Our first impressions of Russia (nay, Russians) as we entered a cafe in the border town, with a few hours to kill due to the bureaucracy of a border crossing, was a fairly poor one, yet one that seemed all too stereotypically perfect – a bunch of young blokes with scratches and bruises all over their faces boozing up on vodka in a hazy cafe during the middle of the day. Yes, that’s exactly how it appeared, but it wasn’t actually as bad as I make it sound. It was a Saturday, and the majority of them were also on the train on their way home after a year of compulsory army training. So if I were to put the thong on the other foot, remember some weekend boys’ sessions such as footy trips, then I must admit that ‘Bungy’ would be out and all types of behaviour would seem totally acceptable and expectable. The one bloke who had the worst of the facial damage was apparently a local, who, a few nights earlier copped a hiding for looking at the wrong girl the wrong way, or the wrong girl the right way? Anywho, after a short while their intrigue got to them so they came over to see where we were from. Turns out they were nice guys.
Back on the train, into our 4 berth cabin with the two Mongolians that we didn’t really talk to much and about 24 hours after leaving Ulan Baatar we arrived into Ulan Ude. It was 22:10, the sun had set and we hadn’t booked any accommodation. While walking along the platform, some dude blurted out in my direction, “Hey, aren’t you cold?” I was wearing a t-shirt and his assumption was right, ‘Yeah, a bit.’ “You could catch a cold.” ‘Maybe. Do you know how to cross the tracks?’ I motioned towards where I believed the city centre, our best guess at a destination, to be. “Where are you going?” ‘City.’ “We’re catching a taxi, wanna lift?” ‘Sure.’ “Where in the city are you going?” ‘Just looking for a hotel, don’t really know.’ “I have an apartment, do you want to stay with me?” We were hardly going to say no. Standing next to him was one of the girls from our cabin on the train. They were colleagues. She was staying with him. So were we, for the next two nights. He, Batmukh (hope I spelt that right if you’re reading), was Mongolian and continued our great impressions of the people. He was shouting us taxis and cooking us food (even if it was well past dinner time) and just generally very hospitable.
We didn’t do too much in Ulan Ude, although we did pick up pretty positive vibes from the place. People did go out of their way to help us. There’s a cool looking church. There is also a massive statue of Lenin’s head. We watched a scary movie in Russian, no subtitles. Not the smartest idea. Went home and shared a cheeky vodka. And that was about it.
The next morning we caught a Marshrutka (march-route-car (sort of)), which is actually just a minibus, to Goryachinsk, on Lake Baikal. After a few hours we arrived. Lake Baikal really is quite amazing. It is about 600 km long, 50 km wide, 1.5 km deep, contains 1/5 of ALL of the worlds unfrozen fresh water and freezes over in winter (of course, it typically gets down to -40 or thereabouts). This winter was unseasonably cold (as it was in Mongolia) and when we arrived to Lake Baikal it was unseasonably unmelted. We were staring out at the massive ice sheet that seemed to cover the whole lake except for the first 5-20 metres along the coast and wondering how we would be catching a boat across in 5 days, as we had booked. The town wasn’t much. Really just a single ‘resort’ for tourists to stay at. It was based on a hot thermal spring, but we were warned not to swim because of quick sand. We stayed two nights in fairly low quality accommodation. I was scared on several occasions of falling through the floorboards. Amazingly, the second of the two girls from our cabin on the train was also staying in the resort and said hello to us. The area itself was beautiful. We went for lots of walks through the pine woods and along the coast. Even came across a dude ‘sun bathing’ in his budgie smugglers. The ice melting was amazing as it broke into thin, long shards. In one place in particular, you could sit and listen to the ice as it broke away, sounding like glass shattering across an outside echoless floor – an amazingly crisp sound, perfectly suited to the surroundings of pure white ice, crystal clear water and clear blue skies.
It was time to hit the road again, but this time was going to be a challenge, with no public transport between Goryachinsk and Ust-Barguzin. We walked to the road to try our luck hitch hiking. The first thing to go past was 4 cows as they wandered freely grazing. They wouldn’t stop for us. After 25 minutes someone approached. We didn’t bother trying to flag them down due to the size of the vehicle, but they pulled over just 50 metres up the road and called out back to us. Now I’m not entirely up with my vehicle classification system, but, to the best of my knowledge, I believe that this orange number would be classified as a ‘B-Double’. Yes, a massive truck with a couple of trailers became our ride for the next few hours over pot-holed gravel roads with backpacks on our laps. At one stage we hit a MASSIVE dip in the road and I’m sure the front of the truck got airborne. He dropped us off at a petrol station leaving us a couple of km’s to hike, as he was heading on much further. After about 5 minutes walking down the dusty track we managed to get someone to stop. It was Keanu Reaves driving his brown turbo diesel 4WD Bongo Van. This was to become our wheels and guide for the next two days. Conveniently, his parents ran a homestay, so we were totally sorted. The mother ran the family and did more than enough talking for all of them. Sometimes it’s a blessing to not understand. Poor Dasha had to listen repeatedly about how good their family was, how the neighbours admired/envied them and how expensive everything, particularly electricity, is.
We wandered into town to see the dodgiest river crossing system ever invented. A small stinky tug boat dragging and pushing a pontoon from one side to the other. There’s debate in the town whether to keep it or replace it. The argument for keeping it is that tourists ‘love it and always take photos’. Well, I’m sure tourists always take photos, but it’s not for love. And I’m certain the tourists don’t like queueing for hours in summer. However, the fact that the river was flowing out into the middle of the lake gave us hope that our boat would be running. Yet everyone we spoke to was still very doubtful. We called them that night and got told to call back again the next night, which wasn’t’ very positive.
We drove to Svatoy Nos but couldn’t hike to the top as it was still covered in snow. Saw water rats at a popular summer campsite. This is also where bears come to steal pica-nic baskets. We went on a small hike up the mountain in search of bears feasting on berries but had no luck. Was very pleasant though and didn’t Dasha love the flowers. The next day we drove up the Barguzin Valley. Was really quite spectacular with the mountain peaks nearby. We walked up to a holy place, where a rock has been found with the image of a particular goddess on it – pretty obvious when you look at it. And if you look at one of our photos, you may just see a face on the glass – very weird!
We had one little session on the vodkas with the family. Think it was about 4 double shots over dinner. Then a few more after. The mother didn’t want to stop, but we thought better of it. On our last night, we called back the boat company for the third day in a row – call back in an hour, call back in another hour. By midnight they told us that we couldn’t go, still too much ice. The risk is getting squashed between two sheets moving in different directions. We heard stories of people losing brand new 4WD’s after cracks open up and then close again. So as much as we were disappointed that we couldn’t go across to Olkon Island, we were happy to keep our flip flops dry.