August 30, 2010
by Stephen Jan in Ulan Ude, Russia
Once again the Bataarheroes sped on ahead while Magical Mongolian Mystery Tour lagged behind, dilly dallying around looking for a good relaxing time. Believe it or not, this was in fact the second time I’ve been to Irkutsk and had informed local friends that I would be arriving in a giant ambulance. Imagine the unusual situation I orchestrated: visiting friends in Siberia with a Yellow ambulance decked out with gaudy decals on the way to Mongolia. We showed up late at night at my friends’ door step after the showdown at the cafe and spent the rest of the night partying. The following day, we hijacked their washing machine and showers, to clean ourselves in preparation for the final leg of our journey.
The next stop would be lake Baikal. As the deepest freshwater lake in the world, it is certainly considered a landmark worth visiting. We made it a point to stay a night overlooking the lake. The idea seemed pretty good at the time but despite the long coastline, we really had no idea where to go nor where to stop. Once again we spend a waning hours of daylight looking for an unknown destination down unknown roads. We ended up finding a clearing ‘near’ the lake that overlooked the Transiberian Train tracks. We dined to Judy’s super special pasta du jour made of omul (local fish), olives, and tomato sauce and we passed the night to off-key singing by your truly. The weather on the rally had up until now ranged from pleasantly warm to scorching hot. We’d often strip down to almost nothing and still spend the night tossing and turning, sweating in the summer heat. But here in Russia, on this night off the coast of Baikail, it was bloody freezing. Expecting warm weather in Siberia during the summer, we were completely ill prepared to face the cold. Judy, Tom and Lillie huddled in utter misery in the rear of the ambulance cursing their team leader, while I endured the cold lying across the driver’s seat on my thin wooden ikea board wrapped in a light blanket, listening to the periodic rumbling of passing by trains.
Not content with just staying the night near the lake, we decided that we needed a real “Lake Baikal Expereince”. After breakfast at a roadside cafe 30 km down the road, (where we incidentally discovered that we had forgotten the bucket of dirty dishes we left on the top of our ambulance from the night before losing a bunch of plates, pots and plasticware to the road) we started searching the Siberian country side for that “Lake Baikal Experience”. We had no idea what that this “Lake Baikail Experience” meant but it sounded pretty exciting. Besides, We’ve already spent 15,000 kilometers not knowing where we were and what we were looking for so this was nothing new.
Spotting peddle boats off in the distance, we pulled into a tiny road off the side of the main highway. The road lead us down some ridiculous roads reminicent of Kazakstan before we finally arrive at a town. We arrived with the bright idea of taking the peddle boats out to the lake for a spin. In usual Team MMT fashion, our arrival drew stares of curiosity from the few locals (four) that were out and about.
No longer a stranger to the sort of situation where we randomly arrived in a tiny town with zero probablity of communicating with the locals, I confidently hopped out and looked around as if I was lost but not going anywhere. I spotted a pair of pretty girls and began with some slow English.
“English?” She shook her head. Well, I figured as much. I was, after all, in the middle of Siberia. I started talking anyway, using exaggerated hand motions and repeating myself like a broken record. After a couple minutes of waving my hands around and repeating words like “Boat” “Swim” and “Mongolia!”, their dead pan stares turned to looks of amusement and then finally bursts of laughter. One girl motioned for me to wait here while she went to go find someone.
We were introduced Alena, an english speaking girl, who in turn introduced us to a big burly russian man, Genya. Genya, the man in charge of the boats, or just the man in charge of dealing with strange visitors like us, looked pretty intimidating at first but turned out to be pretty soft spoken. My team urged me to challenge the man to an arm wrestling match. In Lillie’s words, “I wanna see you get your ass handed to you.” I did, after all, come out of Irkutsk with a 5-0 armwrestling record. Unfortunately for Lillie and everyone else who wanted to see me get crushed like an ant, Genya was too much of a gentleman accept my challenge. Although in hindsight, I think the proper protocol is beer, vodka, THEN arm wrestling challenge.
Anyway, we spent the next 30 minutes slowly racing across the bay. We dubbed our boats “Colonel Angus” and “Free Willy.” Our legs gave out after 30 minutes of peddling probably due to muscle atrophy from 40 days of driving. The total cost of all this was about 100 rubles ($3.30). We hopped off the boats and the locals surrounded us. After pulling into town in a yellow ambulance and playing in the water like children, the locals officially thought we were awesome. They crowded around us like we were honored guests and showered us with attention. One lady called up her friend on her cell phone and handed me her phone. To this day, have no idea why because it was pretty abundantly clear that none of us spoke any Russian. I have a feeling that she thought I looked like her Buryatian friend or cousin. She somehow made some strange logical leap that since I looked like him, I could therefore communicate with him. Anyway, the person on the other line spoke Russian and only Russian. I was confused as hell.
For lunch, we headed over to the local cafe located next to a septic tank that leaked nauseating fumes reminicent of Azerbaijan. There, a dog named Nikolai fell in love with Judy and apparently wanted to tear my arm off when he saw me give Judy an aggressive high five.
Alena told us that she was also headed toward Ulan Ude and in accordance to local custom, she asked us if she could hitch a ride. If it’s one thing we’ve seen on this journey, it’s the example of hospitality. It was only right for us to reciprocate in similar fashion. And so, Team mmt picked up it’s first hitch hiker in country 14 of the Mongol Rally.
We stocked up on essentials like ice cream and beer and headed toward Ulan Ude, confident that we would not get lost now. Lillie took the driving shift and entertained our guest with stories of our travels, while the rest of the team passed the beer bottle around the rear of the ambulance eating mysterious but delicious Russian raisin ice cream.
Alena deftly guided the team into a parking spot in the middle of Ulan Ude. The first stop was, of course, to usable toilets, the second was to the post office, and the final stop was to a WiFi cafe that we iphone/itouch freaks were always craving. Ulan Ude is the capitol of the Russian Province Buryatia, although truth be told we will probably remember the city more for the giant Lenin head that proudly sits in the center. We spent a good moment appreciating the the Soviet relic that will likely keep it’s spot in the Guiness Book of World Records as the largest Lenin head in the world.
Our stop here was brief. With only about 500km to the Mongolian border, we felt the pull of Ulanbataar. We had already covered 14 countries and were a stone’s throw away from the finish line that we’ve been dreaming about since the moment each of us signed up for the rally. We bade farewell to Alena and the giant Lenin head. Next stop, Mongolia!