Words by Chris van Ryn
“By all outward appearances,
our life is a spark of light
between one eternal darkness
I am standing on water. It fills the largest and oldest lake in the world. There is so much water – a mind boggling 23,000 cubic kilometres – that it owns 20 percent of the planets fresh water. From space, it is seen as a giant, crescent shaped gash in the earths crust. What is remarkable about this lake is that it is so deep and so clear that swimmers can suffer vertigo while taking a summer’s dip.
Except this is not summer. We are in the grip of a harsh -20 and the water is frozen. It covers the entire surface of the lake, stretching way out in front of us so that the distant shores are mere blurry shadows. A talcum powder sprinkling of snow takes the edge off the greyness. The wind skates across the surface, tossing falling flakes around like tiny hyperactive ballet dancers.
Under the ice, currents have fractured huge slabs, shunting them upwards and over so that they fold in on themselves like giant origami sculptures resembling rows upon rows of shark’s teeth – jagged and intimidating.
From time to time the frozen plates emit a high-pitched squeal, which ricochets across the lake in an undulating rhythm, a kind of whining that rises, falls, then tapers off, the outer edges of the sound lingering in the air, pregnant with a haunting quality. A beautiful, eerie sound, like a living thing speaking to us.
Adeela and I have travelled here from the Russian town of Irkutsk. It’s a two-hour journey by four-wheel drive, directly into the Siberian hinterland. The roads - long, straight and rolling - bisect the surrounding birch forests of tall slender soldiers, their mottled silver bark ankle deep in white snowy blankets. The roads have led us to the small town of Lityanka and to Lake Baikal, upon which we are standing. It is early morning and the sun has yet to break.
20 metres out from the edge of the lake, with the frozen wind biting my face, a thought as chilling as the surrounding air runs through me: at any minute I could fall through a fragile section of ice.
“Life is a soap bubble,” whispers Chekov.
In a horrific fantasy, I plunge into the bitter black waters. I am completely submerged. The icy cold water cuts through my clothes and bites my flesh. I am disoriented. Frantically, I look for my entry point. My head bumps against a hard cold plate. My chest becomes unbearably tight … a fog descends upon me …
For several neurotic moments my centre of attention is directed to my feet. They become my blind man’s cane, probing the ice ahead. Inching forward, I suck in and hold my breath, as if this will somehow reduce my weight.
I nod towards Adeela, who is strolling around casually.
“I’m heading over there.”
A wooden jetty protrudes 30 metres into the lake. I painstakingly shuffle over, reaching out to grip the handrail.
Thus tethered, my confidence is magically restored. As quickly as the thought came upon me, it has now slipped away. The imaginings of an icy grave shift to the distant shores of my consciousness. I jump up and down. I’ve heard stories of people driving across this lake. Huh.
Tugging at the edges of my scarf, I will it to cover the parts of my face that stubbornly remain exposed. My breath freezes in fractal-like patterns on the fabric. I grin at Adeela. She has covered her face with a thick scarf and a hat pulled well down over her ears, to leave a letterbox slot for her eyes.
“It must be somewhere around here,” says her muffled voice, as her eyes scan the lake.
“I guess. Though you’d have to be insane to do it. It’s so freezing!”
Our driver, a young sandy-haired Russian with eyes so light blue they seem backlit, had told us that he had recently taken part in an annual ritual carried out by Orthodox Christians. After cutting a hole in the ice, in the presence of a religious elder and a group of encouraging supporters, they plunge three times into the freezing waters - a recreation of their baptism and a symbol of their renewal of faith. The blocks of ice that come from the hole are fashioned into the shape of a cross. It is for this cross that we are searching.
“What’s that over there?” Adeela is shielding her eyes against the wind.
We shuffle over to it and stand in silence, imagining the scene at the lake a few days earlier. The cross stands about 2.5 metres tall and is held at the base by a mound of snow. Unlike the regular Christian cross, which is in two parts, the Orthodox cross is constructed in three, the third component being a diagonal footrest.
Just at that moment the sun emerges dazzling from the horizon, to reach out its long golden fingers. They illuminate the cross. A glow spreads upwards through the translucent ice, and, for a short while, it forms a halo at the intersection of the two main parts. The atmosphere of the earlier celebrations resonates around us.
The moment is a glorious affirmation of life - and the moment of my demise is postponed. The sand, however, is running through the glass.