And we did. The drive west from Chita proved to be quite picturesque. Glimpses of snow capped peaks with icy streams and road elevations touching 3600ft. The highway however was in a bad state of disrepair. Now I love driving on rough roads and tracks, beaches or just about anywhere off the blacktop. But I detest bitumen roads that haven’t been maintained. The roads here have been long stretches of undulating and often broken seal with BIG potholes. Just as you get a nice smooth stretch and take your eyes off the road and allow the accelerator to descend a little closer to the floor you are met with the sight of the tacho increasing in revs at the same speed the cosmonauts head into space as you also leave the ground and become weightless! Landing is always rough but the locals consistently power past in their Corolla’s with exhaust systems leaving nice little grooves in the humps of bitumen and it’s hilarious to see them bouncing around in their cars reminiscent of being in a pinball machine.
If you want to go into business here, then start a suspension repair shop you will never struggle for work!
After more than 4000km Ulan Ude finally came into view. Here we would apply for our Mongolian visa’s but unfortunately for us you can only drop off your passports Monday, Wednesday or Friday mornings. As we had arrived Monday afternoon, we had missed the opportunity. Tourist Information Centres are virtually non existent so we opted to visit a local hostel with great reviews on Trip Advisor and a host who spoke good English to seek information. Denis was fantastic and was a wealth of information about Lake Baikal and general tourist information. His business is Ulan Ude Travelers House and his website is http://uuhostel.com After our brief visit with Denis and obligatory cup of tea, we decided to have a quick look around the city before stocking up with supplies and heading north to Lake Baikal for a few days! Sorting out our visa’s would wait until our return.
I intended to camp en-route before arriving at Lake Baikal but the highway proved to be in excellent condition and we were really excited at the prospect of making it to the lake. Fortunately we had previously loaded a campsite waypoint into the computer that Ron Moon of 4×4 Australia fame had used during his sojourn across Russia and hence I wasn’t overly concerned about chasing down a camp in the dark! I was more than thankful however for the HID driving lights and 40inch light bar, I don’t intend driving at night often but when you do and it’s misty, really cold and your not sure what’s ahead then being able to light up the foreground is more than a bonus! Thanks Narva!!!!
We arrived in almost darkness and the lights lit up the icy crust of the lake as we descended to near the shore-line. When we exited the Patrol we quickly realised that the heater had been working fantastically well and scrambled for jackets beanies and anything within easy reach.
Next morning we were rewarded with our first vista of this truly amazing lake.
An icy shoreline and just visible in the distance was Olkhon Island apparently sporting some of the best scenery on Lake Baikal but not on our itinerary this time!
We headed north along the lake at a lazy pace observing the now familiar village lifestyle of ramshackle timber houses, cows and vegie patches with of course the ever-popular UAZ Bongo vans. A lazy couple of hours later and we were at the entrance to the “Holy Nose” Baikal National Park. Some hand signals and grrrhh noises from the park attendants informed us of the possibility, however slight, of bears! Adds a whole new level of intensity to your hearing when you exit your camper in the middle of the night for a pit stop. Maybe lay off the beer and not find myself reported on in some travel advisory website as an Australian idiot abroad – taken by a bear due to his inability to leave his drinking habits at the gate!
Beautiful scenery awaited us and we only headed on a few km’s and with the sun out, that was it! We parked up for a couple of nights and got in some serious relaxation after the previous days of long driving! Pure water with ice bobbing around and no one anywhere just the way we like it! The next day however proved windy and quite cold but nonetheless spectacular.
A further exploration to the furthermost village on the peninsular was enjoyable with lots of steep tracks and mud holes to break up the drive. Upon arriving at the village there was little to indicate human habitation. Some curtains rustled in a window as we passed by and some fisherman, with the usual stone face frozen in place, wandered around disinterested! The following day saw us back at the park entrance and after many confused looks and hand gestures we were met with a large Russian smile and were on our way. I’m sure we were supposed to have paid extra for each nights stay but it was all just to hard for the Russian Ranger!
We found a cosy little spot on the Lake once more and after a few drinks heard the rumbling noise of an approaching vehicle – Strastvootjya and we were to be friends. Sergey turned out to be a wealth of knowledge and with no English to match our grasp on Russian we had many convoluted conversations about the lake, fishing, the weather and Russian life. The following morning Sergey returned and suggested we tag along with him for some more Russian hospitality. First we harvested some Birch tree water and then headed to the town of Maksimikha to his house! Birch tree water is a popular health tonic in Russia and is harvested by tapping into a mature Birch tree and placing a wick into the trunk and dangling it into a large plastic bottle. Amazingly, the tree can produce about 5 litres of water in 24 hours. We have tried this several times now and find it like mildly flavoured water with a slight sugary taste which has varied in flavor from region to region but always enjoyable.
An interesting 3-storey timber building built by hand by Sergey provided great views of the lake. I did spend a lot of time avoiding power-lines just above my head (and I’m short!) and trying not to be dependent on our Nomad Travel Insurance for a return journey home. Building standards are a little – well non-existent! Back to ground level and into a small one-room building where Sergey spends his time – the larger building he rents during the busy season for a little extra income. I had been asking about the Omul fish of the lake as we are early in the season and it doesn’t yet seem to be for sale along the roadsides! I’m glad I asked in hindsight however the following meal just about ended my generally adventurous pallet! Around the back of the hut and in a bucket under some rocks were some Haragos! A fish of around 30cm that is generally easy to catch at this time of year as opposed to the Omul which are usually caught in deeper water. Maybe I shouldn’t have shown so much interest as shortly I’d be eating one of these slimy raw suckers! I quite like raw fish, particularly in the more Japanese style. But a slimy fish from a bucket of interesting water under a rock with blood, gills and lot’s of other remnants of organs required for life still attached was a little out there!
Out came salad, bread, caviar, solid uncooked lumps of bacon fat, chilli relish and of course alcohol but this time Russian Whisky! Well, as ever, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger! I hooked into my first piece of salted fish. It was much better than I had feared but I was struggling with the entrails and blood, so after my second helping, which I am embarrassed to say I couldn’t finish, I’d had enough! 3 shots of whiskey and I can honestly say I’d had one of the best experiences I’m likely to have! I did have one surprise up my sleeve however and thought it only fair that Sergey try our little Aussie gem, Vegemite. Jar removed from the larder, a thick dollop served and Sergey had an almost identical reaction to me! Jen attempted the bacon fat but found that a thinly sliced cooked version served with eggs is more to her taste!
A random encounter that once again ended in Russian hospitality -I think you just have to be open to it. It’s easy to become insular when you’re in your vehicle with your home on your back, but that’s not the immersion experience we are after!
After a truly enjoyable few hours we were on our way once again. Some distance south we noticed some people ice fishing out on the lake and another stop was imminent! We wandered clumsily some hundred or so metres onto the frozen ice and as we approached I could just imagine the lone fisherman sitting there thinking “bugger off and leave me to enjoy my day off!” Another quick strastvootjya, we don’t speak Russian and Australia and the same thing all over again. Offers of Chai (Tea) from his thermos and lessons in ice fishing began. After our teacher caught a few of my previously ingested Harigos we said our goodbyes and were pointed in the right direction to make sure we would make it back to the shoreline without drowning by our now giggling fishing instructor whom I think was amazed we made it back without requiring rescue!
Our visit to Lake Baikal lasted longer than we anticipated as the scenery was just too good to rush but we now find ourselves back in Ulan Ude relaxing in the Menshikov Hotel – a great little find in the city centre that suited our needs perfectly with secure parking, wifi and, after some sign language with the lovely receptionist who spoke little English, an opportunity to do some much needed washing! A great little Italian restaurant next door was an added bonus and after my fishy experiences I thought I deserved a night off!
This morning we left the hotel to lodge our Mongolian visa application at the consulate and we were greeted by light snow falling! Visas ready this afternoon then onward to Mongolia!!
Thanks for the comments and back soon – Justin.