MazdaRoute3, Siberia: Day 3 (655kms)15 | 08 | 2013

    WOKE UP THIS MORNING — well, to be honest, was woken up by some infernal marketing sales tannoy job extolling the virtues of taking a cruise on Lake Baikal — looked out the window, and all I could see was a wall (watch our video road test of the new Mazda3).

    Pity, because having arrived last night in the dark, I now realise the hotel is right on the shore of Lake Baikal.

    Ok, now get your head ready for some seriously huge facts:

    Lake Baikal is the single largest fresh water lake in the world;

    It holds 20% of the world's fresh water;

    It holds 90% of Russia's fresh water;

    It's volume is larger than that of the Great Lakes in America put together;

    It's 880km long and 100kms wide;

    It freezes completely in the winter, allowing vehicles to be driven across it;

    It's 1.6km deep;

    And takes three days to drive from one end to the other.

    Oh, and divers swear they've seen blue humanoid shapes walking about in some of the deepest parts of the lake. Now, I don't know, but I think there could be two reasons behind these sightings:

    1. The divers have been suffering from the bends;

    2. They could have been consuming copious quantities of Russia's national drink — vodka — the night before they dived or, just as likely, seconds before they jumped into the water.

    I'm not a great vodka man, but at breakfast, lunch and dinner, the place settings for meals all have a vodka shot glass positioned next to the cutlery.

    We, of course, being abstemious motoring journalists abstained (ok, apart from the odd toast in the evening, because it would be rude to insult our Russian hosts) but yeh, there were Russians necking vodka at brekka. Weird!

    What's even stranger is Russian police have a zero-tolerance to alcohol when it comes to driving. The legal limit of the breathalyser is 0.017 of alcohol: break that and it's 15 days in the slammer.

    Before starting out on the shortest drive of the leg — this one a mere 555kms — were were 'blessed' during a Shaman ritual.

    Related: 2000kms in a Mazda3 through Siberia

    Among the Siberian and Mongolian people, the universe is conceived as a living organism: "The sky's our father," he said, "the land our mother."

    Pity though that just as he was really getting into the ceremony, on the shore of the lake where the water lapped soothingly, the silence was shattered by a powerboat roaring up the lake just 30 yards from the shore.

    Oh, and the illusion of divine spirituality was further shattered when, as I returned to the hotel having walked swiftly back from the ceremony, held a mile away, I came across the 'Shaman' in a sweaty pair of tracksuit bottoms and t-shirt casually folding his 'Shaman gear' into a couple of polybags. Hmmm … and he was, how shall I say, a bit ripe.

    Anyway, back into the Mazda3 to continue the car's journey to Frankfurt.

    Strangely, within an hour of leaving Listvianka, we'd stopped at the icebreaker museum in Irkutsk. Now, I have to say, given that this is the oldest icebreaker in the world — which, rather strangely, was actually built in Newcastle for its owners on Lake Baikal, in 1894, then transported overland in parts to Siberia, before being rebuilt — the 'tour' was rather dull.

    The all-singing, all-dancing interactive media presentations we're used to seeing at museums across the UK were noticeable by their absence on the boat. All we got was a rather dull elderly Russian gentleman, with his black shirt open to his waist revealing a rather unattractive pot-belly, giving us monosyllabic statements which were then translated badly for us.

    Back in the comfort of the car, we were off again. And immediately hit trouble: it took us an hour to get out of Irkutsk as we negotiated an uncomfortable number of seriously big, confusing and uncompromising junctions with five-lanes in each carriageway.

    I know there's a move now for drivers in the UK not to use their indicators, which is bad enough on a single-carriageway where it's rather obvious where he or she is going. But multiply that by 10 and you get Siberian drivers crossing in front of you having started on your right and wanting to turn left: and you have the same nutters coming towards you doing exactly the same on the opposite carriageway.

    Related: MazdaRoute3, Siberia Day 2 (605kms)

    Fun though … at least once you're out the other side. There's a definite sense of achievement in having survived.

    Soon we were back into the countryside and hundreds of miles of A-class type roads meandering their way through forests.

    And immediately we were caught up in the huge tailbacks of traffic struggling to pass the cumbersome behemoth-type trucks belching out horrible black exhaust fumes. Would all these vehicles pass a UK MoT emissions test? Don't think so.

    Hours later — almost too many to register — we finally stop for lunch. And guess what? It's beef broth … and then a bowl of cabbage broth. 'Nuff said.

    Actually, to be honest, both were pretty scrummy. But that may have more to do with the fact it's now around five days since I had a really decent meal.

    Thankfully though, I've managed to avoid the dicky-tummies which have affected a number of the party. A combination of ensuring I don't eat anything which looks even remotely dodgy, and regular use of my anti-bacterial hand gel.

    Ok, you may laugh, but having seen the ashen-coloured faces of a couple of the guys who had been up all night spending an uncomfortable time dealing with the consequences of their queasy tummies, I'm happy to have had my sensible hat on. Then again, I might just have been lucky.

    Again, it's night-time by the time we reach the Hotel Centrainaya in Tulun. Now, I have to be honest, I didn't see this coming before: but just have a little, careful look at the name of the hotel. See the word 'train'? I didn't!

    Having finally found my room which, to be honest, wasn't bad — though the bed throw and sheets were rather 'in-your-face' from the Seventies — I looked out of the window and saw a depot for the Trans-Siberia railway just a couple of hundred yards away.

    In keeping with the trip, it looks like yet another sleepless night.

    Tomorrow: The longest day of the whole 15,000kms drive, the 760kms to Krasnoyarsk.

    To be continued.

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    Jim McGill


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