Friday, 18th September, 2015
- Day 17/298
Heading inland to Yelantsy, I encounter fine weather, shrines and inclines.
My hurried night-time pitch turned out to be a good one. The tent is still up and I am still in it.
Last night’s fierce gale has been replaced by a sunny morning and a robust, cool breeze, with no sign of snow. Sleeping in extra layers and hoods has defrosted my extremities and I’ve enjoyed a long sleep-in, in spite of my optimistic alarm.
Some locals wander by and we exchange a friendly hello. Compared to last night, I feel very relaxed and at peace here. But I’m still an outcast, culturally isolated from the village, and physically isolated by this giant, sea-like lake.
Over a breakfast of raw oats and Nutella, I plan my route.
Hopefully this is my last stop, before I reach the port town of Sakhyurta, about 80km away. From there I’ll take the free ferry across to Olkhon Island.
There’s a small port here, too, but I check it out and there doesn’t seem to be anyone around. It’s just as well, as I don’t speak Russian and there’s a high risk that I could end up on a boat back to Irkutsk.
Retracing my steps, I skirt the town boundaries. I see a smattering of buildings and houses, plus a lodge which I missed in last night’s mad dash to find shelter. Things are so much clearer by day.
I head back inland on the dirt road.
I’m sad to leave the sea behind. Around me, the heavily forested landscape has mellowed to farm land – and big hills.
Forecasting some challenging times ahead, I’ve brought an uplifting playlist of Western culture. Biggie Smalls is instrumental in getting me up the long climbs. But nothing can save me from my new and unforgiving Brooks saddle, which constantly challenges my rear end.
Thankfully, there are rest stops. Found at the village boundaries, they are accessorised with the now familiar coloured ribbons, and are usually accompanied by offerings of small change, large piles of empty vodka bottles and many cigarette butts, despite the smoking ban.
A blend of consumption and devotion, their natural setting casts them as shrines, power-ups on the long pilgrimage to Olkhon.
There’s the picnic shrine, with its small wooden shelter. Built for a family of four, I crave the company, but eat my snacks in solitude.
Then there’s the bar shrine. A table without shelter. It provides enough comfort for a quick round of vodka shots, before announcing the last call.
And finally, there’s the washing line shrine. Two posts and a line between them. The wind whips the flags into chaotic clumps. I bet it’s a nightmare untangling them on washing day.
Between the hills, the country roads look most idyllic in the sunlight. But it’s slow going.
The bumpy surface requires extra effort, without providing any extra excitement. The Troll is certainly built to handle the rough stuff, but a sealed road would be so much faster.
So, when I reach the outskirts of Popovo, I rejoice. The dirt road terminates abruptly, making way for an oasis of smooth tar seal. It’s like a lazy lava flow chose this very spot to run out of steam, and I’m deeply thankful.
As my speed builds, the Troll’s chunky Marathon tyres whirr on the hard surface. I speed past what looks like a disused barracks and fantasise of reaching Olkhon Island in mere hours.
But, as I overtake the last house, there’s heartbreak. A tidy line marks the end of the lovely tar seal, and a dirt road extends as far as the eye can see.
With my spirit broken, I stop often, taking photos of Popova’s outskirts, mementos of strange customs in foreign lands.
At the cemetery, sky blue metal pens contain marble tomb stones, surrounded by garish wreaths of presumably fake flowers. But their brash displays of affection are heavily concealed behind bushy pine trees and a long wooden fence.
I pass an old factory. Its metal silos still stand proud, but, as with the old houses of Kurtun, it looks like it has been abandoned, quickly, with no attempt to pull it down or leave it tidy.
In the distance, I spot a small town. Its houses are aligned with ruler-straight precision, as if they’d planned to plant whole hillsides with them. But the hills are empty, save for a few trees and a tiny wooden church, perched at the top of the Pop.
Eventually, the dirt road descends and becomes a highway.
On the outskirts of Yelantsy, the word Pobeda is visible on the hills, accompanied by the shape of a bird. Perhaps the budget airline of the same name is hoping for some free advertising from above.
I find a well-stocked grocery store and have a fun time with the ladies, pointing at desirable things, while trying to incorporate redundant phrases, like, I speak Russian badly.
Most of the items are stored on the walls behind a long counter, which forms a rectangular C shape. I’m especially impressed and concerned by the comprehensive vodka selection to my right.
After replenishing my supplies, I bid the three impressed ladies farewell and head out of town.
The main road soon forks to a smaller side road. A sign at the junction reads Ust-Anga 12, Anga 5. It might point to the Angara River, scene of my bad pie experience in Irkutsk. Or it could be a nice detour. But, disappointed by my slow progress and with the light fading, I feel like it’s too big a risk right now.
I decide to camp in the green space between the two roads instead, quickly pushing my bike into a cluster of low trees to avoid detection.
Pausing as voices pass by, I quickly set up camp in the dark and lumpy interior. The park feels like a glorified traffic island and I pray that no-one crashes into my corner of it this evening.