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August 29, 2012 | Baikal and Buryatia

From Irkutsk onwards, the scenery becomes a lot more interesting. Endless wooden plains give way to mountain ranges, streams and lakes, not least of all, Lake Baikal itself. Its famously deep waters greeted us the evening we finally left Irkutsk, after we had spent a huge amount of energy to conquer the passes in between. The reward was spectacular: Looking down upon the lake from high above, it resembles a calm ocean much more than a freshwater body.

Sadly, as we mentioned in the last post, it was way too cold for a swim: Summer apparently ended early this year, and in Siberia, this means frost at night. Surprisingly, the temperature did not seem to bother the mosquitoes – once again, they were out in force when we set up our tent. Their activity level does seem to depend heavily on the time of day, however – we found that whenever we make camp well before or after sunset, they are not nearly as much of a nuisance.

The road winds along the shore of the great lake, the oldest, deepest and most voluminous in the world, for about 200 km, then takes a sharp turn into the mountains towards Ulan-Ude, capital of Buryatia. Buryatia, or formally, “The Republic of Buryatia”, is one of the many constituent parts of the Russian Federation. The titular nation, the proud Buryats, were eager to tell us about their people and customs, and we drank several vodkas with groups of Buryats that we met on the roads – not before offering a few drops of each drink to their gods first, though!

Again, the acquaintances we made while travelling proved to be the most enjoyable part of the trip. François from France, a cyclist we overtook in the mountains towards Lake Baikal, was on his way to Ulan-Ude from Berlin, from where he was set to continue south towards Mongolia. This route is tremendously popular: Many people we met on the way either planned to take it or came from its other direction. We, on the other hand, would turn eastwards from Ulan-Ude, towards Chita and then go up ever further north, to get around the great bend of the Amur River, which separates Russian’s Siberia from China’s Manchuria.

We had yet another impromptu interview on the shores of Lake Baikal – a van with journalists from a motorbike magazine stopped and immediately rolled out their cameras. There are actually quite a few motorbikers going either to or from Vladivostok or Mongolia, many of whom we’ve had a chat with, and some who’ve helped us out by letting us borrow certain tools we didn’t have at hand. From what we could gather, however, their experience of Siberia is quite different from ours: With all the kit they wear, and with their far greater numbers, they appear both less accessible and less exotic to the locals, and consequently seem to have far fewer friendly encounters than we have. On the plus side, they certainly are a lot faster, though!

In Ulan-Ude, we arrived late at night, and were promptly greeted by a local cyclist with great English, Stan. He helped us find a hostel for the night: We needed to dry our sleeping bags after a very, very rainy night before, and it seemed like a nice change from our usual setup. Stan also helped us find a resting place for the bikes for the night, and showed us a shop where we’d get a few needed spare parts the next morning.

The hostel was clean and well-run, and our roommates were four Australian guys doing the Mongol Rally. That’s one of several charity rallyes taking place yearly all over the world, this one starting in Europe and ending in Ulan Bator, capital of Mongolia. The principle is that each team raises some money for a charity of its chosing, and after arriving in Ulan Bator donates its car to an organization in Mongolia. Great idea! We talked with the Australians for an hour or two, then went to sleep, ready for the next leg of our trip, towards Chita.