On arrival at my Irkutsk hostel early evening, I had two ‘arrival beer’s (a travel custom shared with a certain absent someone) and, despite my original vague intentions, succumbed to the tourist conveyor belt vortex that is Olkhon Island. Yes, I’ll go on your minibus tomorrow morning without making any price enquiries round town or even being sure that your island is really for me.
The minibus did a round of collections from different hostels for over an hour and then left town for the north of Lake Baikal’s western shore. Scenery included yellowing forests, great expanses of clear or cleared land occasionally dotted with cows and hay bails, and the odd truck stop or wooden home.
We stopped ten minutes on the way to grab food and use a long drop and finally pulled up on a hilltop overlooking the lake and island. “Photo stop here – fifteen minutes!” announced the driver in Russian. We jumped out into the icey whipping wind for a quick photo shoot across the road and turning to jump back in the van saw the driver head off down the road with our fleeces, jackets and packs! Oh!
Despite various conspiracy theories dreamt up as we huddled helplessly behind a rocky outcrop from the truly Siberian wind and cold, the driver returned forty or so minutes later and the journey continued by car ferry and dusty track to the main island town of Khuzhir.
I fell in love with the little town straight away and enjoyed a stroll among the wooden houses and the nearby clifftops and beaches. Olkhon Island is believed by locals to have a very special energy and is important in their Shamanic beliefs. Trees were laden with offerings of assorted fabrics and the many meditative spots overlooked sacred rocks jutting skyward or into the sea.
The pre-booked accommodation had no hot water unless you boiled a kettle or fired up a coal powered ‘banya’ (sauna of sorts), which was a two hour preparation job for our lovely hostel owner, Nina. Sweating and washing in the heat of the banya was heaven after a cold dusty day (and seven odd hours) on the road.
Lonely Planet says to get out of town and judging by the photos of travellers returning from the various organised tours around the massive island there were stunning views of the lake, shaman offering sights, caves, seals, health giving springs and treks to be enjoyed. I however came down with a sort of bronchial infection. Lake Baikal had somehow filled my lungs!
Since I had had two minds about coming to the Island at all (I guess I am spoilt for wilderness as a Kiwi) I enjoyed a chance to relax, sleep and read (Gorky Park – a thriller set in Russia that I can’t put down!) in a quiet town where the loudest street noise is the moo of a cow and where luck had given me a dorm room all to myself.
Nina came with garlic from her garden, a packet of paracetemol and a cup full of the most delicious homemade sugary berry jam and later that night bundled me off to her cottage to inhale from under two towels a steam bath of boiled potatoes, some of which she then gave me to eat! She confirmed this was a Russian not Buryat remedy and I can confirm that it did clear the nose and was a yummy bedtime snack!
After two days mainly in bed and a serious intake of fruit and veg, I had another walk around to catch the sunset and decided to move on with my trip and back to Irkutsk.