Tag Archives: Lake Baikal

Olkhon island, Lake Baikal

Six hours from Irkutsk by local bus and a small ferry ride is Olkhon, the largest island on Lake Baikal. Tell anyone your plans include visiting Olkhon and they’ll ask if you’re staying at Nikita’s Homestead – it seems the two are synonymous – and with good reason as Nikita is widely credited for almost singlehandedly establishing Olkhon as a destination for visitors.

Nikita’s Homestead is on the outskirts of the main Olkhon town of Khuzhir, near the Shaman Rock, which sounds idyllic, and in many ways it is – for us, it was so nice not to have to think about shopping, cooking and washing up as all the meals are included, plentiful and tasty. Our spacious room was cosy and quiet, and there was always someone eager to strike up a conversation and share their wonderful (and sometimes scary!) travelling tales.

20130627-170834.jpgThe food at Nikita’s. Clockwise: Breakfast of pancakes, porridge, fried eggs and tea; Lunch of two courses, soup or salad with grilled or fried fish (and this time with spaghetti), and tea; Dinner of beetroot and carrot salad with fish, pasta with giant meatball and lots more tea

Unfortunately, and it may just be that we were there early in the season and the cogs of tourism had yet to start turning, we felt Nikita’s suffered from a lack of organisation and openness. Literally in some instances – timetables said things should be open and they weren’t. Sadly, there was little orientation, description or explanation upon arrival, and while the excellent staff on reception answered our questions, sometimes you just don’t know to ask. For example, we didn’t know there were laundry services until 3 days in, and even after asking 2 different people we still couldn’t find the library! Minor criticisms aside, we had a great time there.

Excursion to the northern tip of Olkhon

20130626-092134.jpgRoads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads

We thought the bus to get to Olkhon was bumpy, but that was just the prelude to what we later nicknamed the “Russian Rollercoaster” – the trip from Khuzir to the northern tip of Olkhon island in a UAZ-452 Russian van.
The day trip takes in a number of stops up the western coast of the island, including Crocodile Rock, a human-like face in the cliffs of the mainland, and the site of an old fish processing gulag that continued to operate after prisoners stopped serving time there.

20130626-213820.jpgWestern coastline of Olkhon. Clockwise: “Crocodile Rock”, The “Face of the Island” on the opposite shore, Old jetty outside a now dismantled gulag fish processing factory, Julie and “The 3 Brothers”, the view south from “The Three Brothers”, and Andrew testing his nerves on a natural window in the rock

At Khoboy Peninsular, the most northerly point, you’re afforded wonderful views from the cliff-tops of the lake and the coves below.

20130626-094827.jpgShamanism prayer ribbons at Khoboy Peninsular – the northern-most tip of Olkhon Island, Lake Baikal, Siberia.

While we were taking in the views, our driver had been setting fire to a bucket of fish-soup. Mmm, lunch too!

20130626-214148.jpgOlkhon delicacy, “Ukha” (fish soup), server up with cheese sarnies, tea, and lots of sweet biscuits

The return journey takes in the little village of Uzury which is the only village on the east coast, has only solar power, and is home to weather and seismic stations, and Mount Zhima, the highest point on the island at 1274m.

A trek and a dip

It is said that swimming in Lake Baikal adds 5 years to your life. Given that at the height of summer, the lake reaches a temperature of just 9C, and it wasn’t the height of summer, it took determination and willpower / complete disregard for personal safety* (delete as appropriate) for us to venture into waters that felt like 3 or 4 degrees..

20130626-094951.jpgBraving the cold water of Lake Baikal in June – I don’t know why I’m smiling, I can’t feel my feet anymore..

We both waded in, Julie got up to her thighs, and I made the quickest dunk I could to get my head wet. It. Was. Cold.

Good thing it was a lovely day, we had plenty of time to warm through as we trekked back to Khuzir.

20130626-095043.jpgClockwise: One of the many sandy/pebbly beaches on the western shoreline, cows stopping for a drink in the lake, the beach we took a dip from, view through the forest on the way home

Cycling (with a bit of pushing)

One of the guides had recommended taking bikes through the forest to the eastern coast of the island, and we thought that would be a good idea – we’ve already cycled around lake Shartash when we were in Yekaterinburg.

We hired our bikes in Khuzir instead of from Nikitas (as they were almost half the price), but they were insistent we took a southerly looping route via small lakeside lake (!) on the western coast. Armed with a small laminated satellite map with our route clearly marked in fluorescent yellow, we headed off in the prescribed south-easterly direction to the inconspicuously named ‘view point’. Now, had we stopped to think what that meant, we would have realised that view points typically look out over a vista, which implies height. Starting from the village, that meant uphill. A lot of uphill..

20130626-095624.jpgEven in the lowest gear, some parts were tough going. In the end we both resorted to getting off and pushing.

We made it to the viewpoint, and stopped for a much needed rest. The view wasn’t too bad either..

20130626-095729.jpgPanorama of Khuzir, Olkhon island, Lake Baikal, Siberia

The next section was uphill too and we started to think we wouldn’t make it round in the described 6 hours, but shortly thereafter we hit a lengthy downhill section and the fun began – yeehaw!

Not quite brave enough to freewheel it all..

The lake was just past the halfway point, and the last part consisted of the undulating main ferry road back to Khuzir. Despite it being the main road, the traffic was sparse which meant we could use the smoothest part, but at times the smoothest part was bumpier than a cattle grid designed for elephants.

Spotting a marmot-like creature in the verge, I tried to stop my bike to take a closer look, and forgetting that the front brake was a lot better than the back, I locked up the front wheel on the sandy-gravel road, which immediately skidded out from under me, sending me knee-first into the ground. With a small tear in my trousers and and a smaller scrape on my knee, I dusted myself off more embarrassed than injured, how long have I been riding bikes?!

Despite my little stumble, the bikes passed an impressive multi-point inspection by a young version of the censoring twins from the movie Good Morning Vietnam. We checked our watch – we’d made good time, 5 hours and 30 minutes. Probably not the fastest, but not the slowest either :o)

Severobaikalsk Round Up

Severobaikalsk is at the northern tip of Lake Baikal – the oldest and deepest lake in the World. Our guidebook says that if all the rest of the world’s drinking water ran out tomorrow, Lake Baikal could supply the entire population of the planet for the next 40 years.

20130615-113654.jpgOur feet in Lake Baikal. The water is safe to drink, but maybe not the bit we’ve just stepped in..

The town itself is just a little older than us, as it was established to support the construction of the Baikal Amur Mainline (BAM), which is a second, parallel northern line to the Trans-Siberian railway. The town is quite a small place, not particularly pretty to look at, but its dominating, uniform, tiled apartment blocks are specially designed to withstand both permafrost and earthquakes up to 9 on the Richter scale.

Top of the recommendations in our guidebook for staying in Severobaikalsk is the Baikal Trail Hostel, run by the “ultra-helpful, English-speaking Anya” – and their description is spot on. Anya also has quite a connection to Severobaikalsk as we later found out – her parents helped build it and she grew up here: her Mother, Rada, was a bridge engineer, and her Father, Evgeny, worked on the apartment blocks.

Day trip to Baikalskoe

The apartment blocks long complete, Evgeny is now working on a series of trails and walks with the help of volunteers towards the lofty aim of someday encircling the entirety of Lake Baikal.

The little wooden village of Baikalskoe is a 1 hour, bumpy local bus-ride south from Severobaikalsk, and is home to a small jetty and a 14km trail along the undulating western coastline of Lake Baikal.

20130615-113729.jpgA cow crosses the main road in Baikalskoe village. The trail heads up the hill beyond the church

The trail contains some lovely wooden sculptures of animals; a cow, reindeer, fox, and after recognising a sable, we thought they were getting quite exotic and we wondered what might be next, a woolly mammoth or dinosaur perhaps? The very next sculpture, I kid you not, was a pterodactyl.

The trail took us up and down, through open field and forest, cliff-top and pebbled beach, each with spectacular views of the countryside and the lake

20130620-155936.jpgUs on Cape Ludar, just north of Baikalskoe village

The water is clean enough to drink, and the air must be the cleanest we’ve ever seen as the forest floor is carpeted in various flavours of lichen. I specifically said flavours because there’s a moss-like lichen that reindeer find very tasty!

20130615-122145.jpgOne of the many lichens

Before we got the return bus, Anya had arranged a traditional fish meal for us with the locally famous Gertrude and her family. Gertrude makes little fish pies that are a lot like pasties, and sells them in the village. They were so good that we think this is the reason she’s so well known. Dinner consisted of freshly made fish soup, fish pie, and homemade berry crumble fingers. Yum. Gertrude and her granddaughter Anya made us feel so welcome in their home.

20130615-123206.jpgCows waiting patiently for the bus back to Severobaikalsk

Trek to the Gulag mica mining camp

Close by Severobaikalsk are a couple of abandoned gulag mining camps. En-route to the northern one, and accompanied by Pavel who discovered it, our guide Rada stopped frequently to point out many of the local monuments to the construction of the town and the railway. After a team of tunnel-builders completed each of the 4 BAM tunnels nearby, they constructed a monument to their achievement and threw a party.

20130620-143934.jpgBAM Tunnel monuments, and Julie, Anya and I making silly shapes..

The trek to the gulag camp was overgrown but very pleasant. While the body treks forward, the mind wanders backward, imagining what it must have have felt like to be one of the 200 bourgeoise exiled to Siberian manual labour, walking this very path a lifetime ago.

20130620-144118.jpgOnly foundations remain of this former mica mining gulag camp

Only foundations remain of the camp’s buildings, the odd pan and mining wagons lie scattered about the place, as if the camp was suddenly liberated, leaving the forest to slowly reclaim what was once a man-made clearing.

20130615-230248.jpgRemains of the kitchen building, containing giant pots

After a spot of lunch, the climb continued albeit at a steeper gradient to the mica mines themselves. We visited the entrance to 3 mines, all of them flooded, their entrances collapsed and strewn with small trolleys used to transport the mica.

20130618-184256.jpgMica mine entrances, at one of the gulag camps near Severobaikalsk

Geothermal hot springs

Because of the seismic activity in the area, there are a number of geothermal hot springs and given Julie’s love of saunas, banyas and all things hot, we had to check them out..

20130617-192029.jpgEnjoying the (very) hot springs in Goudzhekit

We really enjoyed the springs. The friendly attendant topped up the waters from the source until it got almost too hot to sit in them!

And so to our Severobaikalsk round up..

What photo takes you right back to Severobaikalsk?

When Lake Baikal starts to thaw, it does so in icicle-like shards, which make a distinctive glassy sound as they chink together with movement of the water and the wind.
A couple of weeks before we arrived, a suspected earthquake created a large wave on the lake, which deposited these icicles on the northern shore. It is a very rare spectacle, and one which all the locals came to see and climb!

20130619-150330.jpgUs on the ice crystals at the top of Lake Baikal. Photo credit: Rada ;)

Summarise Severobaikalsk in three words.

  • Deceptive – at first glance, there doesn’t seem a lot to occupy your time with, but after a cup of tea with Anya you will be wishing you had budgeted more days in Severobaikalsk because there are so many varied and interesting things to do
  • Unspoiled – it’s a small place, with great views of the lake from trails, beaches and cliff-top forests in and around. We didn’t see any other tourists, nor much in the way specifically for them
  • Railway – built in Soviet times to support the construction of the BAM, the town has that functional, built-to-last quality about it. The only building that stands apart, strangely, is the very modern looking train station!

You really know you’re in Severobaikalsk when…

You think you’ve walked two or three blocks, but really you’ve only walked one – the apartment blocks are numerous and well spaced out.

What one item should you definitely pack when going to Severobaikalsk?

We were there in tick season (May-June), and even if you’ve had the vaccinations, you’re still not 100% safe from catching encephalitis, so anti-tick spray and vigilance are essential if you intend to go trekking.

A Spectacular View

On Thursday, after a slightly stressful morning and a very long and bumpy ride in a minibus, we arrived at Nikita’s Homestead on Olkhon Island just in time for dinner. After a tasty meal surrounded by more tourists than we’ve seen in the last two months we decided to go for a walk. Just behind the complex of guest rooms we found a clifftop path and an incredible view…

20130617-101443.jpgShaman rock in the bay at Khuzir, Olkhon Island

20130617-102159.jpgWe sat on the cliffs watching the sun set, and were rewarded with beautiful clouds