40 – Understanding Sylvain Tesson (the mighty Lake Baikal)

Who is Sylvain Tesson, you may ask? Mr. Tesson is a (very good-looking, by the way) french traveller-journalist who took part in all sorts of crazy projects, from cycling around the world, crossing Himalaya on foot, walking from Yakutsk to Calcutta (following the alleged tracks of Slawomir Rawicz) to living for 6 months alone in a cabin on the shores of Lake Baikal. However, when one sees the lake for the first time, calling Tesson crazy somehow becomes less plausible.. Thanks to Andrei for recommending the book.

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Northern shores of Lake Baikal

July 24

Some 20-odd hours after leaving Krasnoyarsk, my train finally reaches Irkutsk. I try to ask people around the station where does the bus to Olkhon leave from, and I get 5 different replies. I let it go and get to my hotel instead. The staff speaks excellent english and I ask them the same thing. The receptionist comes back to me in about 10 minutes and offers that a private bus collects me from the hotel the following day at 9 and takes me to Khuzhir for 800 rubles (public transport is about 600 rubles, so it’s definitely worth it).

July 25

We leave Irkutsk at 9 am as planned and arrive to Olkhon about 7 hours later. The queue of cars waiting to cross the channel is long, but buses and locals apparently have precedence, although no one wants to see any documents; and we leave the mainland on the second ferry that arrives. My hotel is – for local standards – total luxury. I have a bathroom with a shower and a real toilet in my room. There is no sewage on the island, so better not ask where does the wastewater end up. There are no ATMs either – so bring cash, although the supermarket and a few shops and cafes accept cards (but only if there is electricity, which goes off a couple of times a day) If you need to withdraw, cafe Irina will give you cash (depending on the amount of money in the cash desk) against charging your card, for a tiny commission of 10% (that I managed to negotiate down to 5, oh, the broker in me is hard to kill). You can do the same operation at the local post office (if you find it open) for no fee (some locals will insist that there is no post office in Khuzhir, but don’t trust them, it is situated close to the junction of the village’s two main streets, Baikalskaya and Lenina).

Khuzhir is a beautiful village that has been facing an unlikely tourist boom since a few years. Don’t expect a postcard-pretty italian seaside town; more like “Once upon a time in the West” kind of place. There are bars, eateries and shops, all of them look closed and abandoned, but they’re not. Sewage isn’t the only thing that’s missing, there are no roads, either. The high street is a wide dirt road where cows walk freely, friendly stray dogs roam between the eateries looking for whatever the guests don’t finish; and cars of any type and age race as if they were doing Rally Dakar. Outside the village, the “roads” are sort of like the magical ever-changing staircase in Harry Potter’s Hogwarts: you just chose the way most suitable for your car, but the road may not be there anymore 2 hours later, especially if it rains. The whole island seems a bit of a no-man’s-land. For the first time since I’m in Russia, no one shows the slightest interest in my documents, no one ever bothers to give you a piece of paper that would prove they keep some kind of books. And I am guessing that running cash only business will have something to do with it.

As I am having dinner at a cafe across the road from my hotel, deciding which way to organize my program for the next three days, the fate steps in. The waiter comes to ask for my help in translating (as if my russian was fit to translate anything at all), and leads me to a group of people just arrived from the mainland and are seeking accommodation. They are a group of 3 women and 1 man from the Czech Republic, travelling the Trans-siberian. We agree with their driver Evgeniy that he’ll take us on a tour around the island the following day and spend the rest of the evening together sharing a bottle of bulgarian grappa I got from my friends as a good-bye present (Thanks, Dodik, it lasted longer than I expected).

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first sunset over the lake

Jul 26

Zhenya picks us up at 8 am upon my insistence. And it was the greatest idea I’ve recently had. Every travel agency or private driver on the island will do the same itinerary. The agencies normally charge 1800 rubles per person, the private car costs 8000 per car and holds 4-6 people (plus you’ll have to pay 100 rubles pp entrance to the Natural Reserve). My advice – take the car and go early in the morning, EARLY being the operative word. We were the first to arrive everywhere, and if you are a photography obsessed freak like me, being at Cape Khoboi with no people or with 500 chinese tourists totally changes the situation. We stop in several places before reaching Khoboi. In small bay just outside Khuzhir, in a fishing village on a perfect sandy beach, at “Three Brothers Rock”, where morning fog still rises from the inlets all around us, and we arrive to the northernmost spot of the island, Cape Khoboi, where Zhenya leaves us to have a walk, and prepares lunch in the meanwhile.

Olkhon is populated mainly by indigenous Buryats, many of which still follow their traditional religion, shamanism, and Olkhon is considered to be one of the most sacred places in the world. People pray to spirits, and in signs of prayer or sacrifice tie colourful ribbons on trees all over the island, and Khoboi is one of the most popular spots of worship of the spirits. We picked the perfect day. Both the sky and the lake are deep blue, it’s hot, and for the whole morning there is not a single cloud in the sky. We come back to Khuzhir in mid-afternoon and hit the beach. The water is of course cold, but nowhere near as cold as Multyn Lakes, and it’s perfect for the hot day.

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The group: Vojtech, a 75 years old high school professor of math and physics and an amateur botanist, who has the gift to disappear in record time (because he goes looking for some obscure flower) and reappear miraculously just as everyone starts to worry; then there is Marie, his former student, and two twenty-something years old girls, Mirka and Barbora.

In the evening we go to the city centre and try to find a disco, or something similarly horrible to do, but the only “discobar” we find is silent, but full of retired german tourists, which is not exactly my idea of a fun night out. I give up shortly after midnight and I come back to the hotel, just to find out that my hiking shoes that I left tied to my terrace railing (in a vain hope that they would lose some of the aged cheese scent) are gone.

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Jul 27

I wake up early to go to talk to the landlady about my shoes; and she blames it on the dog. I may even believe that a dog is more likely to be attracted by my smelly boots than a human being, however I don’t see a dog being able to untie them from where they were hanging. But then again, Russians send dogs to outer space, they may as well train them to untie knots. I go for a walk to the city, and manage to rent a kayak for the following day and do some shopping for the barbecue that we had booked for the evening. I come back only to be met by the landlady, who merrily hands me my boots, claiming they had been found in the dog’s kennel (unchewed and still tied together). I pretend to believe it, thank her politely and think of it no longer. All is well that ends well.

Russian men: I thought the Italian men were bad when it comes to pretty women. But the Russians, or at least the Russians on this island, beat them. Men approach us all the time. Anywhere. For any excuse. And unlike Italians, it does not end with comments. Mainly, they ask where we are from, because they hear us talking in a slavic language. They are mostly nice, too. Only one – rather drunk – guy starts discourses about how all Slavs are brothers (which I may even agree with), but when he starts claiming that all Slavs were Russians, I am thinking that someone would punch him in the face (and rightly so) if he started talking like this in the Czech Republic, but I am a guest in this country, so I keet my opinions to myself and just smile politely, thinking it’s probably better to be treated as a sister than as an enemy.

Evening barbecue: we booked the grill for 7 pm, and there is already a group of Russians in a rather brio andante mode. We start preparing our fish, sausages and skewers, with no hurry, when they spontaneously take over. First they urge us to cut the wood. I reply that there is time, but the guy insists, drags one of us to the woodshed and starts chopping wood. Inside I am screaming “mind your own bloody business”, but that is somewhat of a difficult concept to explain to a drunk Russian armed with an axe. When he is satisfied with the fire (he chases us away every time someone tries to approach the fireplace), he takes our food and starts preparing it, and finally when he deems the food ready, he just brings it to our table and orders us to eat. Brilliant full service. I do have to admit that even in the state he currently is, he’s perfectly aware of what he’s doing. The grilled omul could as well be the best grilled freshwater fish I’ve ever had. To thank them, we share our vodka with them, which transforms the evening into an impromptu party. Probably “the evening degenerates” is a more suitable expression, as it ends with two drunk russian girls slapping each other for some reason my understanding of the language isn’t sufficient for.

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Jul 28

I open the door to my room at around 9 am only to find the two fighters from the previous evening on the grass, still wearing the same clothes, sharing a bottle of beer like two best friends. “Neither of us remembers how we got home”, they grin at me. “That’s because you didn’t”, I smile back, as they try to get me involved in their alcoholic matinée. I bugger off promptly to pick up my kayak for the afternoon. Seeing the coast from another perspective is beautiful, but it isn’t as easy as the make it look and it takes me a bit to get used to the thing, mainly because there are waves on the lake after the midday thunderstorm. Still, it’s a great experience. There is no place on the island that officially rents out kayaks, but one of the receptionists of Nikita’s Homestead, Rene, will rent out his own (he has a single and a twin), for about 150 rubles / hour. Depending on availability and your fitness, you can rent it for a couple of days, take food and a tent and paddle to one of the nearby islands and stay overnight.

Evening: banya on the shore of the lake, and jumping into the Bajkal naked straight from the boiling hot room feels just divine.

July 29

Last day on the island. I wake up very early to go on the Shaman Rock to take some good shots in the morning light, and more importantly, before everyone else arrives. Then back to Irkutsk, on marshrutka 504 (book the tickets in advance from the office by the bus stop). You may be more comfortable in a private minibus, but public transport is an experience. “Take the National Express, when your life’s in a mess, it’ll make you smile…”. The driver has no space for the luggage and no intention to tie our backpacks to the roof as some of his colleagues do. By the time we depart, the interior of the bus is a precise composition of human bodies and backpacks, however everyone manages to sit more or less comfortably. Every time we stop, the getting on and off resembles a masterclass of Tetris. We wait 3 hours under the boiling sun before it’s our turn to board the ferry (and it’s considered a short wait on this particular day). The heat takes its toll when the Russian tourists queuing for the ferry since forever (as marshrutkas and locals go first) start to argue with the poor bloke trying to bring some order to loading the ship and at one point the crowd even encircles the police officer left in charge of the precipitating situation and eventually forces their way on board (or at least that’s what it looks like).

The rest of the journey is more or less ok, and I manage to reach Irkutsk without major issues (except for 2 hours delay). I have originally wanted to get back to Irkutsk via water, there is allegedly a ferry on Saturdays, but apparently tickets have to be acquired in Irkutsk, there is no ticket office in Khuzhir. That is, supposing such ferry actually exists. If you ask 12 different people, you’ll get 12 different answers.

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Conclusion: Olkhon is a must for everyone travelling in Russia. It’s an awesome place. The scenery is beautiful, the people are friendly, the beach is never too crowded (it’s still a fairly remote island). And I have the best tan I have ever had. From Siberia, of all places.

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Next stop: Irkutsk and Arshan


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