Wednesday, 30th September, 2015
- Day 29/298
My last day on the trail delivers cool Russian art lessons, 2,500 year old caves and the promise of a banya – in spite of the forced smiles.
I wake around 8, feeling a bit stiff due to the shortened bed.
The sun is making an appearance outside, but I notice heavy condensation on the glass, and am happy to have had a warm home for the night.
Natasha offers me some coffee which I graciously accept. I’m glad I do because it’s the best coffee I’ve ever tasted! Through my translation app I discover that this is her special brew. She grinds the beans by hand, mixes in secret spices (turmeric and curry powder?), packs it into a conical brass container, and brews it on the stove top.
After this we have tea (I try the Christmas Special this time) with a yummy chewy meringue. Then she sets about making a large egg and tomato omelette which is served with bread, both of us eating directly from the cast iron pan.
Next, she starts making various things with milk products, presumably from the small herd of cows grazing outside. I offer to help but am encouraged to sit down and keep eating, as I am the ‘man’ and she is the woman. Appreciating that this could be a dull role, she serves several types of cheese to keep me busy.
Feeling somewhat uncomfortable about my manly predicament, I try to translate my plans for the day. For a start, I’m very grateful for her hospitality and ask her how much money she’d accept for this five-star treatment. She replies 600 roubles, but, having paid 750 for only a bed the night before, I give her 1000 to cover the food and inconvenience. It’s a small price to pay for her extra care, attention, and enlightenment about the Russian ways.
Having paid my dues, I fully expect to be shown the door.
But instead my kind host invites me to sit in her special green chair, so she can play me her favourite Russian songs. Inserting a hand marked CD-R into a boombox, beautifully minimal female vocals soon waft out over piano, then viola (?), then stoic military rhythms, finally being layered into energetic male-led folk songs. Some of the music dates and pre-dates the Second World War, even Mozart. It certainly isn’t anything like the electronica that I grew up with and it’s a breath of fresh air.
Continuing on with her manual labour, she converts cream and cheese into butter, smashing it into submission with a small baseball bat. Her guest is not forgotten and she gives me a spoonful of the cream to try, which of course tastes great.
Obviously not someone accustomed to rest, she then starts painting.
One might have assumed, given our location, that she would have painted what she could see – lake and forest scenes, perhaps, or cows. But her specialty is underwater seascapes, reflecting the unique ecosystems of the Baikal region.
The colours in her artworks are so vibrant and different from her business-first exterior that it’s difficult to imagine that they originated from the same person. Offering me one for my travels, I embarrassingly have to decline due to its size. I have little idea where my travels will take me, but I certainly don’t want to be responsible for ensuring that her handmade creation makes it back to New Zealand in good nick.
So instead, she uses her talents to draw a rough sketch of my touring bike. Then she crosses it out, replacing the cyclist with a hiker carrying a backpack. Yup, the GBT is definitely not a place to take a fully loaded touring bike.
A knock at the door signals the arrival of her good friend Andre and another round of spicy coffees ensue.
Andre explains that he’s known Natasha since their university days, and that she’s a biologist. I’m relieved to learn that she has a life beyond tending to men! He teaches agriculture at the local university, and runs walking tours during the holidays and whenever he can swap a lecture slot with a coworker. In fact he’s hosting a walk to the mountains across the lake in two and half weeks time. Would I like to join? I certainly would, but my 30 day Russian tourist visa won’t be so accommodating.
He has a nice vibe about him, and the two of them have a great rapport. They joke about taking me on to help out here during the winter months. It sounds idyllic, but seeing Natasha haul huge pails of milk and water about makes me realise that perhaps my puny programmer arms aren’t really up for it.
Much as I’ve enjoyed my pleasant stay, I’m keen to get back on the trail. So when Andre leaves, so do I.
Walking out into the bright sunshine, I’m greeted by a much different world than the murky one I had stumbled through the night before.
Large bilingual signs describe the history of this area, the Malaya Kadilnaya valley. Famous for its cliffs and limestone caves, tall stone arcs served as guard towers for local tribes during the Iron Age, 1,000 years ago. Most of the caves are difficult to access and only provide shelter to birds and small predators, but the cave Chapel is a large hall where ancient tribal weaponry was found, as well as animal fossils from the Holocene period, 2,500 years ago!
If the juicy descriptions weren’t already tantalising enough, the tidy mown trails seal the deal and I pass through fields of grass and groves of bushy yellow trees on my way to the caves.
As I grow closer, the surface underfoot changes to slippery shale. Finally huge slabs of rock rise out of the shrubbery to signal my arrival.
At the entrance, I consider scaling the 3 metre rock wall to visit the oldest one. Engraved with the slippery foot holds of those who came before me, the path is well worn. But after several half-hearted attempts, I make the dull but commonsense decision not to follow in their footsteps.
Nonetheless I spend several enjoyable hours in the area, lapping up the sweeping views and almost alpine terrain.
Heading back down to the coast, I relax in the sun with some pretty painted pebbles, before pressing on.
Wooden signs mark the way, and a steep climb is followed by another slip, but thankfully this one is shorter and less intimidating than the day before.
I said it was enjoyable and it is. I’m really loving this walk, and it shows in the wide grins in my selfies.
Or does it? Truth be told, I don’t normally smile like this. I mean I do smile, but not like this.
One of my old workmates asked me to smile more, but I guess I also feel an obligation to do this for the folks back home. I want to acknowledge that yes, you can’t be here, but it’s lovely – and look how much I’m appreciating it!
Well I do appreciate it, and yet, I’m sorry to say, the smiles are largely forced. But you can rest assured that I’m smiling widely on the inside.
Leaving the caves behind, the trail runs along undulating paths, through forests and fields, and past a couple of swanky lodges.
One of these sprawls to the edge of the beach, forcing the track to run around its perimeter fence. I pass a motorised dinghy rests on launching logs – the Russians sure love their logs!
Peering over the fence, I see a main building and several outlying huts. They are signs of wealth and I’m impressed that the track builders managed to secure a path through here regardless.
A little further on, I pass through another coastal campsite, this one sporting an orange pup tent. Having spent the last few nights indoors, I privately congratulate that person for braving the elements!
Some headstones or monuments follow, but with the light fading, I snap off a few pictures without waiting for a translation.
When I finally reach the trail head, a large campsite awaits.
Multiple raised platforms give people a chance to avoid the grass, although I’m unsure why they’d want or need to.
A bit further on, I find a mysteriously warm carriage. It looks like a smokers’ room, but it would do if I can’t find a place to sleep tonight.
Finally I find myself on the road into Bolshoy Goloustnoy. Thankfully the trail has been mostly free of the mud that Alex had warned me about. It should be plain sailing from here.
I hit the town boundary with only 20 minutes of light remaining.
In my place, I imagine that most other people would simply take the first accommodation on offer. But budget travelling has done weird things to my mind, and so, without even checking, I deem the beachside hotels too expensive and continue into town.
Performing a full lap of town with frozen hands, I stop briefly at a grocer for essentials, but am unable to make my other needs understood. I conclude that my only options now are places which I’ve already seen on the way in, or those whose entrances are illuminated, this excluding the majority of the town structures.
I settle on a large building, which isn’t on the beach, and am excited to see that it has what looks like a built-in Banya!
Entering the lobby of U Mikhalycha, a young couple come down to answer the bell. They announce that the going rate is 800 roubles. As I’d paid 1000 the night before, and 750 the night before that, and am in a bigger town now, in a bigger building, and it’s damned cold, it seems more than reasonable.
But the girl seems happily surprised when I accept, so perhaps I could have bargained the rate down for the low season.
And as these things inevitably go, the Banya is closed, as is the cafe, so I buy a 387 beer, and head upstairs to snack on my essentials of biscuits and chocolate.
Compared to my previous accommodations, the room is huge. But first impressions aren’t everything. While the bed is comfortable, it is still too short for this 6 ft tourist. I have my own TV, but it’s small and tinny. The bathroom is massive, but the shower pressure is weak and the water goes cold quickly. And there is no way to boil water.
But the portable radiator warms the room quickly, so I watch an Asian parkour & martial arts movie, then fall comfortably asleep.