Day 31: Bolshie Goloustnoy to Irkutsk , The bus to Irkutsk

Hills and snow covered ground seen through a dirt spattered window.
Detour through Maloye Goloustnoye.

I awake to deliciously sublime light from the sunrise.

Sunrise?! It must be early! The night before, hostel owner Irina had prepared me for a 7.30am departure. But at 7:20am there’s a knock at my door – we’re off!

The reason for our premature departure quickly becomes clear – it’s a slow drive to the bus stop.

The bumpy, potholed village streets require careful navigation. They are reminiscent of the tsunami damaged roads on Samoa’s south-east coast, though the Russian cars are somewhat less pimped out. Upon reaching the bus stop, there’s a cold wait for the driver. He kicks the bus repeatedly, possibly to de-ice something, then the other passengers and I are allowed to board.

What the local cars lack in modifications the bus decor more than makes up for. Our Daewoo coach is fitted out with greeny-purple curtains with Christmas cracker trim, orange, red and green cupcake lights, fake glass UFO lamps and a small desk-style fan for hot days, which this day is not.

The bus fare is 250 roubles, roughly NZD 6 to travel the 120km back to Irkutsk. The Daewoo heads up Kirov Street to pick up several people who are waiting on the right hand side of the road, or just pointing at the bus, before heading out of town to pick up its last passenger at a junction.

The road out of town passes through frosty, idyllic rock & taiga (snow forest) landscapes.

As the journey progresses these resolve to simple farm land and small towns. Driving through Maloye (small) Goloustnoy, we pass the innocuous A3C petrol station that marked the start of my long & muddy cycle detour to Olkhon Island.

Two passengers alight at the hotel, another around the corner. I’ve been led to believe that I’m supposed to pay when I get off, but the locals don’t seem to be doing that. The bus seems to run on ESP. Slowing down for every pedestrian, the driver taking a moment to judge whether they are a potential passenger, or not.

The road grows icy and looks dangerously slippery. The driver slows down and carefully picks a path for his large, unwieldy machine. I imagine the slow progress with a heavy bike and can almost feel the cold sting in my hands. Stealth camping in the snowy forest doesn’t look like much fun either, even if I could overcome my fire starting issues.

As the bus climbs higher, snow begins to fall and lies more thickly on the ground, and in the trees. The bus has better traction now and the driver powers through it without searching for a good line, though he’s still cautious on the descents.

As we leave the forest, we pass twenty to thirty quad and motor bike riders heading back the way we’ve come. Obviously a bit of snow doesn’t stop the tough Russians from having a good time.

When we reach Irkutsk, the city is blanketed in white snow.

Resolving to protect my numb toes against further damage from drafty footwear, I head directly to X-Master. There I purchase an expensive pair of -25C Salomon hiking boots and some Mund Everest socks. Now I’m invincible!

Arriving back at Ushanka, I learn that that they’ve had to close the hostel due to their water pipes being blocked by uneducated guests. So much for their holiday.

On their kind recommendation I relocate to Hostel Baikal Story, a short ride away, in the middle of town.

Hidden down a driveway, behind a secured door and up a lot (!) of steps, it takes a bit of finding. But once up there it is both comfortable and well-appointed.

I’m unsure whether to stay here for the last few days of my visa or to organise another tour. It’s difficult to communicate my dilemma to the hostel manager, who speaks little English. She phones someone called Oxanna, who may be able to help.

Oxanna arrives minutes later. She is gorgeous and out of breath from the climb up the stairs. I quickly realise that she is pregnant – talk about customer service! The common room features many photos of her with guests and it’s obvious that she is the hostel’s founder.

After talking to her I realise that sorting out my passage to Mongolia is more important than trying to squeeze in another tour.

I’d hoped that my passage into Mongolia would be by bicycle.

At least that was the plan. Crossing the border at Kyakhta (Russia) and Altanbulag (Mongolia) seemed like a romantic way to enter the country that I came this far north for. But my time hiking the GBT and relaxing in Irkutsk has torpedoed that plan.

A train is the easiest solution, so I jump on the internet to book a ticket from Irkutsk to Ulanbaatar. My last trip, from Zabaikalsk to Irkutsk was booked through Real Russia, who seemed expensive but reliable. But, despite using their site again, this time I end up booking through All Russian Trains. However when they respond I realise it’s the same crowd.

The train doesn’t run every day, so I choose the Monday departure, which will get there on Wednesday. This wastes the last couple of days of my precious 30 day visa, but it feels wise to have a bit of a buffer in case anything goes wrong.

My 3rd class ticket to travel the 954 km from Zabaikalsk to Irkutsk cost me £35.50, but a 2nd class ticket to travel the 518 km from Irkutsk to Ulanbaatar will cost me £109.05! The math doesn’t make much sense to me, but beggars can’t be choosers. But first I have to make sure that I can get a ticket before the train departs.

Real Russia‘s standard policy is to post the tickets out, but today is Friday and the train leaves on Monday. If I don’t confirm the booking ASAP, tickets could sell out. If do confirm the booking but the tickets don’t arrive on time, the train will leave without me. What to do?

Obviously I should have organised this sooner, but to do that I’d have needed more rigid plans. I like my current flexibility, but unfortunately flexibility seems to entail more stress!

Thankfully Real Russia reply that they can drop the tickets to the hostel. But delays in the payment process mean that they won’t receive the ticket until Monday morning. They’ll then deliver this to me between 1pm and 6pm, leaving me time to get to the station by 10pm.

I hope it all goes to plan.