Today’s post is kindly brought to you by Alan! He decided to give me a helping hand with all this blogpost writing and even had a hand in editing some of these photos. Two more posts — Ulaan-Bator and Beijing — and we would have finally wrapped up our Trans-Siberian adventure. And then it’ll be on to the next one in South Africa 🙂
But for now, here’s Alan with his take on Olkhon Island.
After almost two weeks of soaking in Russia’s grandest cities, attempting (futilely) to decipher Cyrillic, smiling sheepishly stony-faced babushkas, and finally traversing the Europe-Asia border – we find ourselves in the heart of Siberia.
The season is summer – the start of June. We were greeted by crisp air and verdant trees, a far cry from the frozen wasteland of exiles and gulags the name Siberia usually conjures. While a chilly 10 degrees at times, a Russian university student on board the train lamented that “minus forty is normal” on both sides of summer. We could hardly complain, as we were greeted with more of this:
And less of this… (though honestly by the time Rachel gets round to uploading this…)
After our perfunctory day at Irkutsk – a town that, while charming and idyllic in its own right, hardly lived up to its old title of the “Paris of Russia” – we set off for our main objective, Olkhon Island. Nestled in the heart of Lake Baikal, the world’s largest freshwater lake, it promised a quick getaway from civilization. Given that Russian landscapes – at least those accessible to the time-pressed traveler – tend to be rather dull and homogenous, we were looking forward to stunning scenery plastered over postcards in Irkutsk.
Getting to Olkhon Island is a simple but time-consuming affair. A minibus takes about 7 hours – expect to depart at 9 or 10, and reach in the late afternoon. Our train only arrived in Irkutsk at 10 in the morning, hence our transitory stay in Irkutsk.
- Buses depart from Irkutsk’s bus terminal anywhere from 8-10am.
- Expect to pay about 600r. An extra 100r gets a pick-up directly from your hostel… but you’d have to wait for another hour or so for other passengers to board at the terminal.
- Keep your ticket! The driver collects it later on.
- We made about 2 rest stops along the way – once for a bathroom break, another time for lunch.
The journey to Olkhon is mostly paved, followed by a short ferry ride (you get off the bus but board the same ferry), and about another hour’s drive on bumpy dirt roads if you’re heading to the island’s main town, Khuzhir.
Halfway there, our bus driver cursed and joined a growing line of vehicles behind a military roadblock, manned by a group of bored-looking soldiers. Out of the dense forest was a huge military convoy moving out and joining the main road – tanks, trucks, and rockets, all in plain view of a nonchalant, chain-smoking drivers and camera-happy tourists.
Some of the shit we saw seemed to come right out of Red Alert 2. I half expected a Kirov airship to appear from behind the clouds.
The convoy took almost an hour to move out – probably enough vehicles to reinvade Europe. A hop, skip, and bumpy ride later, Lake Baikal looming in the distance made for plenty of scenic shots. The group of 4 French elderly on our bus went crazy with their cameras.
Home for the next 3 days would be Nikita’s Homestead – probably the most established, tourist-friendly place on the island, and a large part of Olkhon’s popularity amongst foreign tourists.
Nikita’s is not so much a hostel or hotel, but a sprawling, eclectic collection of buildings. Hot water is available in all rooms, but Internet only in the common areas. We stayed in a homely two-bedder, where we spent hours reading, and where Rachel got schooled several times at chess. (Rachel: NO I DID NOT)
All three meals are provided at Nikita’s. Some of the best and most “authentic” Russian food we’d have thus far were in Nikita’s mess hall (the stews are thick and hearty!). Ironically, a deserted island in Lake Baikal in the heart of Siberia is also where you’ll hear the most English or European spoken in your Trans-Siberian adventure.
You can book all your tours, and return bus trips here – the price is more or less the same everywhere. Our one regret at Nikita’s was not signing up for the banyas (Turkish baths), which traveler-friends told us were a heck of fun.
What to do on Olkhon
Olkhon Island may look deceptively small on the map, but at 730km2, it’s even larger than Singapore, which now has over 5 million people. Olkhon has a population of less than 1500.
We spent day one casually trekking around Khuzhir and its environs. Fun fact: we probably saw more cows than people. Khuzhir itself is hardly a resort town – it consists of a sprawling array of wooden homes, a smattering of convenience stores, and a “lake” in the center.
It felt great to explore the area without being glued to a navigation device. Blame it on our kiasuness, but while travelling we often slip into the see-eat-do-everything mode that we forget we’re on holiday. That was certainly the case for our 3 week sprint through Peru and Bolivia, and while we made sure that we had ample time at each Trans-Siberian stopover, it was hard to avoid slipping into Planning Mode when trying to make sense of an alien metropolis.
I was glad for the constraints offered from being so far removed from civilization. We eventually stumbled upon Khuzhir’s main street (really just a broader dirt road), wandered into a derelict shipyard, and hiked along the island’s picturesque coast to Shaman’s Rock, a secret beach beyond the hills, and back to Nikita’s for a warm, homecooked meal. No GPS, no map, no worries.
The island’s most popular excursion is the Cape Khaboy tour – a day trip around the northern bluffs of the island. Cape Khaboy itself juts out of the island, offering stunning overlooks where the sky gently kisses Baikal’s azure waters. Our ride for the day was a rugged Soviet-era van, and it was not long before we found out why the inside of the vehicle was padded. Much like our Bolivian “massage” en route to Salar de Uyuni, the “road” between each new cover-photo-worthy landscape was an unfortunate misnomer.
Cool story: each cape has a cool superhero name like the “Three Brothers”! Sadly, that’s about all our Russian-speaking driver managed to communicate to us… so end of story. Anyway, these pictures just about sum it up.
Nikita’s website gives a pretty good description of the excursions offered. An adventurous German couple we met rented bicycles for a day trip to the opposite end of the island. But if you are here for a short time, don’t have your own vehicle (many Russian families simply drive out and camp) and don’t feel like cycling up Olkhon’s crazy hills, tours are pretty much the best way to see the island.
- If you’re staying at Nikita’s, book early as crowds are seasonal.
- Bring plenty of cash – no ATMs on the island!
- Sign up for a banya slot #liferegrets
- Drinking water is cheap at the convenience stores in Khuzhir. Don’t worry, they exist.
- Sign up for a tour on day 1 – they are only confirmed when enough people sign up. But don’t bog yourself down unless you really like Soviet minivans, the area around Khuzhir is an awesome place to chill out and have a picnic or something.
Our last night in Olkhon was spent watching a beautiful sunset. A couple of hours later, Rachel and I tepidly stepped out of our room to watch the stars slowly blanket the sky. The dichotomy between cities and nature has always bugged me. Cities can be quaint, dazzling and romantic, but tend to blend into one another after some time. I’ve come to relish the days spent in the absence of civilization. Olkhon Island was a slice of paradise that carried its own tranquility, and alongside that, the promise of endless wonder.
Catch up on the Rachel-written posts on our Trans-Siberian trip here:
St Petersburg Part 1 & Part 2.
How to Get Your Russian Visa & Survive It.
Moscow Part 1 & Part 2.
Life on the train.