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Baikal Mystery Travel Company

We woke up that next morning at the Zvezda Hotel in Irkustsk just reeking of fish. I felt like my body was off gassing all kinds musk that would no doubt endear me to the feline population of this Siberian town, but also probably also made me smell like an the corpse of a fish monger.

We headed downstairs to sample the Zvezda’s complimentary breakfast in the big game hunting themed restaurant downstairs. We found ourselves tempted to pause in the stairway, the walls of which were filled with pictures of Russian men all over the world killing giant animals, posed now with the dead body, crouched proud and smileless next to it. The restaurant proved to be quite the place as well, with an decoration scheme somewhere in between a hunting lodge and upscale hair salon. The walls were covered with ridiculous wallpaper, and glass cases that held things like obsidian knives and pistols that folded up into your sleeve.

They also had a whole bunch of downright offensive art hanging on the walls, all the impressions of Russian artists as to what African or Indonesian art might look like, but having never actually seen a real example.

The breakfast was strange, and the English on the menu very cryptic. We both ordered a couple of egg dishes, which turned out to be sunny side up eggs on top of French toast and covered with ketchup. Once we’d finished them, the waiter came back over “And what about desert?”

Dessert at breakfast? Well, when in Irkutsk… So we both ordered some sticky sweet yoghurt surprises, which were so sweet and lackluster as to be barely edible and headed back upstairs.

We feasted on some last bits of internet before checking out. When we approached the front desk, however, unlike anywhere else in the entire trip, they actually attempted to charge us for the storage of our bags, and no small amount either. In fact they were asking us to pay nearly a night in a Chinese business hotel for each bag! In the end we struck a deal… We would put all out bags into one of the Dahon folding bicycle carryon bags, and thus consulate them all into only one night at a Chinese business hotel. It was still highway robbery, but at least we could pay for it with what was in our wallets and there would be no need to go out and find an ATM.

Then we hit the road. We had a very important mission that morning, and that was collecting our tickets from Ulan Ude on to Mongolia. The trans-Mongolian trains were not technically e-tickets, so they had to be issued by a different entity. Our goal was to pick them up from the Real Russia office in Irkutsk before our train left that evening.

Sounds simple enough, but the office was hidden in a maze of soviet apartment blocks, in an unmarked building on a street whose name no one knew.

To illustrate the navigational obstacle that we were tackling, take this example: We were no more than 30 meters from the front door of the place that we would eventually find to contain the offices, in the northern outskirts of Irkutsk. However, when we stopped a man who was loading hundred of water melons into the back of his Volkswagen station wagon, we proceeded to draw us an elaborate map, wiping lines into the dust on the window of his car with his finger, directing us back into the city and out into a totally new and opposite outskirt of town.

So we were battling a serious signal to noise problem as we attempted to find this place, and what should have been an hour long wheel, turned into three. We fought against a number of conflicting directions, riding back and forth over the same area many times, before we finally found our building and the offices of Real Russia’s partner in Irkutsk, “Baikal Mystery Travel Company”

Getting the tickets was no problem, and since one of the workers at the place began laughing when we heard we’d locked out bikes outside the building (“they’re already gone,” he giggled), we cut the small talk short and headed back down to find the bikes, of course, exactly as we’d left them.

We noticed some spray painted signs on the street, indicating the way to beer and Kvas, so we decided to follow them to a large super market, where we purchased another Siberian picnic that couldn’t be beat and wandered over to the edges of the lake to eat it. We had some piping hot stuffed peppers, filled with potatoes and Grechka, a block of stinky blue cheese, some black bread, and a tub of pickled mushrooms. It was delightful.

Then, checking our watches to confirm we still had plenty of time before our train, we wheeled on out of town into the countryside, on some very Midwestern-US-style roads.

We called a waypoint to investigate a gas station, which had managed to reduce costs by selling gasoline directly from the semi trailer. The man seemed to be doing great business, and, though we were not in the market for gas, we were sure to express our solidarity before departing.

We continued to wheel on from there, into the Siberian farm land. When we spotted this sign indicating a very interestingly shaped memorial, we headed off the main road and onto a smaller gravel one. We were now heading through prairie and when we spotted what looked like an old abandoned Doppler radar station in the distance, we decided to head in for a closer look.

The station was most certainly abandoned, but showed plenty of recent signs of occupation by local vagrants.

Having gotten our fill of that creepy place, we headed back to the main gravel road, and continued to wheel on towards the memorial. At some point, however, we took a wrong turn and ended up at Irkutsk’s military air strip. We wheeled up to the place, which was guarded by machine gun toting fellows perched in metal towers, lazing against piles of sand bags, and asked a military man who was just unloading his huge green duffel from the trunk of his Volga about how to get to the memorial.

He seemed most pleased that some strange foreigners of folding bicycles were interested in the memorial, and was more than happy to point us in the right direction. So off we went, seeing exactly where we’d made our mistake, and skirting along the side of the airstrip back out towards a thick chunk of forest, where we assumed the memorial was located.

We wheeled past a cop car full of sleeping officers, and parked out bikes outside the memorial, being careful to keep our distance from a particularly savage looking Siberian husky that was chained to a Lada parked in front of the place.

The memorial turned out to be more of a memorial complex. The reasons for its construction are still foggy to us, though we believe that the sinking of a ship might have been involved. We walked past a broken stone tablet structure covered with artificial flowers, the meaning of which we would be more than thrilled to hear in the comments, and headed back into the more overgrown rear section of the memorial. There we found a giant wall of names, with “for what?” in Russian scrawled in blood red above it.

From there we headed back out, and decided to see if we could not loop around the airstrip and make our way back into town.  There was a strange plate (maybe radar related?) at the end of the runway. And when we saw that it was protected by no wall we ran up to take a timed exposure.

It was just seconds after we’d done that that the police car pulled up to us. Two cops climbed out and gave us a rigid solute. “Hello. He said in English. Do you speak Russian?”

“Yes, but badly,” I told him. And he began to spout off in Russian:

“I am officer so-and-so, of such-and-such unit of the Irkutsk Malitsiya. I would like to formally request your documentation.” We were both carrying our passports, so often were they required in daily activities here in the post soviet world, and we happily turned them over.

“Thank you, your papers are in order.” He said, handing our papers back. “Please do not take any pictures, here. That is against the law.” Scott fingered his camera nervously. “And thank you for visiting our memorial.” They began to pile back into the cop car.

“Can we get back to Irkutsk taking this road?” I asked pointing to the large arching packed dirt road we were hoping to us.”

“Of course.” They said.

And with another solute, they god back in their car and drove off in the opposite direction. Well, in the grand scheme of things we could not really have asked for a more pleasant police interaction.

So we hopped on the cycles and headed down to the road.

I almost felt back home in Iowa, hammering down this low traffic level, shoulder-less road. We wheeled hard now, past farms and small villages, back towards the main city of Irkutsk.

Back at the Zvezda, we collected our things and nested in their business center, where they have an African grey parrot that swears in Russian.

We attempted to ignore its taunting and work on correspondence for you, dear reader.

We had just enough time to collect a few snacks for the train, and to spend some time chatting with an old pensioner, who used to work for the ржд  as a locomotive engineer before we needed to hop our train for Ulan Ude.


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