Saturday, 19th September, 2015
- Day 18/298
Epic experiences on the edge of Olkhon.
I awake to my own company and the relief that I was neither discovered nor run over in the night.
Opening a random jar from yesterday’s grocery shop, I eat a strange breakfast of cold, thick soup, before breaking cover and heading on.
Just after eleven, I happen upon another shrine.
This is one is considerably larger than the others. There are three ribboned posts, a large carpark with space for eight cars, and two blue picnic huts, one with a large yellow sign. The sign is written in a font so fancy, that I doubt that even the natives can read it.
The tall ribboned posts are surrounded by a low fence and some little log chairs. But the grass around them is littered with cigarette butts and I hope that the seating is intended for grown-ups.
Back onto the highway, long and boring. I hope that my expectations of Olkhon can get me through this.
And then, I spot a memorial, high up on the hill. It is distant, but draws gradually nearer. There’s a turnoff. I climb the hill.
A giant metal eagle soars triumphantly over the landscape. Her feathered wings spread wide, she’s poised and ready to swoop from her tall perch, snatching willing cycle tourists in her strong talons, and whisking them away to magical lands.
Rhythm & Sound‘s Carrier (opens new window) is playing on my iPhone. It’s so fitting. And so windy! The tinny techno is sucked into the vortex and scattered over the expanse, dub chords abducted by the thieving currents and trafficked to distant ears.
It’s an orgy of the senses. Blasted by raw energy, spiritual symbols thrust skyward, while small plants cling on for dear life and a lone traveller does the same.
And then, I gradually become aware of the sound of small bells, gently tinkling at the eagle’s feet. Their clear tones effortlessly penetrate the chaos, as if it’s all in my head.
My senses awakened, I try to be more present and aware of the little things. Like those bells.
But the only distractions are a small lake and a handful of road signs.
Their red rimmed shapes contain simple icons, or nothing at all. Inverse wedges belie visibly steep climbs, red and black cars vie for pole position, and a hand-drawn ETA is stickered with ads for downhill mountain biking and the GTA inspired Baikal Ultras.
After another long climb, lunch is a welcome relief.
Housed in a cool log cabin, the cafe reeks of Twin Peaks. The interior is a stunning mix of exposed log ends, fashionable glass-topped tables and designer floor tiles.
As I sit down, I notice a table of people seated by the window, which commands fine views over the green hills. A uniformed man looks like the local cop, presumably enjoying a break from the wind, while downing a hot cup-o’-Joe.
After my experience with the curious cops of Zabaikalsk, I expect to get the third degree from him, but after a cursory glance he pretty much ignores me. So I focus on filling up with the owner’s choice: tasty Baikal fish, a brown, meaty soup and some deliciously moist and salty Buuze. Yum!
On the far wall, a flatscreen TV plays, somewhat surprisingly, British-styled home- and self- improvement programmes. Given the setting, I’d hoped for more.
My stomach full, I focus on my destination. It can’t be long now.
Hoping to speed things up, I switch to a parallel road, but it’s bumpier and seems slower.
I pass a couple of other shrines, including one at the entrance to a campground, overlooking the harbour.
It looks like a boy’s bedroom. Ribbons hang from all corners, like a week’s worth of dirty laundry. Behind this a large sign appears to illustrate what happens to the rubbish situation when tourists camp en masse. It’s not a pretty sight.
Nearly there! But suddenly my route is punctuated by a pub which advertises my favourite brew.
I um and ah about going in. After my filling lunch it would certainly be gilding the lily. On the other hand, at this time of year they probably need all the customers that they can get. Hell, it’s my duty really!
I can’t believe that they have Erdinger here, in the middle of nowhere. But there’s the unmistakable tap, and so I sit at the bar and order a pint, with a plate of the obligatory Buuze.
The walls are pincushions for international bills and I wish that I’d packed some of my own native currency. Sir Ed would make a fine addition to this place, but $5 would be a pretty reckless donation. Then the bartender interrupts my thoughts to inform me that they actually only have one beer on tap, and it’s not Erdinger. Ah. So I’ll have that then.
The door opens and some locals wander in. Seating themselves at a long table by the door, they produce their own beer and nibbles. The bartender is not phased and I wonder if this explains the lousy beer selection.
My own beer is warm and flat and my buuze is not a patch on Twin Peaks‘ offering. I leave soon after, feeling like a cheap whore.
Finally, I reach the town of Sakhyurta, home to the port of Malomorskaya (MRS).
While planning my route, I’d had some doubts about whether this port would actually be open when I got here. In summer time there’s a ferry. In winter time, there’s a cool ice road. In between, the weather craps out at some point and the strait becomes too stormy to cross.
So I’m hoping that it’s crossable now. But first I have to find the port.
The town is pretty low key, with a smattering of small bungalows and not much else. A pebbly beach doesn’t reveal anything except for an old man and his dog, and the rear entrance to a bar, where a few people sit at an unattractive plastic table.
I pass something that looks like the port and stop. Two fishing boats are moored side by side. There’s no sign of a gangway and I wonder how I’ll get my heavy bike on board. Several young guys appear and I learn that either they don’t go to Olkhon, or they don’t understand me. But they point me in a direction and I assume that this leads to another port.
I ride to the end of the road, where there is also no port. It’s getting dark and I wonder if I’ll need to backtrack to the dodgy bar, or the campsite on the hill. But when I return to the original port, I find a large ferry – which appears to be waiting for me!
The crew hurry me on board and we set off. I’m super excited now and I leech on to a young English couple with a personal guide in tow. Their friendly Russian host seems happy to chat with me, but I get the distinct impression that they’d rather that he didn’t.
After a short and lovely crossing, we reach Olkhon. I’m here!
The others, Dave, Dimelza and Elian, disappear into a vehicle, then we all roll down the ramp. Everything is closed at the port, so I set off looking for some accommodation.
After a massive hill climb, I stop at the first beach. It is deserted and I decide to camp there.
Unfortunately my Petzl head torch dies while searching for a good spot. Sporting a quirky sci-fi aesthetic, I originally bought it for cross-country running, but lately the charge indicator has become unreliable and this is the second time I’ve had to reach for my iPhone instead.
But tonight the iPhone is nearly flat too. It is supposed to be charged by the Troll’s front dynamo, but the abundance of hills has put paid to that. Luckily I am over-prepared. I throw my Voltaic solar panel battery into my Camelbak backpack*,* stuff the iPhone into my Petzl head band, plug everything in, and try not to fry my brain.