Dreams of Angara

“She cannot be satisfed. She will not let him alone. She removes her clothes and calls to him. Once that night and twice the next morning he complies and in the faint darkness between lies awake, the lights of Dijon faint on the ceiling, the boulevards still.”

A Sport and a Pastime, James Salter

I buy a copy from the bookseller on the corner of 14th and Union Square West a few days before I fly to Russia. A Sport and a Pastime. It’s book I’ve heard about for years, one that gets mentioned in certain circles. I read it on the plane: a young French girl in the countryside, her Ivy-League lover. He’s dropped out twice now. The book is about him, really; their youth, its freedoms, and life when these things are gone. His name is Dean. He wants the sort of life you have to create for yourself, the sort of life that can kill you if you take it too far.

It’s not a very long novel. I read it several times. There is sex on almost every page. There are no stores that sell English books in Irkutsk.

+ + +

An instructor invites me to his English class. I have been in Russia for over a month now. Most of his students have never met an American. That’s how we meet — Yana is about to leave but she changes her mind. We drive around the city that night with her instructor in the back of her car. He is correcting us, her English and my Russian. The next time we meet we leave her instructor at the cafe.

We are walking around Ostrov Yunost, Youth Island. It is in the middle of the Angara River, the river that splits the city. It is the only river to flow out of Lake Baikal — over three hundred rivers fill it. The river continues a thousand miles northeast, where it connects with the Yenisei, and further north, it drains into the Arctic. I kiss Yana by the water. She gets up to leave. “Why did you do that?” She asks.

+ + +

I am spending ten weeks in Irkutsk, the largest city in southeast Siberia. About million people live here. Yana and I go to Ulan-Ude together, on the other side of Lake Baikal. It’s a seven hour sleeper train around its southern edge. We play cards to pass the time. She keeps winning. I don’t understand the rules. She tries to explain again. “Ponimayesh?” she asks — Do you understand? — “Nyet,” I say.

Most Russians I meet have read Jack London; some tell me he is their favorite American author. I have never read Jack London. I don’t think I’ve ever talked about Jack London. Yana reads Martin Eden to me from across the compartment. She stops every few sentences to look up a word in the back of the book.

+ + +

It is still light as we pass Baikal. People from every compartment have come into the corridor to look. Women hold their young children up to the windows. Baikal is the largest freshwater lake in the world, it holds 22% of all freshwater. Some say it is the birthplace of shamanism. Others, that aliens live at the bottom. It is the world’s deepest and oldest lake. There are rumors of loch Ness-type sea dragons, boats that are never seen again. The winds can change in an instant.

“Irkutsk? Why did you go to Irkutsk?” I am asked this by every Russian I meet outside of Irkutsk, several times a night in Moscow. To them, it is like saying you traveled across to America to live in the capital of West Virginia.

+ + +

Yana always makes other Russians laugh, but she doesn’t know how to translate her jokes. She shrugs. We are walking around Ulan-Ude. There are cars everywhere but the city feels empty. A young Russian couple fights in the distance, the woman is swinging her bag, she hits the man in the head several times. He stands there, covering himself, taking it. “It is Russian relationship,” Yana says.

The city is full of stray dogs. I am scared of them. The rabid ones will chase you for miles, they say. Yana stops to pet them. She pulls a snack out of her purse. “Ety sobaky tak mila,” she says — these dogs are so cute. We eat at yurt along the bank of the river. Ulan-Ude is Buryat territory, a Mongolic people. They are the most populous indigenous group in Siberia. The central square of Ulan-Ude has the largest Lenin head in the world. It’s over twenty five feet tall.

+ + +

We can only stay the weekend. I study Russian four days a week. Yana is an interior designer. She has projects to return to. She still lives with her ex-boyfriend. “Ohn heroshy chelovyek,” she tells me. He is a good guy. She turns away when I take her photo. She covers her face with her hands. We are on the train back. The lights from each station, and the smell of gasoline, come in through the windows as we pass. It would be nice to keep going. It is four days to Moscow, three to Vladivostok in the other direction. Yana reaches for my hand from across the compartment. It is her way of saying goodnight. She is still deciding on things. She knows I’m leaving soon.

We make tea in the morning from the samovar in the corridor. The water comes out slightly greenish. We are rolling along the banks of the lake again, heading west. From north to south, Baikal is 400 miles long, longer than the drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Most people have only seen a part of it; Yana had never seen Ulan-Ude. No one I speak to has been to Severobaikalsk, a small town on the northernmost tip. I hear there are hot springs there.

+ + +

You can drink from the shores of the lake in certain parts. There are thousands of endemic plants and animals. The Baikal seals, nerpa, swim in circles at the Limnological Institute in Listvyanka, the closest town on the lake to Irkutsk. It is only an hour’s drive away. Listvyanka is where Baikal drains into the Angara, but the water here is polluted from runoff and overdevelopment. A man makes tea on the beach. He serves it in plastic cups that soften from the heat. It was sunny when we arrived, but now it is overcast and windy. We skip rocks across the water. Waves lap against the stone seawall. They dammed the Angara in several places. Electricity is practically free because of it, but it flooded regions around its source. Entire villages disappeared forever.