2 days 5 hours and 33 minutes, 3,500 km of distance, crossing 3 time zones… they just flew by. The documentary series ranging from Our Planet to Rotten loaded on my phone in the anticipation of the long hours on the train did not get fully utilised. It turns out I am more into reading on the train than watching films. Second revelation – time really just flew by.
It is nearing 06:22 – the ETA for pulling into Irkutsk railway station. And once again the Russian railway system is hits the metric for timeliness. On the dot the train pulls up at the train station. If this trend continues I will have to consider modifying German punctuality and adding a Russian twist to that.
The train comes to a stop. Commotion in the train corridor as carriage doors are pulled open and passengers starts marching towards the exit. The pleasant connections once forged in the train are now being pulled apart in a hasty manner. Going down the train steps and into the platform we become strangers again. Everyone rushes out into the open world waiting for them. A quick goodbye to our neghbours – the Russian grandma and her grandson – is all there is to say. They hurry out the train living behind a pleasant memory. One can’t stop but feel sentimental, at least I do.
Enough sentimentality, Irkutsk is waiting, looking all pretty and sunny. Our host Volodya is delayed in picking us up in his Soviet furgon, so there is nothing else to do but to find somewhere to get some food.
We didn’t have to go far to find this glorious ballroom that in the height of its fame in the Soviet years was probably quite the place to be seen in. Now in its ramshackle state it felt kind of spooky actually. A huge hall with a small counter on the side serving a sad menu of blinis and grechka (boiled buckwheat, the Russian equivalent of rice), the two kitchen dames looking stern and unwelcoming, half of the tables overturned and the rest looking like they could use a much needed upgrade into the modern age. At least the ballroom was light and airy and you half expected palace guests to flung open the big white doors and waltz right in.
The breakfast ordeal in the grand room is well accomplished. An hour has passed and still no trace of Volodya… Traffic jams we are told. Waiting out in the morning sun seems like a good idea giving us a chance to observe the flow of passengers in and out of the railway station.
As the second hour is approaching to its close, Andreas notices his dream car – a grey UAZ pull into the parking lot. Volodya is here finally together with his friend heading to Volodya’s mother’s place to help them build a new guesthouse! We hurry towards this kind looking man of Buryat origin as he walks in hurried steps and with outstretched arms to give us a welcome hug. Perhaps you will get a chance to meet Volodya in a later post, if not I tell you he has the kindest face and as it turns out is a very humble and quiet soul. Russian quickly becomes our speaking language as we strike up conversation like old acquaintances reunited again. Even Andreas seems to be catching up quickly with his small vocabulary of Russian words and Volodya spices the conversation up with his equally small German lingo.
Volodya puts the UAZ in gear and on we roll first onto the paved streets of Irkutsk that after a while turn into dusty offroads. Our destination is a small village called Bugul’deyka north of Irkutsk by the shore of Lake Baikal. The 230 km will take around 4 hours to cross we are told. Well we are not in a hurry – everything is new and exciting and someone is excited like a kid to be riding in an UAZ.
Shortly into the roadtrip we realise that the Soviet design of our beautiful UAZ failed to consider modern amenities such as A/C. Let alone that the ingenious design of the van makes the windows in the back area close shut after a few bumps on the road. Very convenient given it is over 30 degrees of Celsius outside. Good we have an engineer on board – it didn’t take long for Andreas to design an A/C for our UAZ ride.
Opening his bag to find one of the tools he always carries – a heavy-duty string, he quickly musters up an ingenious A/C system to force the window to stay open and allow for air to flow in. Now I finally feel appreciation for why he always insists on carrying his camping tools with him. I am making a mental note for myself to stop commenting on his habit on packing 3 kg of weight in his bag at all times when travelling consisting solely of various camping equipment.
With handmade A/C running efficiently we hit off the road again. Seems like a world apart from the tightly packed avenues of Moscow. And it couldn’t have been any farther, we are more than 5,000 km away from the glamorous capital. The road here is open vastness covered with green fields, roaming horses and wild flowers.
After four hours or so of bumpy and dusty ride we arrive at the village of Bugul’deyka. This will be our home for the next five days staying with the family of Volodya – all Buryat people native of the area. In the words of Volodya, Buryat are the descendants of the forest Mongols, while the Mongols living in Mongolia are the steppe (grassland) Mongols. Good to know. It is a mini introduction to what is expecting us on the other side of the border in the neighbouring Mongolia.
After getting a tour of our home and the key attractions – the toilet and the banya, we set off for the main draw of the area and of the highlight of our trip – Lake Baikal. It is just two km away from Bugul’deyka. We get there close to the sunset to find an absolute beauty.
Lake Baikal – I am left mesmerised by its beauty, as I gaze to its still waters and a surface calm like a mirror with the sun softly dancing on it. Volodya standing next to me, looks longingly at the water, pointing at some yellow particles that are not supposed to be there and says quietly that the lake used to be so clean 10 years ago. A result of human contamination along the shores of it. Not dangerous he adds, you can swim it. I am not much of a swimmer, but it doesn’t take long for my Danish half to jump into the water which is clearly freezing cold for my taste being around 10 degrees but just perfect for his.
After a while we head back onto the road again. Volodya wants to show us his favourite panoramic spot. We drive into the forest to find a beautiful carpet of wild flowers. Everywhere you look – pretty flowers in shades of pink, purple, white and blue smile at you. My joy couldn’t be more complete. Siberia is so full of surprises. Wild flowers is not the thing that comes to mind when you think of Siberia. For me this vast land has always been associated with perpetual snow and freezing cold temperatures.
As I go crazy with taking pictures of all the pretty flowers I can find, I notice that annoying little creatures are feasting at my legs. Nasty mosquitoes are really having a blast. Within the 15 minutes that we spent in the forest, I was left with probably just as many humongous mosquito bites. Andreas got his share too. I think Volodya on the other hand must have some kind of magic potion on him that repels the annoying flies. Either that or the flies don’t touch the locals. The wild flowers are worth it though I try to tell myself… though during the next couple of days as my itching urges intensify I am not sure I still stay of the same naive opinion.
After some short time of admiring the nature, we call it a day and head back home. At least some of us do. The fish in the family, aka Andreas decides that the swim in Lake Baikal is not enough for him. He also wants to test the waters in the local river. Armed with a newly mastered Russian expression – paydyom plavat (let’s go swim), Volodya and he set off to have an evening swim in the river.
I turn to my exciting book world. After finishing the second Jan Guillou Hamilton book, I have transferred myself to India to read about a deceptive, disgusting and scary world of generic drugs. It is unfortunately depicting a reality we live in. Don’t even ask why. Bottle of Lies by Katherine Eban. Just read it and I promise it will scare the hell out of you and you will think twice next time you buy a drug that is generic. The world we live in can be so twisted and dirty.
To drive the crazy generic drug thoughts away I look at the wild flowers again to put a smile back on my face. It does the trick. Good night from Siberia!
Photos © Andreas Eriksen & Ani Movsisyan