Saturday, 16 October 2010

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.

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