Rain, wind and a war torn landscape cannot dishearten us.
05.07.2011 - 05.07.2011 16 °C
Trans-Siberian Railway – Irkutsk – Olkhon Island, Russia
With time for breakfast we disembark the travelling hotel room that had served as our base for the last three nights at Irkutsk. Some 3,500 miles east of Moscow, Irkutsk, was once labeled the ‘Paris of Siberia’. With no time to view the city for us it is our departure point for a couple nights on Olkhon Island in Lake Baikal.
A fast and furious minibus takes us the 5 hours to the island. Leaving the traffic jams and fumes of the city behind we are soon passing vistas that resemble what might be considered the classic Steppes of Russia. Endless arable landscapes, perforated with wooden villages and hamlets. Yet soon the Steppes turn into thick evergreen forest rising over minor mountains, whose peaks open up onto an almost moon like landscape. This dry landscape, barren of vegetation, holds little appeal. As we continue to pass towns and villages we struggle to comprehend what industries keep their residents in place.
Reaching the ferry to Olkhon Island some four hours later provides a brief respite from the bottom numbing, rumbling of the dirt roads utilized for the last hour or so of the journey. With a driver clearly happy both on and off the road the random choice of gravel roads and the parallel running dirt and mud tracks has kept us all guessing for quite some time.
At the small ferry port the Driver continues to demonstrate the Russian style of driving by circumventing the entire queue of waiting cars and attempting to drive onto the ferry through the exit lane. Only the quick wits of an attendant, a solid steel barrier, a dented bumper and a padlock defeat our tireless warrior driver. Undeterred pushing, shoving and a variety of not to be repeated, but understandable by anyone, Russian words gets us onto the next ferry. If ever a minibus breathed in, ours did that afternoon, for we had somehow managed to grab the last space on the ferry! Even though the ferry was roll-on-roll-off the front ramp was obviously kept for special occasions as everyone had to reverse off the ferry, meaning we would also be first off.
From the ferry a further 30 miles over dirt tracks, passing through a continuing barren landscape, brought us to, what we believed to be, the key settlement on the island, Khuzhir. From our wood fire equipped room, at Chez Olga's, we could see the promised Lake Baikal, the ‘Pearl of Siberia’.
Yet the rain that started pouring, whilst on the ferry, detracts from the promised crystal clear body of the bluest water. With the promise of two days of cold rain the barren Siberian landscape, with dirt tracks fast becoming mud, this small island in the middle of the largest freshwater lake on earth (more than the 5 great lakes of North America combined), appeared to have little to hold our attention or desire to remain.
From our guesthouse the town of Khuzhir resembled the archetypal wild west town of the 1880s. Battered Lada’s and Commer looking vans traversed the streets. The image of desolation and bleakness that Siberia generates started to descend.
Yet within the hour we had joined a random bunch of fellow travelers, for dinner, our only common denominator being a fluency in English. Having arrived earlier in the day they had already located Nikita’s – a temple like mirage in the town – that served as Hostel, Bar and Social Hub for the town’s waifs and strafes! Whilst Australian, Kieran, seemed quite composed, fellow Brit Eric was clearly, slightly, lubricated after a short afternoons drinking. Ably looked after by her boyfriend, Stollee our new Norwegian friend, Karina was clearly a little worse for wear! Yet, this eclectic bunch of travelers ensured that our stay on Olkhon Island was to be a highlight of our rail adventure, just as the guide book had promised.
With the rain still pouring and the resemblance of the town to a far flung war in Afghanistan or Somalia increasing few options for passing the time were available. So with Nikita’s calling we walked through our downtown Kabul, copy cat, to spend a ‘quiet’ evening contemplating our fate. With the addition to our group of three Danish girls a evening of drinking, singing and general merriment entailed. With the bar consisting of Trans-Siberian travelers either heading west along our already travelled route or east to the inevitable Naadam festival in Ulaanbaatar we soon had a myriad of conversations, with cheap beer being supplied by the blue metal shack across the road.
An evening where a few pictures truly tell the story better than words!
As darkness fell around eleven o’clock we faced the nightmare scenario of a closed beer shop and our own exhausted supplies. Yet, it was a friendly Russian who came to our rescue. With a large plastic container filled with brown ‘Cognac’ we happily accepted a round of his illicit homebrew.
With few similarities to Cognac and an aftertaste that stirred memories of petrol filling stations this was certainly a potent, alcoholic brew. Despite the protestations of our Russian friend, Alexi, that he could still obtain beer for us at one o’clock in the morning, who began the dark, cold, wet and by now extremely muddy journey back to our guesthouse.
Despite Eric’s consistently incorrect protestations regards the direction of our accommodation (which failed to live down for the rest of our time on the island – poor guy and an excellent sport) we finally, with the help of a trusty Norwegian torch, made it home. The fire in our room had dwindled, yet the residual warmth it provided was sufficient. Sleep was soon upon us whilst the sound of rain continued, untroubled by the lateness of the hour.