Irkutsk, Russia 2 August 2016
Less majestic was the cough creeping up through Jeroen’s throat from the late-night light inebriated cannonballing in the swimming pool in the language camp. Joe, one of the foreign counselors, celebrated his early farewell party and as one of the Russian parents in the camp invited our entire group over to their table for shashliks and shots, we were bound to end up doing “bombas” in the pool. Jeroen’s health fluctuated up and down in the following weeks as a result, with some positive influences by (1) a collection of medicinal Altai herbs, (2) a highly de-concentrared homeopathic rescue-drop and (3) being taken in by a non-orthodox pelgrimage, though it couldn’t prevent Jeroen from ending up transported out in a beat-up Russian ambulance.
The herbs we got from Irene in Aktash. On the last day of camp we joined the kids on the bus back to Barnaul, but got out on the main road from the exit out of Chemal. We had gotten the tip from Aljona from the language school, that Aktash would be the perfect spot for a few days of unwinding after the camp. Loïc, one of the French volunteers, had similar plans, which meant we were now three! Wondering whether we would all fit with our backpacks into the same car, we enjoyed the sun breaking out through the clouds while waiving friendly to the cars passing by. Not soon after a guy who, as we later learned, had taken a private taxi east of our destination invited us in. It allowed us to sit back, relax and enjoy the astonishing beauty of the continuously changing landscapes through our back seat windows, all the way to Aktash.
There was a small hiccup as we got out of the car, when the taxi-driver insisted us on paying “three”. As we thought it was fair to give him a little bit of gas money, Jeroen reached for 300 Rubles, to which the taxi-driver replied in Russian “thousand, three thousand”. As this was too high of a sum for hitching a ride, we kindly objected, at which point the guy who was actually paying for the ride (and who had invited us in) intervened and assured us we didn’t have to pay. It was the first time we were asked for money at the end of a ride, but it all worked out ok. Funny enough, the same taxi driver passed us by twice while we were hitchhiking in the next few days, both times his car was full, and we even met up with him again when we overtook him at a view point underway.
In Aktash we had found the perfect retreat in Irena’s wonderful guesthouse. We were treated on delicious pastries with home-made raspberry jam and herbal tea and Irene’s friend Tanja and her daughter Polina and son Arseni joined us shortly after as well. By now Jeroen’s cough had crept up to congest his entire head, but Irene took every possible remedy out of her kitchen and bathroom cabinets. From salt-water spray to medicinal ointments and, of course, lots and lots of herbal tea.
With Jeroen’s health on the up again, we set out for a walk with Irene and her son Vasia, Loïc, Tanja, Polina and Arseni to collect wild herbs and mushrooms, which we later prepared into a wonderful meal and captured into a video (which you can find in our film section). We shared a few relaxing morning yoga sessions together (no cobras or cucumbers this time) and felt a little sad to part our ways with everyone. Especially with Loïc after having spent so much time together, but he promised to come visit us someday 🙂
We had seen a smallish lake on our map, which means that in reality it would have to be massive, and Irena told us it is stunning, so that’s where we decided to go. With Jeroen still not a 100%, we found some shade to hitchhike north to Ulagan, where three young local Altai in an old beat-up car picked us up. They have a beautiful language, which sounded much more Asian than Russian, and seemed rather curious about what we were up to. As the guys were rally-driving their old car through the mountains over some very bad roads, only stopping for us to take photos, all of a sudden the car came to an unexpected halt. It turned out we had run out of gas about 5km away from the nearest petrol station. Luckily Jeroen had just filled the gas container for our camping cooker, so we emptied the 600ml of petrol in their tank, in the hopes it would take us to town. But first we had to push the car down the hill to get the engine going again. After all four of us jumped into the moving car, our driver resumed his rally-driving style, to which we immediately indicated that we had to be economical with the little petrol, if we would want to make it to the next petrol station. One of the other guys echoed our concerns, which unfortunately didn’t deter our driver driver from speeding. As we were mostly going downhill, we hoped we would still make it and started envisioning driving up to the petrol station with the last drop of petrol left in the tank. But alas, real-life is not Hollywood, so we came to our second halt, right on the edge of town. So close… After a friend on motorbike brought us some more petrol, the pushing and running started again, but this time the engine didn’t start. After some pointing and staring and pulling on some wires of the engine, a second friend was called over, who showed up in a truck and pulled the car back to life. The whole event probably took around an hour and a half, which only became frustrating when we realised that the petrol station was at the bottom of the other side of the hill. We would have only needed about 500 meters more to make it. Not only that, we could have easily pushed the car for 20 minutes to the top of the hill and let it roll down to the petrol station. Why we did it the hard way, we will never know.
We briefly toyed with the idea to pitch our tent and stay in Ulagan for the night, but we had to get out of town first. There were a few younger people drunkenly walking around in the middle of day, which might be an effect of the lesser perspectives in life in a small rural town, but that’s just guessing on our part. Luckily, we didn’t have to wait long to be picked up by Sasha(..?). He was on a bike tour with a friend and would drive his car in our direction to set up their next camp. As the surroundings got more and more impressive, the road got worse and worse and our driving speed went down. We were probably averaging only 20 to 25 km/h, but the views were stunning. Most astonishing was the view on top of a huge cliff, looking down into a valley in the evening sun. The road down there was so steep, that a two-wheel drive wouldn’t be safe, which meant we had to find a new ride. Here we met Irina, Jura, Tanya and her husband, who were on a road trip from Kazakhstan through the Altai mountains. They had a big 4×4 vehicle, with two sofa’s in the back and a flat screen tv. The women didn’t feel too comfortable going down the very narrow and steep road, but neither did we. Especially not after one of the shocks broke off halfway down. But eventually we made it to the bottom, where we continued our way alongside the river in the valley, with some of the most amazing views, accompanied by the sounds of disco-songs blasting through the speakers and the flashing lights of the music clips they were playing on their flatscreen tv. It felt a little like a small version of Russia in itself: beautiful, while full of contradictions.
As the women in the back tried to persuade the men to set up camp (to no avail) we kept on driving at 15 to 20 km/h (the roads wouldn’t allow us to go any faster) till midnight to make it all the way to lake Teletskoye. We felt destroyed after such a long day, but it couldn’t have ended better with us camping on a strip of sandy beach between the bonfires under a sky full of stars. The long day of traveling threw Jeroen’s health back a little, but we could still do some light yoga on the beach the next morning. With no food around, we decided to hop on one of the ferries in the afternoon to take us to the other side of the lake, which is a whopping 78km long and took us 5 to 6 hours, reminding us once more: Russia is big!
The sun on the ferry was melting us away and there wasn’t much left of Jeroen’s yoga warrior pose on the beach that morning. With Jeroen feeling ever worse, it was time to take out the big guns: our homeopathy kit, a present from Thekla, a long friend of Linda’s family and a homeopathic counselor. The “rescue remedy mix“ unfortunately didn’t have its desired effect, but then again, it is more of an emergencies and crises type of healer. Perhaps it did improve Jeroen’s vision though, as he spotted some tents from the ferry alongside the lake: a perfect spot to camp!
It turned out to be the camp of a group orthodox Christians (they prefer the term pravoslavnaya) on a pilgrimage. We were immediately invited by Aleksey, his wife and their friend Igor to join them for dinner, their mass and a concert. They even offered to have their doctor take a look at Jeroen. The hospitality of the group of pilgrims, who were on a 250km hike through the Altai mountains, was incredible and they even surprised us by being willing to talk openly to us about politics, a first with Russians in Russia! Here we also met Sergei, a Russian hitchhiker who was taken in by the religious community as well and with whom we shared some very nice discussions.
Despite the Altai herbal tea from Irene, the homeopathic rescue drops from Thekla and the great food and kindness of the pilgrims, Jeroen was still not feeling well, so we decided to take a break from hitchhiking and take the bus back up north instead. As we tried to break away from our new pilgrim friends, we underestimated the distance to the bus stop. With 500 meters to go, we saw the bus approaching from the bridge to our left. As Jeroen didn’t have the energy, Linda made a run for it, waving to a woman standing next to the bus at the bus stop. The woman didn’t seem to be bothered and as Linda came within 50 meters, the bus drove off, still 2 minutes before departure time. As Linda collapsed together in disbelief, the woman at the bus stop walked off, while pointed with a smug look at her watch…
After some encouraging words, we had our thumbs back in the air. Not soon after, we got a ride from a very friendly couple who drove us all the way to Bisk. It didn’t take us long to overtake the bus, which was a rather satisfying moment 🙂 In Bisk we decided to take a bus to Novosibirsk and spend a few days in a hostel to relax a bit. Jeroen wasn’t feeling too good, so in the hostel we asked about a doctor. It didn’t take long for two nurses to appear who, after a short examination, instructed Jeroen to follow them into the ambulance, which looked like it was an eighties original with a diverse collection of dents and holes after a good 30 years of service. The hospital didn’t look much better, but Jeroen got the full-body check-up with some very old-school looking medical equipment, probably an opportunity for the hospital to cash in on the well-covered insurance policies of a Western European foreigner. Nothing too serious, as the friendly doctor explained in her half-broken German: an acute bronchitis for which Jeroen was given some antibiotics. It made us decide to stay in Novosibirsk a while longer and take the Trans Siberian railway to Irkutsk, a lovely town with beautiful old-style wooden Russian houses, a nice switch from the not so pretty Soviet architecture, although most of these houses were unfortunately in a rather poor condition.
But Jeroen was still struggling with his health and this story desperately needs a happy end, so luckily the magical shamanistic powers of Olkhon island in lake Baikal provided just that. Just dipping your hand into the water of lake Baikal should already lengthen your life by a full year! We wandered onto the beach without much of a plan, when a friendly group of Russian hippies invited us into their camp. One of them was a bit too enthusiastic about the magical powers of the island, as he believed every plant, bush or tree to be magically edible (which he gladly demonstrated to us), but camping there on the beach for 8 days did cure Jeroen from his Altai cough and gave us all the energy we needed to hitch our way back and into Mongolia!