Day 12: Chita to Irkutsk , Lake Baikal & Irkutsk

A wide blue lake is ringed in mountains.
Deep blue Baikal.

At 8am we catch our first glimpse of Lake Baikal.

It’s the whole reason that I’m here, in Russia. A recommendation from a family member had led me to wondrous images, of snap-frozen ice sculptures and slow-motion plate collisions. It seemed that the world’s oldest lake was still very much alive, even in the frigid depths of winter.

But it’s not winter, it’s autumn, September. Lake Baikal is laid out before us, a wide plain of textured blue, with nary an iceberg in sight. It’s pleasant enough, but there is no wow moment. I snap off a picture and wonder what I am doing here.

Thankfully there are other things to look at besides Russian lakes – Russian trains, for example.

The Russian trains are great. They’re like limited edition models from Hornby mail order catalogues. Bus-like engines powered by overhead electrics, endless ranks of petroleum tanks, and passenger wagons, boldly branded.

I’ve always loved being on a train. It’s relaxing and social, and you really feel like you’re immersed in it. As the landscape outside blurs at speed, I become both the engine and the observer, pure focussed energy.

In due course, we arrive in Irkutsk, to a beautiful day.

As the train pulls away from the station, I set to reassembling the Troll on the rapidly vacating platform. It is a group effort between myself, the sniper, his mate, and various curious bystanders. The rear dropouts take some fiddling, but eventually we get there. I bid farewell to my new friends, including Wanna, who is staying elsewhere.

I ride across the Angara river, along leafy side walks, passing tall, fashionable ladies and a bottle store playing cool house music.

And then, into Rabochaya street, up Rabochaya street and down Rabochaya street. Up and down, up- and down. My confirmation contains instructions for guests arriving by bus, but not for those arriving by bike.

But eventually I find it, on the other side of the street. Ushanka.

Leaning my bike against a bulky air conditioning unit, I clamber up the steep staircase. Framed by ornate wooden railing with keyhole cutouts, it leads to a wooden door. Inside, there is a cosy waiting room, furnished with couches and tourist brochures.

My hosts, Bolina & Seemon (Polina & Simon) welcome me inside and show me around. It’s obvious that they’re a couple. She’s a bit bossy and he’s a bit annoyed at her bossiness, but it’s clear that he’d do anything to make her happy. Imagine Miss Piggy hooking up with Manuel from Fawlty_Towers.

I ask if it is always this hot in autumn, but Polina says that it is unusual and it will probably snow tomorrow!

The hostel is only a few months old and it’s nicer than I expected, though, with no other guests around, it’s a tad lonely. They check me in with my dodgy paperwork and tell me that they’ll get the required stamps in the morning. Handing me a map of the district, they send me on my way.

Irkutsk isn’t at all what I expected.

It isn’t a quaint little ski village, nestled on the shores of a frozen wonderland. It is actually a city and while there are probably interesting things to see in this city, there are also big busy roads, filled with people in cars who are all rushing to get somewhere.

I escape to the riverbank. It’s a nice spot, and people stroll calmly in the late afternoon sun. Couples flirt by the water’s edge, with a couple of older men openly courting much younger females.

After riding the length of the waterfront only to end up at a dodgy indoor seal show, I buy a honey drink and a lukewarm burger from a small convenience store. After the baked delights of Chita, it is a real letdown, and as I nibble on it I feel lonely again, and sad.

With night falling, I ride through darkened back streets, in search of that elusive thing called happiness.

Spotting a local bakery up a dodgy driveway, I order a raspberry jam roll, before getting out of there as quickly as possible.

Back at the hostel, I self-medicate with cheap fancy beers, milky Chinese tea and thick rounds of jam roll. Happiness is fleeting though, with the flood of dopamine being rudely interrupted by a local bogan’s burnouts.