After our snow safari we left Listvyanka on Monday morning amidst a crazy snow storm with BaikalEx's Leonid, a serious looking Russian, who thankfully rocked up in a sturdy looking 4x4 (there are an awful lot of very old Lada's is bad nick around these parts).
We were headed for Olkhon Island, a few hours North of Irkutsk, in the centre of Lake Baikal, reached by boat in summer, and by car in winter, across a series of "official" and non official ice roads. It was one thing to stand on the ice, another to snow mobile across it, but when the car first leaves the land and slips onto the ice that is something else all together. Apparently the ice can withstand 25 tonnes during February and March, and our jeep weighs in at 3 tonnes, but still, when you can see giant ice fissures, hear it cracking, and know there that the water below runs hundreds of meters deep, it's still a little scary for most. Casey of course did not care and was more intent on goading Leonid into 360 spins on the ice.
It took us most of the day to get to the Island, half the journey through forest lined roads blanketed in snow and then the latter half on the snowless dirt roads, which turned into the ice roads, and then back to dirt roads as we reached the island.
Oklhon is 72 miles long and has around 1,000 people, who live a mainly subsistence life. It is considered one of five global poles of shamanic energy by the Buryat people who live there. It is probably one of the remotest places I have been to.
Our home for two nights was a hippy-ish hostel called Nikita's, which was pretty lively on the first night with a group of Russian ice divers doing vodka shots, and some live music night two to entertain the Russians and a handful of other foreigners, including a guy from Bridport (literally a few miles from my home town in England). The world's not so big after all.
We spent all day Tuesday driving across the ice, stopping to take in crazy views, walk and slide across crystal clear patches of the ice, visit ice caves, ice skate (I wasn't very good, but Casey now has olympic dreams). Will post photos later, including the obligatory jumping shots, and my near perfect unaided handstand (missing Crossfit) on the ice. The day was finished off with a traditional Russian banya, and showers from buckets. They have electricity on the island, but no running water.
After the excitement of the ice, I must admit to being a little relieved to be back on land, especially after a flat in the middle of nowhere. Safe and sound, back in Irkutsk, we had a day to chill out, get laundry done, see a few city sights (the eternal flame, the Decemberist house museum, an uninspiring market, and some beautiful old wooden houses), eat some pretty decent food (Italian and Japanese, the latter a concession on my part of course), and spend some considerable time playing cards and drinking in a beer house.
It was also an opportunity to visit a children's charity, run by Rotarians in the region and supported by Rotary International, that I started supporting last year. We visited Shelter 2, a half way house for abandoned and street children. 35 children lived in the shelter ranging from 7 to 16, but there are thousands of children across shelters in this area. Some had literally been left on the doorstep by drunk parents, others turned over from the police. The children put on a fantastic show for us with all sorts of singing and dancing. They don't get too many visitors and understandably enjoy attention. They are well looked after and schooled, but still lack many things that we as children took for granted. Some will be moved to orphanages, but many will end up back on the streets. For anyone who want to learn more go to www.orphanact.org or send me an email.
And so we are back on the train. We boarded last night and will arrive in Ulaanbaator tomorrow morning. 35 hours, 1,127km and from what we have seen so far, no other English speakers. The scenery is, as ever, spectacular as we hurtle towards our next adventure in Mongolia.