After getting married in September 2010 we decided to do the opposite of settling down; so we packed up our life, stuffed it in our parent's attic and hit the road for what is essentially an extended honeymoon! We started our trip on 29th December 2010 spending 4 months travelling overland through Europe, Russia and Mongolia to China. After many a train and bus journey we caved-in and flew from Western China to Malaysia, and worked our way north to Thailand and Cambodia. The time came for us to replenish our bank accounts, so we headed to Western Australia for work in July 2011 and lived in Fremantle until February 2012. After a couple of months back home seeing our families and friends, we headed back down-under. This time we headed for New Zealand and we are currently living in Wellington. Our blog started as part of an elaborate wedding present from two of our very good friends. The idea was that on our trip we should blog from every country we visit, detailing the sights, sounds and smells and most importantly, the beer. We have certainly had fun writing it - but moreso, living it!

Monday, 28 March 2011

Olkhon Island, Russia (4th - 8th March)

Charlotte satisfied after a tasty meal in the canteen at Nikita's.

We greatly enjoyed four fabulous days on the island of Olkhon in the middle of Lake Baikal. To give you some context to what kind of a place this is, here are some fun facts about Lake Baikal and Olkhon:

1. Lake Baikal, at 1637m deep, is the world's deepest lake.
2. It is 400 miles long and between 20 and 40 miles wide.
3. It is the world's oldest lake, formed almost 50 million years ago.
4. It contains more than 20,00 cubic kilometres of water, roughly 20% of the world's freshwater supplies. 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.
5. The water is incredibly clear and safe to drink owing to the filtering action of numerous types of sponge.
6. Lake Baikal also contains hundreds of species found nowhere else in the world.
7. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.
8. Olkhon is the largest island on Lake Baikal.
9. It is the same banana shape as the lake itself, and is 70km long and 15 km at it's widest point.
10. It is sparsely inhabited by native Buryats and Russians.
11. Olkhon got it's first electric powerlines in 2005.
12. Lots of people say that March is the best month of the year to visit Baikal and Olkhon, as it isn't too cold but the lake is still completely frozen. After two months of 'But why have you come in winter?' this was absolutely music to our ears.

Getting there:

We caught a marshrutka (minbus) from Irkutsk to Khuzhir on Olkhon, driving up Lake Baikal's western shore. After an extremely bumpy minibus ride, changing into two different minibuses, getting a flat tire in the middle of bloody nowhere, chuckling at a tortoise in a bag that kept trying to escape, and a delightful iced pee and poo encrusted hole in the floor toilet, we finally arrived at the shore of Lake Baikal. We were super chuffed as the last bus we had changed into was a cool and retro UAZ-452, think Soviet style VW Bay window Camper. And this was to be our super high tech mode of transportation across the lake! After bouncing over the shore line, we raced across the frozen lake in this noisy bus, hitting our heads on the roof every time there was a large bump in the ice. It was brilliant.

Our accommodation:

We stayed at Nikita's Homestead, in the largest village on the island, Khuzhir. The place is run by an ex-table tennis champion and his wife, and is a collection of traditionally constructed wooden houses containing small, cosy double or single rooms, with bio toilets to share (Olkhon has no running water). The downside to these traditional houses was realised on our second night here when our electicity suddenly went off. Looking out of the window, we quickly summised that the barking dogs, people running about and lots of buckets of water being passed around, meant that the building next to ours was in fact on fire. We quickly evacuated, fearing that ours being next door would be next, but the locals and the fire brigade managed to keep it pretty well contained. The extent of the fire meant that the entire first floor of the building was now in ashes blowing around in the wind, only the brick chimney remained.

Aside from the fire - Nikita's has lots of perks! All meals are included here at the traditional canteen, so we really enjoyed being fed better over four days than we had been over the last two months! The food was basic but lovely; breakfast was fried eggs, porridge and pancakes with homemade jam, lunch was soup, a potato and veg based salad and fish, and tea was generally a meat dish served with potatoes or buckwheat, with again some kind of salad and fish on the side. The fish was the freshest we'd ever had and was absolutely beautiful. The last two evenings our dinner was accompanied by a traditional Russian musician, who sung and played the accordion, piano and guitar. It was interesting to note that Russians seem to have quite a lot of traditional songs that everybody knows and can sing along to. Is the nearest we have to this in the UK 'Agadoo'?! Depressing! There were also a bunch of Germans who entertained us by singing drinking songs, including one where they did a lot of standing up and sitting down in quick succession.

Another bonus that we enjoyed at Nikita's was bathing using a traditional Russian banya. After reserving your time in the banya using the timetable outside, you undress in the first room before hurrying into the warmer second room. There there is a very hot tap with water heated from the sauna, which you mix with cold water from the barrels to enable you to wash. The third room is a traditional sauna, which can be heated further by throwing water on the hot stones. So the general gist of the banya is to wash, bake in the sauna, throw cold water over yourself, bake, throw cold water over yourself (repeat as often as you want!) and then to have another final wash before redressing. One missing part of a traditional experience is that there would normally be birch provided to whip yourself with whilst in the sauna (Charlotte was rather relieved that no birch was provided).

What we spent our time doing:

A lot of our time in olkhon was spent with activities out on the ice. On our first full day in Olkhon we hiked out the back of Nikita's for a fantastic view of the lake, including of a recently cleared ice skating rink on the lake. Olkhon is partially populated by Buryats, so some of the large rocks in the lake are sacred to them. We were warned not to 'touch the rocks or scream nearby'(!). Reverence for trees is an important part of Buryat tradition. They especially revere large or unusual trees, which are believed to be the residence of powerful spirits. They may be honored by tying on pieces of cloth or placing offerings of tobacco or coins to the spirit of the tree. It was very odd to see trees with cloth tied round them, with lots of coins and cigarettes placed at the bottom of the trunk. We then headed down to the shoreline to walk out across the frozen lake. It was fascinating to examine all the cracks in the ice and try to determine how deep the freeze was. In the middle of the lake we sat down on the ice and listened to the utter silence that surrounded us. No cars, no birds, no people, nothing. Just the sound of us breathing. For lunch we stopped by one of the village shops to pick up some freshly smoked Omul (the most popular fish from Lake Baikal). After picking some of the meat off we were grossed out by the fact it wasn't gutted and so left it for one of the numerous roaming dogs to enjoy. The village seems more populated with dogs (and the occasional cow) than it does with people. As it's Siberia, they're pretty hefty looking dogs with great big coats to keep them warm, and their barking at us did nothing to endear them to Charlotte. At dusk we had fun exploring an old abandoned factory and shipyard, with lots of old boats coated in snow and ice. One of the boats was huge and welded to the rickety pier with thick ice. It made for quite an eerie atmosphere, although it was interesting looking at the old boats. It is also the start of one of the ice roads so we enjoyed watching the soviet vans bumping over the shoreline before hitting the smoothness of the actual road. Another day we hired bikes to take out on the ice. They were pretty impressive mountain bikes, with huge tires that had tiny metal studs protruding from them to help you to stay upright on the ice roads. We had masses of fun whizzing about the ice on the them and exploring our surroundings a little more.

Another day we went on an excursion organised by the accommodation. We were picked up in the morning (in, joy of joys, one of the UAZ-452 Soviet vans) and driven up to the north of the island. The driver spoke very little English but enjoyed trying to explain to us where we were in each place nonetheless. Our first stop was a huge rock in the lake that the water had been thrashing up against before freezing, causing some interesting ice formations which we had fun photographing. The ice looked in parts really bulbous and plastic-like, the kind of thing which if you saw in film you wouldn't believe was quite real! We then headed across the lake towards the mainland. As we got closer to the mainland the ice started to become much clearer (rather than being covered in frost or snow like much of the lake) and our driver enjoyed doing some huge silent 360 degree spins in the ice. When we got off the bus near the shore, we realised that the ice was clear enough for us to be able to see the rocks on the bottom of the lake below us. We then collected fresh water from a stream that was feeding the lake, which was delicious. Then we drove towards the northern shore of the island, impeded at one point by a naturally formed ice 'wall' which we guess was a natural fault line created where the ice had shifted and been driven upwards. After driving up and down the wall looking for a way over, we finally found a route. We were treated to further vast landscapes of ice and mountains, and got off the bus to take some photographs within an ice cave. We walked out onto the lake before rejoining our driver, who had by that point reheated our lunch (of fresh fish and veg wrapped up in foil) on the engine of the van. Classic :) After a well needed refuel, and a cheeky tea with a dash of cognac, we headed off once more to our final destination. This was the Khoboy Cape which is another sacred place for Buryats, as there is the face of a woman which can be seen jutting out from the rock, hence it is known as Deva (maiden) Rock. There was a rather disconcertinly large crack here, with the water visible beneath it, and we could also hear the ice cracking in other places on the lake which sounded like distant explosions. However, our driver didn't seem in the least concerned and therefore neither were we! There were some people who were diving through a large hole made in the ice, who were on the end of a long string so they could find their way back to the hole. Rather them than us! We had fun getting paranoid that any moment a face would come looming up from beneath our feet and knock on the ice! The van then returned us to our accommodation for dinner and a banya.

Olkhon is perhaps the most incredible place we have ever visited. Although we don't feel that any blog post could really do our experience justice, we hope that the above goes someway towards explaining why we loved it so much. :) We would love to visit again in summer and do some more hiking, but it is unlikely to be quite as beautiful as in the wintertime. Definitely our highlight of our time in Russia!

Olkhon Island, Russia

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