Adventures of a Backpacking Granny

Inspiriting Siberia

Sybil Pretious takes us with her to Lake Baikal in Siberia

“Aerodynamically a bee should not be able to fly but the bee does not know this and it flies.”

There are, of course, down sides to being a backpacking granny. The most important one was that I missed out on getting to know my young grandchildren. But the truth of the matter was that my girls eventually lived in three different countries far apart so the result would have been the same. Fortunately, there were old fashioned phone calls, emails and Skype so I was not totally isolated when I left for my teaching post in Suzhou, China in 2006 and I tried to include them in my trips each year. But there was too little physical contact, and nothing can replace that as we have discovered during the pandemic. I hope I have given them courage to be fearless explorers and to fly when they didn’t know that they could.

So, the second half of my Russian adventure in 2007 emerged as I left the wondrously beautiful St Petersburg, one of my favourite cities. The Heritage will always remain, for me, the most brilliant art gallery I have ever been to, both the building and the art therein.

I was to travel via Moscow to Irkutsk in Siberia.

At a small Moscow airport, I had very little time to change flights and hit the ground running from the plane. I whipped off my backpack and threw it onto the conveyer belt and stood, ready to sprint out the door to the waiting plane.

A heavy-set Russian woman stood with hands on her hips.

“You hef knife in bag!”

“No, I don’t carry knives!”

With that she proceeded to empty my carefully arranged backpack.

No knife.

I grabbed everything, stuffed it back into the bag and was about to grab it and sprint after the disappearing queue for the plane when she put a restraining hand on mine and proceeded to put the backpack through the scanner once more. Meanwhile my nails were being chewed to shreds.

The bag came through and she pounced, thrusting her hand right down the front pocket that went under the base.

Triumphantly she brandished a small metal knife, fork and spoon set that my daughter had put in the backpack without informing me when she had given it to me as a present.

It is interesting to note that the backpack had travelled out of China, where I was living at the time, into and out of Canada; into and out of the UK; into and out of Germany without anyone stopping me. I was both impressed and irritated with Russian thoroughness.

As I would be in Irkutsk for a few days before boarding the Siberian Express bound for Vladivostok, I had booked a tour of The Taisy Open-Air Museum of Architecture and Ethnology and then on to Lake Baikal before catching the train.

 The best laid plans of mice and women…

Passing through my mind at that time was the fleeting thought that it would be good to have a companion to travel with and to discuss and share experiences after the trip. It was not a serious plan though.

The tour of the museum was a wonderful introduction to life in this generally frozen land – I went in August, their summertime.

Then on to Lake Baikal. This ethereal lake is the biggest in the world, holding 22% of the world’s fresh water and more water than all the great lakes together. It is a mile deep and has 330 rivers running into it and only one exiting it, the Angarra. The nerpa is the only fresh-water seal in existence. It is the oldest, deepest and clearest lake in the world, and it held me in its thrall instantly. The water is so clear that it is easy to see down to a depth of 39m on a clear day.

Nerpas on Lake Baikal. Courtesy: Creative Commons

 All fascinating facts but actually being at the lake is an uplifting experience. I was entranced and wished I could have stayed longer.

On a high, I arrived back in Irkutsk. People in Irkutsk are keen to tell you about their links with the rebel Decembrists and the history is recorded in The Historical and Memorial Museum. It is a wonderful human story of rebellion, strength of character and endurance in an inhospitable land and climate after they were banished to Siberia.

I did some shopping for the train journey. Standing in the supermarket a woman next to me held up a soup packet and flapped her arms like a chicken pointing to the packet. I laughed and told her I spoke English. She was using similar tactics to me to understand.

The Travel Agent delivered my ticket for the Siberian Express leaving the next day. I glanced at the departure time and knew I would have plenty of time to get to the station.

I therefore arrived at the station next day and couldn’t understand why everybody just shook their heads when I showed them the ticket to get directions to the train platform. Eventually I was shown up a very steep flight of stairs and went, sweating and dragging my suitcase with me.

I was hot and tearful as I showed the clerk my ticket. She stabbed the ticket with her finger and said,

 “Moscow time!”

Oh, no! I had forgotten that in Russia local trains run on local time, but long-distance trains run on Moscow time. I had missed the train!

She said I could book another train which I did and returned to my lodgings. I showed the ticket to the receptionist and she smiled and happened to say,

“Ah, you reach Vladivostoc on 25th August. Good.”

“What? My visa would have run out by then.”

There was nothing for it but to return to the station, up those stairs and cancel the trip. This I did and received a voucher to cash downstairs.

Downstairs was just the vast waiting room, no sign of an office to cash the voucher.

Enough! I just stood in the middle of the that terminal, tears flowing down my face and shouted,

“Does anyone here speak English?”

A young lady came to my rescue and I was directed outside the building to another building to reclaim the money.

This was obviously a conspiracy by the universe to keep me where I was, and I was not amused.

I booked into a room on Lake Baikal for the next three days. I had wished to return to the lake on my first visit so here I was, though I was unappreciative of the events that had brought me here.

Enjoying the beauty and tranquillity of the Lake I regained my elated feeling as I strolled  along the banks,  dipping my toes into the pristine water. I stopped to take a photo of an outlook building on the flower- strewn shore.


A distinctly Australian voice came from behind me.

“G’day, that looks loke a great photo.”

We chatted for a minute or so and then went on our opposite ways.

I wandered to Listvankia, a charming village on the shores of the Lake. I spent a lovely two hours in shops, admiring the quaint architecture, dressing up in the national costumes and buying my lunch of freshly caught fish which I ate as I sat on the shore.


In Russian costume

 I wandered back, feeling relaxed and finally accepting the fact that I had missed the train. At the exact same spot where I had seen him before was the Australian man, strolling down the path, returning from his walk. The synchronicity was obvious and before long we had exchanged emails and promised to keep in touch.

The day before leaving I enjoyed a boat trip on the lake. The weather was overcast and rainy, so I was unable to take the glass-bottomed boat to admire life below the water, but it was special anyway.


On Lake Baikal

The travel agent who issued my Siberian Express train ticket took no chances and was at the airport to make sure I left.

I flew into a small airport in Beijing (we could not use the main one because the Olympic Games were in progress), late at night and was due to leave at 5am next morning. My plan was just to sleep on one of the benches in the airport. It would have only been a few hours before my plane left for Shanghai at 5 in the morning.

Airport staff, seeing me through customs asked which hotel I was booked into.

I told them my plan.

Only one hostess spoke English. “You can’t sleep here. The airport is locked for the night because of the Games. We will find you a hotel.”

“But I don’t have money for a hotel.”

On hearing that she chatted away to her colleagues animatedly for several minutes.

I waited.

They looked at me despairingly.

Finally, resigned, she said, “You can come with us to our staff hotel.”

 I thought that she should have top marks for innovation. And thanked her profusely. I was transported with them in their Airport mini-van and directed in the lobby to a leather couch. Toilets were nearby.

I settled for the night and was almost asleep when I felt a presence looming over me.

It seemed that the guard had not been informed of my stay. He chatted away in Chinese, waving his arms towards the door and getting really bothered. I looked blank and held up my hands in despair. Eventually he gave up and said the words that all Chinese people had been taught before the Beijing games, “Welcome to China.”

And I went back to sleep. I was woken at 5am to be transported with the crew back to the airport to catch my plane. What wonderful, caring service I had had from everyone.

If you are wondering what happened about the Aussie and myself, well we corresponded for about 8 months before I invited him to come to China and to accompany me on a trip to Vietnam. Having done that, I panicked. What if he smoked? I couldn’t travel with anyone who smoked.

I emailed him.

“If you smoke, then the invitation is rescinded.”

He neither smoked nor drank.

It is interesting that I had had the thought passing through my mind about a travelling companion a well as a desire to return to Lake Baikal. Both had come to pass but not in quite the way I had expected.

Now when things don’t work out as I planned, or times seem difficult, I tend to shrug and think that there are plans afoot that I am not privy to but which I will understand on hind-sight. Easier said than done, though!


Sybil Pretious writes mainly memoir pieces reflecting her varied life in many countries. Lessons in life are woven into her writing encouraging risk-taking and an appreciation of different cultures.



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