I arrived at dusk on the elektrichka, the slow-chugging local service that stops at every little halt along the route from Baikalsk, offering some truly splendid views of the lake. The light was perfect, reflecting beautifully from razor-edged cracks in the Baikal ice. But for all the scenic perfection I couldn't stop smarting with anger at myself over my lost camera.
I managed to check in trying my best not to burden the friendly receptionist with my bad humour. With some difficulty I also managed not to stare too overtly at her utterly farcical wig which perched improbably on her head like a blonde hedge-hog overdosing on Lenor. Sitting brooding in the hallway, overhearing our conversation was a Buryat man with unusually pronounced Mongolian features. Shyly he sauntered up and introduced himself, apparently excited to meet a Brit. He spoke in a curiously accented Russian interspersing half swallowed words with an infuriating clucking grunt.
"I'm" grunt "Andrei" he said.
I looked at him skeptically.
"Well" grunt "that's my" grunt "Russian" grunt "name. In Buryat I'm" grunt "Tsirimpil".
"Sambaina" I smiled, greeting him with the only word of Buryat I knew.
He almost fell over with surprise and slapped my arm with delight as though it was impossible that anyone could possibly know even the simplest Buryat greeting.
He was a tractor driver from an incredibly remote corner of Chita province and this was his first ever encounter with a (non-Chinese) foreigner. Indeed he'd barely ever left his village and admitted to being rather lost in the big town that was Sludyanka. In fact he was heading for Kyren from where he needed to somehow get across the mountains to where his sister was sick and needed his help. He had meant to leave today but the bus had left without him. There's only one a day he assured me (I had my doubts) and it leaves at 5am!
'Actually I'm taking that one tomorrow' I assured him - 'we could share a taxi to the bus station'. He was doubly happy and I proceeded to buy him a beer at a lugubriously UV-lit local bar. This may have been a bad move as I later started to suspect he was an alcoholic. Late in the evening he seemed to have slipped out for more beers and next morning he was nowhere to be seen as I got my 4.30 am taxi into town. But there he was standing by the bus with some fair-weather friends. Now roaring drunk he embraced me in a bear hug and excitedly showed me into the bus as though it were invisible. Suddenly something came to his addled mind and he went up to the bus driver asking if there was long to wait before departure.
'Leaving soon' said the driver visibly nervous at Tsirimpil's unsteady demeanour. But Tsirimpil was off on some errand and went running into the night. Moments later the bus filled up with a crowd of arrivals from the Ulan Ude train. Without more ado the driver sped off.
"What about that Buryat guy" I tried to communicate to the driver.
"He's drunk! Better let him sober up a bit"
And off we went without him.