What do Mongols think of Buryats

Siberia in winter: Buryatia - between Russia and Mongolia

The previous blog post was about the rather disappointing start to our trip: Lake Baikal, which my colleague Philipp Kurz and I wanted to enjoy in all its glory, was covered in snow. However, we remained optimistic and made our way to the next destination: Olkhon, the largest island on Lake Baikal with a length of 72 kilometers and known for its strong winds and spectacular rocks.

Ice under your feet

The only way to get to the island is of course directly across the frozen lake. As soon as the ice layer is thick enough, an official road will be set up and cleared. When we arrive at the end of the paved road on the lakeshore, there is a little surprise: There is no road sign on the ice far and wide, it doesn't look anything like the pictures we found during our research. We watch some Asian tourists approach in a minibus. However, instead of simply driving over the ice, as we expected, the travelers have to get off and cross over to the island by airboat.

Philipp and I wait to see if a local vehicle dares to cross the ice. To our disappointment, we have to find that even locals, after some deliberation and discussions with other people waiting, decide against the risk. Now we are faced with a small problem: Our rental car has been paid for for two and a half more days, but we have planned to spend the next few days on Olkhon and have already reserved accommodation for it. Due to two factors - the weather is not expected to improve and the cost of the rental car eats up a far too large part of our travel budget to simply park it on the bank - we decide to finally throw the travel plan overboard.

Without a plan in the middle of Siberia

Before we can think about the other destinations of our trip, it is first time to find accommodation. We do not want to return to our old accommodation, nor do we want to look for a new place to stay in the sparsely populated area around Olkhon, so we decide on the town of Listvyanka. We hope to find suitable accommodation here, as the city was built up primarily by tourism organizations and is to become world-famous under the name "Baikal City" by 2026.

After a short search we actually found what we were looking for. In contrast to the rest of the accommodations on our trip, the hotel can easily be described as "hip". We don't have much left of Listvyanka itself, except for dinner. In keeping with our last night at Lake Baikal, we opt for the fish omul, which only occurs there and is a specialty around Lake Baikal. For further travel planning we write to Dimitri, an Instagramer from Irkutsk, with whom we were in contact shortly before our trip. Since we don't have a plan B in the slightest, we don't have to think twice and accept the suggestion of our Russian friend: The next morning we go to Arshan, a mountain and climatic health resort in the Sayan Mountains.

Between the worlds

The way from Listvyanka to Arshan leads - like all our routes feel - through Irkutsk, then the four and a half hour drive continues over mountain passes and mountainous terrain. The roads are generally much easier to drive than expected, the asphalt looks relatively new and there are no potholes. Our fears - naturally influenced by prejudice - are far worse. The only problems are the recurring bumps, which are similar to speed bumps in front of pedestrian crossings, but also occur completely unannounced on a straight stretch of road. When it starts to snow halfway along the way, the journey becomes even more interesting.

Although attempts are being made to deal with the snowfall with snow clearing vehicles, a thin layer of snow has already frozen to the ground at this point. In the end, the most frequented lane remains relatively free of snow, stupid only if the oncoming traffic wants to use this lane. In curves with oncoming cars, a certain basic tension always builds up in our vehicle, but we are lucky and reach our destination without incident. At lunchtime we stop briefly in the Kultuk workers' settlement at the western end of Lake Baikal. The settlement with around 4,000 inhabitants is largely populated by Russians. As we discover on the further trip, Kultuk was the last traditional Russian settlement before the border with the Republic of Buryatia.

Republic of Buryatia

Besides the Russians, the Buryats make up the largest part of the population in the southern Baikal region. Originally a nomadic people of Mongolian descent, the Buryats were forced to settle down under Russian rule and now live mainly from cattle breeding and hunting. Colorful wooden huts in yellow, green and turquoise are characteristic of this area. Compared to the Russian settlements like Kultuk, we feel like we are in a completely new world. Except for the Cyrillic script, which has by and large established itself here, Russia and Buryatia have little in common.

On the way to Arshan we have to stop a few times because cows are crossing the street or we just have to admire the colorful houses with the Sayan Mountains in the background. When we arrived in Arshan, we had difficulties finding the accommodation we had booked recently. Google Maps lets us down one more time, but after two full rounds through the not-too-big Arshan, we are finally in front of our place to stay. After this very relevant part of our further trip has been clarified, we use the rest of the day to explore the villages and settlements around Arshan. (Michael Prügl, March 3, 2017)

Sequel follows.

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