Located in southern Siberia, Lake Baikal is often referred to as the unofficial pilgrimage destination among Russia’s hitchhikers’ community. Ever since I started hitchhiking and traveling around Russia, I would often meet fellow wanderlust souls who either hitchhiked to Lake Baikal or had the trip in their bucket lists. Their stories sparked my interest and very soon Lake Baikal became a dream destination for me, too. But I lacked courage, confidence and experience to embark on a 5000-kilometer journey across Russia, alone.
Things changed after a hitchhiking trip to the city of Tomsk in January 2008 together with a friend of mine. While the freezing temperatures certainly made the journey more adventurous, it was then that I discovered the mesmerizing beauty of winter in Siberia. And when a couple of months later I came across photographs of frozen Baikal, it was decided – I’m going to hitchhike to Lake Baikal and I’m going to do it in winter.
After months of research, preparation and fruitless attempts to find a travel partner crazy enough to hitchhike to Siberia in winter, my hitchhiking trip to Lake Baikal finally began on January 12, 2009. John Lennon’s “Whatever gets you through the night” woke me up at 8 o’clock in the morning. Leaving the warm and cozy bed wasn’t all that easy and it took me 15 minutes to force myself out of the bed. A short breakfast after the morning routine, a quick goodbye to my friend Sasha, and there I was walking down the crowded street to get to the subway. By 10:00 AM I was already in the bus to Noginsk, a small town 70 km east of Moscow. Staring through the window, I kept thinking about the journey ahead, still not believing I was actually doing it. For the first time in my life, I was going to hitchhike several thousands of kilometers, all alone, and God I was terrified.
40 minutes later, leaving the traffic jams and the hustle and bustle of Moscow behind, I got off the bus at the Noginsk intersection and walked to a convenient spot on the road I knew from my previous trip to Siberia a year earlier – wide enough for trucks to stop. The weather was warm, with light snowfall. It didn’t take long to get my first ride. The truck driver named Gosha said he always picks up hitchhikers because he hates being alone on the road.
“How old are you?” he asked as we drove off.
“Twenty-three,” I answered.
“I wish I was that young now. It’s been 25 years since I began to live on the road, changing trucks from time to time. And what’s strange is that I don’t even think about quitting this job despite all the difficulties. I just can’t imagine myself living a different life.”
By noon we were passing through the city of Pokrov, about an hour later we turned onto the Vladimir (one of the medieval capitals of Russia) bypass. All along the way it was the same depressing scene – gray clouds, dirty roads, snow and mud. Gosha was sharing stories of his life, complaining about his fate from time to time. Around 4:00 PM he received a phone call from a woman. They had a sweet and romantic conversation, and I felt uncomfortable being the unwilling witness of this intimate dialogue, but to my surprise, as he ended the call, the driver exclaimed almost angrily: “Gosh! I don’t want to visit her now.”
“Who was calling?” I asked out of curiosity.
“Oh it’s just a woman that works at a roadside café not far from here. I visit her every now and then, we drink “negrousteenochka” (his own word for vodka, which can be translated as “something that doesn’t make you sad”) and then… you know, make love and so. But I have no wish to see her now. I better go home, hug my wife, we’ll drink vodka and everything will be fine.” I didn’t know what to say so I just nodded.
The weather was very warm for January in Russia, and perhaps that was the reason why there were so many prostitutes along the road. They did their best trying to attract truck drivers just as sirens hunting sailors. “Now won’t you look at them?! Like mushrooms after the rain,” said Gosha. He sounded excited. “Usually, they take 500 rubles for their services. You can’t find a cheaper price here,” he added after a little pause.
It was around 6:00 PM when I got off the truck at a parking lot with only a few kilometers left to the city of Nizhniy Novgorod. I thanked Gosha and left him in his preparations for a sleep. He was tired and had no wish to drive any further. I was hungry. The sandwich I had with me and the cup of hot tea made another simple dinner on the road. For about an hour I wasn’t able to hitch a ride. A small dog approached me, begging for some food. I shared a biscuit with her and the dog stayed with me for another hour until I was finally able to get a lift. A cargo van picked me up. The driver wasn’t in the mood for conversations, which was fine with me. Somewhere on the Nizhniy Novgorod bypass we were stopped by the road police. The policeman checked the driver’s documents. Apparently, he told the officer that he picked up a hitchhiker, because the policeman looked at me suspiciously and slowly walked in my direction.
“You are not a citizen of Russia,” he said looking at my Armenian passport.
“I’m not. I study in Moscow, I’m a journalist,” I answered. One of my university professors taught me this trick: if policemen want to check your papers, engage in a conversation, occasionally mentioning you’re a journalist. It changes everything.
The trick helped: the police officer looked at me somewhat confused, smiled and returned my documents. Then he walked back to the driver who was waiting for him by the police car. The policeman checked the van meticulously, trying to find something that would help him get some money from the driver, but everything was fine and 30 minutes later he just gave up and let us go.
“What an asshole,” exclaimed the driver as he got back into the car and drove off.
It was past midnight when we entered Chuvashia, and an hour later I had to say goodbye to the driver as he was going to the city of Cheboksary, which wasn’t on my way. It was -13 degrees outside, and I felt very cold after the warm weather in Nizhniy Novgorod. Luckily, I didn’t have to wait too long for the next car. The driver named Fyodor was eager to share stories about his fishing experience and I was happy to be the listener, not the storyteller. We were driving through Tatarstan when Fyodor decided to take a little rest. The clock on my phone showed 5:00 AM. He parked the car at a petrol station on the road, and two minutes later we both fell asleep.
Tea with Strangers