Dreams etched in pages of ice, conversations captured in frozen crystals.

Like many others, I face my news feeds with a sense of foreboding and angst these days, so it is such a pleasure to read find a hidden gem of news such as the ice library of dreams on the shores of Lake Baikal.

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This delighted me with a variety of whispers from many places in my own library of memories.

I remember, late July in 1999, dithering at the shore, dipping my toes into the clear, icy waters of Lake Baikal near the village of Listvyanka in Siberia. I was determined to get into the water. Legend has it that Baikal’s water has special powers and I was not going to miss the opportunity to take advantage of these. Just in case. It is believed that if you dip your hands into the lake, you will be rewarded with an extra year of life. The bonus for slipping your feet into the water is an extra 2 years. If you swim in the lake, you gain an irresistible additional 25 years of life. The challenge comes from the fact that Lake Baikal is the largest body of fresh water in the world, it is the deepest lake on the planet and it contains one fifth of all fresh water in the world.

In winter it freezes over completely and even in the height of summer when the air was hot enough to burn my skin, the water remains shockingly cold. My toes curled around the pebbles, the skin already turning red with the cold. Slowly, I ventured in, inch after inch. When it was just deep enough, I lowered myself into the water, splashing briefly, a bear like roar involuntarily escaping from deep inside my lungs before I decided that my immersion qualified for the 25 year bonus. As I stepped back to the shore, dripping and shivering, I locked eyes with a puzzled brown cow before it veered away from the shore and the strange, drenched human.

The ice library on Lake Baikal speaks with a voice which is unusual in its simplicity and complexity. The library is carved from blocks of ice, designed to resemble open books. On each page, there is a wish or dream, sent from people all over the world. Some dreams are personal, some further reaching. All are etched into the ice, preserved until the warmer spring air comes. Then the dreams will slowly melt into the deep waters of the lake. An exquisitely modest concept, yet so powerful.

This is chiming with another page from my personal memory book. I remember arriving in Mongolia in November 2005. It was a warm autumn seemingly, at a gentle -20°C. Yes, that reads minus. I would need to prepare for winter which was approaching rapidly. I knew that the temperatures would settle around -35C in the afternoon sun, and sink to -45C at night. Knowing this is one thing, but these temperatures are unimaginable if you have never experienced them. They are also dangerously cold as described in an earlier post about the Mongolian cold and snow.

The air is so cold and arid that your breath freezes instantly in a cloud around you when you speak.

a winter ride

a winter ride 2

a winter ride4

The Mongolians say that the words you utter are captured in tiny ice crystals, and preserved in the air until the warmer air comes and they thaw. This was such a beautiful image, that it inspired the first poem which I have ever had published. This was called “December Conversations” and appeared in the summer edition of Ulaanbaatar City Guide of 2006, and I share an extract here.

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December Conversations

So cold the river is fully frozen,

unable to thaw for many months

not until the summer sun

is strong enough to permeate each icy layer.

So cold my eyelashes trap

tiny invisible particles

fusing, bonding lash to lash

a mesh barrier filtering my vision.

So cold that every breath and word

tumbles in clouds out of our mouths

instantly freezing in formations of frosted

whispers, words and conversations.

Our every word is preserved

suspended in the air

in frozen animation

through all the winter months.

A mother soothes her crying child

her loving words softly resting

in the air between her lips

and her son’s smarting bright red cheeks.

The two young lovers hugging as they walk

whisper messages of eternal love and endless devotion ……..

All throughout the winter months

the city air is crammed and filled

with captured, suspended conversations

secrets, disagreements and private messages…

The city smiles knowingly

as it releases its melted secrets

into the streets

unnoticed.

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In Africa the skies are not cold, there is no ice or frost on the grass. Yet the thought of a library of ice, and of words preserved in frozen crystals have embedded firmly in my spirit for the day. I have sent my own dream in the hope that it might be etched on the walls of the ice library, and eventually join the waters of Lake Baikal.

Our words are powerful and precious, let us use them with care, consideration and tenderness.

springtime thaw

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Slow Train to Chiang Mai – Part 1 of the Adventure

The decision to travel to Chiang Mai by overnight train was an obvious one, truly representing adventure.

I have always loved train travel.  The longer the journey the better, and the more exciting.

When I was 15, I went on a school trip to Italy and we travelled there by train.  That is quite a journey from Scotland and was a real adventure.  Along with my school pals, we stayed up most of the night as we travelled through Switzerland, in awe at the lights we thought were stars, and then realised were houses high up in the mountains.

The following year, I visited my pen friend in France and again travelled there by train, but this time alone.  I am quite astounded at the confidence I had then, and can now well understand my mother’s anxiety at my insistence that I would be sensible and careful.  Indeed, she gave me money to catch a taxi across Paris between the train stations.  It was only many years later that I confessed to catching a bus and saving the extra for spending money!  I loved the journey, catching the overnight train from Stirling to London, the old boat train to Paris (oh those were the days) and then on to Brittany.

The romantic notion of the train stayed with me and I longed to buy an Interail ticket when I left school.  These wonderful tickets were available to under 25s for travel to most European countries for a crazily small amount of money.  I dreamed of Interailing to exotic places like Prague, Vienna and Budapest and further afield to the Scandinavian countries and even former Yugoslavia as it was then. For a variety of reasons this was not to be.  Domestic responsibility and lack of money meant that I passed the magic 26 year birthday threshold without being able to get that Interail ticket, something I have always felt very sad about.

A few years later, when I was studying at university (as a mature student) I spent 3 months in Belarus.  The country had just become independent following the break up of the Former Soviet Union.  To get there, we flew to Moscow and then by train back towards Western Europe.  My goodness, the Russian railway system is incredible.  Extremely well organised, and covering unbelievably long journeys.  Our overnight into Minsk was really just a little hop when you placed it alongside the journey eastwards towards Siberia.  While I was in Minsk I travelled with my fellow students, to St Petersburg, to Kiev (now Kyiv) in the Ukraine, to Poland and even to Vilnius in Lithuania for the day!  I was captivated by the long distance train travel, and particularly dreamed of one day travelling on the Trans-Siberian Railway into Mongolia and onto China.

I never stopped dreaming of long distance rail journeys.  So much so, that as I approached a certain milestone birthday over a decade ago now, a madcap idea took root in my mind. Rather than have a bit surprise party like many of my contemporaries, which I would have to drop hints about to make sure that one was planned for me, I wondered why I could not fulfil my pipedream of travelling on the Trans Siberian Railway.  The more I wondered why I could not, the more I realised that there was no good reason why not, and many good reasons why I in fact could.  I had also in my mind, a fantasy to see “those funny mountains” in China, the karst formations in the Guilin area .

The fact that one of the routes of the Trans Siberian ended in Beijing added weight to this becoming a realisable venture.  Cutting a long story short, I indeed spent my Big Birthday on this trip of a lifetime.  I boarded the train in Moscow one Tuesday afternoon and travelled further east than I had ever been.  Every kilometre I travelled took me further east and I crossed into Asia for the first time of my life.  We passed a white stone obelisk marked Europe on one side and Asia on the other.  Gradually the faces changed as we travelled eastwards, crossing time zones, as we continued through Siberia, into Mongolia and then into China.  The journey takes 7 nights, if you don’t stop off on the way.  My journey from Moscow to Beijing lasted 15 days with a couple of stops at the Lake Baikal area of Siberia and Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia).  I then travelled onwards and spent the day of my birthday cycling alongside the paddy fields at the foot of “those funny mountains”.  It was a marvellous journey, a true adventure and I loved every minute of it.  It had been intended to cure me of my wanderlust, but the fact that I applied for a job in international development only a few weeks after my return is a clear indication of how successful that was.  After this taste of Asia, I arrived in Nepal a few months later on what was to be the start of over a decade living and working in the continent.

So with this history in mind, and the past year which has seen me hardly able to cross the street unaided, you can imagine how important a step this adventure to Chiang Mai has been for me. It was a symbolic giant leap forward for me, even in the very attentive care of Thai Railways and hubby J – and of course NED.

I think that Thai trains are actually perfect for this kind of adventure.  The railway system is well organised, it is straightforward to book tickets and get information and the trains are very comfortable.  However, being Thai, it has that inherent exotic essence that British Rail can never have.  Booking our ticket to Chiang Mai gave me butterflies in my stomach in a way that I had forgotten.  I am used to an anxious type of apprehension over the past months, and this was very different.

I boarded the train like a child, preparing a little bag with essentials including a book, i-pod, snacks and camera.  After a couple of hours, the train staff came through the carriage, making the seats into very comfortable beds.  They made the beds, and even hung up little curtains so that there was complete privacy for every berth.  I have to say that I have slept in much smaller hotel beds in my time and my lower bunk berth was just about the same size as the EasyHotel room I stayed in last summer!

We rolled gently northwards overnight through the Thai countryside, waking to rainforest and misty jungle a couple of hours before we pulled into Chiang Mai.  And the best thing about it?  At the end of our break in Chiang Mai I had the whole experience to look forward to all over again!

Now back in Yangon, I look back on my adventure to Chiang Mai and realise that the train travel was probably the most healing, restful and adventurous part of the whole break.  And that is why Part 1 of the Adventure is dedicated to the journey!