- 13 August 1999
The local Mercedes dealer, Sergei Ivanovich, and his wife and business partner, Natasha, invited us and several of their friends for an overnight stay in the taiga. Located 300 kilometers southwest of Krasnoyarsk, the camp house by Big Bear Lake was located in the Altay Mountains, where no roads exist so a helicopter is required for arrival. The chopper offered us a nice view over Krasnoyarsk, the hydropower dam, old pre-Revolutionary architecture, New Russian homes and Communist-built concrete apartment slabs. After an hour of flying, we reached the Altay snow-capped mountain peaks and were awed by their raw beauty. When we crossed the final mountain just before Big Bear Lake, we climbed to 2600 meters above sea level.
Upon landing, the temperature was in the low 40s F (5-10 C), a far cry colder than in Krasnoyarsk. We walked to our home for the night, a camp house with no running water, a platform built off the first floor for sleeping and another tiny room for sleeping located up steep stairs. An outhouse stood just beyond the banya (Russian sauna) that was about as large as the camp house. I got the feeling people did not come here for sleep! A generator we brought along offered intermittent electricity inside the house while a few of us sliced cucumbers, tomatoes, green onions, parsley, basil, and bread for the dinner. Men chopped wood for the in-door heater and the outdoor grill. Jim, preparing for the late night, channeled his energy into cutting wood for the banya.
After a couple of hours, all of us sat down to a table cluttered with fresh vegetables, ample vodka and beer, cheap Georgian wine, water, bread and pork shashlyk (like a kebab), cooked to perfection. We all ate too much, numerous toasts were made and even more laughs were shared. Around midnight Jim and I went to the banya, which was so hot I could stay inside for no more than a couple of minutes. I found it hard to inhale in the overwhelming heat that made us sweat instantly. Banyas are a way of life for Russians. Most have them at their dachas (summer homes) or aspire to having one.
After a few more minutes of privacy, five men and a woman joined us in the banya. They sat for five or ten minutes, then ran into Bear Lake soaking themselves in the frigid waters before returning to the banya for another heat session. I made my way to the lake and dipped my feet and calves in the water but never gathered the courage to immerse my body completely in the icy water. Plus, by now, many were drunk and naked…. Around 2 a.m. I headed for bed leaving Jim and the Russians drinking, singing and soaking in the banya.