Day 25: Oyek to Irkutsk , Home strait

A blue Irkutsk sign straddles the highway at the city limits.
Irkutsk ahoy.

Day break, and another broken day.

It’s still raining and I slept badly last night. I can’t control the weather, but I haven’t helped by attempting to do my laundry in my sleeping bag – my attempts have backfired.

I’d gone to sleep in my puffer jacket, tucking my wet riding socks in, in the hope that my body heat would dry them out overnight. Instead, I was woken at some early hour by cold and damp, and as I’d opened my jacket to inspect my stash, I’d been regaled by the revolting stench of dirty socks. Yuck.

And of course there was the annoying dripping on the tent, all night. Did I mention the dripping?

As I pack up the wet tent, I feel cold and my hands hurt again. I just want to get moving.

Yesterday, I rode over half the distance back to Irkutsk, so I’m relaxed about knocking out the remainder today.

But it’s Saturday, and riding next to a main road full of weekend traffic is anything but relaxing. It certainly isn’t any easier than it was when it was Friday.

A full 100% of the traffic refuses to give me any space, so I’m frequently forced to ride off the side of the asphalt, on a narrow 10cm strip where it’s often muddy and slippery. Every now and then this balloons to a meter, but it’s the exception rather than the rule.

On the brief occasion that there is a gap in the traffic, I jump on to the tar seal and it feels amazing. It’s like I’ve fixed a rubbing brake pad, allowing both Troll and rider to glide effortlessly across the smooth surface once more.

But trying to maintain that feeling on this road requires riding on the very edge of the tar seal. It demands constant concentration and is mentally exhausting. I wish that I had purchased a helmet mounted rear vision mirror, instead of the one jammed into the end of my Jones H-bars. It’s at a really weird angle and I’m afraid that contorting my neck, to see what it wants to show me, will bring the whole circus crashing down.

I stop at a petrol station cafe for a late lunch.

It’s the newest, shiniest cafe I have ever been in. As I cross the tiled expanse between the door and the counter, I glance guiltily at the trail of muddy footprints left in my wake. Although, counterintuitively, it does seem to extract some smiles from the girl in charge of mopping the once pristine floor.

The cafe serves a splendid smorgasbord of meat and carb dishes, and I order a bit of everything. In a seemingly unnecessary gesture, the attendant makes me wait while she briefly heats the food in the microwave oven. But if this has any effect, it is the opposite of the one desired, for when I sample the food at my table I’m surprised to discover that it’s stone cold.

Gazing longingly at the misunderstood microwave, I fantasise of someone coming over to ask me how my meal is. But the cleaning lady maintains a safe orbit, and so, fearing another muddy trek, and not knowing the Russian for can you please reheat this, anyway, I hungrily get on with the grim task of consuming my disappointing meal.

But there is camaraderie in suffering, and as a young boy returns his meal with seemingly similar intentions, I feel somewhat vindicated.

Back on the road, things go from bad to worse.

As I enter Irkutsk, vans and buses take turns to cut me off and I have to ride up onto temporary footpaths to escape the madness. It feels a world away from the driverly consideration that I enjoyed out near Olkhon.

To top things off, one of my brakes stops working, just a few blocks from my hostel.

Ascending the carved wooden staircase to Ushanka, Polina greets me with a huge hug.

It’s the kind of hug that one might expect to receive from a long lost lover and I’m taken aback by the sheer passion conveyed by it. But it seems that it’s just Russian for welcome home, so I try not to read anything more into it and instead focus on the more mundane pleasures of washing my dirty bike, clothes and panniers.

And then to the shower, the glorious hot shower, and a sudden realisation that I have become quite hairy during my time away from mirrors. My mother once said to me that she didn’t trust men with beards, because it showed that they had something to hide. I never really understood what sort of sociopathy a mask of fluff would succeed in concealing, but, gazing upon my whiskered reflection, I wonder if my newfound thatch has helped or hindered any of my interactions along the way.

Smooth skinned and showered, with normalcy returning I briefly entertain grand thoughts of sharing my tour experiences through a bespoke touring website. But the task seems overwhelming to this two tired tourist, so instead I unsubscribe from a bunch of now-irrelevant technical email newsletters, reply to an offer of work from New Zealand and start the big job of editing my trip photos.