Day 15: Goryachy Klyuch to Maloye Goloustnoye , Wild things

A wild cartoon bear spanks a hunter's bottom, as a fire burns in the trees.
Nicotine trumps the natural order.

Having survived my first night wild camping, I extract myself as quickly as possible from the forest.

I don’t feel like hanging around in my bright orange tent, so I break camp, down a few crackers, then haul my bike through the ditch and back on to the road.

My day starts with a long uphill, and a loss of tar seal. It’s cool and misty, and I’m constantly being passed by large groaning dump trucks, ferrying loads of coal.

Thankfully the uphill ends with a sweet downhill and the mist clears, revealing gorgeous views of autumnal foliage.

The tar seal returns and then, suddenly, I’m in a town.

Maloye (Small) Goloustnoye is about a third of the way along my route to Olkhon Island.

I spot a building that might be a cafe, and am overjoyed to find that it is indeed an eating place.

The proprietor is a middle aged woman. We can’t really communicate, so she chooses a few things for me. Luckily for her, I have enough money to pay for the three course banquet that she brings out.

The first course is a kick-ass fish salad. It’s either a Baikal specialty, or the fish is from Lake Baikal. Next up is a bowl of soup, which tastes of ham, and bread. At this point my stomach is feeling pretty happy, but apparently these were just the starters! The main course comes out, with meatballs, potatoes and salad.

In one sitting I’ve made up for a whole week of breakfasts! The enterprising lady chef obliges for a photo, then I raid her grocery shelf and take my leave.

On the ride out of town, I pass houses with ornate shutters, and fire off friendly waves in exchange for shots of cool churches.

Shortly after leaving Maloye Goloustnoye, I reach a service station and a turn-off, onto a dirt road.

This is where I leave the main road for the back road. It’s nice to leave civilisation behind and I soon pass a motorbike coming the other way with a passenger on the back. The guy and girl look a little rough and I’m glad that we’re going in opposite directions.

As I continue on, I pass quite a few Russian jeeps. Most of the occupants are wearing camo and I assume they’ve come to hunt without the required permits.

There’s a shelter marked on my offline map and I’m curious to see what the standard of back country accommodation is like.

The structure is located in a grassy clearing. It is photogenic, as long as you don’t get too close. But I do, and I find that it’s basically a fireplace and some unintelligible graffiti.

You could probably sleep in there, but it would be a damned shame if someone came in and lit a fire while you were sleeping..

Forcing myself to leave the superficially idyllic scene, I continue on and the road becomes progressively worse, until soon I am riding through a bog.

The slippery tracks require constant attention and decision making. This line or that line? Weight forward or back? Ride in the water or try and traverse the muck sideways? Spin the pedals to try and regain traction and then – Quick! put your foot down before you fall over!

It is physically and mentally exhausting, and progress is slow.

At some point I look down and realise that I’ve lost my new Mavic toe warmers, a last-minute impulse buy in New Zealand. Not particularly effective anyway, they were obviously never designed for this level of slippery stickiness and the constant dabbing to keep my heavy bike upright. No tears are shed, as I battle on, trying to cover as much ‘ground’ as possible.

Eventually the road starts to dry out, passing as it does through fields spotted with farm houses and grassy mounds.

I find one sitting alone under a rustic shelter and ride over to take a closer look. The shaggy pile resembles a giant yak.

Recalling adventure books that I read in my childhood, I wonder if there is anything exciting hidden inside the hairy heap. A red camper van perhaps, or a tank?

I regularly pass fire safety signs.

Many of these have been heavily vandalised. Recalling my train trip into Russia (opens new window), I theorise that the no-smoking rules are not-popular.

But the bullet holes are concerning. Either the local hunters have a soft spot for brown bears, or they’re a trigger-happy bunch of vodka-soaked hooligans.

And so, when it’s time to find a place to sleep, I consciously avoid any place that looks too inviting.

And there are a number of them – small hand-built cabins, larger than the shelter in the field and less photogenic. They are reached by overgrown driveways and provide the barest of comforts. A raised platform here, a plastic table cloth there. Their doors hang lazily open and I’m surprised that their glass windows are still intact. I assume that their owners are either regularly there, or generally feared.

After multiple laps around one such owners’ property, I decide to camp way down the back, closer to the road than to the seductively appealing accommodation.

I erect my tent and set up my camp stove next to the long tree trunk which divides the clearing in two. Liquid fuel is a new concept for me, and, try as I might, I cannot get it into the vaporous form required by the burner.

My hands ache in the cold night air and, as Google fails to load, my hopes of a hot dinner fade rapidly.

Eventually, I concede defeat and pack everything away again, resorting to my backup dinner of vodka and three biscuits. I’m thankful for my huge lunch at Small Goloustnoye, but the toxic stench of kerosine is all over me and I only hope that it’s not some kind of freaky aphrodisiac for Siberian wild things.

I hang my more fragrant panniers in a tree, just in case. The darkness is disorientating, and I mark waypoints on my offline map, so that I can find them in the morning. I only hope that they’re far enough away from my tent, that mama and papa bear can’t connect the dots.

Wanna said that there would be snow soon, but I’m already feeling the cold. Rugging up in my thermals and two pairs of socks, I unpack my sleeping bag and deploy my orange Thermolite liner. It all looks very cosy, and, as a bonus, my tent is not on a lean.

If bears don’t eat me tonight, I will gorge myself in the safety of morning, then try to make it to Olkhon Island, or at least Bugul’deyka, on the coast.

As I drift off to sleep, I am startled by the sounds of jeeps revving frantically.

Fearing that my cover is blown, I am relieved to realise that they are only fighting to free themselves from the sticky mud.

And so, back to sleep.. that is, until I hear wolves. Far away, and then nearer, and nearer and.. too near!! They sound too close for comfort and I lie petrified in my tent, cursing myself for camping so close to the main road.

Too scared to locate my Sony audio recorder, I tightly grip my red handled kitchen knife and pray for dawn. It’s going to be a long night.