It is said that over two hundred rivers flow into the Lake Baikal, nourishing its crystal clear arctic waters, and only one flows out… the deep, affluent Angara. The legend has it that the old mighty Baikal had many daughters but his favorite was his youngest and the most beautiful of all- Angara. She was the apple of her father’s eye, talented in everything she undertook, magnificent and hospitable. One day, she met the young knight, Yenisei, and the two of them fell in love. Angara knew her father’s possessive nature and agreed to run away with Yenisei. Under the covers of the night, she collected her things and headed toward her lover’s distant land. The old Baikal was alerted by a gossipy bird, woke up and saw his favorite daughter getting away. Enraged, he broke off a piece of the nearby mountain and threw it toward her. That piece of rock, known as the Shaman’s Rock, to this day remains in the lake, marking the outflow of the Angara River who does reach her lover and falls into the Yenisei, the largest river in Asia.
I believe I have heard this legend very soon after arriving to Irkutsk, perhaps on one of our school trips, exploring the city’s history, and it deeply affected my view of the area. I could see the power and the generosity of the river and it always had a feminine Spirit for me. The feminine power was present in the air itself it seemed. The river affected not only the regional economy by providing electricity to the entire metropolitan area with its massive Electric Hydro-Station, but it affected the microclimate as well. The winters in the city were much milder than the Siberian chill would have had them. Angara’s fast natural flow makes it difficult for the ice to set in completely and throughout the winter, parts of the river remain liquid, warming up the temperature along its banks and casting the white sparkling frost on the buildings and trees. Very often early in the morning, while it was still dark outside and I was walking to school through the quiet, sleepy streets, I felt immersed into a magic kingdom where trees were no longer trees but large intricate white corals, shimmering their florid crowns against the opal winter sky.
The presence of the river’s spirit followed me everywhere I went. Like a strong and loving mother, she enveloped the city and its children with her loving care without ever being smothering of suffocating. She looked after them but would not impose on their free will and would not curb their growth, would not fear their independence. She had learned that lesson with her own father and would not prevent her children from becoming strong and flying free. You could see the strength of the feminine spirit in the beauty and grace of the Siberian women. Only the strong would be able to withstand the harsh climate and the traditional scarcity of food and yet still have a smile on their faces.
The city was built on the adventurous life-force of the first explorers, the roots and wisdom of the Native Buryat population and infused with the Enlightened education by the Decembrists, their wives and other political dissidents who were exiled into the Siberian land. I still remember visiting the log houses where young aristocrats, the ladies of the court who were used to the finest furnishings and ballrooms, were relegated to spending nights under rough felt covers only to find their hair frozen to the wall in the morning. And yet they wouldn’t leave their husbands, their friends in life, sharing their passions and their fate. Some stayed in Irkutsk even after having been pardoned by the Tsar and opened libraries, schools and established a University. And all of it, I felt, was generously protected and watched over by the powerful forces of nature that were ever present in the everyday life of the town, even without people consciously thinking or knowing about it.
Life in a big city can become very hectic, stressful and disconnected at times but during the quieter moments, when the day is over or has barely began, one can feel the Nature’s Spirit “breathing,” watching, loving and waiting for a gesture of contact. For me, it was not a big leap of imagination to see that Spirit as a living being, a grand source of strength, power and inspiration- the true ruler of the land. Yes, Angara, the free spirit of Siberia and the rebellious daughter of the old mighty Baikal, you go girl!