For the courious ones - a pinch of an encyclopaedia's information about the Sayans.
Eventually, we arrived in Irkutsk. Our first idea was to get away from this dirty , unpleasant and sultry place. But that was not a very easy thing to do. We had planned to use a bus to get to the mountains, but it was not a bus - it was a soviet, not to say: Asiatic, military six-wheeler truck with tiny windows. (JPEG 23KB). But what a ride it was! Over 500 km mainly on muddy forest and mountain roads. Never in my life will I be shaken so much again! But - Man is a hardy beast, built for mountains - as an educated countryman once said. We would have felt much more comfortable, if we had taken a helicopter, but our budget was too small for that.
On the way we gave a lift to a group of Soviet (excuse me - Russian) tourists, who were going canoeing on the rivers. Their car, gruzawik, or to be more precise, a tip-up truck, had broken down. It reminded me of a fairy tale about a goat: there were about 10 extra people with huge amounts of luggage in our vehicle. The first night wasn't a peaceful one. In the morning we had a visit from some tipsy and very noisy representatives of the local authorities - buriackie naczalstwo. They shouted some dirty words, trying to threaten us with a punishment for making the grass greasy and all that stuff. They were very much surprised at our being there, but we didn't lose our spirit, and calmed them down in the end.
It maybe sounds trival, but the farther away from civilization we got, the more beautiful it was. It was as fabulous as a dream. There were big mountains and small mountains, and countless rivers and streams. What's more, our vehicle managed to cross them, even the ones with a one metre deep channel. A big river - Oka - angry and yellow-white after the recent rains, halted our trip. Fortunately, we weren't in a hurry and the scenery looked like that from a fairy story - hills covered with lightly coloured little birch trees, intensively green grass and the air with the flavour of fresh water. That's why we waited until the river calmed down.
The next day we tried to think how to solve the problem of crossing the river.
It was impossible to do it by ferry because the river was too high;
and about 50 metres wide. Further more, its current was running
at such a speed that in comparison, "regular" mountain river was just a lazy stream.
Anyway, we had to get the car on the ferry and try to reach the opposite
bank. An elder Buryat, one of the people who lived there, was our guide.
He was an excellent person to meet as a representative of the inhabitants of
central Asia. He reminded us of the American Indians in a May's novel.
At first, he was too proud and superior to care about the Whites. However,
after a few hours of our fight with nature, which was rather far from
being effective, he must have liked our determination because he offered us
his help. After that, everything worked pretty smoothly. We got to the other bank!
Besides, the Buryats are quite an unusual nation and our following experiences
with them were very pleasant. They got more and more
friendly towards us after we told them we weren't Russians.
The day was almost finished, but the hardest part was still ahead. Just after the river a huge field of edelweisse stretched to the horizon. All dizzy as in a day-dream without end, we were passing through until 3 a.m.
Finally we reached the destination! We made ourselves comfortable in a wooden Buryat's hut which looked like it was uninhabited for the summer. The conditions there resembled those at a boarding house. What's more, there was a sea of snow covered peaks; the mountains surrounded our green and relaxing valley. The wonderful larch forests smelled of resin and mossy growth. The mossy outgrowths appeared like a downy pillow where you'd love to lie down. (JPEG 82KB)
We could almost imagine that we were in paradise - the lovely forest with its transparent, gently waving, almost blue-green leaves. The air had a wild aroma; but not an unpleasent or unfriendly one. No creature bit or stung us. There were hardly any mosquitos, at least it seemed like it after the Mazuras. This could almost have been Eden, but for the larch trees which had been split in two by the severe cold of the winter. In fact the winter had been so unbelievably freezing that the snow had covered some of the smaller trees, and the temperature was as far below zero as a hot summer's day is above it.
Luckily we were there in summer - the sun shone through some wispy clouds and it was 20 C in the shade. Let me take you on a journey - just a few metres from where we stood was a forest with blueberries, mushrooms, and anything else you could imagine. "Siberia is very rich " - our Ukranian guide told us - and he wasn't lying. Even now when I close my eyes I can still see the wonderful scenery - How much I wish I were there now ...
There was something strange, unearthly, unreal and untangable about the atmosphere. You have to be there to understand it.
A few metres from our hut were some thermal springs, (istoczniki). Inside surprisingly luxurious wooden huts were stone bath tubs with plugholes plugged by wooden plugs. I have never before in all my life - and never since - had such a luxurious submerged-body experience. It gave me a high. This fantastic place was known to the locals as Chajta Gol.
This is how we started our journey. We were aiming to get to the dormant volcanoes, which were surrounded by volcanic rocks - so sharp they easily ripped through the soles of our shoes.
We had to cross a col to get out of the forest, and down to a valley below. (JPEG 43KB) The journey was very interesting, with steep climbs then a descent that we could almost fly down to a tiny lake. (JPEG 89 KB). It was unpleasent in parts because of the presence of hidden quicksand bogs which always surprised us when we fell in them. From the lake the descent was far gentler down to the valley of volcanoes.
Not far from the lip of one of the volcanoes we set our camp. However, we were slightly nervous because of the presence of bear(s). This made us very careful in the preparation of our defences. We put the tents very close to each other, and made sure our fire would last for the whole night. However, luckily tourist was not on the menu that evening, as the bears were not interested in us.
In the morning we set off early in order to visit the mouth of the volcano. It turned out to be very small - but not as dormant as we were led to believe. Inside one of them, a small island was surrounded by a lake. On the island were some rocks, hidden beneath which was a glass. In the glass was a message from the last conquerers of this monster. Acting like true mountaineers, we then proceeded to replace their message with our own words for the next brave souls who reached this point.
Our travels over the lava fields affected us deeply. The scenery could almost have come from the dark side of the moon. Water dripped onto the lava, making holes in it, and forming small pools. surrounding the lava fields were fields of Zolotyj Korien (Golden Root). These unspectacular looking plants have an effect similar to that of ginseng. (JPEG 32 KB).
In the evening, I had a surprising experience. I wanted to be hygenic
and so I travelled to a small nearby lake where I would be all alone and
could have a peaceful bathe. As it turned out, however, I was not alone. A yak
had had the same idea as me, and joined me for my dip. It was a semi-wild,
hairy, devilishly malicious beast - as big as one and a half horses and just
as heavy. The locals keep yaks as domesticated cattle, but this was rather a wild one.
The moment he saw me he bent his head and charged like a steaming bull.
I do not want to say that sparks were flying from his hooves, but the power
of the beast was awesome. I was in a precarious situation to say the least -
wearing nothing but sandals with a towel in my hand, standing on a thin strip of rock.
Being chased by this not overfriendly local inhabitant on a rocky path was
not my idea of a pleasent evening.
What happened next I will leave to your imagination. This is a true story, but
looking back, even I have to admit that it was almost unbelievable.
Luckily I survived - probably because my guardian angel was watching over me - I only needed three quarters of the contents of the first aid kit. However, I was able to continue our trek without any problems - in fact, I found it easier.;-).
On our return - by a different route - we went via a peak of 2200 metres (11 furlongs). That does not sound very much, but it was almost at the snow-line. If you so wish, you can take a peek at me standing by the peak. (JPEG 58 KB). We experienced an unusual sensation, intensified by the openness and emptyness of the situation - no animals, birds insects or any other type of life-form seemed to be within our private universe - it was just us and the rocks.
It is worth mentioning that in the Sayans, above a certain altitude, plant life diminishes rapidly. Above the tree line was the domain of grasses and nasty dwarf birch trees, forming a no-go area. Above the birch trees, there were only mosses and the occasional patch of snow, which because of the climate never got a chance to melt. Towards the peak, above all other domains, we could see just glaciers.
After returning to Chajta Gol from the volcanoes, and once again immersing ourselves in the hot springs (istoczniki), we set off on another adventure - this time to the South. This involved the crossing of many streams - with very strong currents - and this led in turn to some unexpected, and unpleasent, free swims. After drying out we took a short-cut through a valley covered in a patchy forest - sunbeams shone down on to the ground, guiding us on our way. We were also shown the way by the two parallel vertical walls of rock belonging to the mountains which ran either side of the valley. That night we camped in a large field and had a memorable dinner - we cooked ourselves some spaghetti. Later on we were visited by a lone Buryat who very innocently asked us whether we had seen a single bear that he was tracking. Throughout our adventure we came across numerous Buryats. Usually they rode on horse back, and for those of you interested in military matters, they often carried with them rifles (from the last World War) on their backs. That ridders looked like they were from a different century.
The next day we were thoroughly rested, and set off bright and early in order to take a look at the highest mountains in the region. After a short walk, we reached the head of the valley, and peering into the mist up near vertical rocks, we could see the path we would have to take. Above us we could see piles of snow overhanging the rocks. When we turned to the South, we could see Mongolia not too far away. Nearer was a small lake with a round island in the middle of it. We named this "zolwik" (a turtle island). (JPEG 57 KB). At the peak the weather was inclement to say the least - it was also a bit nippy. To the West, past a deep valley, we could see a huge range of mountains. The peaks were snow covered, and the glaciers were very eye-catching because of their reflectiveness. (JPEG 77 KB) Uncharacteristically, we decided not to be too adventurous and our aim was not to go higher than the snow line. The main reason for this was that we were not properly equipped for such an expedition (besides which we were rapidly running out of time for this leg of our journey). We started to wend our way slowly back. The harvest of Wietoczki Fiedosejewa, a 'magic' plant grown in these parts took us a long time. "Why is it magic?" I hear you ask. Well, this leaf turns an ordinary bad tasting cup of tea into a powerful brew with a terrific aroma and almost supernatural taste.
The following day we all piled back into our vehicle and started to head out of the montains. Despite the long journey, it was not at all monotonous - there was always something happening to keep us amused - whether it was armed militia men asking for "gifts" or barracades of snow ploughs. It was almost like being in a (W)eastern , only without the cacti. Usually it is traditional in Westerns for solutions to be reached by smoking 'peace pipes', but we found a better method was through vodka. Of course, it was us turisty who had to buy it.
After an unbroken journey of almost 20 hours we arrived back in Baikal in time to see the sun rise.
back to the journeys start
This page was finally created on 31st of October 1995