Trip to Olkhon Island

Trip Start Jun 05, 2007
Trip End Aug 01, 2007

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

I'm back in Irkutsk now after a trip to Olkhon Island, got back yesterday.  We leave tonight on a night train to Ulan-Ude, the capital of Buryatiya, a region in Russia just east of Lake Baikal.  There actually are lots of Buryats living west of Baikal, where we are now, in the Irkutskaya region as well.  As I have already been told by several Buryats (though I already knew this), they are descendants of Ghenghis Khan.  They are now a minority in this region relative to the Russians.

Olkhon Island is the largest island on Lake Baikal (one of two inhabited islands on the lake) and is the second-largest lakebound island in the world.  It is considered a very special place for the Buryats in a religious and spiritual sense, but is also extremely beautiful for everyone else.  We were really looking forward to this trip to see some amazing scenery and relax on the fairly undeveloped island.

We got to the bus station in Irkutsk (Friday the 15th) just in time and right away I saw the two Germans that had started the hike with us a few days before -- turns out they were also going to Olkhon Island.  The man was OK -- he had spent some time at a doctor's office, but it wasn't a heart attack, so they released him and he was fine and ready to continue his trip (though he was planning to visit the doctor at the German embassy in Mongolia, their next stop after Olkhon Island).  This seems like a good time to point out that in my email correspondence with Jack, the hostel owner, in setting up the hike to Bolshie Koty, he said it was for "reasonable feet people."  I guess our group's feet weren't reasonable enough as it definitely turned out to be not your ordinary 3 day hiking trip.

We experienced a very bumpy ride to Olkhon Island, which took all day and got even bumpier as we made it onto the island.  There are no bridges to the island, so we stopped at a town called MRS and our bus was carried by ferry across a small stretch of Lake Baikal to the island, which is very close to Baikal's western shores.  There is one town on the island (called Khuzhir), which is where we were staying, plus other small villages.  We were staying at a place called Nikita's Guest House -- it turned out to be this relatively big compound with several houses and reminded us all of summer camp.  There were lots of people working there, doing various things, and Nikita would walk around with a constant smile on his face, checking up on things.  We had a little cabin with two rooms and 5 beds that was quite nice, but with the lack of running water, we agreed to use the outhouse in one of the other buildings instead of the toilet in our own.

One of the first things we did was sign up for banya slots (there was a free banya and you could sign up for 20 minute slots, though we were often able to extend them) and then walk around the area of Nikita's a bit.  We also looked at the various day-tour options and signed up for one the next day.  We even played some doubles ping pong.  We also went to the store, got some drinks for the night (I asked for the best vodka in the store and it only cost $4 for 0.5 liters), and after our banyas and some dinner, we sat outside hanging out, until it got cold and we had to move inside.  We all liked the food that we had at Nikita's -- the cost of our room included 3 meals a day, which were really good.  Breakfast was always the same:  bread (with cheese and butter), sunny-side-up eggs, kasha with black currant sauce and blini.  Dinner and lunch usually had some fish involved and sometimes meat, but also consisted of a few different things.  The fish was excellent.  Various teas were also available and we drank a lot of that.

On Saturday our tour to the north of the island that we had booked the night before started at 10am.  The 5 of us got into a 4WD van along with a German couple and an American couple.  I sat in front to translate what the driver/guide was saying to the rest.  These vans are pretty funny -- when I asked everyone how old they thought they were, the answers were in the range of 25-40 years old, but in fact, the driver told me our vehicle was only 5 years old.  Other than the engine though, the design has not changed in the last 40 years he said.  This van of ours did surprisingly well on probably the worst roads I have ever driven on (if you could call them roads).  Driving through the steppe (grasslands) was usually OK as you could kind of make your own roads anyway, but through the forest, I was surprised that we made it past some ditches.  A very bumpy and slow ride throughout the day.

We stopped at about 6 or 7 places to get out and walk around, take pictures, etc. (and once for lunch).  We saw some truly amazing places (check out the pictures), including Crocodile Island (it looks like a crocodile), the 3 Brothers Rocks (fun place to climb around and really beautiful), Peschera (site of former Stalin-era gulag), Khoboy Cape (northernmost part of the island, high above the lake below in terms of altitude), and Love Mountain (there's a funny legend that goes along with that one).  It was raining in the morning before we left Nikita's and started raining fairly hard when we got back, but for the most part it stayed dry during our tour.  Again, we had some good dinner and a banya at night, but the rain prevented us from wanting to do much more than that.

On Sunday, after breakfast, we walked around for a bit along the shore (there's an exit to the lakeshore in the back of Nikita's homestead) and saw the famous Shaman Rocks, another Buryat holy site.  Tom's wounds were still hurting but it turned out that one of the Germans on the previous day's tour was a doctor (who quit her job before starting to travel around the world for a year -- smart idea) and after we got back from the tour she did a better job cleaning the wounds and wrapping him up.  He would spend most of the next couple of days resting in the room to heal faster and better.

We continued our walk along to this nearby sand beach, where Benny and I were planning to take a swim in Lake Baikal.  By swim, I mean just go in the water long enough to dip our heads in, as that is supposed to increase your life by 7 years.  The tricky part is that the water doesn't warm up until July (it's frozen until the spring -- you can drive cars across the lake) and in mid-June the water temperature is only about 45 degrees.  Even at its warmest, it only really gets to the low 60s.  Anyway, we did make it in to the 45 degree water (even went in a second time, where I took a drink from the water) and I'll post a video of us running in to prove it.  One amazing thing about Baikal is that the water is clean and drinkable.  The ecosystem there is such that it cleans the lake quite well and it remains the cleanest big lake in the world.  You can't drink water out of the tap in St. Petersburg without potentially getting sick, but there's no problem drinking directly out of Lake Baikal.  It made it easy to fill water bottles during our hike the previous week.

As we were walking through town a bit later in the day, I found a small hospital where they said the doctor would be in the next day.  The German tourist who had helped Tom out recommended we stop by a hospital so I thought this would be a good place for the next day.  After lunch I found Nikita, the owner of this hostel, and asked him to play ping pong.  The Lonely Planet guidebook mentioned that he had been a former champion, and though I was a bit rusty, I used to play lots of ping pong back in the day.  He said he would, but had to do something first for 10 minutes.  I waited at the reception area and he came back with another guy (Sergei).  Nikita said he still had something to do but I should play with Sergei for a bit and he would come a little bit later.  He also handed me two paddles, which were much nicer than the ones lying on the tables in the table tennis building.  Sergei was pretty good and we played for a bit with Jeni, Melissa and Benny watching us.  Sergei said that Nikita had been champion of Russia during Soviet times.  When Nikita came in, Sergei told Nikita that I played well and then Nikita and I started playing.  Later, we were joking that Nikita had sent this first guy to make sure he wouldn't be completely wasting his time playing with someone who didn't know how to play at all -- though that might have been what really happened.  It was great fun playing with Nikita, he was amazing, we mostly just hit back and forth but then we played a couple of games to 11.  I managed to get about 2 points in each, which was good enough for me.

We had also signed up for massages that afternoon, which weren't great, but for $5 for half an hour we weren't expecting too much.  But it was a good precursor to the banya which followed right afterwards.  We sat around a table outside of our cabin the rest of the night, having some beers with a couple of other tourists we had met.

The next day, Jeni and Melissa left the island to go fly to Moscow, so for the remaining portion of our Siberia adventure it would just be Benny, Tom and me.  After breakfast and seeing them off, I took Tom to the local hospital just to make sure his wounds were not serious, which was our impression.  It was interesting there (just one long hallway with rooms on either side, not that big of a building) -- the head doctor (I think that's who he was) was having tea, but directed us to another room, where the first lady we saw very officially wrote down his name, age and country on a small scrap of paper.  We then went to the next room to see the doctor, who agreed that nothing was too serious, but bandaged him up after putting on more antiseptic and told us to get antibiotics and get an X-ray in Irkutsk just in case.  The whole visit cost 50 rubles (less than $2) which was just the cost of the bandage used to wrap up the wound.  At first the doctor said I would have to go to the pharmacy to buy my own, but since the pharmacy was still 15 minutes away from being open, she let us use hers (since she has to buy it from the pharmacy anyway).  It was nice not having to wait at all (though there were other patients milling about the hospital too). 

Afterwards, I went to the pharmacy to get the antibiotics and then met up with Benny and three other tourists with whom we had planned to go for a bike ride.  We rented bikes from Nikita's and received a small drawing of a map with a lake called Shara-Nur that was on the island (yes, this was a lake on an island in a lake).  Though there were about 25 bikes in the bike rental area, the girl running it had trouble finding 5 that would be OK for us to ride, but eventually we were all set up (though not completely convinced our bikes wouldn't fall apart on the trail).  Benny and I set off with a British guy named Gaz to try to reach the lake, while the others were going to stay more local.  We weren't sure if we'd actually reach it, as the map was not that clear and it was supposed to be a 4 hour ride there, but we figured we'd ride around a bit anyway.  We initially went in the wrong direction from town before turning back and going the right way.  Benny wasn't feeling too good so went to return his bike, and it was already 12:15 when Gaz and I started going in the right direction.

I hadn't ridden a bike in a while, but like they say, you never forget how.  But this was a pretty difficult ride.  We continued south past the town but then had to cross this big hill, which was really tough.  We ended up walking our bikes up a lot of it, as even in very low gear, it wasn't working out too well for us.  Overall, the bike ride was fun (especially the downhills!) and we again got to see more of the beautiful island, but there were also tons of flies and other bugs hovering over us whenever we were stopped or not moving fast enough.  After about two and a half grueling hours (for some reason there seemed to be no flat stretches of trail, just up and down, up and down...) we figured if we couldn't at least see the lake from the top of the next ridge, we would turn back.  We didn't see it, so we turned back.  When we looked at a better map after getting back to Nikita's, we realized that we were actually quite close to the lake when we turned back, but oh well.  On the way back, we took an easier route (though still with its uphills and downhills, just not quite as steep), the road along the coast where cars go, so it took less time.  Overall, we probably went around 25-30km in total, 2.5 hours there, 1.5 hours back.

Afterwards, we went to the beach again where I took another swim in Lake Baikal, this time after lying on the beach for 30-40 minutes first.  Unlike the previous day, it was very sunny and a perfect day to lie around on the beach.  Definitely didn't feel like Siberia -- more like Florida.  Until I ran into the water, which hadn't gotten any warmer since the previous day, though I did manage to stay in for probably 10 more seconds.  At night we went to a cliff behind the hostel and watched the sunset and then sat around a campfire with some others.

On Tuesday, we had a 9am minibus to Irkutsk, which was a smoother ride than the bus we had taken to the island.  We also made better time, getting to Irkutsk a little after 3pm (including a stop for lunch).  It started off slowly though -- after we got in at Nikita's along with two other people, we made a couple of local stops, picking up some people who the driver seemed to know, including going to one of the other villages in town and stopping at someone's house. 

Another great shower after getting back to the hostel and then Benny and I went to get train tickets to Ulan-Ude (we had already purchased them via internet, but needed to exchange our internet confirmation for the actual tickets).  I think we were probably amongst the first people to have bought train tickets from Irkutsk through the internet.  We waited in one line and the lady at the register looked at my confirmation for a couple of minutes, clueless, before telling me she didn't know what to do with this and I had to go to a different line.  We waited in that line for a while but I felt somewhat comfortable since there was a sign in the window that said this line would accept internet confirmations.  I got into a bit of an argument with an older lady (having to do with who was last in line) but in the end she befriended me as she was intrigued by my internet confirmation.  The lady at the register looked at my confirmation for a minute and said that her desk was not yet equipped to deal with this and I had to go to yet another line.  Once more, I waited in line and gave my confirmation to a seemingly clueless lady.  You would think they could just type in my confirmation number, hit print, and we walk away with tickets.  But this lady several times was inputting our confirmation number, passport information, etc. and not having any luck.  I think she called her supervisor (or some other lady) for help -- the supervisor yelled at her for a little bit, told her what to do, and we got our tickets three minutes later.  Success!  It only took 1.5-2 hours to get our train tickets which we had already bought.

We figured since we were in a major city, it would be good to get Tom to one more hospital and I had found out about a 24-hour clinic in Irkutsk.  We took him there, they took X-rays and looked him over for a while and confirmed it was nothing too serious.  It was definitely interesting being there though and seeing how it all worked (privacy is not as big here, so we were in the same waiting/procedural room with some other patients, where we bore witness to some amusing incidents).  On the way home, we got caught in the rain a bit but also saw probably the biggest lightning storm I've ever seen (we made it to the hostel before the full force of the storm hit).

Today we went to register our visas, which after our troubles a week ago, was remarkably easy today.  Olga was there and she took care of us in about 5 minutes, even backdating the stamps to last week.  Now I've been diligently catching up on internet and blog (doing this entry and finishing the one from Listvyanka-Bolshie Koty) and we have our train tonight to Ulan-Ude.  So until next time...
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