June 30, 2008 GMT
Baikal

22 June to 29 June 2008

The end of the road on our transit of the Siberian Plain was the town of Irkutsk, the start of the Russian East and the gateway to Lake Baikal. 400 of the last 600 km of roads leading to Irkutsk were very poor and we had stretched ourselves to keep up our average daily distance. Had it not been for an inadvertent 850 km day, when we miscalculated the location of accommodation, we would have fallen short of our ten day target from Moscow to Irkutsk.

By the time we arrived at Irkutsk on 22 June, it was raining steadily and we were keen to get settled in some decent accommodation for a couple of days lay-over. We found some fair digs at a hostel, or should I say they found us, when the owner leapt out of his car and apprehended us as we were about to try our luck at the cheapest pub on the our list. We had the place to ourselves on the first night as another other couple due to arrive phoned to say that they were in hospital with food poisoning from the Trans Siberian train. This confirmed our view that rail is a dangerous form of transport. We enjoyed an evening playing house and cooking a simple meal in the kitchen. Meanwhile, it rained steadily through the night.

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The landlord's son Nikita was a precocious 3 year old who kept Jo entertained on rainy afternoon.

On the morning of Monday 23 June, businesses were open for business and we set out to find the automotive souk to buy some specialised oil to service Elephant. We found the right place without difficulty and were pleasantly surprised to find one of the best automotive markets anywhere. About 200 traders had individual shops gathered inside a single large building. All the shops were modern and very well laid-out. It was easy to find what you needed and to compare prices. Once again, Siberia surprised us.

All I needed was four litres of fancy oil so I had no excuse to linger with Jo standing in the rain guarding Elephant. I shouldn't have worried. By the time I got back, Elephant had gathered the usual handful of admirers and Jo was having a conversation with one handsome young gentleman about the geology of Siberia.

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A young man outside the car souk tries out Elephant's seat for size.

Elephant got a service, but only just. Half way through the rain started to bucket down and, with no shelter, it was hard work to get the basics done. Nevertheless, fresh oil, filter and plugs is a good start on these bikes and we were pleased that Elephant checked out OK after a tough 12 days.

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Two minutes later the rain started again and didn't let up for two days.

The first treat of Irkutsk was a chance meeting with two German bikers Emil and Wolfgang who had come through Kazakhstan and were on their way to Mongolia. It was a great chance to compare notes on Russia and intelligence on Mongolia and to reassure each other that we are all perfectly sane!

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Emil and Wolfgang flagged us down as we arrived in town. They were BMW mounted and had already been to Kazakhstan.

Emil and Wolfgang were planning to go back to the west from Ulan Baatar. A few days later in Ulan Ude we met a Russian biker who had just come over these roads. When we asked him what they were like his one word answer was: “Hell!”. He had fried the clutch on his Transalp Honda and ended his trip to Ulan Baatar in the back of a truck. He looked pretty used up by the time we met him.

The second treat of our Irkutsk stay was back at the hostel. We were not looking forward to sharing with a group of strangers arriving on the train, but we needn't have worried. Chris and Jess turned out to be a delightful young American couple traveling with some of their family and taking a break from teaching in Korea.

We don't meet many English speakers on our travels and often go for long periods with only each other for company, so the young Americans were shanghaied to the kitchen where tea was made and stories exchanged. Hopefully we will catch up with them again, perhaps in Korea on the way home.

It continued to bucket down and, as Irkutsk had already established itself as one of our least favourite places to stay in the rain, we decided to head out to Lake Baikal regardless of the weather. A planned early departure turned into a late departure as we fussed about with our wet weather gear and hoped for a break in the clouds.

None came and our discomfort was made worse when we took a wrong turn and exited the city the wrong way only to circle the town and ride through the centre to get onto the right road. This, combined with torrential rain, heavy traffic, and a twisting, poor quality road added up to a three hour ride for the 100km to the first lake-side town. It had only one ancient, run down hotel but we were not in a choosy mood. We booked in, spread out our gear to dry, found the basics (food and beer) and waited, with the lake barely visible through the rain and mist.

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Wet riding gear hanging on every available place in our decrepit hotel room.

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This hotel also had the largest bathroom (shared) ever. Shame about the plumbing!

The next day we rode on into steady rain as there didn't seem much point in being lake-tourists in such poor weather. This was a shame because Lake Baikal is worth visiting. The lake is not only huge, it is also deep. Deep enough to contain about 20% of the world's surface fresh water or more water than all five of the North American Great Lakes combined! But, as the rain continued, our plans for a few lazy days seemed as elusive as the sun and we splashed up the east coast of the lake heading for Ulan Ude.

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Lake Baikal as it greeted us, barely visible through the mist.

The rain had left the unmade sections of the road very muddy, slippery and slow but as the day dragged on the rain lessened and then stopped and we arrived in Ulan Ude in a blast of sunshine and humidity. We found an affordable room in the old Soviet era hotel, that was unrestored to the extent that the original single-station radio was still on the wall, and settled in for three nights.

Top of the to-do list for UU was to fit the Metzler knobby tyres we had brought from Moscow and to find a small engineering shop to do a welding repair. We gave Elephant a bath using a public standpipe near our hotel.

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Drawing water from a public standpipe in a city street.

Even in larger cities in Siberia and the Far-East, many houses are not connected to mains water and people still draw water from public standpipes. Our final indulgence was a haircut each; the first since Hungary.

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These should do the trick for the bad roads in Mongolia and the Far East.

Ulan Ude is the centre of Mongolian Russia and the look of the people and feel of the place was very different from the Siberian towns we had visited until then. The town itself has the vestiges of a faded 19th century glory including a huge opera house and some elegant public buildings. It was a scrubby, rough and ready sort of place but a good place to enjoy some sunny days and catch our breath.

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Ulan Ude's elegant opera house was a reminder of more prosperous times in the 19th century.

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Ulan Ude also gets an award for this huge head of Lenin. We were already joking that Russia is a land of giants because of the number of larger than life-size statues that can be found in every town, but this head of the famous Mr Vladimir Ulyanov takes the cake.

On 28 June we rode down to the Mongolian border and the frontier town of Kyakhta. This garrison town (there appeared to be an Infantry division straddling the road on the way in) had its hey-day before the advent of the railway when it prospered from the caravans bringing tea from China. Today it is another of those dusty border towns full of the characters and desperadoes that seem to gravitate to these places all over the world.

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The ruins of the Trinity Cathedral, built in 1817 on the wealth of the China tea caravans, were an interesting find in the dusty border town of Kyakhta.

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This border-town desperado thought he would earn a fee by helping us get through the border. He got a photo op for his trouble but no payday. We have been through this too many times.

We prepared our papers to cross into Mongolia the next morning. We were less well prepared for Mongolia than for any other place we have visited and the Russians had done a good job of frightening us with stories about the roads and broken bikes. But, as always, we were keen to work it out for ourselves.


Posted by Mike Hannan at June 30, 2008 02:07 AM GMT
 
 

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