Wandering North: Olkhon Island

Roughly in the middle of the largest freshwater lake in the world, Lake Baikal, lies an island named Olkhon Island. Sources claim that this name means ‘little forest’ in the local buryat language, and although I didn’t ask anyone to verify this, it’s a pretty accurate description of the eastern side of the island. From Irkutsk we headed there for a week, time enough we reasoned, to do some exploring.

DSC_0174The theme for our hikes in Russia seem to be taking common tourist areas and activities and doing them slightly differently- by abandoning the transport and using our feet. Still, there was a real, palpable difference between our Circum-Baikal walk and our trek on Olkhon Island, the largest island in Lake Baikal, around 70 kilometres north of Irkutsk. In comparison to Slyudyanka and the Circum-Baikal Railway Olkhon is a tourist attraction for Westerners, not just Russians. We met not just one, but several international tourists on the way there and the central town was obviously a tourist base, filled with hostels, souvenirs and ‘excursion’ booths. Scattered all across Olkhon are holy sites, geological formation and breath-taking lake views, and it is from this central town that people get everywhere.

Most of the island is ‘empty’ however, pure nature. As far as we could tell from our only partially adequate map, obtained in Irkutsk, the North was more diverse, with fields, forest, and sand dunes providing a varied landscape to walk through. The walk we had planned (and got approved by the small, squat dame in the National Park office) was a two night, three day trek from the centre of the Island to the northernmost tip and back. By the middle of the first day we realised that the track on the map did not exist on the ground. We saw that even the established ‘roads’ deviated from their supposed routes, and that most tracks had been formed either by cows of 4×4 cars. Soon we were strolling across the hilly, dry landscape based on an approximate direction, the sunburnt grass crunching underfoot.

DSC_0183Our day’s journey brought us past several beaches, a children’s summer camp, countless cows, and forest with roads that seemed to consist sole of potholes or deep, deep ruts. The undulating green-grey hills seemed to go on indefinitely. Villages we passed through were small, with little or no sign of movement or life. In fact the only time we saw a sign of life in a village was when two small chiwawas escaped from their garden and began to nip our heels, chasing us out of town while the owner called at them in vain.

DSC_0225Surrounded by the largest body of freshwater in the world, you’d think that you’d have no issues with water. You’ be wrong. By the middle of our first day the coast was getting steeper and steeper and the hills were more difficult to amble across. We knew (from conversations rather from our undecipherable map) that access to water got more and more scares the further North you got. For the entirety of our second day, there was nowhere to fill up our water bottles. It was no good knowing we were surrounded by drinkable water, as we were not going to risk climbing down cliffs to get at it.

This lack of water made day two more tricky. The temperature was heading upward of 30 degrees Celsius, the ‘breeze’ felt more like an oven fan had been turned on. Compounding to this was tiredness- we had chosen to sleep on a slope the evening before for the better views (totally worth it). The day wore on, passing ever steeper hills, isolated horses, a helicopter landed in a field. Day two also held more of the official ‘sights’. Upon reaching the North, you get a wide variety of capes, coves, and cliffs to ogle at. Not surprisingly, those not run down by thousands of tourist feet were somehow more emotional, more meaningful and more beautiful.

DSC_0261It is bizarre how, when you take the time to do something in a way that is unusual, you suddenly find that you have even the most tourist-y places to yourself. Wake up three hours earlier, walk instead of take the bus, cycle instead of train, and you get a completely different experience to the one sold in the tour package. On Olkhon, you find a strange kind of isolation, with motorized vehicles passing, tourists hanging out of the sides with their cameras and ‘go-pros’; but it is a high speed version of life passing you by. These trips, which cost between 800 and 1000 roubles take the whole day and visitors are dropped off at different sights for short breaks before being bundled back into the cars and driven further. Having seen the road condition, we were thankful to be walking, a sentiment which was only strengthened through conversations with tourists later on.

DSC_0197The buses missed the details which made me love the island. The white spider that hid amongst the purple sand-dune flowers. The herd of horses that bickered amongst themselves before fleeing from the vans, into the forest. The smaller holy sites, covered in fluttering, multi-coloured cloth and surrounded by coins which seemed like wishing wells without the water. The small marmots that peeked over the edge of their boroughs, or scampered, tails in the air in alarm, from one entrance to the next. The caterpillars that worked their way around the forest- or even the small spiders that turned the evening floor silvery with their webs, hovering like a magic carpet a few centimetres over the ground.

Getting away from it all was so, so worth it.

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