Back when we were planning our trip, Russia was this mammoth lumbering place I wasn't excited about visiting. Tyler always wanted to go, but I saw the vast landmass as something to "get through" in order to travel from my comfort zone of the romantic Western European countries I already loved, to the more exotic places I'd always dreamed of: Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia.
And yet, as I travel, I find that many places I thought I would love are often expensive, over-developed, and crawling with tourists. The countries that really steal my heart are the ones I'd never expected to, capturing my imagination with things like the wind-swept beaches in Latvia, the "scary" dogs in Romania, high mountains of Macedonia, Serbian countryside, overwhelming with hospitality, and now, Russia.
I would come back here in a heartbeat. I'd come for the views.
I'd leave the big cities behind, return to Siberia and her Altay mountains, and meet more of the quiet and genuinely friendly people who live here.
I'd swoon once more over these houses that never fail to leave me touched by the beauty here, in this place that I'd somehow written off as being one giant swath of concrete.
I'd return to feel a surprising sense of freedom that comes from a place with few people and few restrictions about private property and camping spots and rules and regulations. It feels like you could do anything here; we could probably come back and build a little cabin in the woods and nobody would know or care.
Since I don't know if we will ever return to this place that has mesmerized me so, we're making the most of it while we're here.
After a scenic drive along a snaking mountain river, we arrived at Teletskoe Lake: a long, narrow splash of crystal blue against the lush green Altay mountains.
Arriving in the small city of Artybash, we promptly set about finding a place to stay. I'd heard that renting a little cabin was the way to go in the Altay, so we we asked around at all the houses that had small wooden lodges in front of them with signs saying "домик."
The first cabin we tried was actually an upstairs room in a woman's house. She led me inside and showed me the spartan surroundings she was offering: two small single beds in a windowless room, without a toilet or shower. A little too rustic for our tastes. Why pay for a place to stay with no kitchen and no shower and no toilet and no view when the surrounding area was literally one gigantic, beautiful free-camp?
Still, I patiently waited while she dug out a pen and paper to explain the price for a night of lodging. As she sat at her kitchen table and wrote various numbers and indecipherable Russian for me on a post-it note, I was positively enthralled by my surroundings. While the small room she had available for rent was windowless, this woman's kitchen was another story altogether:
This humble cabin was a veritable art gallery with one huge show-stopping piece taking center stage: in a glassless, screenless picture frame of dark, rustic wooden house beams, was the shining lake, blue and glittering, hugged by azure sky tufted with clouds, nestled in green hills. The sun shone, sending silver flecks of light dancing across the surface of the water as colorful boats bobbed lazily near the shore.
My jaw literally dropped when I saw it. I'm not sure if the house was being renovated, or if she really didn't have anything to protect her home from rain and storms and insects (surely she must cover it in the winter?!), but her view was incredible. The woman had hardly a stove to cook on, let alone any superfluous luxuries, but with a vista like that, I don't doubt that her life is rich in its own way.
Still dizzy from the dazzling wall-sized living photograph of the lakeside, I thanked the woman and returned to our car. We left in search of somewhere else, preferably with a shower. On the other side of the lake, we found it: our own little upstairs cabin with a balcony and a vista of our own.
There was a hot shower on the premises, and though the cabin itself didn't have a toilet, there was an outdoor bathroom that made me want an open-air sink of my own someday. Something about brushing my teeth in the great outdoors really appeals to me.
Perhaps best of all, the place came with some adorable animals. There was a cat sleeping in the shade:
…and another one, just moseying along. It was hard to resist picking up and squeezing one of its soft, delicate kitty paws:
There were plenty of friendly neighboring dogs, as well, who didn't seem to mind a good petting.
Once settled in, we went for a walk. Aiming to take a cooling shortcut to the other side of the lake, we tried to wade across a narrow area instead of taking the bridge. About a third of the way through we reached some deep, fast moving water and thought better of our plan. It still felt good to splash our sweaty faces though!
By the time we turned around and walked across the bridge like normal people do, our feet and faces had already dried in the hot sun. So, we stopped again to splash ourselves with a fountain before continuing along the dusty gravel road around the lake.
While I love Siberia, I could really do without so many mosquito bites!
While Tyler was eager to continue walking far around the lake, I decided to stop at a small cafe to relax for awhile alone. I ordered a cold beer and some dried fishy snacks, which were not quite as salty as the others I've tried, but ever so slightly sweet. It was a strange combination, the sweet/salty dried fish and my ice-cold lager, but it quickly grew on me.
As I sat outside on a shaded patio, relishing the golden late-afternoon light, I watched a cow amble through the gate and into the yard of the cafe. Two women in aprons immediately ran out of the shop, charging in a flurry to shoo the animal away. I watched a mama cat and her baby kittens as they tumbled and played in a pile of downy fur. I listened to the silence and found myself inspired by this place, where time seems to linger, clinging to itself, reluctantly dripping slowly like the thick honey for sale on the roadsides.
Calm and peaceful after an hour or so of restful alone time, I felt a wide grin begin to form on my face as I watched the man I love stroll back to me. He walked through the gate as the cow had done a half an hour earlier, sat down next to me, and excitedly caught me up on what he'd seen during the rest of his walk. Then, he appreciatively drank half of my beer, which I'd been saving for him, and we walked hand in hand back to our cabin.