DAY 33 – Train from Irkutsk to Ulan Ude
Annnnd we’re back on the train! Officially our last train within Russian borders as tomorrow we head to Mongolia. Our train is one of the official ‘Trans-Mongolian’ trains going through Russia and Mongolia to Beijing, but since our stop is within Russia, they have placed us in the only Russian wagon of this mostly Chinese operated train, in the very last wagon. The caboose. Literally the butt hole of the Trans Mongolian by the look of the toilet. The provodnitsa must be looking forward to her final destination as well.
We have spent the last few days in the idyll of Olkhon Island on Lake Baikal, a long kidney-shaped lake containing ⅕ of the world’s freshwater (more than all of the Great Lakes combined!) and more than its fair share of golden larch trees, a type of conifer which changes from green to lime green to golden in the fall, oft times a bright canary yellow, only to lose its needles for the winter and start all over in the spring. A type of cross-breed between deciduous and pine. Jason feels he has met his spirit tree.
The trees line the undulating hills and sharp cliffs of the island, whose scenery reminds us more of Mongolia than of Russia (the Russia we’ve seen anyway). On our first day, we determinedly decided to rent some mountain bikes and go off exploring the dusty dirt trails zigzagging the mountains. Armed with an iphone map, lunch, 2 liters of water, a tire repair kit, headlamps (in case we didn’t make it back by nightfall), and an emergency whistle (for the same problem), we picked up the bikes in the main town of Khuzhir and set off into the wild. The goal: to reach a small lake in the center of the island, cross over to the other side, and then bike back across to town. Our bike shop owner, speaking only Russian and tracing the mountain ranges with his hand, told us to watch for the first left turn after 1, 2, 3 peaks. Perfect we thought, 3 peaks! Easy peasy.
The smiles belie the pain and suffering that was only to worsen.
The 3 peaks, already fairly difficult, some parts only walkable particularly due to the steep sandy roads which are thick and slippery like quicksand, only led us to the bottom of the REAL peak. A steep mountain range, in parts so high we had to push our bikes at full arms’ length. A difficult hike in the best of times, a hellish journey fraught with cursing (and perhaps some tears, but nobody’s judging) in the worst of times.
The total round trip was 6 hours and 45 minutes, mostly uphill. I am happy to report that we did not turn back and we did make it to the lake and to the eastern shores of the island. On route we crossed meadows of wildflowers, sweated through beautiful paths surrounded by golden larches, bike-walked through valleys of verdant hills, were greeted by herds of cows in some areas, and by wild horses in others, and encountered truly beautiful scenery, pristine nature at its best. On reaching the other side, the sense of accomplishment was real, but so was the feeling that given the choice we would never do it again. Arriving back in town just at the cusp of nightfall, I was never so glad to get rid of a bike. We gave-ith, until we could give-ith no more. Our behinds are bruised, our thighs can still feel the burn, and it’s already been a few days. Though the pain will pass, the memories will last a lifetime, and they are awesome!
On the island, we stayed in a private home compound just on the outskirts of the main city, behind a wide expanse of sandy beach. Our hosts, Gala, Fedor and their 6-year old daughter Radana, were gracious and generous, attending to our every need (which hopefully were not too numerous). In Buryat, Radana means kind and caring, and literally translates to ‘one who gives the sun’. The traditions of the Buryat reminded us greatly of the First Nations of Canada; totem-like poles and wood carvings dotting the beach, dream catchers hanging in the trees, a teepee in the yard, the banya (or sweat lodge) next to the house, and an overarching respect for family, animals and the nature that surrounds us.
Apart from hosting tourists such as ourselves, Gala and Fedor also take care of a horse and train 5 beautiful white and fluffy sleigh-pulling dogs. On our third night, we, along with a Belgian couple, An and Roland, volunteered to walk the dogs (by ‘we’ I mean the Belgian couple, who were used to having pets larger than goldfish). But this was no ordinary walk in the park. Fedor had us each jump into a full harness, with elastic leash built into the front. One dog per person. Sensing some action was on the way, the dogs were whipped into a frenzy, yelping and jumping and running in circles, excited to get out and hit the trails. Gala, watching us from the kitchen window, yelled out instructions to walk calmly and let the dogs do the pulling, as that’s what they’re used to.
As soon as we left the family compound, the dogs bounded into action, yelping excitedly and running sideways and diagonally towards their teammates. We jogged behind for the first bit, letting the dogs run and tug us forward by the harness. With the large amount of stray dogs on the loose, letting the dogs off the leash is too risky. The only truly independent dog, the leader of the pack, was attached to Fedor and walked in the lead. The other four were nearly always in a dog sandwich, never straying long without a buddy. If their dog friend was ahead or behind, they would lean on a human instead, never or rarely on their own. A true pack mentality!
After a magical few days, we closed our last evening off in the family’s banya (much more subdued than our Moscow banya) for a sweat and a rinse, and let our skins steam in the cold wind under the moonlight.
Now, after having stopped in Saint-Petersburg, Moscow, Suzdal, Nizhny Novgorod, Tiumen, Tobolsk, Tomsk, Taiga, Irkutsk, and Olkhon Island, we are off to spend one final night in Russia before crossing into Mongolia on October 16.