Our minibus to Olkhon Island showed up a bit later than expected, and after picking up more passengers and making some other mysterious stops, we were on the road somewhat after 10:30. It’s really not very far, about 250 km to the ferry, but the road is rough, so it was 2:45 pm before we got there. And, for me at least, the ride was like an unsecured roller coaster – we were in the back row and I had the seat facing the aisle, so every one of the many hundreds of bumps launched me upwards and forwards, making the ride a good core workout as I tried not to get launched down the aisle – the kids liked it though!
But eventually we were there, and we took the ferry over to the island.
Then we endured another hour of bumpy roads and then found our guesthouse, where we would stay for the next six nights. It was a simple house, but nice enough, and as we would find out, the very basic toilet was actually a luxury on the island – it had both a regular toilet and a shower!
Our first evening we wandered down to the dock.
Activities for tourists on the island pretty much involve getting in vehicles and getting bumped around on the way to look at different rocks and parts of the lake. You can take mini-bus tours to the top or bottom of the island, or you can go on various boats. There are also self-propelled options – feet or rented mountain bikes – but given the size of the island, it’s pretty hard to get anywhere that way.
As good tourists, we asked the guesthouse owner, a lovely woman, to book us a mini-bus tour to the north of the island for one of our first days there – all the guesthouses sell tickets for the various tours, as do agencies in the town. These trips sound so romantic – off with a small group and a guide, who will personally cook you fish soup by the scenic rocks at the cliff, while you spend the day exploring the beautiful sights of the island. How could we not do it?
The next day, our driver showed up, and, despite our having four tickets (kids half price), there were only two spaces for the four of us. But the whole group was like, just squish in there, so we did, thinking it was normal, the kids half on laps, half squished. There was one other child on the bus, a Russian boy with his mum and grandma, but his mother was ensuring that he got the best seat on the bus, a single seat by the window, and refused my gestures that he should move back so we could all be a little more unsquished (since kids are smaller). I was mightily peeved and was shooting her dirty looks hoping she’d see the manifest unfairness of it all. We were given a bit of hope when the van was making funny noises and they called another van, but this was the same size, and the squishiness resumed. The other passengers on the bus were a single young woman traveller who got to sit up front with the driver, a Chinese couple and two older women, teachers and friends. One was a German teacher, and liked practicing with Ivo – and Ivo liked finally being use one of his other languages.
We set off, and the bouncing commenced. The roads, well they made logging roads look good – they were dirt, with deep craters and rocks that sent us from side to side, up and down and forward and back. The drivers, who must do this almost every day in the tourist season, know just how fast they can go and make sure to always go that fast, making good use of the tough and simple Russian four wheel drive vans.
The first stop.
The kids took some videos after the first stop – I’ve spliced them together….
In case you think that it would be better to drive yourself, four wheel drive and high clearance is mandatory, as was proved by a group of young Europeans we’d seen in town. As we entered the first park area, we saw them by the side of the road with their rented sedan stuck in the sand dunes, awaiting a tow out, just a short way into the circuit. The roads we saw later would have destroyed their car, so it’s just as well.
Just past that was our second stop, by a lovely beach at Peschanka Bay that we would have liked to play at, with the skeleton of a gulag/fish cannery on the shore. This is when we really saw the shattering of the romantic ideal of the trip, when we saw the great number of identical vans, expelling their 10 tourists each to look at the beach for a short time before being herded back in.
At our next stop, we had caught all the vans, and all of us looked at the rocks at the same time. This was Sagan-Khushun, White Cape, or Three Brothers – it is made of light marble which are covered with red lichen. From Wikipedia: “According to an old Buryatian legend, there once lived three brothers on Olkhon Island whose father had supernatural powers. Once, their father turned them into eagles but only on the condition that they would not eat dead meat. The brothers were extremely happy with their newly gained freedom as eagles and decided to fly around the island after promising not to eat dead meat. However, when they were flying around the island, they became hungry and found a dead animal. Despite their promises to their father, they ate this dead animal. When their father learned about it, he was furious and turned them into the three rocks that we see today.”
When we stopped at the northern tip, Cape Khoboy at lunchtime, we were given a time to come back for our fish soup lunch and we wandered off to the tip. Khoboy means fang, which is what it looks like, but it also apparently looks like a woman’s profile from the water and is also known as the virgin rock. It’s also a place of power for those who believe in shamanistic powers, and our German teacher friend said a little prayer/meditation and explained that it was holy.
We were the last to make it back, and that’s when we got seriously annoyed. There wasn’t food for the kids either! Not even a place setting. The driver knew nothing about it – his standard kit was for 10, and he didn’t know why he had 12 all of a sudden, and he really wasn’t all that interested – he was just doing the same boring job he did every day. As we expressed our annoyance, our connection with our fellow passengers started to turn, as with the aid of the German teacher, our situation became clear. They thought we hadn’t paid for the kids spaces, but when we clarified that we had, they got annoyed on our behalf! The German teacher was especially pissed off and swore she was going to fix things when we got back. They made sure we had enough to eat, sharing what there was, and even slipped us one of the packages of cookies. This détente continued through the other stops and the rest of the bouncing.
On the way back we stopped at Lover’s Rock – apparently one should walk out there if one wants children – left for a boy, right for a girl. We’re not superstitious, but we didn’t go out there.
The Chinese couple and the teachers managed to fall asleep on the just as bumpy ride back.
When we got back to Khuzhir, the German teacher came with us to the hostel and yelled at the owner of the hostel and her husband for a while in Russian, and waited while they called the van people. After some more yelling, they all agreed that we would get our money back for the kids’ tickets, which we did. We thanked our angel profusely and they faded off into the distance.
The rest of the time, we didn’t do very much. We’d sort of lost our taste for going over bumpy roads to look at things. I had a translation project to work on so I got that finished, we got started on doing school with the kids, to varying success. The biggest success was my experiment with weathering involving shaking sugar cubes.
We also walked about the town and to the beach and to the shaman rocks at sunset. And I took a lot of pictures – I had almost 400 to look through for this post, not even including the ones that Ivo and the kids took. The water of the lake does change colour and texture all the time, depending on the light and the angle and every time you think you have the best picture another presents itself.
The lake is also seriously awesome when it comes to geographical statistics and biology. It drains more than 300 rivers (but has only one outlet), contains 20% of the fresh water of the whole world and is 1.6 km deep, 636 km long and 79 km wide, with a 2000 km circumference. It has 27 islands, of which Olkhon is the largest, 72 km long. It’s in a rift valley, meaning that tectonic plates are pulling apart under it, making it bigger all the time, 2 cm per year. It’s the oldest lake in the world and has plants and animals not found anywhere else, including special sponges that filter the water, meaning it is just fine to drink. We didn’t see them, but there are also special seals and other animals that live only in the lake. And there is omul, a delicious fish that is sold smoked all over the region.
It’s also very cold. I tried this out by sticking my hand in. The kids are made of sterner stuff, especially L, who managed to stay more than 10 minutes in the lake, even putting his head under. K also completely submerged herself for a respectable time, though not quite as long as L.
At the end of our time, we were ready to leave, but at the same time, knew we would miss it there. It would be a nice place to relax for a longer time, as long as you were prepared to do not much of anything. And we were a bit envious of those with camping gear and their own (suitable) transport, because camping and trekking around would be an amazing way to spend time on the island.
On the way back we also found out about the cheaper, bigger, more comfortable scheduled buses that make the trip back. The trip back cost us 1830 rubles (€25.36) (kids half price, but paid for luggage), whereas the trip out had been 3200 rubles (€44.35).
Back in Irkutsk, we took a tram from the bus station (if you want to try to take a bus to Olkhon rather than a minivan, the location is probably here for tickets – no idea of the schedule) to our hotel by the train station, checked in to the nicest hotel we’d seen in a while (with a separate room for the parents!), and then went back on the tram for a bit of necessity and grocery shopping and of course Govinda’s for dinner. It’s amazing how much you crave vegetables at a certain point.
At the end of the night we found the new shopping area in town, where they’ve built a bunch of new wooden houses in the old style to make a bit of a theme park shopping area of it. There was also a new and modern shopping centre at the very end, and we again visited the H&M to get K some new clothes since she keeps growing, even getting her the same shirt as a friend of hers back in Utrecht.
Then another tram back to our comfortable hotel to get a good sleep before our last Russian train ride in the morning.