where the echo was loudest

“Peschanaya village— a strange abandoned settlement, and the mysterious and enchanting Khoboy Cape— the northernmost point of the island.”

Leonid was my driver today. Antaoly the Cossack was having a day off. For this part of the trip we needed a go-anwhere, do-anything, off-road vehicle and a driver familiar with the terrain. Leonid was a Buryat, a local, the 16th generation of his family to live on the island. Alina had come down to breakfast with the news that she was not descended from Tartars as she had thought but Bulgars, a Turkic warrior tribe who roamed the region between the Volga and the Urals and who were subjugated by Chingis’ son Batu. My interest in genealogy had sparked her own quest for origins. So a Bulgar came down to breakfast. Despite sharing her news she was still remote. I had seen men look at her and heard their polite comments on the loveliness of her figure. But I couldn’t see her looking at them. Their comments bounced off the surface of her loveliness.

At first I thought she must be a thinker. But she isn’t. Her gaze is not directed inwards. Neither is she an observer. She hardly notices anyone, myself included. Instead her gaze rests in and on itself, as does her whole figure. She is totally self-sufficient, and this is why, much as I like her, her self-assurance is beginning to awaken a yearning in me. I am missing the companionship of a fellow traveller.

Alina climbed into the battered old jalopy that Leonid was driving. She was to act as translator for Leonid’s thick, hurtling Russian.

“All Mongols and Buryats are descended from the same 272 men,” she said. Leonid was talkative despite the concentration needed to drive through deep ruts in an old track that wound through pine and larch forests.

The ruts were several feet deep. The 4x4 UAZ 469 was a real vintage piece, originally built in 1971 for the army. While Leonid was telling Alina this, he leant far into his side in order to skim the vehicle over a shelf of boulders. The car was on its side, the driver’s side. I was clutching my window to prevent myself falling on top of him. Leonid was quiet now, steering the vehicle almost by will power. The engine made up for his silence with wild, screeching noises. The unperturbable Alina smiled serenely. Stones smashed against the underside as we jolted from side to side. I laughed at the sheer derring-do. We landed safely on all four wheels. A few minutes later, still bouncing about, a strangled cry from Leonid alerted me to impending danger. Alina translated. He was merely reporting that he’d seen a kite skimming the trees.

We were coming into the part of the island that is semi-desert. The road to the tract was constantly dissolving, and at times it became impassable except by Leonid’s miraculous control of the steering wheel. This went on for hours. The truck shook violently on the uneven mounds of earth, our mood continued to skim the dizzy heights of hysteria. Leonid was so confident of his driving skills he took a call on his mobile. In a forest clearing we stopped to pick berries. Through Alina I asked Leonid about his life. He said he had spent his youth in the island’s labour camp, our next destination.

What was that like, I asked naively.

“Fishing in all weathers and processing it with bare hands up to the waist in water; spending the night in the barracks, wet through and with very little food. The prisoners, standing for several hours in cold water and nets; they caught the omul, on the ice there, and ate it raw.”

 

The steeliness of this man was imperturbable. His love of his island was palpable. His story-telling was colourful and best of all, personal. It frustrated me that I could only hear it secondhand.

“When a stormy wind blew,” Alina said, echoing Leonid’s words, “– the Sarma – we rejoiced.” She broke off from Leonid’s story. “The Sarma is the coldest wind on the island,” she explained. “It blows at at 40 meters per second.”

My God, I said, speechless in the face of such extremity.

“Yes. Leonid and his colleagues rejoiced on these days because these were days off.”

It sounds brutal, I said.

He preferred it to being a tourist guide, she replied.

Why

She turned to him, and repeated my question.

“I didn’t have to talk to anyone,” was the reply.

To date, there is no documentary evidence of the existence of this camp on Olkhon Island. Only anecdotes from its survivors. It was created in the late 1930s in a sandy tract called Peschanaya, 20 km to the north of Khuzhir. Leonid’s father worked there as a supervisor. Leonid followed at the age of 15. It was a correctional labour colony for those convicted of petty hooliganism and theft. The camp was part of the gulag system. Barracks were fenced with barbed wire, although, on the whole there were no political exiles here.

Convicts from Moscow were often office workers sent here for being late at their desks by five to 10 minutes. Locals were sent here for stealing from the collective farm. One old woman stole five kg of potatoes and got sentenced to five years. She died on her second day. All prisoners worked on the fishing boats, supplying the catch for the needs of Moscow and later the men at the Front.

The forest roads we were bouncing along had been laid by these prisoners. We traced our way along the trough of a valley and found a long muddy ridge that led to the tilted plateau of the steppe, which sloped all around us. Ahead of us was a track made of short zigzags which took us into a sand-filled bowl and the vaporous lake.

We were at Peschananya, the gulag in the sand dunes. The wind here blows from the sea towards the land which shovels the sand away from the shore and moulds it into tufty hillocks. It was like Camber Sands on the Kentish coast where my Great-Aunt Dolly once took me to a Butlin’s holiday camp. It was just as mournful though more forsaken, and on a more operatic scale. The trees for instance: the wind had slaughtered them so that they stood like stunted skeletons forlorn along the shore.

I stood by the shore of the lake which looked more than ever like a sea in this sandy bay. Inland was a collection of long, single-storey barracks. Leonid pointed out a lonely, battered hut. In it had lived a Belorussian who had been sent to the camp after the Second World War. Mikhail Ozarko had been a friend to Leonid. They had talked together when Leonid had worked there. Ozarko was a proud man whose family back in Minsk had bred horses for the Polish cavalry.

“They were a big deal,” Leonid said.

Ozarko had a valiant war record. He had taken part in the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran  in 1941. After this operation, he had fought with the English against Rommel in Africa. After the war, Stalin considered him an English spy and therefore politically unreliable.

In the late Forties, a raggle-taggle band of Estonians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Ukrainians and Germans were brought to Olkhon. Due to their presence the population of the island doubled to about three thousand people. We had passed some of their graves in the forest. Leonid’s grandmother had been the local wise woman who was called upon to nurse them in their last days. The arrivals settled in Khuzhir and lived there until they were judged to have been “rehabilitated”. Some were forced to stay until amnesty was announced in the mid-fifties. Most of the prisoners went home. The camp was liquidated, but the Byelorussian, Ozarko, remained. He had  married a woman, an-exile from Western Ukraine.

The “Old Man” as he was known and his wife settled in the hut closest to the beach. This was where the camp security had previously lived. Ozarko worked together with Leonid, as before, at the fish factory. His wife died, their children grew up and went to the West. But the “Old Man” stayed. Leonid remembered him as a barterer like all the locals, living off the land, and selling the surplus. After amnesty he started farming cattle, and pigs. The government offered him a pension but he declined because he hated the Russian authorities.

He wanted nothing to do with them. He hated the Russians, Leonid said in a voice free of emotion.

Was he happy living here, I asked him.

“He had to be happy. He had no choice.”

In the end, his children gone, his wife dead, the old man lived in the hut with his chickens. He sold eggs in Khuzhir, walked for many kilometers, handed them over to the shop, and put his money in a savings book. He also had several cows. He lived off their milk and meat. He grew stiff.

“One summer all the hay had been mowed but he could not work any longer. He went to get his savings. That’s when he learned they were only worth a crate of vodka.”

He died of grief.

 

More than anything – more than irritation with the uncaring authorites and the hotels that dump their waste in the lake, Leonid felt sad for Nature. When I brought up the subject of tourism his voice became animated. He was angry that tourists come to Olkhon and climb over its sacred places, defiling rockfaces  with their selfies and their ignorance.

“They leave ribbons on poles and have no idea what they are doing. They don’t understand our traditions. When they go, when the season ends, we remove their ribbons and we burn them. We keep our sacred places hidden now, where outsiders can’t find them.”

 “Sunset at Cape Khoboy, a popular place for meditation. The site produces remarkable, multiple echoes that bounce off the rock.”

At Cape Khoboy where Nature plays with Heaven’s guiding light. I howled into Lake Baikal. It came from my solar plexus and it bounced back from the Buryat Republic. I heard it lapping in the lake, I saw it splashing in the water. I emptied myself into a cosmology of animal spirits and dead souls and a species of shrimp that eats all organic matter and keeps the water clean, and Heaven became a part of me and I of it.

I can go home now.