Every time we happened to mention to our friends and family that we are going to Siberia in the mid of winter they all had the same reaction… «are you crazy?» Well, that ‘s no entirely true , most of our friends were adding the word f*cking in between! If you have already read the previous posts regarding Siberia you should know that the temperature at the moment is between -20℃ to -35℃ depending on the place! I wouldn’t change a thing though. Especially after our excursion to Olkhon island, a frozen diamond in the middle of Lake Baikal!
Olkhon island is the biggest island in lake Baikal and is inhabited by around 1,500 Buryats. Buryats is an ethnic group originally from the Northern Mongolia that arrived in this area many centuries ago, in Ulan-Ude for example more than 20% of the locals are Buryats hence the region is called Buryatia. The island is special mainly for two reasons: unbelievable natural beauty especially in wintertime and shamanism practices.
We arranged a 2-day tour through Baikaler.com which had great reviews and we didn’t regret it! Our guide, Jack, is extremely knowledgeable regarding the island, the history, the people and the culture, he shared funny stories with us and even convinced Igor, our driver, to drive through tricky snowy/iced paths (I wouldn’t consider these «roads» though!) so we could enjoy inaccessible parts of the island!
February is the perfect month to visit the island, as the ice is formed in amazing shapes, the cracks have created an incredibly beautiful scenery and (of course!) the lake is totally frozen! You can walk and drive on it and in fact, as obviously there is no winter ferry, people drive from the MRS village of the mainland to reach the island!
Some parts of the ice are so clear that you can observe the seabed – hmmm not very accurate description as Baikal is the deepest lake of the world! However, you can spot at least why I titled this post (and the island) diamond, can’t you?
Jack took us also for a walk around the main village of the island – Khuzir- and showed us the main holy shamanism places. People’s primary income used to be from the local fish factory but, since it shut down, tourism has (tried to) replaced the gap. Tourists are mainly from China, Thailand, Korea and less from Europe and America; however it is not that difficult to reach the island. The closest city , Irkutsk , has an international airport and a Trans-Siberian Railway stop and the island is about 4 hours away by car / local busses.
Next to the village is also located one of the nine Asian most sacred places, the Shamanka (Shaman’s rock – Shamans still consider Olkhon island as the shamanism centre of the North Hemisphere) and close to the northern part of the island there are the ruins of a gulag (forced labour prison) along with some tourists facilities– the island has such a controversial history!
Leaving behind this amazing place you can only think about the tribes that lived here, the shamanism theories which leaded people’s life perception and about how extreme beliefs can cause unbelievable crimes against humans. On the other hand, you are also magnetized by the unbeaten beauty of the nature that, even in such severe conditions, can surprise anyone… I am unsure of which feeling is the most powerful but I do not have to pick up one, right? I will just consider this as a traveller’s internal parallel battle.
Watch a small HQ video from Olkhon island HERE
So, what do you think? Would you add this island on your bucket list?