After the refreshing (?!) 30 minute walk from the hostel to the bus station, we clambered into a mini-van for the six hour trip to Khuzhir, the main “town” on Olkhon Island. The van was decked out with curtains and also had a small plasma screen showing some US film, which had been wonderfully dubbed into Russian. After some three hours on the road, and passing deep snow in places, we pulled into the main “services” on the road for lunch. After a hearty Borsch and hair of the dog, it was back to the bus for another 90 minute drive to the ferry.
Following a 30 minute wait, we boarded the ferry along with a sandy-coloured bitch, which just wandered onto the ferry and settled down quite comfortably and without any aggravation from the crew. As the ferry drew close to the quay at the end of the crossing, she then headed to the ramps and, before they were fully down, she was off to be met by her puppy. Speaking to others, apparently she does this journey every day to find food and leaves her puppy behind; a real commuting dog! It was good to see that no-one was at all concerned and, indeed, the local population (the Buryats) do care a great deal about their animals.
It was interesting to see how the ferry was used. Designed as a roll on roll off ferry, it was clear that only one set of ramps was used, which meant that all of the vehicles had to back off; this was some feat for the flat-bed and trailer that was on our ferry! The forward ramps looked as if they have never been used and I can only assume that they use one set of ramps until they break down and then use the “spare” set…why use both at the same time?
Once on Olkhon Island it was the goodbye to black-topped roads and hello to dirt tracks. After another hour on the road we finally arrived at Khuzhir and, after a few drop-offs around town, at Nikita’s Homestead. On arrival, we were offered more food and then shown to our rooms; I had lucked out as I had a small single room, which was bliss after sharing dorms and kupés for so long. The place was very homely and, importantly, warm! All of the places in Khuzhir only offer full board. So, for the exorbitant cost of RUB1,000 (£20) per night I had my own room and three meal a day; little did I know then just how much food is included and it would be difficult to eat it all!
Soon after arriving I met up with Chris and Rachel and it was good to see them again; they had already been here for a couple of days. Luckily for me they had decided to stay an extra day on the Island as they had had the misfortune to share their time with a group 12 Russian guys who had managed to stay drunk for the entire time and that had delayed their island excursion. As the sun was setting, we headed off to the Shaman Rock on a little photo trip and the place is quite beautiful. After more tasty food at dinner, we booked an island excursion for the next day, before Chris and I headed out for some night shooting; well, Chris was doing the photography and I was on wolf watch!
Heading to Shaman Rock, the skies were so clear and unpolluted that it was wall-to-wall stars, a fantastic sight even if it was absolutely freezing; thank heavens for the football manager’s quilted jacket! It’s been quite a while since I’ve seen so many stars and the Milky Way so clearly; it was definitely worth the bus fare!
The next day the weather was not so kind to us as the glorious sunny conditions of yesterday had given way to grey cloud. However, it was now or never and so Chris, Rachel, Severi, me and a Czech chappie called Pavel set off in a Soviet era mini-van with Alexander, our driver and cook for the day. It was an interesting day, mostly reflected in the photographs although seeing Pavel go for a dip in Lake Baikal is definitely worth a mention!
After dinner we were treated to some interesting entrainment that comprised an old chap on an accordion accompanied by two ladies dressed in the local folk costume, singing Buryat folk songs. To be fair, we didn’t know what to expect but it was pretty good, especially as the old chap sang songs in at least five different languages! The evening was also helped by a couple of bottles of vodka to celebrate Rachel and Chris’s last night on Olkhon.
With the vodka warming us, the four chaps decided to do some more night photography. It was surprisingly mild (vodka coat?) and whilst the keen guys snapped away I just lay and looked up, which was fantastic, especially seeing a couple of shooting stars.
Friday 1st November arrived and with that Chris and Rachel departed. However, the good news was that they had decided to catch the same train as Severi and I to Ulaan Baatar so, for the first time, I knew that there would be good company on the train. The day again revolved around breakfast, lunch and dinner, although there was a little stupidity on the day.
After walking around town and into the surrounding wood during the day, Severi and I decided that, not to be outdone by Mr Hodgson, we too would go for a dip in Lake Baikal. Although Chris had swum three times, we would be immersing ourselves in the cold water in November. To be honest, it was not one of the cleverest ideas but it had to be done. So, I went first and, dear lord, it was so cold; I was so quickly into and then out of the water I was surprised that I was even wet. Severi followed and we were so glad that it was over.
While we were dunking ourselves in Lake Baikal, a couple of Spaniards appeared but, surprisingly, did not take up our offer to join us. Getting back to our rooms to warm up, it was then off to our final dinner, accompanied by a little more vodka for Severi and I to warm up and also celebrate our last night on the island.
We woke early on the Saturday to catch the bus back to Irkutsk, and we had quite a tour of the island as the driver (who wasn’t hanging around!) drove to various pick up points before heading off to the ferry. The commuting dog joined us as we boarded the little ferry and, while we waited to depart, we watched as a van came careering down the dirt track towards the ferry; without slowing appreciably, he came straight onto the ferry; it certainly was some driving, probably not out of place in the WRC.
Arriving back in Irkutsk in the early afternoon, we were amazed by how warm it was. After the cold of Olkhon Island, it was like a spring day as it was 11C! Getting back to the hostel, it was time to prepare for the train journey to Ulaan Baatar later on; my bag was in a bit of a mess due to the rush to leave the hostel for Olkhon Island after the late night. The hostel was quite full with, surprisingly, Finns! Severi felt at home as there were five others staying for the night.
At around 8.00 p.m. Rachel, Chris, Severi and I left the hostel for the train station, but this time it would be by tram rather than by foot. Jumping on the tram we all paid our RUB12 (24p) and arrived without hassle. However, on walking the last bit to the station it was amazing to see just how much damage the weather does to the footpaths as all of the paving was shot to pieces. We arrived at the station in plenty of time and sat down to wait for the 10.10 train to Ulaan Baatar.