Lake Baikal is the largest and deepest freshwater lake in the world. Lying on an ancient rift zone which is pulling apart, Lake Baikal will slowly get wider and deeper, eventually becoming the world’s next ocean (in a few million years that is).
Roughly in the middle of the lake lies Olkhon Island, the sparsely populated home of the indigenous Buryats. An ageing ferry makes the short crossing from the Eastern Siberian mainland.
There are no paved roads here. No big buildings. The very few houses were built long ago out of timber and corrugated iron. The streets are wide, yet empty thoroughfares.
Walking through the largest village, Khuzhir, it was difficult to tell which houses were homes and which were abandoned. There was a serene silence in the air. Everywhere. As if time was standing still.
Most visitors to the island stay at Nikita’s Guesthouse, a homely bunch of log cabins spaced out within walking distance of the sacred Shaman Rock.
Protected by a line of posts covered with predominantly blue silk prayer flags, Shaman Rock is a place of spiritual reflection. Most nights, a few might brave the strong winds to camp outside on the bare cliffs high above the beach.
Others may brave a dip in the icy waters. We had to turn down an offer to climb aboard a floating banya, a Russian steam sauna on a boat where you could heat up then cool off by jumping overboard.
The lake waters were an intense blue, surrounded by the mainland hills as far as the eye could see in both directions. It was easy to forget that this was not an ocean at all.
Joining a minibus day tour, we were able to venture to the northernmost point of the island, where the vertical cliffs plunge down all around you. A hazy morning cleared up into a cloudless day. What a view!
After visiting a few different breathtaking viewpoints, including a cliff that looks peculiarly like a woman on her back with her legs open to the lake (giving birth to Olkhon Island, or something like that…), we headed back for an evening of card games with some new friends from our tour. We would later meet up with Mike in Moscow where he was working as a teacher.
Although a short visit, it was well worth the somewhat cumbersome time and effort to get here from Irkutsk (not to mention the incredibly long and bumpy minibus ride on the way).
Visited 20th to 21st August 2014.