Lake Baikal and Olkhon

We arrived in Irkutsk with a few areas of uncertainty, would we be able to get out to the Airport and back in time to catch our original 10am minivan, when we got to the Airport would we have one bag, two bags or no bags. For speed we decided to get a taxi. Looking for the official yellow ones and drivers with badges. It seems even the official taxi do not use the meter. Aeroflot  and various guides say 350 Rubles, we managed to get the driver down to 500, and he was in a hurry, running a couple of lights. We arrived. I saw my big red bag through the glass, then my son also spotted his – at last, with some dismay we had proper large backpacker bags.
Coming out of the Airport we met peak taxi pestering. The yellow ones now wanted 700, though we got one for 600. We arrived at Master Grill opposite Irkutsk bus station the inauspicious pick up point for minivans at 930am. I called the company we found by googling. Could we swap back to the 10am slot. No. Then suddenly yes, and with our bags strapped to the top we headed out at speed. Great speed nervy speed helped by some heart raising over taking and near misses. A local Russian who worked on Olkon our ultimate destination told us the driver was a Buryat and they have their own rules, and so it proved at the ferry when he slipped the lengthy qeue and got straight on. At least he would slow down when on the dirt tracks I thought, unfortunately for my backside and nerves he did not.
The guide books tell you Khuizir the “capital” of Olkhon is a dusty and dung filled shanty town, and the real island is the rest, the wild parts. We stayed at Nikita’s Homestead, it’s a ramshackle series of wooden homes in a large compound where you get breakfast and dinner. Great homely Russian food like kasha and soups and millet porridge, and the local delicacy we quickly become obsessed by – Khushuur, a fried meat/veg pastry.
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Figure 1: Just one More …Dugald eating Khushuur
On the first full day we filled our bags with packed lunches and just walked. Following the shore line we went North, walking through sand dunes, wild flowers, cliffs, Russians camping and at play. We swam in the waters of Baikal, it is supposed to add five years to your life, I think perhaps the cold is more of test of your good health rather than a cause of it. We did two firsts, our first backpacker trip, around the North end in a TMZ van, our first old people’s trip a whole day on a boat with middle aged Russians visiting sacred Shamanic and Bhuddist sites.
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Figure 2: Cattle Grazing on Siberian Machair, Olkhon Island
Both were well worth it. They took us to extraordinary places, and it was fascinating to see how each group inhabited these places. My son says I overthought it. The backpackers seemed image hungry, often careful to set the scenes without people, or posing in the edge. The older tourists and families took similar ones, but also posed groups, they travelled in larger groups and enjoyed food and good company. Of course it is not as simple as that but I couldnt help thinking about the way visitors back home “consume” the Highlands, or bouncy yellow buses full of backpackers, or Lochs and Glens, same places, different stories.
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Figure 3: A Trip to the North End of Olkhon

In the evenings and afternoons we explored the muddy streets of Khuizir, grabbing a icecream or something for a packed lunch, I don’t know why, but to me the guide books seemed wrong, I liked the town. Perhaps it reminded me a little of the Highlands, laid back, in a time when every highlander felt a duty to have an old car rotting outside, maybe more, if you were really doing your duty. Or maybe it was hearing the same said of many rural areas which didnt have romantic old buildings, but was built  fresh and quickly often with cheap materials. Places to house people. Places people say are ugly places, to be used as a base to explore the sublime landscape. Things people say about Highland towns. One of “the Russians” who worked on the island in the summer told me in Winter the island dies, “it is just locals”. Something else I have heard before.
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Figure 4: A View of the Capital from the Homestead
On our last morning we rose early –  one final dip in the sea. The sun was just rising, the water even colder, we edged in for the briefest moment. Then back to the homestead for a shower and porridge and eggs.  We said goodbye to the fine people of Nikita’s, and bumped along back to Irkutsk. Stuck our bags in left luggage at the Bus Station, and wandered down to the central market, bought sausages, cheese, black bread, wet wipes and bits for the train, grabbed a coffee and went down to the river. Later at the train station we eat a snack in the canteen – just one last Khushuur. Then back on the train.
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Cycling to Gallanach – Muck May’08

Mid May took us to Muck visiting.

Follow the road from the pier, as you approach the prow of the hill – slowly ambling past darkly ploughed fields – the rest of the Small Isles open before you, smudged hills clasped to the sea.

With kids, charcoal, beers, salad and catch of the day we set to finding fire wood and building a BBQ in the sand.

The beach was surprisingly free of fishing plastics and sea bleached wood. Perhaps I am too used to the fishfarm detritus. As we widened the search the low fast upright stride of a ringed plover caught our attention. We left them in peace.

We dug a pit, ringed it with stones. Using grass, seaweed, dried manure and the odd twig, we lit the fire. Fresh Mackerel, small but fine. When I was growing up it was always with oatmeal. Hauling them into the boat, off the darrows, gut them on the shore, and then round the houses. Things change.

Continue reading “Cycling to Gallanach – Muck May’08”

Winter visit/Summer camping at Loch Arienas – Feb/May’08

The path in from Acharn takes you along the southern shore of the Loch. I first walked it in Winter. Brown and damp. It leads to Arienas Point. A closely grazed green finger that stretches out from the heaps of ordered stones. Here the Oak peters out and gives way to Ash. Here the signs of a once inhabited village.

Continue reading “Winter visit/Summer camping at Loch Arienas – Feb/May’08”

Looking out for Golden Eagles- April 08

The boat crunched on the gravel. Telescope, binoculars, flask. The birch is just opening its leaves, in the light rain they glow pale green. Through the trees we settle on a small rise and unpack lunch, pore a coffee, and wait.

A dark wet hill rises from and surrounds the bay. It is thick with rain and visibility is low. Eventually the rain drifts down to us. I watch it run down the sides of my empty overturned mug. Sun. Eyes turn to the hill and we catch site of the two birds coming of a potential nest site. I follow the male with the binoculars, my companion follows the female. ‘If they are up to anything, then they will only leave the nest for about 20 minutes’. Up to anything means chicks.

My arms ache. I dare not lower the binoculars, they are so high, so faint I would never find them. The male hovers, then drop behind a ridge – lost. The female drops into the hill to roost. It begins to rain. A low hum tumbles down the loch. I turn to see what looks like a WWII plane come round the point doing a barrel role. It disappears then, then we hear it come back, it skims low, rolling over our heads. ‘She was watching it you know’.

watching blackthroated divers – April’08

The boat skimmed out the river mouth and around the point – onto to the loch, into the breeze. A thin plume of smoke drifted from a bank of Scots Pines on the opposite shore. Scanning, we noticed something red. Moving closer we saw a canadian canoe pulled up on the shore and a tent tucked into the trees. ‘B*****ds’. ‘Bloody campers, its so f****in invitin thats the problem‘. It was an inviting spot for blackthroated divers, and an inviting spot for the campers too. We trawled round the coast- no sight. Blackthroats are very cautious birds. They nest on small islands, liable to flooding. This is the southern part of their range. Their are probably about 150 pairs in the UK, we hope to spot 3 pairs today – but not here.

They sit low in the water, and in the faint misty rain and light wind are very hard to see. We catch a glimpse in one of the favourite spots. Thin elegant necks stretch out, white, thin bands of black, they turn and face and then drift away. Bouncing and humming across the swell we head for the next site.

Sunart – Heron Watching Frogs March 08

On the way to work I often find myself lingering at the deep drainage ditches that run along the side of road. Long streaks of toad spawn, or dense clusters of frog spawn, sometimes something a little more exciting – perhaps a common newt. I used to walk this road to school; we would squat by an old wall looking for insects and amphibians in the water. I have children myself now, and having not seen a newt for years, I seem to encounter them frequently. It may be because my eye is closer to the ground. That day, cycling to work, I note the squashed outline of frogs and toads on tarmac. Then, passing the ditch below my father’s croft, a large grey shape takes to the air, settling a few metres from the road. A Grey Heron. You become so used to seeing these sentinels silhouetted by the shore it seems unworldly to come upon them by a roadside ditch. Wheeling up to my fathers for a better view I tell him of the encounter. Below the house the heron, still as a fence post, is waiting for frogs and toads. My father tells me that yesterday he drove past the grey shape, and then reversed the car to watch the unmoved bird. It only took flight when he wound down the window. For the next few days I cycle cautiously along the road, looking for an undisturbed encounter – its not to be.

Looking for Feathers – October 07

On a damp misty day we bumped up the glen on a quad bike. The river was in spate and difficult to get across, so we took a high tack and scrambled up and over onto the ridge. Just as we dropped over the prow I caught site of a stone that did not quite belong. It was placed on top of what I assumed as a glacial erratic. I lifted it and underneath was a supermarket bag. Army manoeuvres – where were they being sent. We skirted along the base of a rock face, occassionally climbing onto a higher ledge so we did not lose height. ‘Here we are’. A roost site. A wind twisted oak stuck out of a small patch of vegetation that luminesced in the damp mist. I picked up a large pellet, and one arm round the trunk for comfort, I prized it open with my fingers. Above, my companion was scrambeling up the grass pulling downy feathers from bare twigs. Me with my fingers in the moss, and through the lichens on the trunk, searching for flight feathers. DNA samples for the Highland Raptor project. A fine specimen hung worryingly out of reach. I held onto my companions leg as he stretched out – just. It dropped to me and I placed it in a freezer bag. Wet, happy, we headed home.