At first glance, Khuzir resembles a quintessential ruin that was out of phase in a landscape glaring at infinity: broken fences, dirt paths and a civilizational disconnect permeated by its isolation. Stand anywhere and the Baikal takes up most of your vision, adding a callous immensity to the size of the land that the eye can never compass. Eerie enormity becomes intense timelessness as you stare at the terrain so open that Glasnost, a term coined by Gorbachev, meaning openness, could have referred to the landscape as much as it had intended for Soviet politics.

There are no hawkers, no commercials. Nor are there churches, or windmills, but cattle-ranchers aplenty. Barricades of birch and conifer part to unveil wooden huts and cattle surrounded by fences. Two Babushkas walk along the gravel road with pails filled with water, their attire very much a reminder that no one had told them we were in the 21st century.

There are no sounds of machines, humans, or animals. Just the sounds of our own footsteps echoing against the backdrop of a terrain so other-worldly. The landscape bulks alongside the adjacent pale blue waters of the Baikal, dense to the skyline, in some sections, with pine trees. A lonely Izba, to the west, reflects the evening gaze of the setting sun.

The sky, now fully clear, is star studded. We begin to make feeble attempts towards identifying constellations, the lack of knowledge in which pushes us towards tracing out shapes, most of which would’ve convinced Euclid to rise from his grave in search of us. What else could you expect from four bachelors?

As we continue to stare aimlessly at the Baikal, the great glories of Siberia, we would learn, lie in its nature.

At an age where we are prisoners to the beeps of our smartphones, Siberia represented a new form of liberation. As a young boy, I was taught that Siberia was the reason Russia was the largest country in the world. A casual glance at the atlas soon became an obsession, and the words from Voyages in World History, “… to the East, across the Ural Mountains, lay the forbidding lands of Siberia,” only intensifying the desire, not only to visit the land, but to do it through means of a journey that was once forbidden for foreigners – the Trans-Siberian rail. I recall spending hours every day tracing the route in the map through my index finger – Moscow, Kirov, Yekaterinburg, Tyumen, Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk, Irkustk …

Long before the formation of the Russian state, as we know it today, Siberia, to the Soviets, was a rural waste, like Guantanamo, where anarchists and convicts were sent in exile. Yet, reading Leo Tolstoy, over the 88-hour train journey from Moscow to Irkutsk, had given me an impression that much of Siberia was a promised land, where the innocence that was bereft in the state was present instead in abundance: where the citizens were untouched by the pallid consequences of savagery and wars that were prevalent in Europe. The lack of amenities relating to modern civilizations has often been overshadowed by the closeness between the locals, and with nature.

As you travel east, a fellow Uzbek passenger on the train had quoted in Russian, the more friendly the people become. The squint-eyed Kyrgyz passenger who shares our coach invites himself to our berths every now and then, requesting for a picture to be taken and insisting that we write down his address and send him post cards. The provodnista, the coach master, named Alexey Alexeyvich Alexeev, tells us that it has been his family tradition to name every boy born in their family Alexey. We inquire about showers, sheepishly in a third-class coach. He breaks into a smile, and suggests that we use one at the Yekaterinburg Vokzal as the train is scheduled to stop there for forty minutes.

There are no sounds of machines, humans, or animals. Just the sounds of our own footsteps echoing against the backdrop of a terrain so other-worldly. The landscape bulks alongside the adjacent pale blue waters of the Baikal, dense to the skyline, in some sections, with pine trees. A lonely Izba, to the west, reflects the evening gaze of the setting sun.

A Kazakh kid, about three, who we soon christen Genghis, never misses an opportunity to cause me physical harm, latching at any opportunity to throw objects at me. Any act of resistance I put up only increases his desire to expend more of his energy.

The Babushka from the pantry, after discovering our Indian origins, never misses her chance to let us know that the “Roopee” is the Indian equivalent of a Ruble and that it has the picture of “Gandhee”, as she rolls her trolley past several times a day. She later questions if “Indeera Gandhee” is related to the Mahatma, and expresses her disappointment on learning that she isn’t.

Yao, a co-traveler of Chinese origin was a student of Political Sciences at Moscow State University. He was on his way back to China through rail. He spoke broken English, and understandably was our translator through the journey. Roma, another student, joined us at Novosibirsk with the intention of improving his English by spending time with us. We learnt that it was common tradition to have a shot of vodka on each side of the continent as we passed through from Asia to Europe. And that “it was because of vodka that Islam never entered Russia,” said Yao. “Russians like their alcohol, and the Islamic law prohibits its consumption.” I settled for the Golubtsy, rolled cabbage, instead.

The world’s impression of Russia is a derivative of the authoritarian regime we hear of from the Kremlin, where organized crime has infiltrated in to all aspects of politics and the society. But it hardly registers to the reader that while the sun rises in Moscow, it is almost setting in Vladivostok. If over 7000 kilometers of distance fails to quantify the gulf, seven time zones certainly does. Siberia, as an independent state, if hypothetically cut off from European Russia, would still lay claim to being the largest country in the world. The atlas, it seems, has failed to print the visitor’s impression of Siberia, almost as though the contours are sketched using invisible ink.

You wouldn’t know, by glancing at it, that a significant part of Moscow’s earnings came from the natural riches of Siberia. During the rule of the communist state, Siberians – who, by nature, were hunters – provided the state with one of its most valuable exports – fur. The State purchased the fur from the Siberian locals for low prices, and sold it in the international market for significantly larger sums. Oil, minerals and wood from the Taiga Forests – the area of which is considerably larger than the entire Indian subcontinent – constitute a portion of the rest.

Eighty-eight hours and several games of cards later, we disembark at Irkutsk, a town that is frequented due to its proximity to the Baikal; which was once known as the “Paris of Siberia” due to its largely aristocratic population. Shared taxis from Irkutsk take you to Litsvyanka, a closer and more touristy alternative to Olkhon Island. A Brazilian co-traveler we meet at a hostel in Irkutsk recommends that we visit the latter and camp in its only village – Khuzir. An island within the world’s deepest lake is hard to resist.

Renowned as one of the five sources of Shamanic Energy in the world, Olkhon Island is inhabited by over one thousand Buryats, an indigenous tribe, a sub-group of the Mongols, those who traded a nomadic lifestyle for one in agriculture. Several who resisted the communist regime fled to Mongolia as refugees after being defeated by the Red Army.

Huts stood deep amidst forests of pines as we follow a path hoping to lead us to a campsite, but it wasn’t to be until we met a brown-whiskered man wearing a jungle green shirt and khakis who waved at us and said “Rooms?”. The huts around are one floor high.

We weren’t sure what to expect, given the uncertainty such isolation could have had on its inhabitants. Search for it on the internet: you’ll find precious little, but these are spare rooms in houses belonging to locals, happy to rent them out to tourists to supplement their otherwise meagre income. Locals, otherwise, catch Baikal’s prized possession – the Omul fish – a delicacy they say tastes best when eaten raw, something I couldn’t validate given my vegetarianism.

He looks at us uncertainly and gestures using his fingers to question how long we intend to stay. He grabs a branch fallen off a nearby tree and sketches the number ‘475’ in the wet soil in which we stood. He notices us arguing amongst one and other and asks us where we are from. “India.” His eyebrows light up; he breaks into a wide smile and starts singing, to our pleasant surprise, an old Bollywood classic “Jimmy Jimmy”.  His efforts go in vain as we refuse to budge beyond 350 RUB per night, considerably short of the 475 RUB he was demanding, despite his best attempts using Bollywood stars – Raj Kapoor, Mithun Chakraborthy – as tools.

We eventually find our way to an oversized montage that advertised rooms. Shaped wood is everywhere in suggestive, incomplete form. The walls adorn paintings of Lake Baikal and the Shaman Rock. The air is heavy with sawdust.

A woman in her early forties greets us and in broken, but decent English, inquires if we require rooms. She then barks an order to the apprentice and a young boy, whose name we later learn is Bakhtar, the lady’s son, leads us down the path and into the heart of what seemed like a barn. Bakhtar shows us two rooms on the first floor. We like the rooms – they are small, yet cozy. We follow him back to the coffee shop where we negotiate a decent rate of 675 RUB for two rooms. We make the payment, collect our lock and keys and head back to the room to dump our bags.

We follow the path to the Baikal, amidst pitch darkness, well after 10 PM. The night is starless; we are guided largely by the silent sound of the waves emanating through the air. Having penetrated a slope filled with pine trees that led down to the coastline, I sat down to collect my thoughts.

“Hello,” a voice greets us. We turn back to notice a tall, lanky, unshaven man walk towards us. “Are you from Thailand?”

“No, India.”

“India … Namaste!” and he breaks into a salute by bringing his palms together, Indian style. “My name is Sergey, and I am fascinated by India and Sanskrit. I want to visit India and learn Sanskrit.” In the most unlikely of places, a stranger we bump into expresses his desire to learn a language spoken by very few in India. We learn that he is a nomad who has been on the road for 3 years now. We exchange tales, and listen to him narrate the myth of Lake Baikal.

Lake Baikal accounts for over a fifth of the world’s freshwater, housing thousands of species that are indigenous only to itself. Several rivers sink in to the Baikal, with only the Angara flowing out of it. Buryat legend tells of a story that during the times of old, the mighty Baikal was kind, loving man who’d channeled every ounce of his affection towards his daughter Angara. Angara falls in love with a young fellow, Yenisei, which enraged Baikal to extent that Baikal, in a sudden surge of fury, struck a mountain, broke a cliff away and hurled it at his daughter.

The cliff landed on Angara’s throat, while her cries for forgiveness fell to Baikal’s deaf ears. The Angara river, flowing out of the Baikal, legend says, are her tears flowing towards Yenisei. The cliff that Baikal cast towards his daughter is known as the Shaman Rock.

We climb a cliff adjacent to the Shaman Rock. From atop, we notice a few Banyas (wooden bath-houses). They are warmed to extreme heat, we learn, so that post-treatment, a dip in the cold waters of the Baikal is a sensible health-conscious choice (alternating between heat and cold water stimulates blood vessels). On the other side, a further gentle climb away from the Shaman, we notice numerous prayer flags flapping. Buryats follow Shamanism as a religion, and it is believed that a true Shaman has a physical defect – like two thumbs in a hand.

A faint smell of wet soil hangs over the air. An indescribable vitality pervades over the waters of the Baikal. The sky slowly clears and the temperatures drop exponentially, a familiar characteristic of Siberian summers – hot days and cold nights, the standard deviation often, always a significant number. Fortunately, we are well insulated.