A long four nights and four days had passed on the train. I hadn’t suffered from cabin fever but I was ready to take a proper walk and certainly ready for a real shower. Arriving into Irkutsk when it was dark meant we didn’t see what delights (or lack of) the city had to offer. We headed straight to the hostel – The Trans Sib, and slept, in a STILL bed. What a novel concept! After 96 hours of swaying and rocking to sleep, and then subsequently being shunted and jolted back to a semi-conscious state, to remove this constant feeling of movement was somewhat bizarre but bloody lovely.
Moments before falling into slumber a comment was made that I wish, wish, wish I had paid more attention too. A fellow roomie had uttered some fears about bed bugs. He was inspecting his top bunk with his torch and I thought he was just being a paranoid percy and continued with my much-needed sleep. WHAT A SILLY DECISION THIS WAS ON MY BEHALF.
The next morning, we woke up bright and early and made our way to Olkhon Island (after hanging around a bus station whilst the driver tried – and failed – to fill his mini bus up, meaning we had to do a detour to collect a load of wood instead…) only after arriving did I notice how itchy I was. A quick inspection of my face, shoulders, arms, hands, legs (how I wish I was joking) later, and the results were in. I had been attacked/eaten alive by bed bugs. At this point I thought itching was my only concern and it didn’t occur to me (until checking a few days later after speaking with an overly paranoid lady about her underlying fear of bed bugs) that I should really check my bag. So I did. And yes, I found a critter. Absolutely disgusting. Cue insomnia for the next however many nights until the chance to wash my stuff without using ice cold water arose. My hatred for the pointless, vile creatures was like no hate I had felt before! Skipping forward a couple of weeks – we managed to get everything washed, dried, dried again and got our hands on some rubbing alcohol stuff for backpacks etc. £30 and many sleepless nights later… Sigh.
Anyway, bed bugs aside, we had made it to Olkhon Island – the reason for the stop in Irkutsk! And what a beauty it was.
It was natural and undeveloped, from the time we set foot on the little ferry to the time we left we were surround ed by stunning (particularly when we consider this is Russia) scenes. There were just a handful of tourists – let’s bare in mind this island is in the middle of Siberia and it was getting on for winter, it’s not exactly the first destination when deciding on a holiday. This, however, was perfect. After being surrounded by people in Moscow, to be able to take a walk and be the only people aside from a few dogs and local children, was rather delightful.
We stayed at Nikita’s – known as ‘the place’ to stay on the the island. The price included 3 meals a day (and veggie options too!) so couldn’t be argued with. The location was great, though to be honest you can’t really get a bad location in the town. The only downside was our little roommate; Mr Mouse. Unfortunately for me, Ed has a wee fear of all things mousey due to some childhood memories of the crawlers. This fear, naturally, transferred itself to me and we were like a pair of jumping jacks at every little scurry heard. Awaking in the early hours of the morning after our first night at Nikita’s, I could hear a certain scurry against the rough wooden floor. I thought it must be outside but then, zoom, Mr Mouse ran across the room right under our bed to the corner. Obviously I jumped out my skin and pandemonium struck (okay it didn’t – but there was some shrieking and bed jumping going on). Sleep was off the cards now – we watched countless episodes of the IT Crowd so we couldn’t listen out for our new friend. All was okay until he decided to resurface and I’ve never seen another human being run out a room so fast. Obviously I followed suit and our Chinese neighbours quite rightly thought we had lost the plot. That was that, we had to move rooms and luckily they weren’t full so we were moved to the upper storey of a 2-storey building. Result! Until you could hear more mousey friends scurrying on the roof.. all night long. Island life…!
Okay so aside from all things mousey and buggy, Olkhon was a nice little retreat. Initially booking 4 nights, after the aforementioned mouse incident this was put down to 3 and that was ample time to explore a little. We took part in what can only be described as an ‘overfilled boat taxi taking you from only place to another where you can get off and walk somewhere‘ rather than what Nikita’s like to call a ‘tour’. The lack of a tour-guide or information and the do-what-you-want nature of the trip really made one question their use of the word tour. Alas, it was entertaining in a strange way – watching the Russian tourists sit inside the little boat and not look at any scenery, instead fall asleep and listen to their ipods, when the boat got wedged onto the shore and the chaps had to assist with dislodging us…
…returning back to the island through 5 metre waves and envisioning a survival plan, and lastly, rocking back up to Olkhon at a pier made out of boats – one had to jump from one boat to another (old Russian tourists in heels included) in order to get to dry land. The places we stopped were beautiful, in a Russian sort of way. Ultimately, though, being an island girl myself, to be back by the ocean was blissful!
So 3 days later, we headed back to Irkutsk and certainly NOT Trans Sib hostel, where we had 2 nights to kill before the next leg of the trans-sib. We explored (loosest sense of the word here) the city, described for some unbeknown reason as ‘The Paris of the East’. Unfortunately for Irkutsk, there is nothing Parisian about it and the weird, mini statue of the Eiffel Tower does not cut it. Charming it was not. Loaded full of people and busy it was. Vegetarian friendly it was not. Bizarre it was. After a day of wondering around, the next day we stayed in all day long and it felt bloody lovely. Snacks and supplies bought, 6 days on from the first leg of the trans-siberian we were ready (not raring) to go and get to the next country… Mongolia!
Arrival to Mongolia is not before a delightful 5 hour wait at the Russian border crossing and a further 3 hours wait on the Mongolian side, though all will be revealed in part 4!