We were up early as the train got in at 7am. Besides the Jolly Ukrainian farting and an odd sound of screaming through the night we slept quite well. These trains were not built for the sensitive traveller but they are actually comfortable enough, once you’re settled. We had a quick wash using some soap paper we took with us and went ashore. Irkutsk train station is not the prettiest, It has a KGB safe house feeling to it, but it was a considerable improvement to Ulaanbaatar. No sheep running around this one. We had some information about a hostel but somehow we managed to lose the info in our train carriage. Pretty impressive considering it was the size of a toilet. But as luck would have it, there was a woman with a hostel sign inside the station. She was waiting for a couple of guests and we latched on to her.
“Can we stay in your hostel?”
“Are you Charles and Max from Singapore?”
“Well I’m not Max, and she’s definitely not Charles. We don’t have a reservation, do you have any beds free?”
Turns out she did so after C and M joined us we all squashed ourselves into her car (Youngja in the baby seat) and had it away.
First impressions of Irkutsk were hazy. I was still trying to wake up. It was much more developed than Ulan Ude but it also had more of a stark, unfriendly feeling. In the drive there were many boarded up buildings and closed shops. Perhaps the city hadn’t woken up yet, either.
The hostel was perfectly located on Karl Marx Street. Opposite the building was a house that had been burned to ashes. I asked the owner what had happened but she seemed reluctant to tell me. Before I had enough time to deeply think about what the odds were of the owner being an arsonist we were out and hauling our bags up a run-down apartment building to the top floor. Initially fearing the worst, when we were inside it was lovely. All modern appliances and wooden floors. It was just a nice apartment with enough room to make a hostel. After paying the suspected arsonist the first thing I did was have a long shower. As nice as the Mongolian hostel was there was no hot water so I pined for a soak. It was beautiful. The one was problem was that the shower was small and the handle stuck out to the front so that whenever you turned around or tried to pick up the soap you involuntarily turned the handle to either scorching hot or fucking freezing.
“You’ve got a rash.” Youngja told me as I entered the bedroom.
“No don’t worry. It’s only second degree burns.”
As we only had a couple of days here we planned our attack. The first thing we needed to get to was Baikal Lake. The non-arsonist informed us that the bus to Baikal leaves at 11:30 so with a pinch of slumber and more than a dash of lethargy we leave the hostel at 11:15 and miss the bus by five minutes.
“Is there another bus to Baikal today?” Youngja asked the lady at the counter.
“You go I know no no.”
With a decisive shrug she made it known that she neither knew nor cared what we were asking about and that was that.
“You want to go to Baikal?” Said a middle aged man.
I instantly knew he was going to offer to take us in his car and either charge us as much as he wanted or take us to the woods, remove our vital organs and sell them on the Russian black market for a bottle of vodka and the good tin a caviar.
“Next bus is in one hour. I help you pay. You need anything else?”
Turns out I knew-instantly or otherwise-nothing. What a gent! He helped us with the platform, the timetable and where to get some food. I loved him. I love him still.
As we had an hour to kill we rambled around the town. The architecture of Irkutsk is like going back in time. Many of the old wooden houses built long before communism are still standing and are right in the centre of the city. The fact they haven’t knocked them down to build a McDonalds staggers me. We decided to get back to the hostel to pick up our rain jackets as it was threatening, got back to the station and had a bite of lunch: a barely edible hotdog for me a chebureki for the wife. Chebureki is basically a Cornish pasty which has been run over by a car and left out in the sun. With the banquet finished we went to find our bus.
I have no experience of the practicalities of becoming a bus driver but I’m sure interviews, theoretical and practical evaluations as well as a sound judgement on the road and an even temper must at least play a part in the process of becoming one. Not so in Russia. The guy was a maniac. I hopped on the bus, which was actually an old minivan with no back windows and had the dubious luck of sitting next to the man behind the wheel (I shan’t call him a driver as that would be an insult to drivers. It would be like calling Hannibal Lecter a food critic). There he was, shaven head and bleached jeans absolutely flying through the town. And once we were on the open road he really started to enjoy himself. I have never been so scared in my life. Whenever he hit a small hole in the road everyone would smack their heads on the roof of the van. God knows how long it went on but when we finally stopped I turned to Youngja, convinced I’d see her in tears with a small pool of vomit on the floor, when all I found was her sound asleep. I was staggered.
“How did you sleep through that?!”
“We nearly died. Schumacher nearly made our day.”
“Never mind who Schumacher is! Can’t you sense the anxiety in me? I’m on the fucking edge!”
If there is ever a sight to sooth your worried heart it’s Baikal Lake. The biggest lake in the world at 31,500 sq. km, you could plonk the whole of Belgium in it and still have space for a water park. Not only is it the biggest lake, but it’s also the deepest and the oldest. One fifth of the world’s surface fresh water is stored in it. Listen, it’s big. As we were there in April it was still frozen but the fresh water was in the process of fighting the ice water for supremacy but around the shore it was still hard ice and the shapes and structures that had been created were incredible. Cascading, jagged sculptures, frozen in time. Someone told me that in the dead of winter the ice is so thick and strong that in the past they laid down railway tracks and had trains rolling through it. And not just one train, hundreds of them at one time. I’ve read about people coming here just to experience the feeling of the place and staying for days, weeks and months. It seems to be one of those places with which people have a spiritual connection. Now I wouldn’t go so far myself but it did have an otherworldly feeling, like when you looked at it, it was looking back at you.
We hiked for a while around the lake. Not the whole thing as we didn’t have four months to spare but we’d like to think we saw enough on that one hour walk. We sat and gazed into the distance till a new hour came and it was time to go.
“Oh, please no.”
“What is it?”
“No no no!”
It seems that there is only one bus driver in Irkutsk.