How to venture across Russia ... in a 1991 Volvo!
"SOME crazy Irish guys have just arrived in a Volvo."
That was not what I was expecting to hear from a fellow backpacker as I bundled through the main door of the hostel after the trip to Lake Baikal.
Sure enough, parked outside was an old Volvo 940, complete with Irish registration plates, an Irish flag sticker and a load of sleeping bags inside.
Its owners were married couple Cameron and Julie, an Australian and an Irish girl.
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Incredibly, they had driven all the way to the far side of Russia.
Having thought my trip was a bit of an adventure, driving the entire 8,000km in a 1991 Volvo pretty much trumps everyone's traveller story, and we sat around for a few hours digesting their tales of how the engine erupted into flames at a petrol station, yet somehow still managed to work.
I had an important reason for being in Irkutsk – the small matter of a visa for Mongolia. It was something I had desperately wanted to get before leaving the UK, but my Chinese visa application took a lot longer than it should have done.
It turned out that the Mongolian consulate was only around the corner and operated a "next day" service, so I had some time to look around.
I booked a second class lower berth on the next night's service from Irkutsk to Ulan Bator for 4,600 Roubles, or about £90.
So I spent the rest of the day sightseeing, including Trubetskoy's house. This was once home to Sergey and Yekaterina Trubetskoy, who caused a whole load of trouble back in 1825 when they tried to mount a coup, which failed, and so lived in exile.
That night a few of us went ten-pin bowling at a nearby complex, which was a lot of fun.
The rest of my time in Irkutsk was spent picking up my Mongolian visa, which set me back $100, and wandering around through the streets of the city.
It's called the Paris of Siberia, and with its river, pretty streets, churches and cathedrals, it was easy to see why.
The city centre had a display of historic photos, including some of its original cathedral that had to be pulled down after being damaged in the civil war, and others of its recently restored, and rather colourful, Cathedral of the Epiphany. An amazing restoration judging by the photos of its damage.
After stopping at a shop to buy some supplies for the train journey – some bread rolls, cheese, tea and apple juice, it was back to the hostel to pack. There was a two-night journey ahead, and another country to discover.
For the first time, I knew there would be someone I could definitely talk to on the trans-Siberian train to the Mongolian capital Ulan Bator. Over the last few days in Irkutsk, a group of us had got to know each other at the hostel, and four of us – Matieu from France, Santi and Gali from Spain and I were all heading to Mongolia on the same train. We all set off from the hostel, knowing our time in Russia had come to an end. With just a day left on my visa, I was unable to stay any longer anyway.
We pulled out of Irkutsk, rounded Lake Baikal and we were on our way to the border.
The next morning, and for the first time on this journey, I was taken aback by the complete change in landscape when I first looked out of the window. The cities and towns, the greenery, the trees and bushes had been replaced by open plains and mountains, dust and sand, the occasional animal drinking from a stream.
There was a Lada too, trying to keep up with the train at one point – those hardy Russian cars get everywhere out here.
We reached Naushki, the Russian border town, 5895km from Moscow, and the train stopped for a two-hour break.
We ventured into the village and to a little market, where you could buy such delights as dried-up chicken or browning puzzle magazines which had been basking in the Siberian sun for months on end.
We were soon back on the train again.
That night, I laid on my bed with the blind open, looking up at the stars while everyone else was asleep. The sky was amazingly clear and dark, the stars shimmering away.
My trans-Siberian adventure swiftly moved on to Ulan Bator, and the train pulled into the snowy station bang on time.
Next week: Phil visits Outer Mongolia.