fish are.

Listening to Kolya it occurs to me how beautiful the Russian language is. It seems odd to say this about a rough, vodka-sculling Siberian, but there it is. Perhaps it’s because he doesn’t let the fact that I hardly understand anything he says slow him down. His flow is unrelenting, even lyrical, and as I listen I start to understand that Russian is a language that turns on stressed syllables and intonation. I am not always sure what we are talking about but when in doubt one of us says “Avstraliya!” or “Rossiya!” and we clink beer glasses.

People are always wide-eyed when they hear I have come from Australia. “Avstraliya!” they exclaim. “Da,” I grin. “Avstraliya.” On the train to Vladivostok two men in their thirties approach me shyly as I’m watching the landscape from the corridor windows. Where am I from? My answer gets the same reaction as always. “Such cool girl,” Alexei says about my travelling alone, translating for his friend Roman. Later they tell me they knew I wasn’t Russian because I was wearing a long skirt. “Russian women,” they say, indicating mini-skirt and high heels.

Alexei and Roman turn out to be lovely and genuinely caring. They invite me to their cabin, where a young mum, Masha, is travelling home with her son, Pasha, to his dad, Sasha. They teach me how to drink vodka the traditional way. Masha smiles indulgently in the corner and Pasha bounces around like any five-year-old boy. “Russian tradition,” Alexei says as we raise glasses, and this becomes a running joke. (When the restaurant car keeps refusing to serve me lunch until a specially appointed time in the afternoon, Alexei rolls his eyes and says “Russian tradition”.) The police come through on one of their semi-regular rounds and Alexei quietly hides the vodka bottle. Turns out it’s now illegal to drink in your train cabin. Secretly, though, I’m loving the cliché.

When they get off the train at Belogorsk we part like old friends. “You are in my heart,” both of them say as they hug me goodbye, and I realise I feel the same way. These dang dramatic Russians, they’re rubbing off on me. All of these people have gotten into my heart in some way, and when I think about that I get teary again.

I still don’t know many words but nearly four weeks after arriving in Moscow, I go to the post office in Vladivostok one day and get through the whole transaction in Russian. It’s simple stuff, something like, “postcards, two Australia, three Switzerland, one Great Britain, please, yes, how much? OK, thank you” but it’s a thrill all the same. The woman behind the counter is one of the superbly kind, helpful Russians, and when I also want to send a parcel she shows me to a different building, because one of those inexplicable Russian things is that you can’t send your parcels in the same place as your letters. From the gentle, friendly little postcard office I walk into a big, busy parcel office with people milling about and numbers being called. After forty-five minutes on a cracked blue vinyl seat my number is called. The woman at the desk makes no indication that she is aware of my presence so after a few minutes I step closer and show my number. Reluctantly, she looks up. I apologise, in Russian, for not speaking Russian and ask, in English, if she speaks English. The woman stares at me with her stone-face on. “Nyet,” she says. I show her that I want to post my parcel and she shakes her head like I am an idiot, then writes down an address on a slip of paper, hands it to me and points outside. I read it. “Voksal?!” I ask incredulously. “Da,” she says, a breath away from rolling her eyes. I have to go all the way to the train station to post this? It makes no sense. I give up with a parting “spaseeba”.

I fell in love with Russia but it made me tired too. These extremes, like the post office clerks, and the way buses sometimes don’t turn up, and the bureaucracy, and the constant language and culture barrier… I never know what’s coming at me next. I am having a ball, but by the time I leave Vladivostok I am entirely out of energy. So as my plane flys out of Vladivostok I am sad, yes, but I also feel like I’m letting out a big sigh of relief. I’m getting off the rollercoaster – but I reckon I’ll come back for another ride one day.

baikal dream

Take out a map of the world. Look at Russia. See there in southern Siberia? Just north of Mongolia? That long, curved shape – that’s Lake Baikal. Never heard of it? Neither had I, until I was deciding where to stop along the Trans-Siberian route and it kept getting mentioned. A must-see, the online voices were insisting. Don’t miss it.

Baikal is the deepest lake in the world. Six hundred and thirty five kilometres long, a narrow forty eight kilometres wide and 1637 metres deep, it might be more correct to call Baikal an inland sea. Perhaps the fact that it is freshwater maintains its lake status, but this lake holds twenty per cent – you read that right, one-fifth – of the world’s freshwater, so it’s kind of hard to compare it to anything.

After a few days in Irkutsk, that beautiful Siberian city of the Decembrists, I took a minibus one morning to Olkhon Island. I’d booked a few days at Nikita’s Homestead, reportedly excellent accommodation (a report that proved true).

Something happened to my sense of distance after seven months in tiny European countries. Early on I kept overestimating how long it would take to get places (that’s pretty far, I’d think, only to find it’s two hours from London to Brussels) but when I got to Russia I was having the opposite problem. So when I glanced at the map I thought it would take two maybe three hours from Irkutsk to Olkhon. Wrong. Five hours later we arrived in Khuzhir, the village in the middle of the island. I looked more closely at the map and conceded it was a long way.

At this point I still had no more than a few nuggets of information about Baikal. All that stuff about it holding the most water, the fact that it is home to a few unique species (chiefly the omul’ fish) and that it is generally spoken of as magical, this was the extent of my knowledge.

The landscape on the drive from Irkutsk had become increasingly barren. Small mobs of cattle and horses dotted the browning hills and not much else, not even fences (apparently not important in Russian farming). After making a short crossing by car ferry onto Olkhon Island itself, we roared along a dirt road with no sign of human life except a power line on triangular supports running beside us. After arriving in Khuzhir and at Nikita’s, I dropped my bags, wrapped up in my coat and wandered out the back gate of the homestead.

The lake was right there, and immediately I had eyes for nothing else. A hill of brown dirt rolled down to a low cliff and the water stretching away from it was all kinds of blue. Aquamarine in the shallows, dark like sapphire midway out, and misty blue in the distance. Even from up high I could see the stones through the clear water a few metres from the shore. The blues were offset by a couple of larch trees with their brilliant orange branches gripping the cliff edges. I’d never seen a place like it.

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But what struck me most of all was the silence. Even the handful of people taking photos a short distance away didn’t affect it; it was as though the silence was bigger than a simple lack of sound. The next day when I explored further up the coast of the island I was alone and I could not get over this. It wasn’t silent because there was no life. It was deeply quiet. Deeply quiet. Beneath the soft lapping of tiny waves on the shore and barely-there breeze a certain energy hummed. Nothing oracular. Nothing tangible. Just a feeling. It’s easy to understand why certain points around Olkhon Island are marked out as shamanistic – you can’t be in such creation and feel nothing.

That shamanism is an interesting aspect, actually. I don’t know much about it, only that the Buryat people native to this area have an ancient shamanistic tradition, which involves connecting with the spiritual energies of nature. I noticed a number of totem poles covered with bright ribbons, often in high places or particularly beautiful places. Through the translation of a German guy who spoke some Russian I found out from a local that these poles mark places where there is a really strong energy. However, the tying of ribbons onto the poles (or sometimes onto trees) is apparently a Buddhist ritual introduced from Tibet, now incorporated into local customs. Each colour represents a certain type of prayer, and they combine in this brilliant display.

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There’s a lot more to Baikal than meets the eye, is my guess, even just in the way Siberians value it. When I told Tonya in Ekaterinburg that I was going to Baikal she gasped excitedly. “I haven’t been,” she said, “but one day I will definitely see Baikal, he is my dream.” (I had heard that Russians have a way of humanising objects and places, and referring to Baikal as “he” is a great example; Ian Frazier in Travels in Siberia also mentions that the word for speed bump in Russian is “lying down policeman”. I love that.)

On the third day I joined a tour to the northern point of the island. It was cloudy all morning as we stopped at certain picturesque points or to pay the national park ranger. But as we jolted towards the tip of the island in our off-road Uazik the sun came out and shone blue on the water. Staring north from the cliff edge it was mind-boggling to think of that water going on for hundreds of kilometres in front of me. So much water stretching over the horizon is something I’ve only ever seen in the ocean, which is salty and windy and crashing. This is none of those things. But it is no less impressive.

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Our driver cooked an omul’ soup for lunch, with cheese and bread and the ubiquitous cucumbers and tomatoes. Outdoor picnic lunches always taste twice as good, especially eaten in a grove of trees on an island in a Siberian lake. On the way home, as we bounced like a box of skittles over the ditches, I mean roads, nobody spoke much. Perhaps, like me, everyone was a little tired, reflecting on the landscape, responding to that deep quiet.

ganina yama

Sometimes I wonder if my fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants approach to travel isn’t slowing me down. It’s not that I’m disorganised; I have a skeleton of plans months in advance and things like tickets and visas sorted well before I leave.

But the organisation grinds to a halt when I arrive. I like to turn up in a new city and just see what I find, follow my nose. Recently in Moscow this turned up one of the best fleamarkets I’ve ever been to. I’ve written about my love of the unexpected before.

I planned my stop in Ekaterinburg because it was where the last Romanov ruler, Tsar Nicholas II, and his family were murdered. A quick scan online confirmed there was a memorial of some kind, and that was that. I’d investigate when I got there.

Day one, I start hunting. I find reference to Ipatiev House and a church but a quick dig confirms that they are the same site: in 1977 the house was demolished, and only in the early 2000s was this large memorial church built on the site. Its full name is The Church on Blood in Honour of All Saints Resplendent in the Russian Land – and certainly the saints are resplendent in this Russian land. Chief among them are the seven Romanovs, haloed and bland-faced. There is a statue outside the big multi-domed church that dramatically depicts the family descending to the basement where they would be executed. Along the fence huge photos show the five children holding festive decorations, Alexei in a sailor suit, the Tsar in his military uniform. Photos of the last Imperial Russian family always move me; tragedy overlays them with a patina of sadness and heightens the beauty of young faces that never grew old.

Inside, the main church is a cave of red and gold and faces of the Virgin. I have forgotten my scarf, and seeing the faux pas fast approaching I quickly buy a silk scarf from a woman by the door and tie it over my hair. Plaques along one wall and a large saint-ified portrait commemorate the family, but apart from this the rest of the church features other saints and patriarchs (elders of the Russian church). Women kneel and kiss the Virgin and everyone crosses themselves as they stand before the altar. I may have been raised on the simplified rituals of the Baptist church but now I touch my fingertips to forehead, chest and shoulders out of respect for the locals as much as God.

Emerging back into the cold air I take a deep breath and relax my shoulders. I didn’t realise I’d been holding myself erect against the sensory overload of rich colours and saint worship, alert to proper conduct, my eyes taking it all in. I feel exhilarated at the strangeness of it all. But I’ve nearly forgotten about the Romanovs. This ornate church feels detached from a story that I think of as personal and anchored to history. I’m glad to have been there all the same.

Day two, I have this niggling feeling that I’ve missed something. I go back online and hunt around – there. I knew I’d seen a photo of a forest somewhere along the way, and the church was definitely not in a forest. Ganina Yama. Ganya’s Pit. The place where the bodies were first buried (although ‘dumped’ would be a better word; they were partially burned, thrown down a mine shaft, retrieved, had acid thrown on them, and finally, casually, buried). It’s fifteen kilometres north but seems reachable. Information on how to get there is scarce, but I’m getting used to this in Russia. I come across a few tours but it’s late to be booking and they cost about 5000 rubles (AUD$100) which is most definitely out of my budget. I keep coming across tantalising clues: sometimes buses go direct from the station; a local train stops three kilometres from the site; one person came across a random tour that cost just 500 rubles each. The train to the village of Shuvakish seems the only sure thing so after lunch I set off across the city via bus.

Buses in Russian cities are like wild horses. Sometimes you’ll catch one and get on it, or sometimes the one you want just won’t come; when you do get one it may go in the direction you expect or it may veer away; it will most certainly lurch off speeding, stopping sharply from time to time. But, also a bit like horses, after spending some time their ways become familiar and you can anticipate them a little better. At this early point I am yet to learn the mysteries of the Russian bus, so I jump on number 54 which immediately hits traffic. Finally picking up speed we zip right past the corner we were meant to turn down. This is my first inkling that perhaps Google and the Russian transport system don’t communicate perfectly. I jump off and find myself outside a metro station.

Ekaterinburg has the shortest metro in the world, but what there is of it runs like a dream. The grand interiors of stone and ironwork remind me of Moscow stations, and the trains come as frequently. I rattle around for a while, working out which stop will deliver me to the main station, changing a 100 ruble note at what I think is a change machine, having a confused exchange with the lady at the ticket counter, realising the machine gave me subway tokens not coins to exchange for a ticket, descending and getting on a train going the wrong way, getting off and going back, finally arriving at the main station. It has taken me almost two hours to get across town, and it’s not a big town.

I buy a ticket to Shuvakish then join everyone else in staring interminably at the departures board. I can’t see my train listed and all the times are in the past. (It takes me a while to realise that not only do long distance trains run on Moscow time – I had been warned in regards to my Trans-Siberian tickets – but local trains too. I still cannot get over the fact that in a country with eleven time zones all trains everywhere run on Moskva vremya.) Bemused but not thwarted I ask a cashier for the next train time. 18:00 hours. Two and a half hours away! I’m a bit thrown, given that it’s only five stops out of the centre, and started to wonder if I should try again tomorrow. After all, the sun sets at 6:30pm and I don’t fancy wandering in a Russian forest in the dark and cold. But I’ve set my course and stubbornly want to see it through.

By the time the train pulls out of the station I am watching the sky become dull and the further we go the more trepidation I feel. The so-called suburbs are collections of weathered wooden houses amongst dirt-packed streets with few streetlights. As we slide past one rail stop, nothing more than a concrete shelter, people stand in the gloaming and watch the train pass with faces like stone.

I get off at Shuvakish, resigned to the fact that this is now pointless but needing to see it through to the bitter end. The platform is deserted. The darkening forest forms an ominous backdrop. I climb the steps to the overpass and cross to a single lit building. There seems to be a tiny corner store and an office that might be railway-related but no entrance. An old man in a flat Lenin-style cap turns his head to watch me as I check for clues, also stony-faced. But here is a young woman in a high-vis vest. I cobble together a few words to apologise for not speaking Russian and ask if there is a taxi here. “Taksi?” She pauses and I expect her to laugh – if there is anywhere I wouldn’t expect a taxi it’s this station. But her manner is kind. There’s no taxi, of course, and when I explain I want to go to Ganina Yama she thinks hard and looks around before shaking her head. I smile and shrug. At least I tried. “Spaseeba,” I reply, and at that moment a train for Ekaterinburg comes around the corner, its lamp beaming white light onto the tracks. I leap on and squeeze into a seat.

Day three, I wake and decide that if I can get a taxi for a reasonable price I will go that way. The feeling of dread I’d had last night in the greyish dusk of a strange village with the inky forest stretching beyond wasn’t forgotten. Walking from Shuvakish alone might contravene those promises I made to travel safely, even in the daylight.

I make my way to the station quickly, Sunday traffic being light, although not without a half hour of waiting for a bus that doesn’t come. (When I relay this to my new friend Tonya she rolls her eyes in sympathy. “Yes,” she says, “sometimes this happens.”) I approach the first taxi and ask if he can take me to Ganina Yama. He can. “Skol’ko?” I ask. Two thousand rubles, he replies.

I was expecting him to start higher: this is in fact the figure I’m prepared to pay. I’ve taken two short taxi rides before and both cost me 500 rubles – about $10 – for 10 minutes, exactly what I would pay in Perth. I knew the trip there and back would take up to an hour and a half, in addition to which I was asking him to wait half an hour at the site. So I’m asking for a potentially two hour taxi ride for the equivalent of $40, a bargain by Australian standards. Given that a tour would set me back maybe $100 and I know a lot of the history already, this is a good deal.

Today’s trip is painless. We make good time on the way there and back, and the driver waits while I make my visit. When we pull up I see a bank of cars and a few people milling about and suddenly it doesn’t feel so remote.

Ganina Yama is a complex of seven chapels, each dedicated to a family member and each lovely. Tucked between stands of thin-trunked birch trees, the churches are built of logs with curved green roofs and gold domes topped with the Orthodox cross.

Inside they have the warmth of log cabins, which somehow makes them feel like loving tributes in a way that no gold filigree halo on a portrait ever could – although that kind of thing is here too. Candles burn gently by the altars and richly coloured portraits of saints hang on the walls. In one church I come in behind a Russian tour and stand politely while the guide finishes her spiel. As the group leaves I notice everyone turns to face the altar before they cross themselves, and outside again turn to face the front door, crossing themselves while walking backwards a little way. I don’t attempt the walking backwards bit.

Again I find myself wondering about the gap between how Russians see the family and how I see them. I didn’t even know the family had been canonised and I have arrived to find that this is the primary way they are memorialised. The churches are beautiful and restful, but I am more interested in finding the wall of photos I’ve heard about. I walk around the perimeter peeking behind every building, but find nothing. I have just a few minutes before I need to go, so I make a last stab and ask a guard by the gate. When I start speaking in English, using a few keywords like “foto” and “Romanov” while pointing around the site, he looks terrified and laughs nervously. I get creative and pull out my phone to show him photos I took of the Romanov photos at the city church. Usually this kind of approach works, but he is backing away, grinning anxiously. I give up. I have done what I came to do and I am satisfied.