I stood in the dark outside my apartment building in Irkutsk, already feeling the chill in my legs. The marshrutka (mini-van) I booked through the Baikaler Hostel was scheduled to pick me up at 8:45 a.m. and it was nearly fifteen minutes late. I tried in vain to dial the hostel from my Blackberry, hoping that the SIM card I bought in Moscow would work in Siberia. Nope.
Finally I began to accept the fact that it might not be coming. I might not make it to Olkhon Island to see Lake Baikal – my primary goal in stopping in Irkutsk. I rode the elevator up nine floors to my flat and walked in to the surprised looks of my flatmates Sveta and Olga. I rushed to explain the situation and asked Sveta to call on her phone. As I listened to her end of the conversation, my hopes began to rise. Sure enough, the marshrutka was still in the city and would arrive in twenty minutes.
Just forty-five minutes late. But after 2 months in Russia, this should not surprise me.
I hopped in the marshrutka to see a Belgian couple already sitting inside. They said hello and we immediately hit it off. Recently married, they were nearing the end of their nine-month honeymoon. Starting in Jordan last spring, they traveled through Syria, Turkey and Iran and along the Silk Road through Central Asia and then into China and Mongolia.
Two older women decked out in fur coats and fur hats soon joined us, as did a twenty-something girl with Asian features and three other men. Including all the luggage stuffed in the back of the van, it was starting to get a little crowded.
After a couple hours, we hit our first rest stop and my first use of a drop toilet in Siberia. Let’s just say it was a long way down and I am really thankful I did not slip!
The rest stop also brought one of the biggest laughs I have had in Russia – we walked into the roadside café to see a Russian remake of the sitcom Married With Children on a flat screen TV.
As we headed back to the van, one of the women stopped me and asked in very careful English where I was from. When I replied USA and Chicago, she got quite excited and proceeded to tell me her daughter lives in…Canada. She pointed to her sweatshirt, with a Vancouver logo, and told me she called her daughter when she heard me talking in the van. Apparently we Americans and Canadians are interchangeable.
Returning to the van, I also realized for the first time that two of the men had their own little drinking party going on. One had several large cans of beer and the other kept pulling out a bottle of vodka stashed in his jacket pocket. The fact that we stopped twice more before reaching the ferry to Olkhon Island so that they could use the toilet seemed to confirm how much they were drinking. So did the fact that the older man (who was the spitting image of my late uncle Chuck) was getting more and more talkative and animated.
At some point I think he told us he regularly drinks about 2 liters of vodka before 5:00 p.m. each day.
He also boasted of his stomach fat keeping him warm.
And he was extremely excited to point out a shaman’s house once we got to the island.
It took us about four hours to reach the ferry port to Olkhon Island. As we got closer, we stopped a couple more times, each time with the driver and other men worriedly examining the front right tire. Sure enough, when we got to the port, it turned out we had a flat tire. Impressively, they changed it in about five minutes flat.
We waited for about thirty minutes at the port, first for the car ferry to arrive and then for it to get situated. Being mid-November, the lake was already starting to freeze over and the boat had to plow through several meters of floating ice chunks to reach the port. As we saw the boat approach, we wondered if there would be enough room for all of the cars and vans lined up, but it turned out to be deceptively large, holding far more vehicles than I imagined it would.
As we crossed on the ferry, it occurred to me that if it sunk, we would be sinking into the deepest lake in the world.
But just twenty minutes and we were back on dry land, cruising along toward the town of Khuzhir, another hour away. The scenery around us was much different from what I anticipated – I pictured flat land covered in tall pine trees and instead we were traversing rolling hills covered in yellow or brown grass, barely a tree in sight.
It was after 3:00 p.m. when I finally arrived at a pink wooden house owned by a woman named Olga. She came out to greet me, showed me to my room and then quickly ushered me into her surprisingly modern kitchen (complete with a flat screen TV!), where she had lunch waiting for me – a huge plate of home style potatoes, fish soup and a salad of cabbage and carrots. After practically inhaling all of it, I bundled up to go explore Khuzhir.
I wouldn’t exactly call Khuzhir a one-horse town. It’s more like a multiple-cow town.
The beach-like sandy streets were nearly empty as I wandered down the main drag of the town. I passed dilapidated wooden houses, junkyard cars and a few grazing cows just killing time on the side of the road. A pack of dogs soon joined me and wouldn’t leave my side as I strolled along, the sand feeling smooth under my feet.
The chaotic, crowded and bumpy six hour ride just to get to Khuzhir suddenly seemed like a distant memory. After two months of concrete jungles, the simplicity of everything in Khuzhir just seemed beautiful to me.
And while I knew I had another crazy ride ahead of me to return to Irkutsk on Sunday, for the moment I was in a complete state of calm.