When doing some research for our Baikal excursion this gem was found; “under Russian conditions nothing is easier than getting to Olkhon Island.” Once a price for the ride had been negotiated and the other passengers had shown up this proved accurate. For the next seven hours we watched as the scenery changed from city to industry and finally to beautiful taiga countryside.
There is a paradox in Siberia that nature is so overwhelming and extensive that the industry using these resources is very dirty. As though to make itself known in a setting that would otherwise be uninterested. A particularly striking image was an actual river of smoke from a single factory. Perfectly clear sky marred by a brown line twisting away to where the blue was met by the grassland.
The other passengers were three of the indigenous Buryat people. Once the road had reached the forest covered hills that border the lake we began to notice many trees or posts that had blue scarves tied to them. As we passed each of these the window would be opened and an offering of a handful of coins would be thrown out. The Buryat’s maintain a semi autonomous region and are the largest ethnic minority in Siberia.
Coming from an island nation it is always difficult to imagine the merging of cultures across borders. The northernmost of the Mongol peoples they share much with their southern cousins. Nomadic herding, though to a lesser extent, and a similar religious mix of Buddhism and shamanism. This is what the money tossing was about, the sky god. Later on in our first explorations of the island we saw our travel mates again. This trip was obviously some kind of pilgrimage. Right behind Khuzir is Shaman’s Rock and there they had a picnic set up and as the sun set made offering after offering. It really was a beautiful spot and as the sun dropped behind the western hills. Who needs a cathedral when you have a place like this.
Doc looks out over Baikal
Looking North from near Shaman’s Rock
Upon leaving Irkutsk I wondered about the feasibility of a minivan taking only six passengers on a sevevn hour journey for around 400 roubles. The backpacking life is very me orientated and it is sometimes a shock to find that every service is not only about getting the likes of us around. These minivans also act as an informal bus service for those in the small townships along the way. Often there would be a bunch of people standing beside the road, not a house in sight, we would pull over and a couple of towns later the driver would pull up right outside whatever house was instructed. Going into these towns was like being a lego man inside a world made out of popsicle sticks. Wood everything.
Everything in Khuzir was also wood. Well apart from a tall radio tower. Pretty much the only source of accommodation is Nikita’s Guesthouse. I’m not quite sure what I was expecting, mostly a large homestead that upon reflection was a close representation of my grandparents old place in the Marlborough Sounds. Definitely not a rambling compound consisting of numerous gingerboarded buildings. Carved doorposts portraying impressively mostachioed old men framed the entrances to the main buildings. Whimsical little drawings were scattered around. Cute little things like a hedgehog towing a weasel in a cart.
Part of the fun of getting to Olkhon is the ferry ride from Yelantsy to the island. With a good half hour to kill before the boat returned to the mainland we climbed the barren hill next to the dock to make some initial impressions of the lake. Big mostly and that was just the little bit that could be glimpsed between the mainland heads and the island. More interesting however was estimating whether the growing number of vehicles in the waiting bay would be able to fit on to the quite small RoRo ferry.
There did not seem to be any order to how this might proceed. Slightly worrying to us was that our driver did not seem particularly concerned about getting into a good position for what was sure to be a mad rush when the gate was opened. Just like on a subway where those waiting to board crowd the doors so those who need to get off to let them on cannot do so the cars jostled for position.
Men doing what men do, watching things get sorted.
Chief among the culprits was a short fat man driving a big black Mercedes. Of course he was wearing a black leather jacket and sporting a massive gold chain. There was also the obligatory blond in the passengers seat. For a lot of this time he impatiently revved his engine. You could tell that everyone secretly hoped that he would miss out. It is not often that losers with body kits on their lowered cars are not the most despised people around. In this instance a moment of hilarity ensued when one of these got stuck on the ramp from the boat.
Despite much huffing and puffing Mr Mercedes did not make the cut for this crossing. He even tried a sneaky move around the outside to cut in front of one of the passenger vans. Watching from the top of the hill it all looked very similar to herding sheep. Arny suggested that we may need to quit viewing this and make sure that we were back down in time to board ourselves. A legend of the lake is that the water is so clear and the lake so deep that looking over the side of a boat can induce vertigo. Cautiously we took turns peeking over the railing.
Perhaps not a surprise to those who know me but the last week or so I have been increasingly grumpy. Mostly when it comes to meeting and interacting with others. Now, as we stood on the wooden pier waiting for our van to roll off, I kept our group tight as we faced off with another group of backpackers. Judging from their Colombia gear we decided they were American and wanted no part of that. Even though undoubtably we were all going to the same place.
Having reached Olkhon Island we thought the journey was pretty much done. But having not studied the maps particularly close we did not realise that this speck in the eye of Siberia is seventy kilometres long. Khuzir is halfway up. With only parallel dirt tyre tracks to follow it was another hour before we were disgorged onto the beaten earth roads. A pack of dogs led the way to Nikita’s.
Tags: bus trip, culture, myths and legends, drinking, ferry, food, hostel life, nature, Russia, Siberia, tramping, Travel