Asia / Europe / Russia

Siberiade. Baikal. Banya chez Shaman!

The Sacred Sea. The heart of Siberia. The oldest and the deepest lake in the world – Lake Baikal. Shamans, good and bad spirits (we’ve been there – they do exist!), the history, incredible legends and the most unique flora and fauna. Welcome to Siberia aka my perfect holiday destination! The thing is, it’s quite a challenge to get there. It’s “only” 5000 tys. km from Moscow. 🙂 In one of my previous posts from Peru, I told you I could travel the world to find the most beautiful places, but for what I’ve found in Siberia I could go around it… many times! It is a truly unspoiled place, travelling to Baikal Lake still seems to be hell of an adventure. Hurry up, soon this place will most likely be “destroyed” by hordes of  tourists, so get there before them to see it with your own eyes. In the meantime I will pray to the Shamans to help me get back my soul. I left it in the magical world of Siberia.

Immortal Russian UAZ vans and wooden villages – typical Siberian landscape.

Early morning, bus stop in Irkutsk. We arrive here full of hopes we will get to Olkhon island today. A I-am-so-bored-leave-me-alone cashier tells us that all the bus tickets for today are sold out. Whaaaaat?! We don’t have time to re-group as we are immediately picked up by a taxi driver (who seems to be a true fan of Poland) offering us a lift. Man! We are students. Deneg u nas netu! (“We have no money” in Russian). Apparently people still believe in that lie despite my grey hair. We don’t go with him but he helps us finding an alternative way to get to the island – a private marshrutka. It’s hard to find them when you don’t speak Russian as there is no official bus stop or timetable. Volodia, a cheerful Buryat turns out to have 2 free seats so we are very lucky! We hop on his mini bus and 5 hours later we are in Khuzhhir – the biggest village in Olkhon island.

Students 🙂 on a ferry, on the way to Olkhon island.

I got paranoid (again!) and decided to book our stay on the island. Mainly because I was afraid it would be to much hassle to look for something when we get there. Yes, I booked the same place as everyone else coming to Olkhon. The one mentioned in Lonely Planet. Honestly If I was you, I wouldn’t bother. Just go with the flow and I am sure you will find something way more exciting.

You can find a basic and fairly cheap room to stay in almost every house on the island. Learning the Cyrillic alphabet and a few basic words in Russian will definitely help you to find one of those places.

One thing we can’t deny – Nikita Guest House is a truly beautiful place. It’s like entering one of Disney’s fairy tales (or perhaps I should say  Krilov’s fairy tale as we are in Russia!). It’s an amazing complex of handmade log cabins. The cabins are Russian Izba type of wooden houses. Very rustic and so romantic! Beautiful tiny gardens, everything so colourful, so perfect… but when you get a closer look you realize that this place is in fact missing something. If you look beyond the hype you will come up with a sad conclusion that it’s yet another tourist place built to attract so called “backpackers”. However, after so many days of travelling we were desperate to take whatever we get so we stayed at Nikita’s.  The beautiful room we got certainly helped us to forget that we traveled the whole world to find something more adventurous that that.

Olkhon – one of the main streets and Nikita Guest House.

One doesn’t come to Siberia to stay at their hotel, so we leave our stuff and go out eager to get our first taste of the beautiful Siberian nature.

Shaman’s Rock is one of the most mysterious and also the most popular of the Baikal sites and it’s just within a stone’s throw from our guesthouse. It’s a sacred place a rock comprised of white marble, granite and quartz. Siberian Shamans believe that it’s some sort a portal to a parallel universe. Is it true? I have no idea, but I’m pretty sure that this place is run by some evil spirits.  

I mean it. Otherwise how can you explain the unexpected chain of events that happened to us there? I got so angry with my best friend we were about to have a major argument over some stupid pictures. Such a trivial thing considering we know each other for over 20 years. I got so pissed off with her not being able to take a single good shot of me. I shouted at her and was rude to the nicest Polish folks ever who approached us willing to chat. Shame on me! I don’t want to go into details, but I’m convinced that I was possessed that night. Buryats believed that Azhin (Buryat for deity), the lord of Lake Baikal, lives in the cave at Shaman Rock. It’s an evil God. That would explain everything! That night I was looking for those Polish people to say I was really sorry but the spirits of Siberia didn’t let me redeem. A scary yet meaningful lesson for me.

Shaman’s Rock – one of the most important place for Shamans all over the world.
Totem poles. Place a ribbon (they are more Buddhist that Shaman I guess) in a sacred place and you will come back to Siberia one day!

Nikita Guest House offers a wide range of excursions but honestly they leave a lot to be desired (at least the one we booked). We reconfirmed (happened to us in Georgia before) that selling a trip as “trekking” is often misleading. Sadly the half an hour Sunday stroll we were offered has nothing to do with the experience we were hoping to get. Despite the views being spectacular, paying nearly 1000 RUB for the views is not something we were happy to do.

The biggest attraction was driving one of the UAZ van. It was extreme as many time we hit the roof (yes, it’s true, no seat belts!) – but we laughed a lot. After almost an hour we reached “somewhere”. “Somewhere” is the correct word in that case, because if you think that our guide explained to us where we are or why we are here, you are wrong. He was smoking one cigarette after another pointing out the direction were we were supposed to go. So we did.

I would love to give you some more info about the place we’ve seen but as you see it’s challenging. 🙂 I’m pretty sure it was in the south of the island. We strolled and then we reached a pebbled beach. I think we were supposed to stay there and enjoy. After half an hour we were just bored so we did some guerrilla climbing (scary!) before we headed back to Igor, who managed to prepare a Russian picnic style lunch for us. It was nice. After the lunch we went to see Khan Hoi lake – located on the northern shore of the island. Surrounded by the beautiful Olkhon Steppe, the lake is separated from Baikal’s Maloye More (a strait separating the Olkhon Island, from the western shore of Baikal) by a naturally-formed sand peninsula. 500 m to the south-east, on the rocky shores of the Maloye More, lie the tombstones of the ancient Kurumchin people, a memorial to an extinct tribe and culture. If you think I’ve learnt all of that during the tour you are wrong. I looked it up online. Maybe it’s my fault. Better to ask the way than go astray – the say.  If I was more curious or persistent I would probably be happier with the excursion.

Igor preparing a Russian style picnic lunch for us.
Khan Hoi lake – apparently a good spot for fishing.
Tombstones of the ancient Kurumchin people – some of them are from the BC era!

So this is how our “adventurous” trip to Siberia will look like? Never ever! Breaking bad and against odds (very strong wind) we decide to rent a canoe. You only live once! Renee, the nicest employee of Nikita Guest House helps us to carry that beast (this is a professional canoe and it’s heavy as hell!) to the shore. He also reassures us that it is an extremely stable canoe. STABLE. A very important word when you are in the middle of the deepest and the oldest lake in the world and nasty wind rocks your boat like if it was a burr. STABLE.

If you ever come up with same wild idea of renting a canoe while in Khuzhhir you have to know one thing – first and foremost, Baikal Lake is called the sacred “sea” by the locals. It does behave like sea. It’s capricious. Those waves are like WOW. You could surf there. Second thing is – this is the OLDEST lake in the world. For your own sake try NOT to think about all the weird stuff hiding under the surface (can a 25kg fish kill me?).

To spicy it up even more – if you can’t swim, stay far away from it. A curious thing – once you throw a body into the water and you don’t take it out within 24 hours instead of a body you will get a nice, clean… skeleton! Miraculous transformation is possible thanks to little endemic species acting as a filtration system. Apparently back in time water in Lake Baikal was so clean you could literally drink it straight from the lake. I’m afraid this is no longer the case as I found many information that due to man’s encroachment each year Baikal is more and more polluted. 🙁

With Renee – all happy and smiling before our crazy canoeing adventure.
Here we go Lake Baikal! 🙂

All good things come to an end… Our end was surprisingly quick. Lake Baikal drained us! It’s no piece of cake to paddle against the headwind trying to literally blow you off the surface. Shit! It’s a struggle and I’m afraid my arms will soon give up. Something bad is dragging us to the middle of the lake, it makes me really scared. Concentrate. Breath… 1…2…3… he said it was STABLE, there is nothing to worry about.

I don’t think we gonna make any progress here. We have to shorten dramatically the route we’ve taken. At first it’s like “we’re gonna finish behind that rock”, then after 2 hours “hmm… maybe we should just go to that little peninsula over there”. After 3 hours (but believe me it felt like forever!) it’s more like “F**k it, let’s just go back. NOW!”. The story of my life. Defeated by nature. Lake Baikal really kicked my ass. Ouch!

Once we get to the beach we jump out of our canoe to dry our clothes a bit. I happen to be irrational at times, but that day I have to say it loud. I turned out to be a total idiot. I didn’t want to destroy my super hyper extra new waterproof jacket so I was wearing a denim one. 🙂 Plus a cotton t-shirt to make it even worse. After just 5 minutes of paddling I was completely wet, gnashing my teeth. Defeated, we decide to return to our hotel. What’s funny this time it took us only 1 hour (damn wind!). Now a bit of body pump – we have to carry our canoe up the hill. Jesus Christ what a day!

Our team vs. Lake Baikal 0:1. The force of Siberian nature!

Encouraged by our tremendous experience canoeing on Lake Baikal, we rent bikes to go on a self-organized sightseeing trip around the island. It was a bit naive to believe we can make the whole day out of it, but we were positive and full of enthusiasm. At least at the beginning. Then the plan turned out to be a real torture. My legs simply didn’t want to cooperate. Not to mention my arms but they were still soar after paddling. My body was so weak I wanted to call my gym and ask for the money back. It was a disaster. I was a disaster. The bike was a disaster. I blame the bike. Maybe it was also tired? We somehow managed to ride for a good half of a day (in my case it was rather walking with a bike) and after entering a small pine forest I even enjoyed it (a bit). I survived one more hour, moaning a lot. Does the human body really shut down when you are 30????

Biking around Olkhon. I won’t add more pics. It was a disgraceful day for me…

Against all odds 🙂 we’ve fallen in love with Olkhon so instead of couple of days we decided to stay there a whole week! We wanted to stay one more night at Nikita’s – but the had an unpleasant surprise for us – they asked us to change our room and the new room was waaaay smaller. They moved us to a different canteen for breakfast and dinners. It offered less choice and the waiter was rude. All of that wouldn’t be a problem, but once you get used to some kind of lifestyle it’s hard then to change your expectations. We should be really thankful anyway – we got the nice room at the beginning just because ours wasn’t ready on time (or at least this is what they said).

If we knew it before we would have left Nikita Guest House earlier than we did. When we were biking around Khuzhir we found a way cheaper room. It didn’t have bathroom though, but hey we are on Siberia, aren’t we? Lack of bathroom was compensated to us by the fact that we could use banya (sauna) for free. We were the only guests in this place and it made it unforgettable. This is the Siberia we were looking for!

Last night we spent in banya. It was amazing. The best SPA ever. I was drained after being so active (don’t laugh at me – after 4 days on a train try to get back to being fit!) and I felt so weak, almost sick. It healed me! Even now a good 7 months after my best friend is keep on bragging how amazing Siberian banya is. She hasn’t been sick since then so there has to be something in it!

The real experience we’ve been looking for!
Sauna on the shore. If you are brave enough you can use it and then jump straight to the lake.

Olkhon island has spectacular landscapes which are second to none. Mountains, beaches (sandy and pebbled), cliffs and steppe – it has it all. Everything. It’s so diverse, I’m sure that every traveler will find something they like. Lake Baikal is undoubtedly the most amazing place I’ve been to, because even getting there is adventure itself.  You won’t meet a lot of tourists, but… wait a minute… is that? is it really? DIMA! We didn’t recognize him at first coz he wasn’t wearing his jerking but the flip-flops were there. It’s him! The world is so tiny! It turned out Dima got to the island 2 days after us and now lives in a tent on the beach (he has a heater inside as apparently it gets very cold at night and as you remember from the last post Dima forgot to pack his clothes!!). 🙂 Everything is going according to God’s (or Shaman’s) plan. In my next post I will take you to Irkutsk to admire its beautiful architecture and with tears in our eyes and hearts on a plate (true story so you have to read it!) we will say goodbye to Siberia.

Olkhon reminds me of my sweet childhood at my grandma’s house.
Khuzhir is the biggest village on the island. 
Siberia turned out to be a really popular spot for Polish people. Those 2 guys brought a group of school kids with them. 
Traditional yurt. Unfortunately I didn’t have a chance to sleep in one of them (that’s still on my bucket list). This one was a souvenir shop and a cafe. 
Wooden houses – are so romantic! They must look amazing in winter!
The one and only museum on the island.
Ship wrecks seem to be a playground for local kids.
Some of the graffiti made the wrecks look really cool.
Shamans say goodbye to Lake Baikal 🙂