We arrived in Irkutsk in the dark of night – it was only about 7:30pm, but the sun sets early and rises late in Siberia. Irkutsk was more of what I expected from a Siberian city – until this point Siberia hasn’t felt all that “Siberian”. It’s a good sized town, but has a lot of quaint wood houses and not as many massive soviet apartment blocks found in other cities. There wasn’t much to do there – it was going to be our staging point for Mongolia. But a Kiwi girl from our hostel urged us to take a trip to Olkhon Island in Lake Baikal. She thought it was one of the most beautiful places that she has been, and she asserted that as a native of New Zealand, we should take her word for it. We are glad that we did.
The island was absolutely beautiful. We’ll worth the bumpy seven hour ride (in a crowded minibus, a ferry, then the last hour in the minibus again) to get to the town of Khuzhir, the main settlement on the Island. Khuzhir’s population is about 1,000 people and plenty of friendly cows and dogs. Both the cows and dogs roam free on the Island during the day and return home at night – with the cows mooing in the street until the owner let them in. We were never without a a friendly dog companion or two as we walked around town. We stayed at a place called “Fisherman’s Guesthouse” which was… wait for it… at a fisherman’s house! It was a cute little place and the wife – I’m assuming she was the fisherman’s wife – cooked homemade meals for us. And yes, most meals had some form of fish. There was also good soup, eggs, yummy potatoes and mutton (I didn’t have any). It was some of the best food we’ve had in Russia.
We took a Jeep tour our first day and hiked around on the second day immensely enjoyed being out of the city and taking in the island’s many breathtaking views. Olkhon was mainly rolling grassland prairies and dwarf-pine forests. Across the lake to the north we could see snow-capped peaks. It reminded us in some ways of the Marin Headlands at home.
We returned to Irkutsk after 4 days and then departed for Ulan Ude via train. This was a ‘short’ 8 hour ride and for a change of pace we ended up in third class (okay, because we couldn’t figure out how to ask for the seats we wanted). In third class there are six beds to a ‘compartment’ instead of the four in second class that we were accustomed to, and the compartments are open, so the train car is basically like a long barracks.
It was a day train, so since we weren’t sleeping it didn’t matter much to us and it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable train rides yet. A older Russia man, who we gather is named Shasa, quickly befriend Stuart. He tried to talk to us, but the only thing he knew how to say in English was “I love you”. He was in love with Stuart. The only other English words our train friends seem to recognize were “American”, “Bush” “Schwarzenegger”, and “Obama”. The first two words did not go over well, but “Schwarzenegger”, and “Obama” seem to be pretty popular.
At one of the stops along the way we notice women on the platform selling plastic bags of whole fish. When Shasa plopped down a fish and a cup of beer in front of us, Stuart and I got really nervous. I slowly sipped the beer (it was 11am) so as not to be rude, careful not to empty the cup and invite another round and we tried tiny bit of the fish. To our surprise it was smoked and tasted really good! When the train pulled into our station and we made our way off all of our new friends came with us, carrying our bags and posing for a picture before we went on our way.