Getting to Olkhon Island on Lake Baikal.
Olkhon is one of the biggest islands within a lake and this is not surprising knowing that the lake is Baikal, most voluminous fresh water lake in the world. In most of Europe, when we think about an island in a lake it comes to our mind the idea of a fairy tale island, with maybe a church or a castle on top. For example, if I had to choose the perfect prototype of this kind of islands I would likely pick Bled located on the same name lake, in Slovenia. You can see a picture of it on the right. Well Olkhon has nothing to do with it. But before telling you about the island, let’s see how to get there from Irkutsk. This is not a complicate story. You can book the bus with any of guest houses in town. Shuttle buses leave in the morning and the service include pick up at your place. Once they collected all the people from hotels and guest houses there is some time to wait at the bus station but then the trip to Olkhon can start. The whole travel takes about five hours. First four hours are needed to reach the ferry in Sakhyurta. View outside the window is quite nice with hills covered by wood and meadows. There is a stop for lunch in a small village called Bayanday. Only when the bus is really close to the ferry harbour, finally Lake Baikal can be seen. The crossing lasts about 20 minutes on a very small ship and allows to take beautiful pictures, so bring your camera. On the other side of the strait, on Olkhon island, there are no paved roads. In order to reach Khuzhir, the “capital” town of the island, more than a road there is a sort of main track but there are also several others smaller running parallel and cars and buses follow them as well. Finally after about 40 minutes of crazy drive in the middle of nowhere, you are in town.
It is not easy to say what was my feeling about Khuzhir when I first walked on its dusty streets. It came to my mind some photo of remote Alaskan villages in the XIX century. Well there are cars bringing you back to the present times but especially in the side alleys, populated by sleeping dogs and playing children, with ubiquitous pine trees, you feel like living in another time. Central part of the town is made of a very large area on which people, dogs, cows, motorbikes, bicycles and cars are running without following any apparent rules (that is of course pretty normal for dogs and cows 🙂 ). There is a quite big supermarket, the real meeting point of the town, few stalls selling dried Omul, the local fish I’ve already mentioned in my post about Irkutsk and few very simple restaurants. I’ve seen only one venue looking a little bit more “upscale” whatever it means here. It is a restaurant called Kudesnitsa where I dined first evening and I have to say it was pretty good. What to do in Khuzhir? What to do in Khuzhir? Mostly strolling around enjoying the feeling of last frontier town. I really think this is the nicest activity but of course there is the lake and this gives some further options. The “place to be” in Khuzhir is the area around the shaman rock. And now, before going on, I have to say something more about this place. In Baikal area there is a significant presence of Buryat people, I would say that the majority of the population in Olkhon is Buryat even if this is not a part of Republic of Buryatia. Buryats are a subgroup of the Mongols and also the language they speak is very similar to Mongol. They follow Tibetan Buddhism and Shamanism as well. Olkhon is considered one of the most important pole of Shamanic Energy and lake Baikal in Buryat language is called Dalai-Nor meaning holy sea. On the top of the Shaman rock in Khuzhir you can enjoy a great view of the rock extending out into the lake and see a worship place full of coloured ribbons put by tourists to keep ties with it and have the chance to come back again. Westerners fallen into the vortex of eastern spirituality come here to practice Yoga on the cliffs and to pronounce unintelligible mantras around the ribbons. I simply enjoyed the place and the view on the quiet lake. And after it? Are Khuzhir attractions over? Well I walked more or less by the lake to reach the very small pier and I had the chance to see some small nice beach plus an absolutely not remarkable church and finally, once at the pier, boats returning from the daily excursions but also cows returning from I don’t know where.
Cruise on the lake Baikal.
A two days stay in Olkhon Island can’t be considered complete without an excursion. The best, as far as I’ve understood, would have been the one by land until the northern cape Khoboy but unfortunately this was not available due to fires so I had to opt for the one by boat. The ship Irkutsk is large enough to host onboard about 200 people. You can see the itinerary of the tour shown in the little map on the right. First leg is in south-west direction to reach small Ogoy Islet, then north-west to dock to Surkhayta lagoon and in the end coming back to Khuzhir. The sailing itself is pleasant but landscapes are more or less the same and there are not many birds flying on lake surface then, after some time, you can get bored and keep waiting in the hall until next stop.
The small islet of Ogoy has been included in touristic itineraries only recently because in 2005 was raised at its highest peak a Buddhist temple. It is quite surprising to see the white “Stupa of Enlightenment” in this remote corner of Eastern Siberia and there’s some doubt whether it answers to real spiritual need or to the call of the commercial tourism. If the latter was the reason, well it was a success. Hordes of tourist are coming since all boat excursions stop here. However is still a nice place if for a moment you can ignore the people turning around the stupa three times hoping their wishes will come true. All around there is the quiet surface of Lake Baikal and few birds flying. The stop at Ogoy lasts about 45 minutes, time needed by the boat crew to arrange the lunch that so is waiting for passengers on their return.
Surkhayta lagoon and Izhilkhey islet.
After a quite long navigation the ship reaches a very beautiful corner of this area: a lagoon called Surkhayta located on mainland more or less in front of Khuzhir. For who is still hungry after lunch on the boat there is the chance to try home-made Pozy, a kind of dumpling quite similar to Chinese and Caucasian ones. This kind of dumpling also known in other part of Buryatia as Bouzes is made with a mix of beef and pork meat. They need to be eaten starting from drinking the hot broth they contains. Apart the small restaurant serving dumplings, this area has beautiful yellow meadows and, what is more important, many wild horses. The lagoon and these wonderful animals create an amazing landscape. Here the tour stop for about two hours giving also the opportunity of bathing in the lake. When the boat leaves there is still a last sight to be seen: the Izhilkhey islet hosting a huge colony of cormorants. There is no stop here but the boat passes close enough to take some nice picture while the crew throws some bread to seagulls. Finally we are back in the pleasant desolation of Khuzhir and I have the chance to try some more Pozy in a simple tavern located on town’s main street. The beautiful stay in this remote corner of Siberia is over and it was surely one of the best legs of my trip around the world. Here following there is the photo gallery with 20 pictures mostly not published on my Facebook page.