Take me back to Ulan-Ude's frozen wastes

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Four weeks ago I thought I was going to die from hypothermia. I was enclosed in a shield of air so maliciously icy, I could barely summon the strength to breathe. In any case, it hurt to suck oxygen into my lungs. The air was so Arctic it burned and stung. So unfathomably cold was it, my faith in a loving and hospitable world was severely shaken.

At Lake Baikal. Photo by Catherine MarshallIt was colder than the time I trekked across pack-ice in Antarctica, its fissures creaking and expanding off into the frozen yonder; colder, come to think of it, than the brief swim I had afterwards in that continent's polar waters. Then, at least, I could extricate myself from the deep blue freeze and quell the pain with a warm blanket and a cup of hot, rum-spiked tea.

It was colder than the time I trekked up Perito Merino Glacier in Argentina's Southern Patagonian Ice Field, its jagged snout coming off in chunks and crashing into the frigid water, its icy furrows so thoroughly depleted of oxygen they had turned to suffocated shades of blue.

It was colder than the day I drove along the ice-paved Icefields Parkway from Banff to Lake Louise in Canada's Alberta and discovered that the ski slopes there had been closed because gales were blowing and snow was falling and the temperature, when wind-chill was factored in, was just shy of minus 40 degrees Celsius. My nose, poking above a tube scarf, felt frostbitten for hours afterwards.

It wasn't quite as cold, though, as America's Midwest, where temperatures approached record lows last week and people died from hypothermia. But still, Ulan-Ude was a mind-numbing minus 36 Celsius, and not even as cold as it is wont to get here. My body was snap-frozen.

We had arrived in the capital of Russia's Autonomous Republic of Buryatia, located near the eastern shore of Lake Baikal, by train the day before, on our Trans-Siberian journey from Moscow to Vladivostok.

Until now we'd adapted well to the northern hemisphere's unfamiliar freeze: our hands were wrapped in polar gloves; our heads crowned in protective wool; our bodies clad in thermal layers and ice-proof jackets; our feet — the most important body part when enduring such extremes — sheltered in snug snow boots. The cold was nothing, we declared, when insulated so thoroughly against its malice.  

 

"In some sense I was slipping into the shoes of these Russian Orthodox Christians, who were exiled or fled to Siberia's wastes from European Russia during the church reforms of the 17th century."

 

But at Tarbagatay the next morning — a village of Old Believers located southwest of Ulan-Ude — the cold somehow got the better of us. As we followed Father Sergei through the community's modest, unheated ethnography museum and tiny church, I could focus on nothing but the air stealing invisibly through my clothes and driving its frozen claws into my skin.

Perhaps there was bitter poetry in this, for in some sense I was slipping into the shoes of these Russian Orthodox Christians, who were exiled or fled to Siberia's wastes from European Russia during the church reforms of the 17th century. How they must have suffered through these unspeakable winters, how they must have yearned for home.

We returned home ourselves via Vladivostok a week later. At first the spike in temperature was pleasant, but it edged gradually northwards, eventually becoming so intolerable I thought I would succumb to heatstroke. I was enclosed in a blanket of warmth so suffocating, so wickedly humid, I could barely focus.

So sweltering was it, the candle placed in a candlestick on my dining room table softened and curved and arched a perfect 180 degrees so that now its wick points towards the floor. For a brief moment, the temperature was the precise inverse of that which we'd experienced in Ulan-Ude: 36 degrees Celsius (with close to 100 per cent humidity).

There's joy to be had, to be sure, in the sunshine pouring so generously across our landscape, the skies beaming in blues deeper and brighter than the most airless of ice on a glacier. This light is medicinal, washing away the gloom and revitalising my psyche. But there's fear, too, for a continent that blisters and crisps and blazes around us, for a climate so severe it sends wild animals to their death in a parched and desolate landscape.

As the week progressed and the temperature headed beyond 40 degrees and the stories became more fraught, my vigour flagged like that molten candlestick. I longed to return to the chill of Ulan-Ude, where our eyelashes froze to white feathers and the snowflakes fell in limpid perfection and the cold shook us so viscerally, so expansively, from our spiritual slumber.

 

 

Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a Sydney-based journalist and travel writer. She travelled as a guest of Oman Tourism.

Main image: Lake Baikal (photo by Catherine Marshall)

 

Topic tags: Catherine Marshall, Russia

 

 

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Existing comments

A traveller certainly needs to be intrepid, Catherine. I thought of Alexander Solzhenitsyn (and many others) banished to the gulag somewhere very cold as I read your account. Our own severe summers also test our mettle - particular thoughts are with the people of Townsville.
Pam | 05 February 2019


Oh Catherine, you take us to such amazing places and with such words! Thank you. Once again you have whetted my feverish appetite.
Anne Doyle | 06 February 2019


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