Would you like to come on a journey with me? We will probably travel further into Russia than you or I have ever been. Destination: Baikal, the deepest lake in the world, in the biggest country in the world.
Don’t focus too much on the final destination just yet, however; we still have twenty-seven hours on the Trans-Siberian Express.
Twenty-seven hours on a train! We boarded mid-afternoon on Friday and reached Irkutsk late evening on Saturday. Within the first hour, an Orthodox lady in a headscarf had begun talking to us. ‘What is your religion?’ she asked, her face very close to mine, and barely waited for an answer before telling me that my faith is a lie.
After that, a group of men from Uzbekistan tried to teach us their favourite card game, known us ‘дурак’ (fool), and we featured in dozens of photographs and even a video of us speaking our mother tongue, simply because we are English – the only English people our new acquaintances had ever met.
No, that is not enough. If you are to come on this journey with me you need to have a good idea of what it is like. Picture it: there are about fifty bunk beds in this carriage, all of them occupied. The bottom beds convert into seats and a table, but on the top level there is no room to sit up, only to lie down, and it is a test of agility to somehow clamber in at all.
A journey like this throws new light onto the concept of a travelling companion. The people around us were complete strangers, and we would never see them again, but when you sleep in such close proximity to each other and spend so many hours of the day with very little to do, you develop a strange sort of bond. Certainly to start with it felt like an invasion of privacy to sit on a stranger’s bed, but it seemed to be train etiquette to share this space with the people around you.
We received a lot of attention. Firstly, we were foreigners on the train, with the additional curiosity that we speak Russian. Secondly, we were a group of majority girls (eight girls, two boys). Most of the attention was well meant and quite sweet, even if it did make us feel a little uncomfortable at times.
Twenty-seven hours later, we reach Irkutsk. I must admit, it is a relief to bid farewell to the train, to walk on solid ground again!
I liked Irkutsk. I liked the autumnal feel to the air, I liked the relaxed atmosphere – perhaps it was indeed the city, perhaps it was simply my mood.
As it turns out, Sunday evening in Irkutsk is not the best time to go out for dinner. The first place we tried was due to shut in an hour and had run out of most of its stock; the second place was decidedly dodgy. Never have I experienced such bad service! Now I come to think of it, nor have I ever been chased out of a restaurant by angry Mongolians… (It was a misunderstanding: they thought we were going to leave without paying. Thankfully it was sorted with only a little violence and one incident of food poisoning).
Perhaps I don’t like Irkutsk quite so much after all.
Now it is time to move on, to travel to the island of Olkhon. There isn’t much space on the minibus: all the seats are taken, and everyone has luggage. In fact, there isn’t any space at all. But look! Look out of the window, look at the expanse of flat, stubbly grassland, look at the auburn trees, look at the steep mountains and little hamlets and the lake, just look at the lake!
Lake Baikal is our treasure, a Russian told me. Наше богатство. I stood on the shore and looked across and could not see the other side; I listened and it sounded like the ocean; but I tasted it and it did not taste salty.
We spent four nights on the island, and then it was another two and a half days of travelling before we arrived back in Tomsk: tired, glad that we went; but glad, too, that we have returned to somewhere relatively familiar.