Байкальская рыбалка (Baikalskaya Rybalka) is Russia’s biggest ice fishing competition, bringing hundreds of amateur and professional fishermen from all across Russia and even all over the world to the ice of Lake Baikal each year. By some miracle, I managed to score a chance to participate in Baikalskaya Rybalka 2013 in Ust-Barguzin, and it was one of the best experiences I’ve had so far in this Fulbright adventure!
As any fishing trip should, this one began unforgivably early in the morning. Like most of Russia’s greatest adventures, this was another one of those instances that I really had no idea where I was going, what I was doing, where I was staying, or when I would return—but it turned out absolutely perfectly. I found myself waiting at the bus stop at 4:45 on Friday morning for “someone” to pick me up. There was a black van parked nearby, but I didn’t know if it was my ride or some kidnapper with free candy. A call from the organizer of our trip convinced me to “get in the van,” and we were off. We stopped to pick up Nici and Anja (from Austria and Switzerland), and then the van dropped us off at the Avtovokzal, where we boarded a bus to Ust-Barguzin.
A few hours later, the bus driver motioned for us to get off the bus; so, presumably, we had arrived. Stepping off the bus, we were greeted by a man named Sasha, who showed us into his house—which is apparently a type of homestay guesthouse for tourists and friends of the family. Here we found incredible kindness, loving warmth, and incomparable hospitality. He—along with everyone else we met over the next couple days—took such good care of us! At Sasha’s we met Alexander, founder of the Great Baikal Trail; Slava, a fast-talking and excitable photographer; and Alexei, a French teacher from Moscow. They were eager to talk to us about their projects and adventures and to show us pictures of penguins and nerpas on Baikal. After a delicious and filling lunch (borsht and fresh fish), we were schlepped off to Baikal for rybalka registration and opening ceremonies.
Nici, Anja, a Russian man named Valyera, and I would be competing as team “Евросоюз,” or “European Union.” We had EU uniform smocks and a giant EU flag. Ironically, only one of us hails from a European Union member country. Since I speak the best Russian of us foreigners three, and Valyera couldn’t care less about the competition, I was designated team captain. And that, my friends, is how an American became Captain of the European Union ice fishing team.
After standing through long and tedious opening ceremonies, as they called team captains to the stage one by one to be assigned an ice plot number, Valyera took us out onto the ice to teach us how to fish. Though Valyera clearly wanted nothing to do with this competition (he prefers fishing alone by his home, in a quiet, relaxed setting), he was nothing but gallant, and kind to his girly foreign teammates and treated us with great patience and care. As our only мужик, he took care of all the manly duties, such as drilling holes in meter-thick ice and showing us how to мотать like professionals. We spent a good while practicing this complicated technique of “casting” and “reeling in” our lines (and later that evening, Sasha told us to forget everything Valyera had taught us and just fish like normal people). When we got cold and he got bored, we headed back to shore. “Пойдем чай пить!” he said: “let’s go drink tea.”
In Russia, teatime is a lot bigger deal than in the US—чай пить means closeness and bonding and heart-to-heart conversation while consuming copious amounts of tea, sometimes for hours on end. But rarely is tea not the staple of teatime. So I really couldn’t have known that teatime actually meant vodka time—but I wasn’t exactly shocked. (To be fair, there was tea present—but it was more of a chaser than anything else). The only thing Russians love more than telling you that Russian alcoholism is a huge stereotype and misconception is sharing with you the old Russian tradition of real Russian vodka. We were welcomed into someone’s tent, introduced to lots of new faces—who were all eager to talk to us, bombard us with questions, drink with us, and feed us piles of meat.
Afterwards, Sasha drove us back home. His wife, Galina, greeted us with tea and a pie too delicious to refuse. Then, Sasha introduced us to traditional Russian banya—which somehow I’d managed to miss out on thus far. Basically, I discovered, banya is kind of like sauna—except more extreme. While Finnish saunas can be upwards of 100 degrees Celcius and are very dry, Russian banyas are usually “only” around 80 degrees Celcius but mega-super-humid. The humid heat of the banya feels a lot more intense and unbearable, but the end-result is, thus, all the more refreshing and rejuvenating.
After suffering in the heat for as we could stand, we ran outside into the snow to cool off, steam rising in clouds from our bodies and hanging in the frigid Siberian air. Then it was back into the banya, where we were introduced to the birch branches. It is Russian banya tradition to hit each other with leafy branches. Sasha was an expert at the timely addition of water to the stones to increase the heat and humidity and using the branches to fan the extra heat in your direction, while gently lashing from head to toe. There is only one way to describe the sensation: I felt like a rainforest.
Just as the heat and branches became unbearable, I was released from the banya for “contrast.” After accidentally throwing a bucket of hot water on me (torture!), Sasha threw a bucket of cold water in my face and said I could go stand outside in the snow. And let me tell you: there is nothing like the feeling of freedom and calm confidence you get when standing naked outside in the snow on a basically-still-winter night in the middle of Siberia. I went from feeling like a rainforest to feeling like king of the world.
At 10:30, it was dinner time. Our stomachs were still full to bursting from too much food, but we managed to find more room for the tastiest meal I’ve ever had in Russia—including more fresh fish and a salad with no mayonnaise. Sasha produced a bottle of vodka—he had made the vodka himself using milk, he said proudly. We had already had too much to drink earlier that day, but you can’t exactly thumb your nose at за знакомство or за Байкал– and чуть-чуть always turns into an empty bottle on the floor.
In the morning, we suited up in the snow suits and boots that Sasha had so generously provided us, donned our EU-smocks, and headed to Baikal for the rybalka. The fishing began at 8AM and ended around 1 (they added an extra hour because it was a horrible day for fishing and they just weren’t biting). Funnily enough, the actual fishing part of our rybalka adventures was the least fun and exciting thing we did that weekend. Five hours sitting on ice not catching fish can be boring—even on Baikal. Anja did catch three fish, though—the smallest little guys you ever saw (14 grams), but they counted.
I began to suspect that we ourselves—Nici, Anja, and I—were the most interesting things on the ice that morning (a suspicion later confirmed when a woman told me exactly that). Being foreign makes you a celebrity. Also, девченки in general are relatively scarce commodity at such manly tournaments. People kept stopping by to take pictures of us and watch us try to fish—we were even interviewed. The judge in charge of guarding our sector of ice plots kept chatting us up and managed to procure our phone numbers. And our neighbors about 30 feet away took a great interest in us as well, though the judge thankfully wouldn’t allow them to come over to take pictures. They shouted lots of questions at me, called home to brag that they had met “Americans,” and spent a lot of time staring at us like zoo animals. These hours of bonding over not catching fish together were interspersed with inquiries on the economic situation in Detroit and cries of “Hey, America! Hey, Detroit! Catch anything?” At the end, when they were packing up to go home, our judge allowed one to come over and ask for my phone number.
After the competition, we had some lunch in a big tent, and then we wandered around for a while, watching the concert and festivities. We made friends with a team of fishermen all dressed as Mario (right down to the fake mustaches) and another team of young men, who broke out the vodka за знакомство. Later, we found ourselves in another tent drinking more vodka (got to warm up, devchonki!) and eating more grilled meat. Speaking of meat, one woman gave me a beautiful present just for eating pork—see, good things come to those who eat meat. People kept dropping by to talk to us and stare at us and take pictures with us and drink with us. I still can’t get over the awed expressions on everyone’s faces (usually accompanied by an appreciative “ничего себе!”) whenever they learn where I’m from. I might as well be from outer space.
After way too many toasts за знакомство and за рыбалку, it was time for the award ceremony. Somehow, team European Union won a prize—“for love of fishing,” they said, but I suspect that it was “for being foreign.” As team captain, I got to go on stage to receive our prize of official rybalka tee shirts, a fishing tent, and a grill case. By this point, we were all in a happy, excited daze, and even Valyera was joining the team spirit. It was a flurry of hugs and group-photos and promises to return.
That evening, Sasha put us on a bus back to Ulan-Ude. I was only slightly surprised when the bus stopped for dinner only one hour later. Cringing at the thought of cramming yet another meal into our full stomachs, we hesitantly went inside as directed. And what we saw was not the makings of a quickie dinner break in a café, but what I instantly recognized as a Feast. It turned out to be a self-congratulatory Baikalskaya Rybalka celebration feast full of hours of inevitable speeches and toasts. Of course I was expected to make a toast on behalf of us foreigners—but with the support of too much alcohol and the knowledge that I’d never see any of these hundred men again, I was a lot less nervous than I might have been.
Fortunately, our bus took off again just as the singing was breaking out. After starting to bombard us with attention and questions, our bus mates were kind enough to let us enjoy the rest of the ride in peace (except for the phone calls I kept getting from our “fans”). And what better way to complete this Real Russian Experience than with a run-in with Russia’s horrible roads. In Siberia, the wheels on the bus go break, break, break… We ended up spending an hour and a half stranded in the middle of the woods waiting for a new wheel—that’s Russia, I guess… But, when we finally rolled into Ulan-Ude after 2AM, our bus mates personally made sure we, their beloved devchonki, made it safely to our doorsteps. Thus, though we really had no idea what we were in for on this spur-of-the moment fishing trip to Baikal, we were completely and lovingly taken care of from start to finish. And that sweet hospitality and genuine care and generosity—that, too, is Russia.