The large Siberian Lake Baikal is know to some for being the oldest and deepest lake in the world. With it’s 32.000 square meter of untouched wilderness it’s an absolute gem for hikers. While arranging my Trans Siberian Train ticket with a Dutch agency, I was told most people take breaks from the epic train journey in two places: Ulaanbataar in Mongolia and Irkutsk in Russia. The main island of Lake Baikal, Olkhon island, is about 300 kilometer (186 miles) from Irkutsk. Since I’ve heard great things about it I decided to spend 5 days in the area to somehow reach it. It turned out to be a great recommendation, as you’ll read in this article. Mongolian Ulaanbataar was too, but for very different reasons.
My next stop at Irkutsk, just over the Mongolian border in Russia, started with meeting a cute cross-eyed cat at my couchsurfer’s place. I also met Kristijan from Croatian travel agency Nomadi.hr who had plans to travel north. I hadn’t really done my research so I asked what drew him there. ‘The grand Baikal lake of course!’, was his reply. Since I’ve just vaguely heard about it I quickly googled the name, and was immediately sold. Oldest and deepest lake in the world? Bring it on!
Banya: the quirky Russian version of a sauna
When in Russia, be sure to visit one of the public Banya (sauna): it’s quite the spectacle to say the least. Men and women’s saunas are separated (back home it’s normal to have mixed saunas where everybody is trotting around naked), and therefore I can only tell you the male perspective on it. The buildings themselves look pretty regular, inside and out. But it’s a particular room that makes the difference. You get to wear a hat and be able to slap other men with oak-like leaves. Wait what?! Yes, you read that correctly.
The Banya is one of the country’s oldest traditions, dating back several centuries, and it never decreased in popularity. The temperature in these banyas is pushing the limits of bearable, often exceeding 93 degrees Celsius (199 °F). Luckily there are ample funny-looking felt hats available to protect your head from this intense heat. You can see plenty of Russian hitting or “massaging” themselves and others with bunches of dried branches and leaves from the white birch, oak or eucalyptus. No, the Russians don’t have sadomasochistic tendencies (per sé), they do this because it improves the blood circulation. When it gets a little too hot, follow the locals to a nearby lake (if there is one) for a butt-naked plunge. The Russians don’t care if it’s summer or winter, and neither did I. It was wonderfully refreshing I must say, and I felt reborn after the whole experience.
Getting from Irkutsk to Olkhon Island
We spend an enjoyable day eating chiburekki in Irkutsk and then decided to travel together the morning after. There seemed to be very limited possibilities. There was a public bus going there, but since we weren’t able to reserve in time we didn’t want to be left stranded. So, what is a traveler to do? Hitchhike, of course! 🙂 Since we both didn’t speak any Russian, it was ought to be a challenge. I learnt to read Cyrillic script on the train to Irkutsk (which was surprisingly easy) and found out how to phonetically pronounce them. With the help of Google Maps we were able to write our first stop, баиндаи (Bayanday), on a piece of carton in Cyrillic. We took a bus to a turn-off just outside the city, and proudly stuck up our beloved piece of magical cardboard (at least we hoped it would be).
It didn’t take very long for us to get our first ride. An officer wearing a blue uniform and a typical furry Russian hat picked us up in his white van. Conversing with this man turned out to be hilarious: Kristijan was speaking Croatian and I tried my best Polish, and somehow it even worked! It was then that I realized how alike the Slavic languages can be. After an enjoyable ride through the vast Siberian tundra and desert we get dropped off at a roadside cafe in the middle of nowhere. Luckily they were well equipped with some more delicious chiburekki.
After half an hour or so we stick our thumbs out again. We get a ride from a couple that drops us off at a desolate intersection. As there are very few cars passing this intersection, it takes us a bit longer to get a ride. Finally a Mongolian-looking man picks us up in his van. He’s on his way to the island for work and offers to take us all the way. Amazing!
Again our conversation stays on a very basic level, but the driver seems to understand us a bit better than the last one.
Khuzhir on Olkhon Island
This little village is the main spot for tourism on Olkhon island, and on paper its Cyrillic name looks like a bunch of consonants: XYXNP. At the time I was there, the end of October, it was well out of the season: too late for summer holiday and too early for ice skating. It was very peaceful, and it felt as if we had the whole village to ourselves.
On the train to Irkutsk I’ve overheard a conversation where Nikita’s Homestead was mentioned. It was supposed to be a typical rural Russian wooden bungalow village, for the price of a hostel. The name stuck, and we asked our driver if he’d heard about it. He did, and he dropped us right in front of it. Since it was nightfall and hardly any lights were on it was hard to see any of the structures properly. It did look like very cozy but spacious at the same time, giving it a village-in-village feel. We got led to our room by a guy about our age, who later turned out to be a sportsman from Kazachstan.
The room was pretty standard, with a pretty thin mattress, but since I didn’t expect the world from this hostel it was just all that I needed.
The price per person per night is about 25 euro (28 dollar), but this includes breakfast and dinner. It was amazing to not have to think about these things, just show up somewhere between the set times and you will be served 🙂
On one night, during dinner, a few Russian men joined. It was hard to tell if they were tourists or locals, but they were definitely drunk. One of the guys started to sing an emotional Russian ballad, and the others joined in at the chorus. The guy could sing well, which made it all a very interesting scene.
Rarely have I had the chance to admire vast, open nature without some sort of backdrop of tour busses or other tourist vehicles. Silence and nature, ’tis a great combination. The day after our arrival we decided it was time for some action. We asked around and found that there are many hiking routes starting from the little town. We choose the hike across the island sideways, which fits our time schedule best.
The next day we rise early, have our complimentary breakfast porridge and start walking east through the village. We notice that two German Shepherds are following us, marking their territory along the way and giving other dogs ye olde butt-sniff. I was sure they’ll get distracted by something and return to their owners, but I was wrong. 8 hours later they were still by our sides, tired but loyal. We get to the point where the village ends and the forest starts when we see a little lorry drive towards us.
It stops near us and a man in a grey officer’s uniform and Russian looking furry hat steps out. We’ve vaguely heard that you’re not allowed to hike in the area without a permit, but we decided to go anyway. “Dobryden, can I see your permits”, the man says in Russian. We look at each other and put on the old “we’re just tourists, we don’t understand your language” sharade while we know all too well what is asked from us. This continues on for a little bit, and at one point we really do lose track of what’s going on. We settle on Kristijan giving the officer his ID card, which he promises to give back to us when we return down the same way. We continue on and Kristijan tells me that was a fake ID card he uses for situations like this. We never do get it back.
The hike is amazing, through the dense forrests that slowly change from dark green to light brown. The needles on the ground make for a nice soft path. Our German Shepherds are scanning the area for any animals and soon one of them is digging something up. It holds up its treasure proudly: a hairy skull of a cow-like animal. A little while later the alpha-Shepherd lets out a ferocious bark, the first and last one of the whole trip. With a primal focus he starts chasing down a rabbit in between the trees and bushes. Then the rabbit decided to sprint up the hill, and without hesitation the dog chases after it. Never have I seen a dog sprint up a hill with such agility and strength. With it’s sprint ‘our’ dog completely disappears off the radar for quite a while.
We continue to follow the trail hoping nothing bad happened to it. We call out the name we have given it (which I forgot) but no response. About half an hour later we hear panting and rattling in the bushes, and the visibly tired alpha-dog joins us again. After about 4 hours we reach the other side of the island, where we find a bench in an open spot next to a cliff. The Baikal lake stretches as far as our eyes can see, even though it is a clear day. Quite exhausted, we rest on the bench with the dogs resting next to us.
The silence around us is perfect for reflection and I remember doing just that. After about an hour of rest we head back along the same route. This has easily been one of the most remote places I’ve been, but it was definitely an amazing experience. The vast nature calms you down, especially if you’re used to the constant focus in attention that is grown to be the standard of the current-day society. You will have to find your own way, without Wifi, Starbucks or laptops. If you’re up for the challenge (and ready to reap the rewards) I would definitely recommend a trip to Lake Baikal’s Olkhon Island in Siberian Russia.