If only the Russian visa system wasn’t so involved. Yeah we could have got another 30 day tourist visa but when you add in the necessary ‘Letter of invitation’ costs start going rapidly north. Having been content to get the (still expensive) 10 transit visa (meaning we had to have everything prebooked) we soon realised when we arrived in the small town of Khuzhir on Lake Baikal’s Olkhon Island that we were partly being cheated by the bureaucrats.
‘Two days here just doesn’t seem enough’
After several hours in a minivan fighting the standard window war with an old Russian woman and her daughter with her stinky dog, we board a quick ferry and catch our first glimpse of the mighty lake. From here it looks quite small.
Olkhon Island’s indigenous inhabitants, the Buryats, are a shamanistic people and believe the island is a spiritual place. In summary shamanism relates to interacting with the spiritual world whilst in an altered state of consciousness. Shamans are said to be able to cure people of illness by treating their souls, and it’s believed to have been practiced in some form or another in parts of Asia, Africa, Australia and the Americas.
Here there’s a coming together of all types of locals, tourists and tree hugging hippies. Arriving at the homely Guesthouse Svet Lany run by a lovely lady there’s not another foreigner in camp. The wooden structures are basic though provide the shelter we need and the glass roofed external showers are a nice touch (when they haven’t been turned to sauna’s by the summer sun).
Meeting a great couple on the bus from Hungary (with a weird Yorkshire accent) and Georgia we hit it off on the trip over to the island and decided to meet up for sunset out at Shaman Rock. And some beers afterwards of course. As we watch the sunset over the water we contemplate that this 23,600km3 lake contains a whopping 20% of the world’s fresh water. Ok we didn’t but we thought we’d throw some facts in for you. It’s also the deepest freshwater lake in the world, reaching 1,637m. And it’s home to it’s very own species of seal, the freshwater Baikal seal. Apparently nobody is still 100% sure exactly how they got here.
There’s not a great deal happening on the island of a night time so we were lucky that an enterprising local lady named Natasha had decided to open up a wee little bar. By ‘wee’ we mean a short wooden counter that you can stand at with several taps on the rear wall, keeping it true Russian style. At RUB150 (USD $2.50) for a 2 litre bottle you couldn’t go wrong and after we drank her out of the unfiltered brew we started on the delicious Irish Mild Ale (6.5%). We visited here on consecutive nights as the little verandah out front catches the afternoon sun whilst you catch the procession of people walking to and from Shaman Rock and the wooden totem poles wrapped in coloured ribbons.
There’s plenty to do here during the day though. Many choose one of the various tours around the island (which measures roughly 72 by 21 kilometers) in an old soviet van, others take a hike up the coast camping along the way, while others do nothing but chill on the main sandy beach enjoying dodgy looking wooden saunas setup by the shore. With limited time and money the best option for the four of us was to walk up to Kharantsy Islet. Hugging the coast we pass around rocky head lands, small resorts with the odd holiday makers, through empty fields of green and one that’s been turned into a temporary school camp full of matching tents. It’s nice to get away from the dusty town centre as soon as you can.
Even though we were walking the west coast of the island the enormity of the world’s biggest and deepest fresh water lake isn’t lost on us. In the far distance we can barely make out the mountain range, a mere 20 kilometers away, through the haze. With the tiny isle in sight we have one last recreational hang out to pass through before we can attempt to wade over to it.
What do we have here then?
It’s only a friendly half-drunk middle aged Russian bloke, cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth while clutching a big fucking bottle of cognac to his bare chest. Oh, did we forget to mention the budgie smugglers? Harmless enough he and his wife, who grins her half toothless smile, blurt out a load of Russian which our Georgian companion translates for us, slightly unnecessarily as having a shot glass thrust in your hand translates in any language to
‘I want us to drink’
Bums up, budgie smuggler style!
Heading on our way we all agree it’s some of the best cognac we’ve ever had before beginning our attempt to cross the small sand bar which connects the island to it’s bigger brother. Our efforts are soon thwarted by the rough waters whipped up by the strengthening winds and the disappearing sun taking all heat out of the day. We’re still claiming we got to go into Lake Baikal though!
To ease the pain of failure we head to the nearest village to find a bite to eat. We’d not been sat down for 5 minutes before the local alcoholic spies us and makes his way over. How they seem to hunt us out is beyond us (Matt’s dreadlocks, obviously). Asking for vodka in exchange for a filthy smoking pipe that’s had more weed that tobacco through it we agree to get him off our back but when the bar tells us they have no vodka (are we even in Russia??) we try to pacify him with a simple beer. Refusing the brew and demanding a 2L bottle of beer instead his greediness offends us and we retract our offer only to have him annoyingly hang about while we eat. He soon agrees one beer is fine so we add it to our tab, finish our meal and leave surprised to find that these days the local drunk is a fussy fucker. But he’s not done. Calling Matt over to his table he whips out a pen and proceeds to draw a ‘tattoo’ on his arm. Thanking him Matt shows of the artistic endeavour to Lala for translation.
It means ‘a long rope’
As if the situation wasn’t weird enough.
With an eight kilometre walk back to town we figured that keeping to the road and sticking out a thumb on an island of peace, love and mung beans someone would surely offer the four of us a ride back to town. Nope, fail. UAZ van after van passed packed full of summer tourists making their way back to town, throwing up clouds of dust in our faces.
If you want to contribute an hour or two of your time while here drop into Nikita’s and ask them about the English language lessons you can help out with at the local school. The kids will love you for it and it’ll give you that warm fuzzy feeling. Each afternoon around sunset they try to find one or two foreigners to chat with the kids, who range in age from 8 to 18. They’ve got a great sense of humour and they’re really eager to chat with you and practice their skills. We were lucky enough to be invited to join then for a bonfire and sausage night and had a great time. The cliff top just behind the school is also a fantastic, if slightly steep, place to catch a wicked sunset.
The Lake Baikal area deserves more than two days. You can travel around the entire island though you’d want to allow for seven to ten days. Frankly we were expecting a little more forest but you need to get away from the main town to find this. Alternatively in the winter you can just drive straight over the ice, who wouldn’t want to do that. In fact, one of our mates did, in an old Soviet motorbike, all the way across! Check out his adventure here.
For more photos of Olkhon Island, Russia and the last couple of years of our journey around the world click here for our Flickr page.
Where we stayed
We chose Svet Lany as it was half the price of Nikita’s where many of the backpackers and Western tourists end up. Granted our place was at the opposite end of town but for a daily saving of USD$25 we couldn’t of cared less and besides, after all that beer we needed the exercise. It was the drunken stumble home under a starlit sky that was the only difficulty. Bring a torch and make sure you have Maps.me on your phone or you’ll get horribly lost.
Getting to/from Olkhon Island
From the opposite side of the Irkutsk bus station (tram no 4a will get you there from the train station) there are several departures for the island at 7am. We strongly suggest that you reserve your ticket via your accommodation as soon as you arrive in Irkutsk, especially in the summer months. The cost for the ticket was RUB800 one way and takes about 4-5 hours.
The reverse is just as easy. You can book you ticket at the office in the middle of town though this means that you need to get there your own way in the morning, which if your saving rubles by staying out with the farmers then ask your guesthouse to arrange a morning pick up for you. Mind you we found that by booking through our guesthouse everybody else got given a seat number and we were shoved at the very back in the worst seats. Cost was the same as taking it from Khuzhir (RUB625).
Where to eat
A small cafe on the main street, Dalan serves up delicious pozi (local meat dumplings) and excellent bottled craft beer. Just remember if you order one pozi you’ll get one pozi, not one serving, as we assumed.
Our attempts at ordering one serving of pozi backfired massively
Whilst you’re on the Island you must try the smoked fish Omul. Available from several old ladies shop fronts it’s a local delight that had Matt going back again and again. Your hands will stink for days.
For you self-caters the best supermarket is at the northern end of the main street, you can’t miss it. If you’re a smoker we recommend bringing a stock with you, one evening it took Matt and some locals two hours of wandering town to find some. Post weekend the entire islands supply dwindles. This is Russia after all.
Please note: Due to extreme fluctuations in the Russian Ruble over the last 12 months, we haven’t always given a USD equivilant. Between our visit in November and this trip in July the rate had changed from RUB100 to RUB60 to USD$1.