Day 15-16: Lake Baikal, Russia

by - June 26, 2011

Day One: Olkhon Island and Shaman’s Rock

View over Khuzir Bay, Lake Baikal
Our trip had thus far been very centred around cities and train carriages - with the notable exception of accidently getting off in the middle of the forest when we were trying to find Sergiev Posad.  While it may seem like you are experiencing Siberia from your comfy train carriage, we knew that this was just an illusion and that just seeing it and not actually venturing into it would feel like a lost opportunity.  To rectify this we decided to spend a few days at Lake Baikal, which is to the north east of Irkutsk.  As with most of the famous sites in Russia, I hadn’t actually heard of the lake before we arrived, but statistics alone made it a worthwhile place to visit.  It is the oldest fresh water lake in the world, at 30 million years old and is also the deepest at just over a mile.  If you look at a map of Russia you can see Baikal fairly clearly and while it seems pretty small compared to the vastness of Siberia, it is 400 miles long - pretty much the same distance as London to Edinburgh.  A statistic that is often quoted is that if all of the world’s freshwater supplies failed, Baikal could provide drinking water for everybody on the planet for 40 years.

First views of Olkhon Island
The lake is also growing at around 5cm a year, as it is positioned on a tectonic fault line which will one day split Asia in two.  The bottom of the lake is full of volcanic vents which, combined with its age, isolation and lack of salt make it a unique ecosystem with 1,700 species of plants and animals - two thirds of which are only found in the area.  We were staying on a large island in the middle called Olkhon Island.  The journey from Irkutsk is fairly uncomfortable - as about a third of the six hour journey takes place on unpaved roads, but it is worth it just to feel like you are really heading towards a genuine wilderness.  The trip was an organized tour from the Baikaler Hostel in Irkutsk, who had arranged for us to stay with a local family.  Having left Irkutsk at around 9, we arrived at the family home at gone 4 (due to various unforeseen delays on the journey).  Lunch was provided on arrival and we were told that our dinner wouldn’t be much later - at 8.  With a couple of free hours we decided to explore the town that we were living in.

Shaman Rock
There are around 1500 people living on the island and the majority of these are in the main town of Khuzir.  Our house was on the edge of the town but it only took about 5 minutes to walk to the centre along the dirt tracks, flanked by traditional wooden houses.  The coast was not far away and we followed the cliffs around to the nearby ‘Shaman Rock’ - a jagged peak that juts out from the coast and was once a centre of shamanism in the region.  Even now, people come to the rock to tie ribbons, representing worries or problems, to the trees with the idea that you are leaving them behind at the rock.  The beaches on the island are, remarkably, covered in fairly soft sand and the two of us decided that it would be a shame not to take a dip in a Siberian lake - with the air temperature up in the low 30s it certainly seemed an opportune time.  The waters was incredibly cold, despite the hot sun, and after jumping in we were quickly out again, looking pretty timid next to the locals who were wading in with nothing like the amount of squealing as us.

Shaman Rock and the sunset
We left ourselves enough time to get back to the house and clean ourselves up a bit before dinner.  While the house was probably originally just for the old couple, a series of extensions in the garden had turned it into what is essentially a guesthouse.  There were therefore other tourists at the house and we sat down with some Brits for a spaghetti dinner.  It was still light afterwards so we grabbed some beers and headed down to the beach to watch the sunset.  Some Polish people we had met on the minibus from Irkutsk had had a similar idea, so we sat and talked with them until the sun had gone down.  As is always the case where I am involved.  I was ashamed to speak English with them as they spoke faultlessly and I didn’t know a word of Polish to throw back, but there we go.  At about half 11 we headed back to the house, which was easier said that done due to the lack of streetlights on the island.

Day Two: The Cape and a Campfire

The cape of Olkhon Island
Our mean machine
As part of the package option from Baikaler Hostel in Irkutsk, we were set to spend the day on a tour to the cape at the north of the island.  After an odd, but tasty, breakfast of some kind of cold pizza, we showered and were picked up at 10 by an old Soviet style minibus.  There are lots of these on the island and believe it or not the ridge is far better with them on off road terrain than with their Japanese and American counterparts.  I fact, I would say that aside from the overwhelming diesel fumes coming from the engine into the cabin, it was a pretty comfortable ridge - despite the fact that the terrain was extremely rugged.

Our first stop was on a cliff overlooking a little hamlet along with some sweeping beaches.  It seems like the cows on the island are amazingly nimble, as there were several standing on the cliff face or on nearby ridges in much the same way as you would see mountain goats.  We spent 20 minutes snapping photos before piling back into the minibus to get our diesel-high on and continue north.  Our second stop was at a beach with a few huts beside it.  Two of these huts had been knocked down, with only bits of timber and masonry remaining to show where they had been.  There also seemed to be the remains of a dock on the beach, which had also been knocked down.  Our guide, who spoke only Russian (there were some French people who could speak Russian, but no English, so I gathered what was being said in French), told us that these derelict buildings are the remains of a Gulag.  We couldn’t quite believe it at first - set as the huts were on a beautiful sandy beach, but actually it made a lot of sense.  The winter here is extremely harsh and there would be no escaping from the island.  We hadn’t seen any Gulags, so it was interesting to see one in such a unique location.

The cliffs of Olkhon Island
We kept travelling north along the length of the island.  Khuzir is about halfway up the 70km length of the island, but the 35km to the cape required about two hours of driving due to the adverse terrain.  We stopped three or four times on the way up at picturesque spots, before finally being given an hour at lunch to walk to the cape (where vehicles couldn’t go) before coming back for lunch.  The cape was really worth seeing, as it gives an indication of how vast the lake is.  To the west you can just about see the mainland, but to the north and east there is only water - it looks just like the sea except for the fact that the water is completely still.  After getting some photos at the cape, we returned to where our minibus had been parked, only to find that it had gone.  This was pretty daunting, considering the vast, open landscape, so we frantically searched for where it had gone.  Eventually (thankfully) we bumped into another minibus driver who was friends with our one and who pointed us in the right direction.  It turned out that they had moved the minibus to a spot for lunch having dropped us off.  I don’t quite know how the other people in our group had understood that and we hadn’t!

Tethered horses at the weather station
The lunch was really good - local fish soup along with some nice sandwiches that they had made up for us.  The cape was, obviously, the furthest point of our tour and we made our way back along the same route as we had arrived - there is only one track along the length of the island.  We stopped off at a weather station on the way back, on an isolated beach surrounded by loads of wild horses.  From here we made our way back, trying to fall asleep after a deceptively tiring day.  Unfortunately it seems to be impossible to fall asleep whilst in a state of dirt road-induced head banging.  The journey took two hours or so and we both had a little nap once we were back at the house.  After a more traditionally Russian dinner of dumplings and potato, we grabbed some beers and headed back to the cliffs.  I have never seen it anywhere else, but Russian beer comes in MASSIVE litre cans that take ages to drink, so Alex and I sat drinking from the same can for about an hour.  We planned to go back to the hostel for an early night, but on the way back we bumped into the Poles who were just starting a campfire on the cliffs.  This seemed like a pretty cool idea and they invited us to join them for a few hours.  As travel experiences go, this was fairly special - sitting around a campfire watching the sunset over Lake Baikal.

Campfire on the cliffs
Knowing how difficult it was to find our house in the dark, we left just as the sun set.  On our way back we saw a massive dog staring down a tiny little kitten and the two of us, seeing that this was an unfair fight, shooed the dog away.  The kitten seemed to appreciate this and decided to follow us all the way back to the house (without us realising) and we found that it had come inside with us.  Olya, the woman who owns the place, wasn’t too happy with it, so she threw the poor kitten outside, but as we headed to brush our teeth it had come back to us.  Also, on our way to brush our teeth, we bumped into some Irish people who had just arrived at the hostel and had just cracked open the vodka.  They invited us in and it turned out that there were about 10 people of all nationalities in their room.  We couldn’t refuse, so left our toothbrushes in the room for another round of meeting and drinking.  We eventually made it back to our beds at 2am - having originally planned to be back for 10pm.  The best laid plans and all that.

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