My trip to the vast lake Baikal has got off to an interesting start. My driver, Vladimir, is a nice chap. He doesn’t speak English, but he does speak a little German, so we are able to have talk a bit. The problem is, Japanese keeps on coming out of my mouth, which is causing a great deal of confusion.
Vladimir isn’t actually in the driver’s seat at the moment. He’s sitting in the passenger seat of the police car on the other side of the road, giving his details to the policeman who has just stopped him for speeding. I think this might be an eventful trip.
30 minutes later
Traffic cop dealt with we continued on our journey to the lake. Well, I thought we were going to. Turned out we had to pick up his brother the other side of town, and now we’ve stopped at some miniature trading estate to pick up essential supplies of beer for some other hostel on the island. There’s no buildings as such here, instead, all the merchants are operating out of open-ended cargo crates. The insides have been customised to such an extent that as first glance you wouldn’t recognise them for cargo crates, some have even had their sides cut out and replaced with windows. It seems you can buy anything here. Some specialise in cleaning supplies, others in food and beverages. There’s one to my left that seems to have a local monopoly on sticky tape, whilst on my right pet food is the favoured product.
It’s a bit surreal looking around at the other trucks in the yard. Almost without exception, they are post-retirement delivery trucks from Japan. We’ve got Takkyubin, Kangaroo, Keio, and the one with the fat sumo wrestler on the side. The van next to us is a little refrigerated truck from Osaka that delivered fresh fish in its former life. I like the way that no attempt has been made to remove the logos and names of the original companies – perhaps it has the same oriental effect here as Chinese tattoos do at music festivals in the UK.
40 minutes later
It’s not a good day for my driver, Vladimir. He’s being treated to a seat in a police car for the second time this morning, courtesy of yet another speed gun. He explained why there’s so many police on the roads today: it’s September 1st, and the kids are going back to school. Apparently it’s policy to try and reduce accidents on this special day, a day when the girls and boys dress up in their best frocks and the most stunning hairpieces to celebrate a new year of education.
30 minutes later
The next distraction was some folks we picked up on the roadside, Peter and Slava. Peter, an 18-year-old student of English and economics in Irkutsk, was on his way to visit his parents in his little hometown not far from Lake Baikal. He was delighted to meet an Englishman with whom he could share his knowledge of the royal family – talking to him made me think back to Push whom I’d met in the Shanghai, the boy who spoke the Queen’s English and had just been to an Avril Lavigne concert. We exchanged email addresses before dropping him off and continuing on our way.
This area of Siberia is fascinating. In just a few hours we have passed through various landscapes – I try to keep my eyes on the view and not on the road ahead, as concentrating on this suicidal driving would give me heart failure. The question is, do I sit in the seat facing forwards so that I can anticipate sharp turns (and cows on the road) yet run the risk being thrown through the windscreen upon impact, or do I sit in the seats that face backwards but aren’t actually fixed to the floor of the van?
But yes, the landscape. Initially it was the spitting image of southern England. Gentle hills, fields of barley and oil seed rape. The only distinguishing feature was the horses being used to bring in the hay. And then it was densely wooded hills, initially birch and then evergreens as far as the eye could see. Moving on north, the trees have thinned and rocky outcrops dot the horizon. There’s no sign of human habitation, and I imagine that in the winter few people would come this was, with the gravel track becoming impassable due to snow.
Coming over the summit of a mini-mountain lake Baikal has just come into view. It is magnificent. It is vast (7km deep, with 6km of silt on the bottom). It is old (at 2 million years old the oldest in the world, the next oldest being 20,000 years). It is a beautiful deep blue. It is time I took some photos.
1 hour later
Arriving at the port about 45 minutes ago, we were met by Mr. Goldtooth, who, funnily enough, had gold teeth. He was extremely drunk, but still swigging from a glass bottle of beer much like the rest of the population of Siberia. Beside him was Tatiana, a Russian girl in her late 20s from Irkutsk who over the summer worked as a translator at one of the hostels here on the island – today was her last day, and she was clearly happy to be leaving the isolation chamber. She reminded me of a promiscuous horse, although I’m not sure entirely why, and I mean that in the nicest possible way.
After half-an-hour or so the ferry could be seen setting off from the opposite shore, chug-chugging across the narrow channel that in the summer separates the island of Olkhon from the mainland. In the winter the lake freezes over, enabling people, bikes, cars and lorries to traverse its icy surface. But not always successfully – last year 6 vehicles never made it to the other side, instead taking a trip down, down, down to the mysterious murky depths, home to many a marine creature yet to be identified.
Our crossing however was (thankfully) uneventful. We reached the miniature port in under 15 minutes, and, laden down with the beer and potatoes purchased at the cargo crate, boarded the minibus that was to take us along the 25km dirt track to the village of Khuzir. Then, my driver got in. He was a different driver from before, a driver with gold teeth, a very drunk driver.
My reaction surprised me. I didn’t make a fuss about the fact that the person behind the wheel could barely walk (let alone hold a steering wheel). I didn’t refuse to put my life in his hands. In fact, I didn’t even consider it to be an issue. The thing was, having been in China and Mongolia for a couple of weeks, I was so used to horrendous driving that even his high-speed zig-zag down the gravel track failed to make me realise that anything was amiss.
As it happened, we got here safely, albeit with a few bruises where my head had hit the ceiling.
Checking in a little while ago, I was asked if I minded sharing a room with someone else. I said no, that was fine. “OK, follow me” said Olga. “Your room is this way”. She led me across the Nikita courtyard to a wooden building of the bold variety, my room was the first on the right, and my roommate was …Adrian! “Coincidence” has led me to share a room with him for the third time now. He may say that I’m stalking him, but we all know the truth is actually very different: he has an uncanny knack to foresee my next move and acts accordingly to ensure that our paths cross.
Whilst I am by nature a solitary traveller, and I dislike the idea of travelling with someone else, I’m actually very much enjoying his company. It makes me feel more settled having him here. A dose of familiarity, a comfort zone in which I can happily relax.
Anyhow, I think it’s time to explore the area, starting with a trip down to the beach. From what I saw on our drunken drive here, we are surrounded by some rather spectacular scenery.