Hitch a Podushka

Since Maks, the couchsurfer who’s hitching across Russia with only $100, was crashing my couch for a few days, I thought I should use this opportunity to explore Olkhon Island for free. I’ve hitchhiked in many different countries before, but never in Russia. I’m still not sure if I would hitch in Russia alone, but with another person- no problemo ;).

So this was the plan: hitch to the island (about 300km)- camp- hike – film some video clips- camp- hitch back.

I borrowed a tent and an extra sleeping bag from my friend Dima, who assured me that we would not freeze to death during these brisky April nights. Then I bought some oats, nuts, berries, bread, canned fish, and 4 liters of water (less than $15 worth of stuff). We set off for the road at 11am last Tuesday.

We took a bus to the other side of Irkutsk, then caught 4 lifts to Harat’s Pub- a strange place about 6 km from where the ferry takes off to the island. Harat’s is an “Irish pub” chain you can find in Russia. Here, it’s considered to be kind of “classy,” cool and out of the ordinary. To me, it’s just the same as any other dirty old Irish pub you find anywhere in the western world. So that’s why I think it’s strange. It’s expensive and looks very out of place in a small Russian village :D.  Nevertheless, this one made great pozy (local Siberian dumplings) and a good borsch. I was tempted to get a Guinness but resisted this temptation thinking back to this blog and my current “barely-employed” situation.

We finished the dumplings and set off for the road again. It was about 5pm, there were no cars in sight, but we were close enough now that we could walk to the island.

The people we hitched rides with told us that the official ice road had been closed for about a month and most of them weren’t sure if the ice was thick enough to safely walk over, but one man assured us that it would be no problem.

We walked down the road for 3-4 km then caught another lift to the dock. Looking out at the lake, we were still uncertain about whether we should walk to the island or not.

As we contemplated, a local fisherman gave us a big spiel about how falling into the frozen lake was no big deal. He told us that his record for falling in the lake was 11 times in one spring. He said that if you fall in, you should just turn around and climb back up where you came in, then take off all your clothes and put on dry ones. No biggie.

Oh and by the way, there are no ferries in April. Right now, the only way to get to Olkhon Island is by a fascinating apparatus called a “podushka,” which translates to “pillow” (or hovercraft :)). It basically is a big rubber pillow that glides across the ice. If the ice breaks, it swims on the water.

A ride on the podushka costs 350 rubles ($5) but we decided to save some money and take the little risk by walking over the ice. We thought that maybe we could hitch a free ride on the podushka if we tried to stop it somewhere further down the ice road.

The ice was thick and sturdy at the start. Maks walked in front, I followed.

The further we walked, the more confidence we lost. About half way to the island, the ice started cracking underneath our feet. The sound wasn’t the same big drum n bass “boom” that I had heard when we hiked on Lake Baikal in March, this time it was more of a crackle, accompanied by the sound of swishing water. A bit unsettling.

We noticed a big “puddle” of open water far off the the left of us. Then I looked ahead at Maks and all of the sudden saw the ice bending beneath his body. Each step he took caused the ice to move up and down like a wave.

Crackling and bending- not the best conditions for hiking on top of the world’s deepest lake.

I was just about to suggest turning around when the podushka came racing towards us! I was overjoyed that we were going to be saved by the podushka! I told Maks to stick out his thumb to make sure we got a ride on it (and to take a picture :D). He seemed a bit agitated and said something like, “this is not the time for games.” I didn’t get what he was so worried about until I noticed that the podushka was creating massive ice waves as it raced directly at us at an extremely fast speed. So now we had 2 things to worry about:

1. Being run over by the podushka.

2. Drowning/ freezing to death in Lake Baikal as a result of the podushka breaking the ice beneath our feet.

Luckily, the podushka driver noticed us, stopped, and let us on as he shook his head in disapproval. When the podushka stopped, it created a massive “puddle” of water all around it. It was scary to think about the depth of that puddle.

The driver didn’t ask us for any money, so now we actually can say that we hitched a ride on the podushka :D


When we got across to Olkhon Island, we stepped off the podushka and climbed to the south-eastern most point of the island. I knew there was a beach we could camp on from looking at a map, but couldn’t resist climbing to the top of the rocky cliffside before searching for it. The view was incredible.

The sun went down soon after we finished climbing the southern ridge. We ended up searching for the way down to the beach in the dark, on a very steep and rocky slope. The stupid(ist) part may have been that we both forget flashlights. We did have light from our smartphones… until the batteries died.

We climbed around under starlight for an hour or so until we found a fairly flat surface on top of the hillside. We decided to sleep there for the night and give up on beach camping. I set up the tent in complete darkness while Maks looked for firewood.

The tent was an easy set up (except for the top cover.. I kind of gave up on it and tied it whichever way I could :)).  The fire was lit with the last flame of our lighter. That was pretty lucky since it was about 3 degrees at night. We warmed up by the fire, ate a can of fish and some bread for dinner, then admired the stars and the shadows of rolling hills on the edges of Baikal’s icy surface.

Our equipment held up well. It was cold and windy outside, but fairly warm inside the tent.

In the morning, we had no more lighter fluid to start a fire, so we settled for muesli mixed with cold water. After breakfast we got up and walked down to the beach, up a dirt road, then off the beaten path. We walked through tall dried up grass for 5 or 6 hours; up and down yellow hills, over thick frozen crystal bays and to the most precious views of Lake Baikal.

I just love it off the beaten path.

Maks wasn’t having it though. He was bothered by the strong wind and wanted to head to Olkhon’s village, Khuzhir. I convinced him to hike a bit longer.

At around 17:00 we noticed the first tick. It was red and brown, stripy, about 5mm long. Maks flung it off his pants. We started heading back to the dirt road and noticed two more. One on Maks’ jacket, one on my backpack. It took us an hour or so to reach the main road, during which time we flung another 3 or 4 ticks off our clothes. Once we reached the road we thoroughly checked ourselves for ticks and discovered another 4 or 5. Luckily none of them had bitten us.

We walked for another hour or two before the first car came into sight. Luckily it picked us up. The driver told us it was a bad idea to walk around those grassy hills, “plenty of ticks over there! Plenty!”

The sun set as we reached Khuzhir. It got a bit chilly in the dark and the only restaurant I knew of that had an indoor bathroom was closed. Every other place I knew of had outhouses- not the best place to get undressed to check for ticks. We tried for a popular hotel called Nikita’s. We told the guy at reception the whole story and he was nice enough to let us use his indoor bathroom.

We seemed to be clear of ticks at that point, so I was ready to go down to the beach in Khuzhir to camp one more night. But since the thought of ticks was still lingering, I thought I had to at least give Maks the option of sleeping indoors. I knew a nice babushka with a couple of dorm rooms for 500 rubles (~$8) / night each. Maks was relieved at the thought of taking a shower and not having to camp, so we called up Babushka Nina and arrived at her doorstep in less than a half hour.

Nina greeted us warmly and even brought us some homemade bread, a bowl of delicious pickled bell peppers and a pot of borsch! She remembered me from last time I was in Khuzhir :) We washed up, ate the food and laughed at ourselves. Then Maks told me that this was his first time –ever– camping!

That was something I did not expect from a long distance hitch-hiker! ‘Wow,’ I thought, ‘I should really learn to take it easy on people. The poor guy… first time ever camping- in Siberia, in April, with a crazy motherf**** like me! He’ll probably never want to camp again!’

Thank goodness for Babushka Nina, at least :).

We slept well. Woke up around 10:00, packed our bags and headed for Shamanka Rock. On our way out, I thanked and said goodbye to Nina, and gave her 1000 rubles for the room. After we walked out on the road, Nina came running back towards us, and then firmly handed me back 500 rubles.

What a kind person :).

Shamanka was as amazing as always. Just so incredibly beautiful. We stood on the cliffside and overlooked meter thick cracks that ran parallel with the shoreline for several kilometers.  I think Maks was revived there. He said that he had seen videos of this place before but had no idea that this was here on Olkhon Island. He seemed a bit touched by the majesty of the ancient rock, the cliffs and the distant lookout over the lake.

Perhaps the journey to get to Samanka played a role. It’s one thing if you pay for a tour where you’re driven to pretty places, you step out of the tour bus for a few moments and take some photos of the nice view. But you get an entirely different feeling from such a place when you’ve gone through a great journey to get there. All the people you meet along the way- the Buryat locals who threw coins out of the window of their truck for luck, the friendly bus driver who gave us a free lift, the fisherman who fell through Baikal’s ice 11 times in one spring, the toothless podushka driver who happens to be a photographer; Nina. All of these people play a role in your life.

So hitching is not only valuable for saving money. The true value of hitchhiking lies in the experiences, moments and relationships you stumble upon along your journey. You get one ride to bond with an absolute stranger, a person you would most likely never socialize with given a different situation. You never know what you can learn from such people.

And the adventure- big rolling waves of crackling ice, stumbling on black rocky cliffsides, sleeping on the ground by a fire. The stars! The hills, the grass, the frozen lake, the ticks! Okay we could have gone without the ticks, but we’re safe from them now :).

The point is, your prize is much more valuable when you’ve worked to get it.

After Shamanka, we walked for about a half hour, then hitched 2 rides to the podushka. The podushka driver recognized us and gave us a free lift to the other side of the lake. Then we walked for another 20 minutes or so and hitched a lift with a minibus all the way back to Irkutsk.

The entire trip to Olkhon Island (food, transport, accommodation, everything)- cost about 1000 rubles each (about 16USD).

So that’s how you travel around the world with almost no money ;)

(Except you should always bring a flashlight and lighter, and maybe think twice before crossing a frozen lake) :D.

Oh and one more thing! This was the video we were filming:

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