January 17, 2009. Sixth day on the road. Irkutsk was a matter of another day on the road now, and there was no need for us to hurry. It was 3:00 o’clock in the morning when Volodya, the driver, decided to pull over by the road police station to sleep. Both of us were very tired and needed some rest. We slept for about 7 hours, and when we woke up it was snowing. Everything around us was white: the road, the vehicles parked along the road, the trees, and even the policemen. We boiled some water and made ourselves black tea. Biscuits made our small breakfast, which we enjoyed watching this white road movie running on the windshield. “We’re almost there. About 700 km left. Hopefully, by this evening we will be in Irkutsk already. I know a good café 2-hour drive from here, we’ll have a proper breakfast there. Biscuits are just not enough when you’re in Siberia,” said the driver. He started the engine, and the red Freightliner slowly moved.
The café Volodya mentioned was a beautiful Russian-styled wooden house surrounded by a snowy forest – a scene from a fairytale. “This place is great, and the food here is delicious,” said the driver as we walked in. Turned out almost all the dishes they served contained meat. It was getting harder to find vegetarian food at the roadside cafés as I traveled further east. The ladies who worked here were stunned when I told them I don’t eat meat.
“You don’t eat meat at all? How come you’re still alive?” asked one of them.
“I don’t even know what to offer you,” said the other woman.
“Well, what about that veggie soup you have?” Volodya was trying to help.
“Ah, yes, but still… how is it possible that someone can live without meat?” said the third woman. This made the driver angry.
“Enough!!! Every. Man. Follows. His. Own. Way!” He was short and clear! The ladies disappeared in the kitchen.
“You know, usually the drivers are trying to convince me to eat meat, blaming me for being vegetarian. Thank you!” I said to Volodya when we sat around the wooden table. He didn’t say a word, but smiled.
Later that afternoon we passed Nizhneudinsk with its dense forests, and the small town of Tulun with its ghost-like countrymen. “We have all the chances to get to Irkutsk by midnight if the weather is good,” said Volodya. In the evening, on the road between the 1675th and 1676th kilometers of the Novosibirsk-Irkutsk highway we almost crashed into a horse herd. About 20 horses crossed the road and disappeared in the darkness of the night. Me and the driver looked at each other both terrified and surprised. “What the hell was that?” I asked. “I’m not sure, but looked like horses,” mumbled the driver.
One town after the other, we were slowly approaching our destianation. “Oh sweet babies, you’re freezing here. But this is your job, you don’t care about the weather, do you?” suddenly said the driver as we were driving through the town of Usolye-Sibirskoe. I realized he was taking about the prostitutes on the road. What I saw was hard to believe in. Ten girls per each kilometer of the road through the city. “They cost $20. But you have to be careful. Most of them are HIV-positive. No jobs, husbands are drinking all the time, so these girls are forced to freeze here to earn a little money for living,” said Volodya.
We arrived in Irkutst around midnight. The driver dropped me off at the entrance to the city and drove to the nearby rest area. I thanked him, we shook hands, and I walked away to find a suitable spot for hitchhiking. It was snowing, but the weather was warm. There weren’t many cars on the road, so I was just observing the surroundings when suddenly a taxi stopped next to me. I opened the door and said I am hitchhiking. “Yes, I know. Get in. Where do you need to go?” said the driver. I was surprised, but I got in and showed him the address. He turned on the GPS. The street I needed was on the other side of the city. Nevertheless, the driver took me all the way to my friends’ place and dropped me off right in front of their building’s lobby.
By 1:00 AM I was already drinking tea and sharing stories with friends. 6 days on the road. More than 5200 km crossed. The part of my trip from Moscow to Irkutsk was over. But there was Ulan-Ude, Lake Baikal, Buddhist monasteries, Chita and many other adventures ahead. I stayed in Irkutsk for the whole day of January 18th, and the next day together with my hippie sister Sin we hitchhiked to Ulan-Ude. But this one is another story.
Tea with Strangers