The morning after our first night at Lake Baikal was the morning that Kaylah and I were scheduled to go quad-bike riding. The rest of the group had decided to give it a miss, but the two of us approached it with an easy “I’m in if you are” attitude and ended up convincing each other that we should give it go, much like the way we both decided to climb the Great Wall back in China. I really liked that about Kaylah – she was always making the most of out everything, which motivated me to do same and take every opportunity head on, rather than just passively experiencing the journey. So despite having somewhat of a hangover – vodka is not my drink of choice, and I find the bouncing back a little more difficult – we geared up and headed off down the hill with Kostya to go trekking through the Siberian forests on quad-bikes.
Now, I know what you’re all thinking. Oh my God, Robert! You fell off a motorbike in the busy streets of Cambodia! When are you going to learn your lesson!? But quad-bikes are a little easier to keep upright – so I kept telling myself – and I would have a guide this time, who would drive ahead of us so that we didn’t take any wrong turns, or attempt to drive down any dangerous paths. To save on the cost, Kaylah and I decided to share the quad-bike, with one of us driving for the first half of the trail and switching positions halfway through. We suited up, put our helmets on, and mounted the bike. I let Kaylah take the first turn of driving, so that I might be able to do some observation and hopefully pick up some driving techniques so as to not kill us both.
“This, accelerate,” the guide had said as he pointed to a small button on the right handle bar. “This, break. Follow me. About 10 metres between us.” The English was broken, but the meanings were clear. Yet as the guide took off down the trail and into the trees of the Siberian forest, Kaylah wasted no time getting started and speeding off after him. I’d started out leaning forward with my arms wrapped around her, like I did with all the motorbike taxis in South-East Asia. I very quickly slid back to assume the brace position, clinging to the small handrail that looped behind my seat. Kaylah has a pretty loud and feisty nature, so I guess I should have expected her to be a bit of speed demon. Though it wasn’t just the speed that slightly terrified me. As we raced through the forest, we occasionally had to slow down and stop to watch the guide manoeuvre through some tricky parts of the trail, so that we could follow exactly in his tracks and avoid any accidents. It was hair-raising business, though – the quad-bike jolted forward on some pretty sheer angles, and there were a few moments when I was sure that the bike was going to tip over. I clung on for dear life as Kaylah powered forward through the steep mounds of mud, seemingly unfazed.
Also – though I know my depth perception isn’t perfect – I spent basically the entire ride thinking to myself, ‘She is not at least 10 metres away from the back of that bike. She’s two, maybe three, at the most‘. After about half an hour, we reached a small rest point in the middle of the forest. After we dismounted, the guide turned to Kaylah and gave her a big thumbs up. “Very good driver!” he said with a grin. “I smoke, then go back,” he said as he held up a cigarette, then wandered off a short way into the woods.
“You were so not 10 metres away from him,” I said to Kaylah as we sat down on a small wooden bench that had been fashioned out of some logs.
“I know, I know,” she said with a laugh.
“I was so scared! There were a couple of times were I definitely thought we were going to tip over! But you were so close to him!” I was being completely genuine, but Kaylah has an infectious laugh that I can’t help but get carried away by, and so I giggled along with her.
“Ah well – I can’t help it! I’m Asian, we tailgate!” Now that made me laugh. Though she’d spent most of her life in America, Kaylah has Vietnamese heritage, but I loved that she still could find the bit of humour in what some people would have just deemed a rude or racist joke. We had pretty similar senses of humour too, which was probably why she was one of the people I’d been spending the most time with on the tour so far.
Then came the punchline of this whole scenario – it was time for me to drive. Once upon a time I would have considered myself a pretty good driver. I passed most of my RTA tests the first time around, including the one where you’re behind the wheel of a car. I can drive a manual car. I’ve never been in any major accidents. But my time living out of the suburbs has seemingly diminished these superior driving skills somewhat, as I stopped even owning a car. I became the public transport enthusiast that I am today, and while I still know how to drive a car, I guess the motor skills that are required to operate other motor vehicles just gave up on me. Cambodia was a great example of that, but the ride in as Kaylah’s passenger had already ensured that I didn’t have the same invincibility complex when I got behind the controls of the quad-bike.
That was basically just a long winded way of saying that I bogged the quad-bike in the mud within the first 30 seconds of me driving, and had to have the guide come back and switch the bike into 4WD mode so that it could get enough power to pull itself out. He stood in front of the bike, pulling on the bumper bar while I accelerated, and I was terrified that when it did eventually come free I would surely run him over. The bike didn’t go anywhere at any great speed though, and the guide just chuckled to himself as he walked back to his bike. Kaylah and I were also in hysterics – you can’t really do anything but laugh at yourself in that kind of situation, can you? – but I was almost tempted to surrender the driving back over to her right there.
But I didn’t. Just like I’d gotten back up on that motorbike in Phnom Penh, terrified it would still be the last thing I ever did, I revved the engine to the quad bike and took off after the guide. Unlike Kaylah, I was very meticulous about keeping the 10 metres between the guide and myself, though in the end he probably ended up slowing down so I was close enough to see his demonstrations of crossing the tricky bits. The scenery was quite repetitive, so I honestly couldn’t tell, but I feel as though we might have come back a different way. There was nothing anywhere near as steep or tricky on the way back as some of the obstacles Kaylah had had to ride over. For that, I was infinitely grateful. We arrived back in one piece, though I was dripping with sweat under the protective suit from all the strength and concentration it had taken me to not ride the quad-bike off the trail. You’d think that remembering to steer is the most basic rule that is impossible to screw up – but I’m just that talented, I guess.
Yesterday, we’d decided as a group that we wanted to take a boat out onto Lake Baikal. We’d been inspired by the beautiful weather we’d had on the first afternoon, but we were disappointed to learn that the overcast weather on the following day had made the lake waters quite choppy and rough. Kostya assured us that it would be windy and unpleasant, and so the excursion was cancelled. There was nothing else major that had been planned for that day, so in the end I was even more chuffed with my decision to do quad-bike riding, despite the mild terror it had incurred. So for me, the rest of the day just turned into a relaxing afternoon – a short walk down by the lake, watching funny YouTube videos with Kaylah and Kostya, and visiting the sauna again – though I missed out on getting another birch leaf massage. I’ve always been of the opinion that long periods of travel require those kinds of days, where they only agenda is to have no set agenda. There wasn’t exactly an endless supply of things to see or do at Lake Baikal anyway, so I think most of us were more than happy to just chill out and wander around the small town. We had another vodka filled evening that night, though no one stayed up quite as late as the previous night.
The following morning we visited an open air museum on our way back to Irkutsk. It was interesting to see some of the old traditional buildings, and we had a bit of fun playing on the big wooden swings and stilts, but for me the whole day felt like a drawn-out, ominous lead up to the main event of our whole tour – the four days of transit along the Trans-Siberian railway. We stopped at a supermarket just outside of Irkutsk to buy supplies, and I was overcome with a sudden sense of dread. I had enough trouble buying groceries for one that wouldn’t go off in my fridge within a week – how was I going to plan and buy all the food I would need for the next four days? Technically, you coud buy food along the way, but we were told it would be far more expensive at the station platforms or on the train. I wandered around the supermarket, umm-ing and ahh-ing for a long time, making careful decisions, though the only one I was 100% sure about was the bottle of vodka – and even then I wondered if it woud be enough. Eventually Kostya found me and told me were about to leave, so I rushed through the check-out and back to the bus.
After that we had a couple of hours to kill before the train, so we wandered around the main streets of Irkutsk. We had a look inside one of the Russian Orthodox Churches, and then wandered down to the river. The fence along the edge of the river embankment was absolutely covered in padlocks. “It’s like the padlock bridge in Paris,” said Jenna, one of the Australian girls. They were all engraved or painted with names and dates, and pictures of doves and ribbons and other celebratory symbols. I hadn’t been to Paris, but a made a mental note to enquire about a padlock bridge when I got there. I think the idea is to lock it in the very public place and then throw the key into the river, so that their symbolic love can never be removed – but if someone had actually been explaining that, I mustn’t have been paying attention. I was probably still too busy worrying about whether or not I had enough food.