When I was young I thought Siberia was far away. I also knew that it was a frozen land where evil people were exiled to. I sort of thought that it was so far away, so cold, and so bad that probably God wouldn’t even hang out there. It fascinated me deeply and I dreamed of going there. Why, I could never explain. My friend Theo, a psychologist from Luxembourg, insisted that it was because I was searching for pain. He told me this when he was driving across the US in his awkward yellow 1964 model car with 4 person wide bench seats and he stayed at my house. Thats when I thought of telling him that his car looked more like a boat than an automobile. But I didn’t.
So several month ago I was taking the train across Russia. Obviously that means across Siberia as well. I decided to stop in Irkutsk for a few days and go to Lake Baikal. It’s an insanely beautiful area and known for being the world’s largest and deepest fresh water lake. The train rolled into Irkutsk around midnight and I picked my way to a hostel across the city through the brisk autumn wind and frost over rough roads. The next morning I caught a mashrutka to the small town of Listvyanka. A mashrutka is a mini bus that might be a mini van or an old Sprinter. It often has all the seats torn out and has many small seats stacked inside. I was in one the size of a mini van and it had eleven seats in the back. I sat between an old woman clutching a tiny white dog and a musky smelling over sized man. It was tight. We all swayed in unison. It really brought life to the phrase “packed like sardines.” When you enter and find a seat, [or stand if it is packed] you pass some rubles and your destination to the driver who will make change while he is driving at mad speeds, swearing on his mobile device, and desperately swerving to avoid massive potholes and oncoming traffic. He passes the change through the human chain back to you. I learned to embrace it and was thrilled to be part of this chain, passing along money, amount of passengers, and destinations in my deepest Russian accent.
Listvyanka is an incredibly beautiful village nestled on the shore of Lake Baikal. I kept sensing that God wants me to grab my sleeping back and just head out into the mountains. It seemed kind of stupid. I was told it’s a really bad idea. The brown bears, they said, are crazy right now. It’s the last days of fall and they are desperately foraging, eating everything they can find. They were even coming into the village and raiding dumpsters. But God kept whispering that he wants me to go. So I did. I packed some sausages, bread, and water. I grabbed my sleeping bag and camera, and with one thin jacket and a small backpack I headed to the Siberian wilderness.
I spent several days hiking. It was fall. The leaves were yellow. The evergreens were a brilliant green, the water was a deep blue. Nature was in its finest glory. Miles across the lake the mountains were snow-capped. Playful chipmunks kept me company as I trailed off by myself into no mans land. Evening came and I ate sausages on the edge of the lake watching the last rays of the autumn sun fall over the rippling waters as a chill breeze began stirring.
My best memories are around this one night. I knew I was pushing my luck just a bit, but why not do that sometimes? I admit I was a bit worried about bears. I had a small knife which I kept stuck into the ground beside me while I slept. I put a string around my camp site with branches leaning up to it, telling myself that this will give me plenty of warning if a bear should come. Then I would stab the медведь in the eye with the knife. He would then run away howling and I would feel like Daniel Boone. It was a chilly night, right around freezing. As I lay down and zipped the sleeping bag all the way to the top from the inside, I was peacefully counting the five million stars in the sky above me. That’s when a small animal ran over me. I sat bolt upright with astonishing speed, but by the time I had my arms free I realized that I would have been dead had it been a bear. I was sleeping several feet from a small cliff next to the lake and I concluded that if the bear came, I would simply hop over the edge. The stones below may be forgiving. Bruin will not.
It had been a really good evening. I sat on a log that had drifted in on the rocky beach and had hours of interaction with God. So many good things happened. As I was drifting off to sleep I fully realized that I could wake up to the razor teeth of a raging bear, but I didn’t care. I had full confidence I would go straight to heaven and after all, what better way to die than being eaten by a grizzly while camping in Siberia? It would be a great story for the grand kids. Except I didn’t have any of those. So I smiled up at God before I drifted off into dreamless sleep.
I awoke at 5:00 in the morning. A strong wind had picked up and it was a cold one. Some rain drops were sprinkling on me. I jumped out of my sleeping bag, shivering violently. Daylight wouldn’t come till 7:00. I could just feel that it was going to rain. I considered my choices. Burrowing into my sleeping bag for two hours while the freezing rain pelted me would result in hypothermia. Walking back in the dark, especially on some of those crazy mountain switchbacks seemed like suicide. This was walking on ten inch wide paths that have a straight drop of a hundred feet into the lake. Not to mention my headlamp had turned on accidentally in my back pack and died. Neither option was good, but attempting to find my way back to the village was a better option. That’s what I would do. I knew I was about four hours from the village, but I hadn’t come there on the path so I was unsure of the way back. I rolled up my sleeping bag and hit the trail. After ten minutes I came to a fork. I chose the well-marked one but 15 minutes into it I was clearly going the wrong direction so stepping carefully, I backtracked.
I took the other path. It was obviously the right path, but then it petered out. I began quoting the Bible verse: “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path…” and as I did so a small but distinct glow appeared on the path in front of me, illuminating my way in the pre-dawn darkness while small drops of cold Russian rain fell. I followed the light. It stayed right in front of me. When I looked past it, I couldn’t see a thing. It was an incredibly surreal feeling.
Several hours later the belated morning light fought its way through the overcast sky and the miserable rain turned to giant wet flakes of snow. After several more hours I got back to the village where they told me I was crazy. I don’t know why.
But I jumped into the next mashrutka and headed back to Irkutsk. The snow kept swirling around us and the driver was no exception. Fast and furious. We were packed in there. He pulled up to a desolate outpost where two women huddled in the cold and yelled at them that there is no room. The babushka had a sharp retort and tore open the back door. Four of us were sitting in a row, and I thought we were squished in there real tight. She reared back and 60 years of muscle and bottled rage was let loose as she threw all of her several hundred pounds into the girl next to me who hurtled across the seat, collided with me, I to the guy next to me and we hit the opposite wall with a crash. Before we had time for a reaction she seated herself in the small space created, and held the second woman on her lap. The driver looked over his shoulder, shrugged nonchalantly, and she motioned him to drive so he did. But we no longer swayed. There was no room left to sway. Instead we were all nearly seamless and could practically feel each others blood coursing through bodies. It was weird. But that was Listvyanka.
I look back at this and I am so grateful for my time there. I learned as never before that when I want God, I just have to go looking for Him. He wants to be found. But He wants me to look. As never before I learned that God is wild. God loves adventure. All these crazy places were His idea anyway. He constantly kept egging me on and telling me He wants to be a part of this and He is enjoying it with me. And I was super impressed that He showed up as a light when I most needed Him. He is a good Father. And He lives in Siberia.