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Self-defense in Siberia: a boy, a fine scene, and a cow

I was walking along a dirt lane in a tiny, touristy, log-cabin village on Olkhon Island, in the middle of Lake Baikal, when a cow took exception to my photo-taking.

MinnPost photo by Catherine Watson
The cow that turned and got me

A week ago in Siberia, I was attacked by a cow.

That would be a grabbier lede if I’d been attacked by any of the region’s more famous wildlife – a giant brown bear, perhaps, or a pack of slavering Russian wolves, or even a rare and precious lynx, all so numerous in this part of the world that you can buy whole pelts of them in airport shops.

(At the airport in Irkutsk, for example, a city always referred to as the “Paris of Siberia,” a bedspread-sized bearskin costs about $3,400, and a bright-eyed, exquisitely snarling lynx runs $1,200. “But isn’t that an endangered species?’’ one of my companions wondered. Not, apparently, in Russia.)

I’d say that I was minding my own business when the cow went for me, but my business that day was taking pictures, and the cow … well, the cow was taking exception.

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I was walking along a dirt lane in a tiny, touristy, log-cabin village on Olkhon Island, in the middle of Lake Baikal, the world’s biggest lake.

Sorry, Minnesota, but it’s true: Baikal is narrower than Lake Superior, but it is astonishingly deep – more than a mile, with some four miles of sediments below that. It contains 20 percent of the world’s fresh water and would hold all of America’s Great Lakes, including Superior, with room left over. 

Olkhon is the biggest of Baikal’s islands, an odd combination of prairie and pine forest that looked startlingly familiar: Like South Dakota’s Custer State Park, to be exact, set in some watery alternate universe. But no buffalo. Just a lot of free-range dairy cows, grazing skimpy grass and looking docile.

Russian tourists come to Olkhon’s main village, Khuzhir, population maybe 800, the way we might go to Nisswa or Grand Marais – for a taste of the outdoors, for cute cafes and souvenir shops, and for some culture:

Olkhon is a religious center for the Buryats, one of several indigenous peoples in the Russian Far East, who suffered over the past two centuries the way Native Americans did in the U.S. The Buryats have continued to believe in shamans, and one of their most important shrines is Shaman Rock, at a spectacular cliff north of town.

MinnPost photo by Catherine Watson
Shaman Rock, Olkhon Island, Lake Baikal, Siberia

My group had gone there the day before the cow attack, on an afternoon when the air was so clear and cool, you could almost drink it. There were a lot of people scrambling around, but there didn’t seem to be any Buryats – just hikers, mountain-bikers and regular tourists. 

No matter. The rock was still a sacred place, and it was so beautiful in the golden late-afternoon light that it would have felt sacred even without the many tall, ribbon-bedecked pillars called obos that stand there as memorials to Buryat ancestors.

Our guides explained Buryat customs, and we followed their rules: We took photos, but we also left gifts – small coins, a torn cigarette or two, and sprinkles of vodka for the sky, for the ancestors and for life itself, plus a few nips for ourselves. 

MinnPost photo by Catherine Watson
Memorial pillars at Shaman Rock, Lake Baikal, Siberia

Olkhon is “a dry island,’’ the guides told us, stressing that “it almost never rains.’’ And in the lovely sunlight of that afternoon, I believed them.

The next day – you could have predicted this — the weather changed, the sky went leaden, and rain pelted the island, turning its forests sodden and its rolling plains into muddy traps.

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Olkhon has no paved roads, and in most places no roads at all, so tourists and tour groups make their own. With the rain, these ad-hoc routes turned into an ugly network of slimy ruts, stranding regular cars hubcap-deep and turning four-wheel-drives like ours into toboggans.

Our group went sight-seeing anyway – I think we couldn’t get out of it – but when our mini-bus was at last struggling back to the village, the rain stopped. The rest of the group continued on to our cabins, but I wanted to take more pictures and opted to walk home. Seemed like a good idea at the time, even though the wet, dreary light made the traditional dark-brown log cottages look more sad than cozy.

I turned down a sandy side lane, paused to focus on a house window trimmed in pale-blue carpenter’s lace, and noticed that a small blond boy had came out to stare at me. He looked about 9, old enough to be studying English, and now he tried it out. He wanted to know where I was from.

“Amyerika,’’ I said, giving it my best Russian pronunciation. I could already tell that he had a better sense of my language than I did of his.

The little boy said his name was Max. I said mine was Katya. Close enough.

“School?’’ I asked him. 

He nodded. “Irkutsk,’’ he said, naming the not-so-Parisian city near Lake Baikal’s southern tip. It had taken us five hours to get from there to Olkhon, by ferry and hydrofoil.

Our guides had explained that many city people still had relatives in country villages like this and often came back for vacations. “Babushka?’’ I guessed, using the word for grandmother. Max nodded. Yes, he was here visiting his grandmother.

By then, we were out of shared words. We shook hands goodbye, and I walked on up the lane, aiming my camera at a row of dark cottages straggling ahead.

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Now, as if it were stepping onto a stage, a gray cow ambled into the frame.  Oh, good, I thought, foreground interest! And started clicking the shutter.

At first, the cow didn’t notice. It plodded over to a big green dumpster full of garbage and walked all the way around it, rubbing its nose and its untrimmed horns against the metal rim. I edged closer, shooting pictures as I went. Closer. Closer …

Then the cow stopped, turned its head and looked straight into my lens. Even better, I thought: Eye contact with the subject … I kept shooting. Then I noticed that the cow’s head was getting bigger and bigger in the viewfinder.

I lifted my eyes, and the animal met them. It had turned and was walking straight at me, moving as deliberately and unblinkingly as a caterpillar tractor in low gear.

I tried to turn away, but not in time. The cow bulldozed into my midriff, dipped its head sideways, swung one horn under my left arm and pried upward, hard.  

I yelled – No! No! Nyet! No! — and kept on yelling. The cow kept on pushing.

I danced backward, still yelling, trying not to fall. Pulled my camera off my shoulder – still yelling — and got ready to swing it, like a weapon, at the animal’s face.  And didn’t have to.

MinnPost photo by Catherine Watson
Watermelons for sale, Khuzhir village, on Olkhon Island in Lake Baikal, Siberia

The cow paused. I kept yelling. The cow looked away. I kept yelling.

Then, very slowly, as if it had just remembered something it was supposed to be doing instead, the cow turned, slouched into a neighboring yard and began to snuffle at the grass.

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I stopped yelling and began to realize that I was OK. I hadn’t fallen, hadn’t been trampled. My rain jacket wasn’t even torn. And my arm didn’t hurt – yet, anyway.

It did puzzle me that no one – not even little Max – had heard me yelling, let alone come running to help. But then, there can be a lot of yelling in Russian back lanes. Maybe it had just sounded normal.

I went back to Irkutsk early the next morning, with my group, on our long way home to the U.S. I didn’t bring any Buryat mementos with me – not a white felt cap or a skin drum or even a pair of handsome leather slippers with shamanistic designs. No need: My elbow-to-armpit bruise was souvenir enough.