Julia Tappeiner 2017-08-29
French Man On The Ice: Part 1

“The mythical Trans-Siberian train stops at Irkutsk, the former capital of Siberia, which is only 300 kilometres from Olkhon, spitting distance in Russia. Given all these advantages, it is not surprising that visitors from all over the world are attracted to this paradise. They come here out of curiosity with their backpacks or suitcases, in groups or on bicycles, and they leave fulfilled. Two years ago I was one of these travellers. Except that, singing the praises of slow, perpetual travel that I was experiencing myself, I decided to drop my bag there and stay as long as it suits me.”


Nicolas Pernot

I had found his book on the table of the common room in Nikitas’ homestead, the hostel I logged in at the Olkhon Island, on the west coast of the lake Baikal in Siberia. His book was full of beautiful pictures of this place, making me curious about what was expecting me during the excursion the next day. After I had read a little through it, I looked at the date. It had been written less than a year ago and I wondered whether Nicolas Pernot, the author of this book and Photographer, would still live on the Island. I was eager to meet him.

At dinnertime, when I entered the kitchen I new straight away that It was him. He was sitting on a table alone, and from his appearance you could see that he was not Russian, especially not Siberian. But he had something about him that gave you the feeling that he was at home, that he was supposed to be on this place. The way he talked to people and people talked to him, the way he was dressed and the way he moved comfortable and knowingly through this space showed me, that even though he was a stranger, he belonged here. I had the luck to get an interview with him. And here’s his story:



You came as a traveller 3 years ago, and decided to stay. What was your motivation, what attracted you especially to this place?


I’ve been travelling over the last 11 years and staying in different places for a longer period of time. I don’t want to hurry anywhere. For me the planet is not to be consumed like a bottle of coca cola. So I spent 1 year and a half in Tajikistan, a year in Riga –Latvia-, 7 months in Berlin, 5 months in Turkey, a few months in Denmark and many more months and years travelling between those places. But Lake Baikal is definitely the place where I stayed the longest. I’ve spent here 2 years and a half in this guesthouse. This Island is gorgeous, wherever you go the beauty is there. It’s a jewel Of Siberia. But I would never have decided to live in this village if there hadn’t been Nikita, the owner of this guesthouse. He allowed me to stay here, first as a French teacher of his kids and himself.

Moreover, this guesthouse now attracts varies kinds of people from all over the world. Some amazing people are coming here. This Island is a magnet. And when I stop travelling to rest here, I love to see the world travelling around me.


For most people travelling is a Hobby, a passion. You made it your profession. In what way? How does a normal working period look for you?


People sometimes ask me what my Job is, or if I am on Holliday all the time. I’m never on Holliday, I constantly travel and I constantly work and actually I don’t make any difference between the three of them. Each time I’ve been to one of the countries I mentioned, I had a different profession. And for each of those professions I never had a degree, of course. So I invented my professional life, my adventure at every new country I was stepping in.

My new profession though is Photographer. Five month a year I spend in France and in Switzerland, touring. I have a little show where on a big screen I show beautiful pictures of the lake Baikal, telling one and the same thing every day on a different place- (he laughs) always with lots of passion of course. So basically it’s a Life- Documentary with my pictures, my voice and my stories. That’s my way of living and that’s what I’m paid for.


The good thing is, as it is my project, my scenario -I organize everything from a to z- I am also very free in what I’m doing.


The first year I did it, people liked it so much, they told me to come back and tell them about any country I’d like. And I said: I will introduce you to Tajikistan, and people answered: what, does that even exist? (We both laugh). That was my profession for the last 3 years but I did so many other things, I translated books, I was a teacher of French and English and Informatics. I even worked as a Rickshaw-Driver in Denmark (he laughs again).



I show beautiful pictures of the lake Baikal, telling one and the same thing every day



What is home for you? Is there a place you would call home?  


I have no home. My home is everywhere. Today I’m here, tomorrow my home will be to the north, that I will reach with the truck. I used to be able to answer this question but I forgot my answer. There are places though where I feel good and those places are many. So I definitely have no home…but I have three cars! I have a car in France, a Russian car here and I have a Toyota in Georgia. So, this is my home.


What about the phrase home is where family is. Did it never happen to you that you connected to the people so much that you wanted to stay in the place?


It happened in so many places that I liked it so much that I thought this would be a nice spot to built something up; and I settled, and I had friends and a job and a flat and everything. But then, when I have fulfilled my project and I see that I have succeeded my goal, than it’s already boring. Then I need to drop everything again and start a new adventure.


What was your most memorable moment while travelling in Siberia?


That is a difficult question because in the life of a traveller you have so many stories and it’s so hard to pick one of them. Most interesting stories are connected to people, but that would be even harder to choose which one…and sometimes too personal. But let’s say here the adventure is on the ice. In the month of February- March we drive on the ice. And in the beginning you think yeah, I can do it too. And you do it and than you see a car sinking in front of you and you change your mind. I didn’t see it, but I heard so many dreadful stories that I stopped taking the risk I took in the beginning. People once told me never drive on the big see. It is the biggest part of the lake in terms of ice and the tectonic, where Ice plates overlap. It’s very impressive, especially the cracks you see under the snow. I just drove once over it and the left part of my car fell into the crack. It was so scary. People told me that I had been very lucky. They said it was a gift of dedushka Baikal (grandfather Baikal) and his warning, not to go on the big see. I never did it again.Another memorable moment on the ice was in January 19th.


In Russia it’s called kritshenia, it’s an orthodox ritual where people undress themselves with -30 degrees and dip into a waterhole in the ice. And the hole looks like a grave. First it looks very scary, but once you see everybody doing it before you, you think why not?! So I did it too. And it’s something I always talk about in Detail at my presentations and that I would recommend everybody to try. 


What does it feel for you being on the ice? How would you describe that moment?


Two years ago I did night-excursions during winter. I would bring a small group of people on the ice, we would stop our flashlights and look at the sky. Then I would show them caves full of ice. It is amazing. We would stop and switch of the lights and I would listen to the water and the ice. The sound the ice makes, it’s amazing. I sometimes call it the underwater- techno party. (Laughter from him, from me and from some curious hostel guests, that had gathered around us and where now listening). But it’s amazing. The crack of the ice shows that the ice is moving, it’s living. It makes very light sound sometimes and often very deep and scary sounds like bam bam bam.