Our Russian grandmother (Babushka) at Olkhon Island
Nina grew up along the Northern part of Lake Baikal. She is Buryat. Buryats are people from the south-east of Russia. Their orignal language, Buryat, is one that is more close to the Mongolian language. It is easy to recognise them, because the Mongolian, more Asian look is present. They are not Christian or Muslim, but live according to Shamanism (and some Buddhism), they offer the gods of nature coins, polished glass or ribbons for good luck (something you can see a lot around Lake Baikal). She became a German teacher and married a man from Olkhon Island: the only island in Lake Baikal where people live. On this island, she has been teaching the kids in Khuzhir a language of a country she had never been to. For her, perfection of the language was not important, she just wanted the children to be able to communicate in another language. In the times of the Cold war, the English language wasn’t taught, so German was the most important second language in Russia. She taught for 40 years. Her days started at 8 in the morning and she would often find herself still working at school until 8 or 10 pm. She had to prepare the lessons for the next day at the light of a petroleum lamp, because the island didn’t have electricity until 2006. During soviet times, in the 60’s, they used to have a generator, which, between 5 and 10 pm provided the village of enough electricity to have one light per house and watch a bit of television. For her, she said, Soviet times were a bit better. Next to her job, she had kids (a son and a daughter as far as I know), a garden and a cow to care for. Fruits and vegetables in the supermarket are imported from China, so really expensive and, according to Nina, of bad quality. That’s why she has always been growing her own vegetables. It means that she has to work twice as hard in summer, because in winter it is too cold to grow anything. When she retired from teaching, her daughter suggested she could host German tourists, so she could make some extra money (to support herself and one of her 3 grandchildren who studies in Irkutsk) and keep up with her German. With 800 thousand tourists last summer, tourism is now the main source of employment in Olkhon. Everyone used to work in the fish factory, but they shot it down in the 90’s. Mainly because a significant decline in Omul fish, the most important endemic Lake Baikal fish. The only other working force on the island consist of 20 teachers, one postal worker and some ‘shops’, although most supermarket jobs are done by people from the mainland. She has around 6 little ‘cottages’ in her courtyard, enough to host 20 people at the same time, although she is too old now to be able to handle her hostel if it is fully booked, and her son helps her out now and then to take the trash out and refill the water. She has no running water, so the buckets for the tap have to be refilled and the ones for the sink have to be emptied manually. There is no shower, only a Russian Banja and there are two wooden toilet houses in the backyard. The fact that she only hosts a few tourists at a time, means she can care for her guests in a more personal way. This is something she likes to do, like a real grandma. She sometimes asks the other hostel or guesthouse owners if they talk to their guests and she is surprised by the fact that they tell her no. Maybe it is because her German is more fluent than the English of most people in Russia, but even in her little knowledge of the English language she seems to care for her guests in a more personal way then I have ever seen.
Sam and I stayed at her place for 3 nights. 3 afternoons where she would heat up the stove for us until we almost sweat out of the place. 3 evenings where she would show up with something to eat or drink for us: fried eggs from her chickens, Omul fish, home grown tomatoes (the best I ever tasted in Russia) and even a glass of milk straight from her cow. 3 mornings she would check upon us if we were awake and ready for the driver to pick us up. And a lot of moments where she told us about her life, Buryatic people and the island. We learned that although the Baikal Lake is one of the cleanest lakes in the world, the people on Olkhon have to buy more expensive water that is pumped from groundwater at the North of the Island, because there are some regulations around drinking from open waters. We learned there used to be 700 children on the island, but nowadays, there are only 300 … there is no future for them at the island because there are hardly jobs. She told us there used to be a time she knew everyone at the island, but since the ‘invasion’ of tourists and Russians who built their dachas (cottages) to spend the summer on Olkhon, these times were gone. But the most important thing she learned us, is the beauty of a simple life. A life of working hard, every single day, but a life where she can tell us about with an honest smile. She knows the most famous German poems and the cities the poets are born in by heart, but she never got a chance to travel to this places. Now she is too old, she told us, seeming to have fully accepted this fact. My restless travel heart can learn a lot from this and I hope there will be a time I can be fully satisfied with the things I’ve done and seen. It seems that the more I travel, the more I realise how much more there still is to be seen. During this trip, when I arrived at another beautiful place, I caught myself thinking sadly about this fact, about all the things I haven’t seen and are still to be done… Why is it so hard to look at what you have instead of what you don’t have? Something to work on…
Thank you Nina, from the bottom of my heart.
PS. If you ever want to go to Olkhon Island at Lake Baikal, contact me for her details.