The vodka train

With the boat to Olkon cancelled, it was on to a marshrutka, picked up at the doorstep, at 6.45am. It was a quicker journey than expected, arriving at Ulan Ude by 11.15. A quick lunch and back on to the next marshrutka for another 7 hours to Irkutsk. Now I’ve had some bad (scary) drivers in my time, but this dude was a very good contender for a gold medal. At one stage, fairly early in the piece, he seemed to be driving on the opposite side of the road to avoid a bumpy looking section of asphalt. It was a little more in depth than that though. We’ve all heard the phrase ‘the grass is always greener on the other side’, well this dude’s motto was ‘the pavement is always smoother on the other side!’ He spent almost HALF of the time on the wrong side of the road. Oncoming traffic, hills, corners – nothing seemed to phase him. And he certainly wasn’t driving slow. We were overtaking everyone, again oncoming traffic, hills, corners… all while talking on the mobile phone! We made it to Irkutsk in just over 7 hours, which would suggest that you have to drive like a madman just to stick to schedule.

We instantly picked up good vibes from the city as we went in search of a place to stay. Maybe it was just good to be in ANY city after so long out in the sticks. We re-evaluated our itinerary and decided that with one day travel there, one day stay and another day travel back, we didn’t have time to go to Olkon Island, so it was 3 nights in Irkutsk. There wasn’t too much to see or do but it was all quite pleasant with some interesting old buildings. An Englishman, an Australian and a Kiwi walk into a bar, followed by a Latvian, a Pole and a Brazilian. It’s not a joke, just our night out in Irkutsk. Was quite interesting. Half the people (all of the girls) seemed to leave as we arrived. This left half a dozen blokes, who we guessed to be Kazaks, having good old fashioned dance offs in front of the juke box. Sounds average, but these dudes could dance!

Crazy dancing in Irkutsk from Darja Kostenko on Vimeo.

Time for another 30 hours on a train, (temporary) destination Novosibirsk. You may have noticed a lack of vodka drinking up until now. Well I guess it comes down to who you meet. We were sitting in the restaurant carriage, which was amazingly quiet considering the hundreds of people on the train. This is apparently due to the slightly overpriced menu, but at $4.50 for a 500 mL beer I didn’t have any major complaints. Three blokes from the table behind us, who were fairly convinced I was Sicilian, befriended us and joined our table. They offered me a vodka… with Dasha’s permission. It was obvious that the 3 Belorussians has plans to get me drunk good. By the look of their eyes, they had a fair head start on me, so of course I thought I could take them. Things were going well. They were especially impressed when I refused to drink juice as a chaser (‘What’s the point of drinking that? It doesn’t have any alcohol in it!’ was my response). One of them left for no apparent reason, good, down to 2. The youngest of the 3 thought he would show me how tough he was by sculling about 150 mL straight. I was pretty impressed… well, for the next 15 mins that he was still conscious.  Excellent. Until the first bloke returned, along with another mate. This was going to be a losing battle, and with only a couple of hours until we had to get off the train, with a heap more kms to go, it was time to call it quits and sneak in a power nap. I managed to trade my VB t-shirt for a nice sky blue one that really brought out my eyes, yet when I woke, I was wearing a Belorussian t-shirt. Obviously my trading skills got better as the night went on.

It was 22:00 when we got off the train and onto a marshrutka, 4 hours to Barnaul. From there it was a couple of hours on a train to Biysk, 1.5 hours by ‘taxi’ to Gorno-Altaisk and finally another couple of hours by marshrutka to Artybash/Iogach on Lake Teletskoe. We had been trying for days to call ahead to book accommodation, but our dodgy phone was playing up. Just as the (extremely) drunken (rude and abusive) sailors were trying to sell us a boat ride for 6000 rubbles (about 10 times what we expected to pay), the phone started working. We soon learned that due to the harsh winter, the entire lake and river had frozen over, backing up the system for longer than usual. When it all finally melts, there’s mass flooding, the worst they’ve had in 15 years. As such, there was no access to Uchar waterfall (160m high, would have loved to have seen it) and no sense it heading up the lake. We said ‘goodbye sailor’ and found ourselves accommodation behind a cafe, which also served up reasonably priced food.

World's shallowest well

That night they fired up the Banya (sauna) for us. It was roasting hot in there, but luckily only a 40m dash down to the 4 degree lake for a ‘refreshing’ dip. Bugger me it was cold. By the time I was walking out I felt like I was going to fall over because my legs were numb!

The next day we went for a small hike 300m up a hill with one of the hotel type places. Views back over the 2 villages were pretty awesome. Everything is so green and alive. Quite different to other places we’ve been recently. After that it was into a hydrofoil for a cruise up the lake to Korbu waterfall. Not the biggest waterfall, about 15m high, but stacks of water flowing down at the moment. The cruise itself though was pretty awesome, with beautiful reflections of the surrounding mountains coming off the water. In the distance we could see the snow topped mountains, about 3-4km higher than us. That night when we went to bed, Dasha was feeling a bit of a cold coming on.

After a poor nights sleep, it was clear that Dasha was not in a good position for another 10 hours of journeys as we had planned, and that she should not be getting out of bed at all, especially in the rain which was coming down. So after 2 weeks in Russia, it was time for me to put my language skills to the test. It was quite a simple task; cancel the marshrutka we ordered yesterday because Dasha is sick. Hmmm, simple indeed. Turns out the word for sick is somewhat similar to hospital. Actually they’re not that similar, but that’s what the girl was convinced I was saying. Of course I was totally unaware of this, as she continued to talk as fast as a commentator at the Russian vodka drinking championships. I could see she was totally confused, so tried (unsuccessfully) to get her to come up and talk to Dasha. She forced me to sit down and wait. I wasn’t sure for what… and then an ambulance arrived!! I instantly realised why she had asked me how old Dasha was while she was on the phone. I thought that was an odd question. The ambulance driver asked ‘sprechen sie Deutch?’ Of course my natural response was ‘YA, YA!’ But actually neither of them could speak either German or Sprahgen. She decided to come and talk to Dasha and all was sorted.

So we’ve stayed here 2 days longer than expected, which means we don’t have time for Chemal or Aktash, but we have had time to write these exciting stories, read, edit photos and do washing… yes, that’s exciting isn’t it. I’m sure you people love reading my stories just to hear about my dirty undies. So with that all said and done, it’s 5 o’clock on a sunny Sunday afternoon. I’m gonna go grab myself a beer and enjoy the stunning lake views listening to the millions of litres of water flowing under the bridge nearby. Serenity now.

2 thoughts on “The vodka train”

  1. At least you didn’t wake up in a pair of their trousers, this is much more confusing! Loving the tales!

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