Siberia may be rich in dark resonances - gulags, starvation, eternal snows - yet it has hidden pleasures, too. And Listvyanka, a kind of Siberian Balmoral on the shores of Lake Baikal, is the best place to find them

Autumn is on the point of death. Yesterday, I noted tattered birch leaves clinging to a memory of summer; today the first winter snows are gathered in freezing clouds above the lake. And from the forests, I smell edible berries, rotted trunks, strange gods: the fears and unquenchable hopes of old Russia.

Autumn is on the point of death. Yesterday, I noted tattered birch leaves clinging to a memory of summer; today the first winter snows are gathered in freezing clouds above the lake. And from the forests, I smell edible berries, rotted trunks, strange gods: the fears and unquenchable hopes of old Russia.

But have I only travelled for 90 hours by train from Moscow? It feels like 90 years. Right now I am gazing over Lake Baikal, the deepest, oldest lake on Earth, and beside me my guide Elya is speaking. With her furry headband and expensive sunglasses, she might have arrived straight from St Moritz, though her eyes are blue as Baikal ice and her voice is of a Tolstoyan princess.

Unless it is the plunging Russian accent that renders her English aristocratic... "Where most lakes date back a few thousand years," she declaims nasally, "Baikal is at least 20 million years old. By its shores live bears, musk deer, lynx, fresh-water seals, wolverenes; and the rare sable, in search of whose fur the first Cossacks came exploring here four hundred years ago..."

I don't want this to stop. Can she show me real bears at Baikal? "I'm sorry," she sighs, collapsing into a smile worth all the sable in Siberia. "You can't see bears until they come to the lake in the spring."

As I write these words, it is only October, but the feathery larch trees are already golden. Whole hillsides are changing colour before my eyes. I jump down onto the shingly shoreline to stare at mist-rooted, unearthly mountains, hovering snow-white on Baikal's closest eastern shore, 60 miles away. This is Listvyanka, microscopic beside a lake hundreds of miles long.

But is it really lost in the endless taiga? In fact, it may be the most touristed village in Siberia. Boris Yeltsin had Helmut Kohl here to stay a few years back, for saunas and vodka at the presidential dacha; by Siberian standards, it is a kind of Balmoral. But then again, this is not saying much.

I am lodging in the one-storied wooden house of a Russian babushka named Valentina and her daughter Rita. Like much about Listvyanka, the household is not quite ordinary. Rita, with her copper-dyed hair and refined reticence, once worked as a microbiologist in the Crimea; in the current economic climate, she now finds that providing borsch and stuffed cabbage-leaves for tourists is more rewarding.

Valentina, though, when I meet her, looks as Russian as Chekhov. She is the eternal babushka. I find her stooped over the chrysanthemums, booted, headscarf tied grimly under chin. "Depressed about a bit of snow?" she is exclaiming, picking up her shovel with determination. "What? Why should I be? The colder the better."

She begins tossing snow ruthlessly over the fence, fiddling with the well pump, inspecting the garden flowers. At 76, Valentina is well past the national average life-expectancy, but she has the battling body frame of a worker. And her latest career is hosting tourists.

"My father's family used to be well-to-do before 1917," she explains in a nonchalant voice, later, at lunch. "My grandfather owned a shipyard on Baikal. I remember my father taking me to the local workers' club and sitting me down beside the piano. He couldn't say it out loud. But he told me the truth: that piano had once belonged to us."

I gaze around her simple wooden house with surprise. This place is certainly older than the revolution; it was built with carved lacework round the window frames. But what kind of people bring a piano to Listvyanka? While Rita cuts up a fish pie and Valentina shoves logs into the kitchen stove, I find myself transported back to an another world: of clavichords in drawing rooms, of libraries bulging with the works of Racine and Voltaire, of princesses in mink hats reciting the poetry of Pushkin...

Or am I getting carried away? Princess Elya, as ever, is sitting beside me, translating every word with effortless class. When I ask Valentina if she has any old photos, she immediately produces an envelope full of black-and-white images taken from the turn of the last century: women with strong faces and beautiful dresses.

"Old aunts," she says, carelessly. "Some went to America at the time of the revolution. Others went to Europe. They lived how we would have lived without Lenin." In the 1930s, people were sent to gulags for lesser offences than keeping photographs like these.

But Valentina's family has a history, all right, as I am soon finding out over frequent vodka toasts and little pieces of smoked fish and pickled cucumber. Her own grandmother, she declares with force, was born all the way back in 1866 - the year before Russia sold Alaska to the USA. She was 104 when she died and she had still not accepted the revolution.

We smile at our plates. Toughness, I see, is in the family. Valentina is getting her old Russia back. It was the USSR that was new-fangled and unintelligible; now life is reacquiring its logic - a logic half-remembered from sitting beside a piano, many years ago, on a father's knee.

Valentina says: "If people are hard-working, they can survive. Not like all these young drunkards nowadays. There's plenty of food in the forests for anyone to help themselves." A jar of pickled wild mushrooms is held out for my inspection. Valentina later lifts up the floorboards with glee to show me her newly harvested potato-store: all 500 kilos of it, brought in by hired labour. After a 70-year pause for the Communist experiment, she is picking up the threads of bourgeois life again.

Is this Siberia, then? Not so much the tragic land of exile, as a shining illustration of human optimism and endurance? I think back over the thousands of miles that I have travelled from Moscow and to the capital's churches and opera houses, its stuccoes, its columns and pediments, its Pushkin and Turgenev, its drunkenness and its sorrows. Yet it is Siberia that carries Russia halfway round the globe. It goes beyond India, beyond China. At its uttermost end, it is within walking distance of America itself...

Now I really am getting carried away. Under the influence of vodka, the millions of dead swallowed up by Siberia in the 20th century come to seem like a trifle: a mere detail. But Listvyanka was not immune to Stalin's terror. "Yes, one uncle of mine disappeared," Valentina grunts, wearily, when I remember to bring the subject up. "Nobody ever knew what happened to him. He was just a worker." She might say, but doesn't: it wasn't his fault that his father had owned a shipyard.

What bothers Valentina more, I feel, are the broken threads she has not yet been able to pick up. Munching heartily on little red Siberian apples, she speaks of a young American tourist who recently stayed with them. "His parents were Russian. And you know, he was more Russian than we were! He knew the church liturgies! He knew our old customs." For the first time, she looks vaguely regretful. "Our parents wouldn't have dared tell us so much about the old ways. Children would have talked... we wouldn't have understood... "

I walk again that afternoon along the shores of the lake, past the sprinkling of wooden houses with their picket fences and snow-filled cabbage patches, past beer shops, bars and the tiny harbour. Cows are grazing on the verges, under pine-clad hills. Baikal itself is moody: one minute its waters are pallid and oil-smooth, the next they are black and restless. They will be frozen solid by January, and not free of ice again until June.

Now there is nowhere much to go, nothing much to do. We catch the old ferry to Port Baikal on the other side of the Angara River, where the remains of the old Trans-Siberian railway is rusting slowly into oblivion, and where a lone factory draws untreated Baikal water from the depths of the lake to bottle for drinking.

But walking home at dusk, I suddenly feel the harsh power of Siberian cold. The last traces of warmth in the air are as evanescent as sunlight itself. Bitter winter is forming over our heads.

"Are you ready?" Princess Elya now asks by my side. I am. Even on days of unbearable melancholy like these - the last, dying moments of a Siberian summer - a secret pleasure awaits. Valentina's house has no running water or bathroom, but it has something better: an out-house in the garden, of clean, soft wood! A traditional sauna! Oh, to be hot and naked in the eternal birch forest! Under Siberian steam, on Siberian wood, I retire to cleanse my body, and (I feel) my soul, before dinner.

Drowsy with warmth, we sit at table later that night eating cheese pies and smoked sig, a kind of Baikal salmon. We are tiny - cosy - in the heart of eternal Siberia. Outside a wind begins to howl and hard, dry snowflakes scuttle on the windows. Rita puts on Cossack music and now proposes a rapid series of toasts, to an open Russia; to friendship; to love.

But old Valentina is already intoxicated by the oxygen of freedom. She leaps around with the spirit of a 20-year old, urging us young things to dance. "The most marvellous thing of all is to have real foreigners in my house!" she whoops, grabbing me round the arm and spinning me almost off my feet. "Old Brezhnev would never have let us do this. It's amazing."

Outside in the darkness, I picture old flowers poking through the snow. Siberia may be the saddest country, I smile to myself. But perhaps this is Siberia's blessing: that when its pleasures do come, they are the most beautiful in the world.

Jeremy Atiyah travelled with The Russia Experience (020-8566 8846, www.trans-siberian.co.uk). Similar 12-night trips cost from £650 per person, including accommodation, train travel between Moscow and Beijing, a half-day guide, activities such as walking and sauna, and a stopover in Listvyanka. The company can also arrange the necessary visas for you. An open-jaw plane ticket, flying into Moscow and back from Beijing, currently costs from around £370 through agents such as STA Travel (020-7361 6262, www.statravel.co.uk)

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