The drive from Irkutsk to Olkhon island is 4 hours. We set off at 10:00 heading north out of town. Slowly the city sprawl and the villages strung out along the road gave way to a vast nothingness. Mile after mile of a gently undulating, muted, two tone landscape; brown trees, brown grass, brown earth with white snow and white birches under a whitish sky. The wintery sun pierced the clouds from time to time. It was like being in a sepia tinted photograph. I should say that on the journey back the sun was out. The whole landscape lifted, the snow sparkled and shone with a brilliant whiteness, the birch trees stood out and the brown trees and grass ….. well they were still brown! The scenery was fairly unchanging. We passed by a small village from time to time and occasionally a large village. After 2 hours on one long straight road, we turned right and spent another 2 hours on the next road. This second road passed through the mountains and forests for about an hour before opening out again to the steppe. We passed by several herds of shaggy, sturdy looking ponies that were fenced in and a few herds of shaggy cows that were not!
The native people who live in the area around Baikal are the Buryats, a mongolic people whose traditional religion is Shamanism. On the way to Olkhon Island, as we passed through the mountains, we passed by a large Shaman site at which our guide threw a few coins out the window as an offering to the spirits for the safety of our journey. He did this even though he had no Buryat blood in him but, like many Russians, he was superstitious and he made his offering at a couple of sites. About 30 minutes from the lake we stopped at another Shaman site. This one had a very tall pillar with an eagle on top and beside it the traditional 3 wooden poles covered in coloured ribbons. A group of Russian tourists were making an offering to the spirits with some homemade vodka or moonshine (samogon) and their driver invited us to join them. He poured us each a small shot of vodka, we then had to dip our right hand ring finger into it, flick some to the north, south, east and west and then drink the remains! It tasted quite good!! Having made our offering (I think we drank more than we offered) we continued on our way until we finally arrived at a viewpoint over looking Lake Baikal.
So a few facts and figures about Lake Baikal. It is the oldest lake in the world, it is the deepest lake in the world (1,642 meters/5,387ft), it is the largest lake in the world, and it contains more freshwater than all the North American Great Lakes combined. It contains so much water that if every single person in the world was to use 5 litres of water a day it would take 3,000 years to empty.
During winter the surface of the entire lake freezes over and during February the ice is strong enough to drive on. There is an official ice road leading from the mainland to Olkhon Island, with road signs, speed limits and no-entry signs. It is a very surreal experience to drive out onto the ice and then be overtaken by other cars. Halfway along the 3km road we stopped in the same area as everyone else to have fun and to look in amazement at the clear frozen ice. The water, and therefore the ice which is about a meter thick, is so clear that you can see wonderful patterns under the surface where small cracks have frozen. In a different part of the lake you can see methane bubbles frozen in place as they rise from the bottom. Familes were out on the ice, taking photos, ice skating, and playing ice hockey. One enterprising family had tied a plastic disc/sledge onto the back of their car and were dragging the occupant around the ice. I really want to do that!
Having taken an awful lot of photos of transparent ice we continued across the ice to the island. There are no paved roads on the island, just one levelled dirt road that was incredibly bumpy, and lots of dirt tracks that our Guide preferred as he thought they were smoother – the jury is out on that one! There is a population of about 2000 on the island with the majority of them living in the small town of Khuzhir which is where we were heading for. On the way we stopped at a couple of view points, saw the amazing frozen bubbles and went to Shaman rock.
The town, well large village really, has a real frontier wild west feeling to it. Largely built of wood with dirt roads and dogs and cows roaming free, it initially felt poor but when you start to look around you could see a lot of new buildings going up. Our Guide took us to a shabby wooden building for lunch. Well, what a surprise, on the inside it was very modern, clean, comfortable with delicious food.
Our hotel seemed pretty new. It was very basic but clean, warm and comfortable with good showers. We had both dinner and breakfast there and again the food was simple but freshly made and tasty. Though the dinner service was unexpected and a little abrupt. We were told that dinner was at 7:00 and on the dot all the food was brought out at once – soup, salad, fish with cheese, and a sweet bun for pudding. However because it was all served at once my husband thought the bun was for the soup and started dunking it! By 7:30 the girl in the kitchen had cleared away all our plates (there were 8 of us in all), turned off the hot water urn for tea and coffee and locked up the kitchen! We both agreed that a little bit of vodka would have gone perfectly with the meal but, as the nearest supermarket was 20 mins walk away and there is no street lighting, we had our meal, drank some water and had a quiet night in reading our books.
The next morning our guide came to collect us at 9:00 and off we went to explore the northern part of the island. He had booked us a local guide, ‘Ivan’, to drive us across the unofficial ice road in his beaten up UAZ (like a jeep). All along the coast line we stopped to view ice caves and ice formations while cars zipped by on the ice road. At the north end of the island where the inlet opens out into the main lake the ice has been pushed up and looks like shards of broken glass. As the surface starts to freeze, wind and waves push the ice towards the land and then it freezes like that. A very surreal landscape.
After a couple of hours we stopped so that ‘Ivan’ could make us lunch. Out came the stove and a large pan of local fish soup (Omul a whitefish species of salmon) which he heated up. Table and chairs, crockery and cutlery all appeared out the back of the UAZ not forgetting the tin mugs and the kettle that he boiled up some lovely milky tea in. But the piece-de-resistance was the shot glass. Our guide had picked up a block of ice on one of our photo stops and now proceeded to drill into it to make a perfect drinking receptacle, which somewhat to our surprise he filled with brandy and not vodka. Probably because the brown colour made a much better photo than clear vodka would have done. The day was beautiful, the sun was out and it was surprisingly warm and pleasant sitting there enjoying our food and drink.
After lunch we returned to the island, collected our cases and set off on the drive back to Irkutsk. It took about 40 minutes along the bumpy road and tracks to get back to the official ice road and then 2 hours along the first road before we made a left turn on to the second road for another 2 hours. Back in Irkutsk we said goodbye to our wonderful guide, checked into our hotel, and headed off to a fully stocked Belgium pub for supper. Since the last country we had lived in was Belgium we indulged our taste for Belgium beer. I have to say it was quite unexpected to find such a genuine Belgium pub with great beer in a Siberian town!
When one hears the word Siberia it conjures up winter, snow, vast wilderness, gulags, freezing temperatures and harsh conditions, all of which is true but it is also beautiful. A harsh and bleak beauty sometimes, but also, as I hope my photos show, an awesome beauty.
The trip is one I will never forget. To go to Siberia and experience the winter, ice and scenery is something that I think everyone should have on their bucket list!