Saturday, 16 October 2010

Ulaanbaatar again (28th of August)

Having a day to spend in Ulaanbaatar before our train left for China we thought we’d explore the city's ‘Black Market’. It is about 45 minutes walk from the centre, but being among the largest markets in Asia we thought we really had to go and see it. Continuing, as though we were still on our roadtrip, we woke up at six and tried to kill time till we could eat breakfast at 8:00. Our Lonely Planet informed us that the market opens at 9:00. This however is a Mongolian nine and the market was not exactly open for business. We managed to save the 2.5p entry because the person manning the entrance had not yet arrived, along with lots of the stall holders. We weren’t really sure if we were allowed in. All around us people were pushing large wooden crates with their wares into their stalls where they were busily unpacking. People steered their wooden crates in a similar fashion to their cars, going as fast as possible avoiding potholes and expecting pedestrians to jump out the way. As we came in we walked past a row of what would be stalls of jeans. After a wander we came to the rucksacks and since I really needed a rucksack we had a long look. The choice was wide, so it took a while. The fake North Face bag got more expensive when we came back a second time, so I opted for a less fake Jack Wolfskin one. At least there weren’t spelling mistakes on the label.

Soon the market had become alive and people were streaming in. Everything you could need (and a lot more stuff you never would need) was for sale. There were carpets, tablecloths, sweets, bottles and bottles of coca cola, crockery, cutlery, chainsaws, knives, shoes and clothes galore, sofas, materials, other furniture, traditional boots, ger components and a lot more. You could buy photovoltaic panels and satellite dishes for your ger, the nice orange furniture for inside it, the stoves and chimneys, the insulation and the canvas coverings. The furniture was still arriving. The circle for the top of a ger did arrive, but we were very tempted by one of the orange stools we’d been sitting on for the last few weeks. At £3.50 it was quite a bargain, but even though we can take up to 100kg on the freighter the practicalities of taking it through China and South Korea put us off. Alongside rows and rows of Nike and Adidas trainers were the traditional boots, some having very pretty embroidered patterns on them. There were t-shirts with English slogans, some that didn’t make much sense or misspelt – such as “Nestle Chocolete Malk”. Walking back to what we’d seen first of all, the scene had changed, almost everyone was set up and there were a lot more stalls. There were exercise books, pens, the tea flasks that we’d got our hot water from in the gers, rice cookers, and many cheap bowls, mugs, and plates. Most were chipped or faded and probably not fit for the European market, including the stripy mugs from tesco. On our way out we heard the exact same Mongolian music that Gana (the driver) had played on our tour. We pointed to the loudspeakers and hope we got the message across and are now the proud owners of a Mongolian music tape. The masses were descending upon the market as we left. In the street there was a van where there were lots of bodiless sheep's heads with all their teeth glaring out at me.

Next to the university was a large shopping centre with floors named after fruit where the students were flooding in to buy some new clothes or electronic devices. On the orange floor we found ourselves a supermarket where a man with rather a large video camera was taking close up shots of packets of rice and biscuits.

In the afternoon we went on a mad dash around the Natural History Museum where we saw some of the animals and plants we’d seen on the tour and thankfully some we didn’t. The dinosaur skeletons were huge, and there were only the front legs of one of them and these were massive. It’s incredible to think how big it would have been.

Afterwards a search ensued for a felt shop and workshop run by an NGO. The map on the advertisement in the street did not actually resemble anything in reality and we couldn’t find it, even with the help of a Mongolian tv journalist. Jenny narrowly avoided being pushed into the sewer by a homeless child and then we had a mad rush to the post office to send our purchases home. I forgot the postcards in the hostel and we only just managed to get our parcel sent off before they closed.

Day 12 (26th August)

One day there'll be something else written here

27th of August

The end of the Mongolia trip

Day 11 (25th of August)

One day there'll be something else written here

Day 10 (24th August)

Watch this space (don't actually because you'll probably watching for a while!)

Day 9 of the Mongolia Trip (23rd of August)

Coming to a computer near you soon...maybe this year...

Day 8 of the Mongolia Tour (22nd of August)

Day 6 of the Mongolia Tour (20th of August)

Before we left the dunes we gained an extra passenger in our van, a 17 year old boy off to study mining in Ulaanbaatar in the need of a lift to Arvayheer to catch an onward bus. He looked rather small and somewhat nervous. His mother threw milk at the vans out of a green plastic cup as we left, this was to bring us good luck on our journey. Duuya told us that people in the countryside are given the same level of education as those in the city.

The boy seemed quite fascinated by the land bumping past and glanced over his shoulder to see the dunes for the last time. He excitedly pointed to a statue of an ibex as we went through a steep sided valley – the Mongolian version, and less well known, Cheddar Gorge. We stopped in a small town and trooped into a restaurant where we sat and ate cabbage and carrot dumplings that Duuya had prepared the day before. Everyone else had some kind of minced meat in theirs. The Mongolian boy was helping with cleaning the dishes and earning his passage.

After a lot of driving we found ourselves on a paved road which was quite the treat, it being the first one we’d come across since Ulaanbaatar. We knew we must have been nearing the town and soon stopped at a horse worship site. There was a big horse statue and rows of horse skulls. People seemed to enjoy leaving sweets as an offering to the horse gods. Three picturesque old ladies in traditional attire shuffled around carefully looking at everything. In the town showers were had for the first time in six days, misunderstandings arose and the rest us were given supper of three dumplings each.

Day 7 of the Mongolia Tour (21st of August)

Coming to a computer near you soon...maybe this year....

Day 5 of the Mongolia Tour (19th of August)

Was not the vegetarian’s idyll. We got wind of plans the day before but as we awoke the wind confirmed those plans to our noses. As it was the Basque man’s birthday our fellow travellers had decided to buy a goat and barbecue it as a present. Fortunately we were not asked to contribute. An unpleasant aroma of singed fur hung around the camp and we were extremely grateful (although a bit aprehensive) that we could go off camel riding for an hour. Getting off the ground was the trickiest bit. Yet again my knee rubbed rather too close to Jenny’s animal’s backside, which had some diarrhoea issues. Avoiding exposure to dead goat we strolled to the river and along it spotting spotty lizards and trying not to step on toads.

Most of the day was spent inside our ger sheltering from the heat and the feast just outside. We could hear the group inviting the locals to join them and cooing over a baby. The meat, we gathered, was not that great - not a surprise to me, judging from all the meat leftovers on previous days. But they were satisfied that it had been a good gesture. One of the goats we’d befriended the day before came bleating wildly and peered into every ger. His snotty nosed friend was no longer accompanying him and we learnt that he’d been killed by the family too. Our sheep Floeckli must count herself lucky that she has survived eight years with a snotty nose.

Once the sun had cooled we walked along the river and to the dunes accompanied by the dog. Nice company, but not the best for wildlife watching. She did however flush a hare from the grass, which couldn’t catch up with. We were boring though – too much bird watching, and we continued up the dunes alone. Since the sun was on its way down we had to turn round and make our way back. We didn’t really fancy getting lost in the desert without a torch. The dog greeted us with great enthusiasm when we got back.

Day 4 of the Mongolia Tour (18th of August)

Coming to a computer near you soon...maybe this year....

Day 3 of the Mongolia Tour (17th of August)

Coming to a computer near you soon...maybe this year....

Day 2 of the Mongolia Tour (16th of August)

Coming to a computer near you soon...maybe this year....

Day 1 of the Mongolia Tour (15th August)

Coming to a computer near you soon...maybe this year....

Ulaanbaatar and Gokhi Terelj National Park (14th August)

At what we thought was just after 7, but was actually 6 (they don’t do summertime in Mongolia or China) the train came into Ulaanbaatar. Alongside the railway tracks were hundreds of shipping containers. As has become a little obsession of ours we had to search for the Hanjin (the company we’re going across the Pacific with) containers. Not having understood what all these shipping containers were doing in such a landlocked country it dawned on us when we got to the supermarket. Everything was imported, there was juice from Russia and Poland, Quality Streets, tea and Cadburys from England, a row of Chinese food and almost everything else from Germany.

Our dreams came true when we got off the train and a lady from the hostel was standing there with our names on a piece of paper. When I was little I always thought you’d be quite privileged to have someone waiting with your name at the airport. Along with lots of other people we got driven to the UB Guesthouse. There we were welcomed by a very amusing Mongolian (Mr. Kim) who whisper shouted to us with his hands cupped round his mouth that it was early and we’d have to be quiet as lots of people were still sleeping.

Inside we made plans for a trip round Mongolia – to the Gobi, a lake and forests. Mentioning that we wanted to go to Gokhi Terelj we were told there was a trip leaving later. So we spurred into action going to the cash machine, eating breakfast, and leaving again all before nine o’clock in the morning.

The trip took us through the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar and into the country, through potholed streets and dirt tracks, and past loads of goats, cows, four camels and some yak. Entry to the National Park was about £1.50. There were loads of houses/gers and buildings works on the river, but it soon started looking more like what we were expecting.

Dropped off at a ger camp in the hills where all the Mongolians under the age of 20 were sitting watching sky TV, we were told “2 o’clock, eat first ride later”. The rest of the passengers in the minivan went horse riding and we stood there helplessly. More people from the hostel arrived in a car, but disappeared again. Not really knowing what we were meant to be doing we went walking up a hill in search of nature.

There were edelweiss, gentians, asteraceae that smelt like mint and Jenny spotted two marmots bathing in the sunshine. Walking up the slope teeming with grasshoppers was like walking through a field of popcorn. At the top of the hill were some nice rocks and a good view, and we could see the rock known as turtle rock in the valley. Lunch was pink rice with carrots and pink vegetables and possibly a few specks of meat in our no meat dish. Riding did happen after lunch and none of us had ridden before so it was going to be interesting. The horses’ ropes were hung up along what looked like a washing line. I chose a black horse that seemed to dislike Jenny’s one and kept trying to bite it. We didn’t have much control over their direction first of all and they kept trying to squeeze past each other, resulting in my knees rubbing against too many a horse bum. Mongolians probably find it hard to understand anyone never having ridden a horse, even tiny children race around the countryside on a horse. The boy who was leading our ‘trek’ was enjoying himself, singing and whistling and showing us how he could charge around. We had all thought we needed to control the horses with our legs but Mongolians just yank the horse’s head to the side to indicate where they want to go. My horse didn’t really want to go anywhere, being rather hungry it took every opportunity to lower its head and munch. This would result in the boy coming up behind us and waiving his whip in the air.

We past a few gers where cattle were being let out of pens and Mongolian children were running around. There were also a lot of goats. Even if I hadn’t been planning on liking Mongolia, the sheer number of goats here alone would have made me a fan, although perhaps not what they do with them. Towards the end of our little ride the boy decided we’d go faster and the horses broke into a canter. We all hung on for dear life. One girl’s horse went so fast and headed off into the distance and took some persuading to come back.

In the evening Jenny and I took a walk up a nearby rock where we sat and watched Mongolian life playing itself out in the valley and were approached by an inquisitive calf. Our evening meal was not a satisfactory affair, with the meat free dish covered in meat sauce. Feeling guilty we tried, but to no avail, to get one of the Spanish people to eat our food. We, and the German girl who was also a vegetarian, then proceeded to dine upon our Gut und Gunstig paprika chips and Essig gurken.

Irkutsk & the trans-Mongolian (12th & 13th of August)

Back in Irkutsk the first task of the day was getting our train tickets, which we hadn’t managed to buy the previous day as the office was already shut when we’d got round to it. Lonely Planet said to go to counter 3 upstairs at the station, but that didn’t seem to be the place for it and we were pointed back downstairs. At counter 3 downstairs we were pointed to the other end of the station. There we queued for a while and were then pointed back down the corridor. We found some Italians queuing for tickets and joined the queue behind them where the offices were due to open in 45 minutes. Not convinced that this was the right queue I queued back down the other end and yet again was pointed in the direction of the counters we were standing in front of. At 9.00 a.m. they opened up and the Italians were told that they were indeed queuing at the wrong place and were pointed to the room almost opposite which contained three counters and some red sofas. There we got our tickets for the evening train from a lady who even spoke rather satisfactory English. Since we didn’t have enough cash some rather complicated transaction of a little bit of cash and some credit card took place.

Along the River Angarsk we looked for the Trans-Siberian railway obelisk, but couldn’t find it. We did pass a statue of a young man with a signature underneath him that looked as though it might say A. Bahnhof that we were content enough to let ourselves believe we’d found it. There are many statues in Irkutsk, which we could have posed next to, but it seemed a bit pointless not having a clue who or what they were meant to commemorate. There was one that was just pointing into the distance and looked like he could easily find work at one of the station kaccas. He was dressed for the Siberian weather, at the time 8°C, with his coat billowing behind him. Our next stop was the market where we bought more green bananas, in the hope that they’d be as tasty as the ones we’d got the day before. The market was pretty exciting and clearly where the locals do their shopping. Walking past the vegetable stalls we could smell the dill, which people like to munch upon in these parts of the world. Even nicer was the smell of the strawberries, raspberries, bilberries and black/whitecurrants. We wondered whether the stallholders had to throw a lot of vegetables away, because there were just so many of them. After we’d spent our last roubles we went back to the youth hostel to wait to depart for our train.

Whilst killing time Jenny realised she’d lost her penknife, probably in the locker at the supermarket. So we trudged through the rain soaked streets of Irkutsk with our backpacks. They don’t have any drains along the roads and the water just gathers into huge puddles and stagnates at any sign of precipitation. As the cars drove past we’d get soaked so we scuttled along as close to the buildings as we could whilst trying not to slip. No penknife found in the locker or lost property. Giving up we went to wait for the tram, time ticked on but no tram came. They came tantalisingly close, but each one turned left before it got to us. We had 45 minutes to get to the station, and it still didn’t come. Finally it came and I allowed myself to relax.

Boarding the train at about quarter to ten meant we wouldn’t see Lake Baikal again, but could almost go straight to sleep. The compartments were narrower, but the window much wider and taller. The toilets when they were actually open (closed at the border for hours!) were more spacious and better cared for.

Jenny did see the lake again through the mist and darkness at some ridiculous hour. During the day we rolled rather slowly along the Selenga River and past what looked like a nuclear power station. Drinking Baikal’s pure water might not have been such a good idea after all.

Knowing that the border crossing is going to take ages still doesn’t prepare you for the boredom. Arriving at the Russian border at 1pm and leaving at 7pm wasn’t our idea of a fun day out. For the first few hours we just sat there and filled in our customs forms, which were rather complicated even though they were written in English. We, and the two Italians from the station who we were now sharing our compartment with, had so many crossed out mistakes on our customs forms and under the direction of the border guard had to sign under each one. We could at least walk out and onto the platform during this ordeal, and when we went out for a second time most of the carriages had disappeared.

The landscape in Mongolia was incredibly exciting after the station wait and everyone flocked into the corridor to look out the window. The excitement was short lived as we got to the Mongolian border station. It was more entertaining than the Russian side through with cute Mongolian children and stray dogs to keep us entertained. A mother dog found a dirty sock and charged proudly around the station with it. When one of her teenage pups got hold of it she got very possessive and growled. They then had a sock tug of war on the platform. A stream of Mongolians calling “Change a money, change a money” came through the carriage but there weren’t any takers. 10pm (9pm Mongolian time) and we finally left the border, nine hours after we got there. Outside it was too dark to see Mongolia.


Here are a few observations about Russia and the Russians. I’m not sure I’ve mentioned them before, but if I have my apologies. The Russians like to pose for photos and this isn’t just the normal European style I’ll stand in front of the camera and smile or grin a stupid grin at you. It seems they put a lot of thought into these poses and have to take quite a lot of pictures for the perfect one. They also seem to take them in front of the most boring of statues. On Olkhon Island I had to take a picture of a Russian lady and it took a while before she’d positioned her hair in the right place and was pleased with the picture.

Russians also have got a thing about throwing their coins away. In a country where there is still a lot of poverty you’d think they’d hang on to them. All over the place they were throwing them about, into fountains, on to piles of rocks, into the rivers in St. Petersburg, into Lake Baikal as we crossed back from Olkhon and in Moscow just onto the floor outside the Red Square. Here though an opportunistic family was just standing there and picking them up for themselves as others threw them down. And really why not?

Everywhere we went people were getting married, in St. Petersburg, Moscow and Irkutsk. The divorce rate is apparently also very high in Russia. Couples in Russia have a habit of attaching locks to railings of bridges or next to rivers as a sign of their love. People buy the locks from stalls which are conveniently located next to the railings, etch their names into them, attach them and then I presume throw away the key. We first came across these in St. Petersburg and saw them again in Irkutsk, where wedding parties gathered to carry out the ritual. In Moscow they’d gone a bit more upmarket and put some metal trees along the waterfront, which had been covered in locks and looked rather pretty.

More of Olkhon Island (9th of August, 10th August, 11th August)

Our first full day on Olkhon found us trying to walk up route 7 on our map in the hope of seeing the wildflower meadow even if you did need a permit to walk through it. Aiming for the hillside we left Khuzhir up a small path which joined a larger track. We carefully made arrows in the sand or out of twigs in case we forgot where we’d come from. The first hour or two was pretty boring, there was just a lot of sand and pine trees, with next to nothing else. I kept thinking we should turn back if it was going to be like this the whole way. Every individual flower was a marvel. Another 15 minutes till we’d turn back became half an hour and then an hour. Like magic an understory appeared and then there were other types of tree and berries, but none of the wild cranberries, red currants and black currants I’d been promised by the description on our useless map. The track became steeper and branched into different tracks. We found ourselves at what felt like the top but we couldn’t see anything below us or behind us and finally decided to go back. On the way down we came across a woodpecker, which made the walk worthwhile and seven Homo sapiens (ssp. Russanski) after directions and knowledge, which we didn’t really possess. Back in our room after a walk along the lake we heard what sounded like someone (new) throwing up in the room next door (more Shamanic energy?). Seemed they regained their spirits fast and treated us to Russian karaoke.

The reason why you can’t find a useful map with contours and meaningful footpaths on it is evidently so that you go on an ‘excursion’. We succumbed to this tourist venture and took a tour to Cape Khoboti, which we booked at ‘Nikita’s’ in the hope that we’d have an English-speaking guide. This was not the case however, so some of the information was translated by a lady to her husband in Italian, which he then translated into English. Most of the time the Russian speaking American beat him to it and we heard a differently worded echo. The driver was full of interesting information such as ‘this is a cyclist’ when we passed a cyclist. Another snippet worthy of mention was: ‘this car has been here for more than a week. It is automatic. Terrible idea’.

This road was far worse than what we had experienced on the way to Khuzhir, with a sand track through the wood and then extremely bumpy tracks thereafter. We would go down steep hills really quickly to ensure that we’d get up the other side. This technique wasn’t foolproof and we had to roll back down one of them and start again. I was glad our brakes weren’t squealing like those of another Russian style Volkswagen-Jeep hybrid. If the brakes failed we’d be plunging into the lake. I guess it would have been one way to get submerged in Lake Baikal. Looked like the cape Khoboti route was popular since every time we stopped minibuses surrounded us. This annoyed the French Mancunian lady and rather than wishing for her third child (like the American-Russian couple) she was just wishing to lose the other tourists at the designated wishing spot. From Cape Khoboti, the Northernmost point of the island we could see both sides of the lake and some of the Urshkanny islands.

Plenty of wildflowers were to be found in the steppe grasslands including edelweiss and gentians, as well as some exciting grasses. Unfortunately we rattled and bumped past a great many other pretty flowers such as thistles with bright blue flowerheads, other blue flowers and swathes of red flowers we’d seen a few of during our wood trek. At the last stop we hit the jackpot and spotted some sousliks (ground squirrels) through our binoculars and headed off in their direction. We didn’t walk far before stumbling across two, one of them taking after its fellow Russians with some excellent posing skills.

On the way back the ride seemed to get even bumpier and the breaks squeakier. The French lady provided some in car entertainment by falling off her seat, commenting that it was like a ‘tumbledrier’. The American hit his head on the ceiling and one of the German’s got reprimanded jokingly for looking at the French lady every time we hit a particularly severe bump. All in all we were pretty glad we’d gone on an excursion rather than traipsed up another dead end path.

For our ride back to Irkutsk, after considering all the options, we got tickets for one of the minivans leaving at 8.00 a.m. We weren’t really sure where we were meant to be catching it, but one turned up where we were so we might have got it right. It was slightly bigger than the other ones and our driver seemed to be a good one, sticking to the speed limits and regularly checking his tyres. His loud Russian music fitted well with the wide expanses of land whizzing past, but unfortunately he ran out of these pretty quickly and we were left with some awful Russian-Angliski songs. He used the bus journey as a bit of a shopping trip purchasing a bag full of bilberries from the roadside. Later he did consider buying some roadside mushrooms too, but must have found them too expensive. Not long after we’d left Khuzhir we spotted a van in the roadside with a flat tyre. Inside we spotted the two German’s (the ones who’d been on yesterday’s tour and were also staying in the same accommodation as us). At the ferry crossing off of the island we met the Germans again. We counted ourselves lucky that it wasn’t our driver who had the puncture and was now driving with wheels of differing sizes making the van tilt at a dangerous angle and bump regularly on to the ground.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Olkhon Island (8th of August)

After a ride on the number 1 tram and then a walk we left on the 8.10 a.m. coach to Khuzhir on Olkhon Island, halfway up lake Baikal. It’s a wonder the buses don’t have punctures before they leave the bus station seeing that it’s full of potholes. The bus passed by a box of cucumbers lying in the road, five horses at the roadside and a few cows lumbering across it, shortly before we got to a very nice road sign with a horned cow on it. The fields here do not appear to have fences to keep the cattle in. We also passed a dead horse with its guts hanging out, victim to the lack of fences. By the roadside little memorials can be found with flowers and steering wheels where people have crashed. The variety of landscapes we passed through was quite impressive- farmland with a few birch forests, grasslands rich in flowers, coniferous forest with bilberries aplenty and then the vast barren Northern looking steppe landscape that dominates this area.

Not long after we had started driving in this Mongolianesque area we came across a crash site on a sharp bend. Two minivans were at the side of the road, both with mangled bonnets. Three girls were lying on their backs, evidently in pain, and the rest of the passengers were standing around looking shell-shocked. It would have taken hours for an ambulance to reach them. We (and it seemed most people on the bus, judging by their gasps) were worried by this and decided we were lucky to be in our larger coach, with a relatively careful driver. However, we weren’t so sure anymore when the road became an extensively potholed dirt track. The coach had to go extremely slowly and had a tendency to tilt as it moved to avoid the potholes. Seatbeltless I was left clutching on to my armrest. Earlier we couldn’t imagine why the trip was meant to take eight hours, but all became clear on the track. Bumping up and down we entertained ourselves looking for ground squirrels.

The ferry was just pulling away as we got to the crossing so during the half an hour wait we walked up a small hill and observed the rubbish eating cows. We sat back down in the coach but for some reason everyone got off as soon as the engine started and walked on to the boat instead, so we just followed suit. This was a Russian roll on- roll off ferry where the boat immediately turned around and went across the lake backwards so that the vehicles had to reverse off.

Olkhon island is massive, 75km by 15km and it just doesn’t feel like an island. It’s is pretty in its own barren way. Most of the island is steppe, with woodland in the middle and some dunes on the west coast. The man from Bolshie Koty told us that it is famous for its Shamanic energy, but he doesn’t like it because it makes him feel ill. Khuzhir where we stayed is very much a tourist town, with everyone trying to capitalise on the area’s appeal.

No sooner had we got off the bus than we were accosted by a Russian lady who we figured out wanted us to stay in her accommodation. We weren’t really sure how we could shake her off and walked with her to the tourist information office. The lady there could speak English and we asked her advice. She told us that ‘Nikita’s’, which is the place where western tourist stay, would be far more expensive than what this lady was offering (350 roubles), and that we should follow her and look at it and walk away if we didn’t like it. We were taken behind one of the mysterious Russian fences and shown around. The room looked rather cosy and we would be able to cook rather than have to refuse fish and do our cooking on the trangia. They offered us ‘Chai’ and tried to communicate with us. Having asked where the toyalet was I was pointed to the bottom of the potato patch. We’d cross that hurdle later.

A stoll along the cliff tops with views over to the Primorsky mountains and along the coast was very pleasant, apart from the cars that were parked there. Seems that on Olkhon Island people can drive anywhere they want, if they are foolish enough. As soon as we got back in the garden we were offered ‘Chai’ again. This is a kettle that never stops boiling. We needed some help with knowing what water to use for washing up and where to put it after we’d finished and felt like helpless foreigners. It also turned out that there was a hut with a hole in the ground in it, so we wouldn’t be peeing on the potatoes. In the evening we went to sleep to the sound of the lady in the room next door throwing up (Shamanic energy to blame?).

Bolshie Koty (7th August 2010)

When we woke up it was pouring with rain and the prospect of hanging around till six for our boat was not a pleasant one. The hostel owner said we could probably just use our tickets on the midday boat and we thought it was worth a try. By the time we’d got ourselves rain geared up to walk the hill overlooking the village the Dutch sisters had already come back from walking there with their guide. Accompanied by the stray dog, which had taken up residence beneath one of the hostel huts/chalets we slipped our way up the track. The dog was evidently not starving as it turned its nose up at the rather old peanuts I found in my pocket. It did however seem intent on finding some food fresh out the hole and was digging wildly into the hillside. Having admired the village from above we could dry a bit before going to the boat where we got placed right near the front.

We’d been hoping we could look out at the coast we’d walked along, but the windows were all steamed up and the water was splashing wildly upon them outside. Yesterday the lake had looked so calm, but today it had become an entirely different beast. It was stormy and the boat was plummeting down from the tops of the waves. I was in slight disagreement with the Swiss couple across the corridor from us who could be heard saying things like ‘‘isch mega cool’ and ‘isch so geil’. Didn’t hear them saying that anymore when to our amusement they had to move further inside the ship and were looking rather peaky. I did feel a bit sick, but in preparation for our journey across the Pacific (and the Atlantic eventually) stayed in the front section of the ship and braved it out along with Jenny and two other passengers. Because of the inclement weather the boat couldn’t dock in Listvyanka, although they did try. Passengers with tickets to Listvyanka where given the option of getting off on the other side of the Angara in Port Baikal or continuing on to Irkutsk. In a funny Russian fashion they had to pay extra for journey to Irkutsk even though it wasn’t their fault that they couldn’t get off. At the hostel we met a fraud of a Dutch girl who studied linguistics and spoke English like an English person. It was very hard to believe that she was genuinely from Holland. Late into the evening the Swiss and French people who had been staying in the Bolshie Koty hostel with train tickets for the next morning arrived at the hostel. We’d been thinking they might not have been able to get back because of the weather, but it looked like that hadn’t been their problem. They just hadn’t realised the boat stops miles away from Irkutsk itself and had walked all the way from there in the dark.

Bolshie Koty (6th of August 2010)

After a long lie in on a rock solid bed we discovered there was no electricity in the village. The power cut had happened in the night, which must have been why the light outside our window had switched off around midnight and we’d been able to fall asleep so easily. There was no water to be had but soon some had been collected from the river.

Not having any plans we wandered around finding old buildings and potato patches, a shipping container shack and a sausage dog being walked that crouched and rolled in such submission when it met a lady it knew. Somewhere else a dog got shouted at for eating a toy car. The people of Bolshie Koty seemed to enjoy shouting. In a wreck of a ship on the shoreline a boy wearing a pirate hat and holding a toy gun sat on the rails and stared out to the lake. We sat on a dead tree and tried unsuccessfully to photograph the barn swallows, creeping into the cowshed to photograph the nest. A man rounded up some of his horses and they all followed each other up the track. We decided to walk into the wood and headed up the river. There was a spot with so many butterflies that you might have been mistaken for thinking it was raining. There were fungi galore and huge ants were busy making massive mounds, as well as walking up our trousers!

Back on the beach we looked at the lake and I paddled in the freezing cold water (while Jenny watched as she has a cold), but most significantly we saw a real live Nerpa seal. An endemic species and not commonly sighted from Bolshie Koty. This meant we had had a very successful day. The stray dog must have known howling like a wolf as we walked back to the hostel, where we then saw a chipmunk and Jenny a ground squirrel.

Just in case...

If you ever find yourself walking to Bolshie Koty here are some tips.
1. It’s a long 18km and it’s possibly 20km instead
2. Leave early
3. Don’t get too carried away looking for/at animals
4. Go up the road just after the seal enclosure which turns into a track
5. Take the middle path, not the steep one on the left or the one on the right that goes over the river
6. Near the top of the hill take the right-hand fork
7. Later bear left rather than going straight on past the marker, even though you seem to be going the direction you’ve come from
8. Snake down the hill and walk down the river to the lake
9. Don’t be fooled into thinking you are already there, far from it
10. At the lake go left/north wards through rocky Sardinian looking landscapes
11. The right way sign means you’re going the right way
12. The “Koty 2 часa” sign means that it take two hours, not that it’s 2km
13. Enjoy the beautiful scenery since you know where you’re going

Bolshie Koty (5th of August)

In the morning armed with the coffee we walked for 45 minutes to 1 hour to the bus station where we waited for a marushky (minivan) to Listvyanka. The Americans who had been there the day before said it was pretty easy and you just had to find one, hop in and it would wait to fill up and you’d be off. We however found loads of people waiting at the bus stop, it being Thursday and there only being one boat. We waited and didn’t get space in the first one, but managed to in the second one. It was full of Irkutskians, most on their way to a day out in Listvyanka. Two little girls copied us when we put our seatbelts on. Hopefully we hadn’t offended the driver – Lonely Planet tells you that Mongolian’s get offended by seatbelt wearing. I was glad to have it on though, as I began to think more and more that I was in a theme park. We were facing backwards and couldn’t see the road ahead so it was like one of those in the dark roller coasters. Not a treat. Trying to divert my attention from feeling sick I came to the conclusion that people from Irkutsk must have very valuable heads, what with all the gold fillings they have.

In Listvyanka we bumped into the Russian speaking English lady off the train and her husband. After we had tested the water temperature and admired the lake we headed away from it and up a road. The road soon became a track and we found ourselves a bench surrounded by rubbish, massive grasshoppers and some butterflies, where we could peacefully consume some of our eggs. We came to the part of the path we expected to split in two, but there were three paths and we weren’t sure which one to take. Jenny went to the top one and I went to the bottom one. Mine went over the river, which the path isn’t meant to and Jenny’s was steep and the path was unscuffed. We took the middle path since it looked most used and had litter along it. A lady walked past us and we were almost sure we’d made the right decision.

The path went up and up through the trees and we saw a black woodpecker hammering away on a branch. As the path levelled out there were lots of large plants on the ground and it began to smell like a combination between pleasant pine forest and a zoo enclosure. There were huge ants everywhere making massive anthills and we came to fully understand the expression of ants in your pants. Once more there was a fork in the path and we didn’t know where we were really meant to go, so we took the bigger track, which zig-zagged down the hill. We thought we might have heard a large creature, maybe a moose, but there wasn’t actually anything to see. Down the bottom we thought we were nearing the village and took it easy looking at the bright yellow birds, which we thought at the time we could come back and look at in the morning.

As we reached the lakeshore and no houses we could only conclude that we weren’t in Bolshie Koty. There were no signposts nor any sign of a village and we weren’t really sure if we were meant to be going left along the shore or to the right. We concluded that the Latvian and German team wouldn’t have got lost on the dangerous cliffs if Bolshie Koty was to the right so we headed up the steep path on our left, which skirted round a headland. After a few more climbs we really weren’t sure if we were going the right way, but continued nonetheless. With time ticking on we really couldn’t afford to be going the wrong way. The landscape was rather beautiful with plenty of wildflowers and then craggy sections with Sardinian looking plants. Unfortunately, becoming increasingly sure we were lost, our ability to appreciate it was somewhat diminished. On seeing a boat that looked like it was heading inland we got pretty excited. It was heading into a bay and we became convinced that Bolshie Koty was just around the corner. Sadly when we got there we saw that they were just picking up a lobster pot or similar. We had no option but to continue on the path, with nightfall due in about two hours. We walked quickly with thoughts in our heads of where the best place would be to sleep out on the path. At one point we came across a wrapper lying on the ground, if it was an ice cream wrapper we had to be near the town. Unfortunately it was a muesli bar and didn’t raise our hopes particularly. On and on we walked and as we got into a wooded area we finally found a signpost for ‘Kotie 2 часa’. We had been walking the right way. But it wasn’t the 2km minutes walk we had got excited about, but took a further 2 hours. We dug our torch out and then we came across the man from the hostel who had come out to find us since it was getting dark. It was a bit embarrassing to have him come to look for us, but on the other hand it was very kind of him. He seemed very excited to have two more sisters join the two Dutch sisters who were already at the hostel, naming it ‘Sister Day’. We chose accommodation in the old looking wooden hut, which was actually rather new inside, but still freezing cold. Wrapped up in hats, scarves, gloves, tights and multiple layers of other clothing we nodded off to sleep.