Surviving the journey to Baikal
We were picked up at 8am by our chain smoking bus driver, who had three fingers on each hand and a death wish. Lake Baikal lies 40 miles south of the city of Irkutsk and from there, it’s four hours to the remote island of Olkhon, where we’d be spending the next three nights. The journey was terrifying. We endured seven hours of misery, being slammed around at impossible speeds along miles of dirt track littered with potholes and rocks, swerving wayward cows, with Russian techno blaring relentlessly on the stereo. But even the horror of the journey couldn’t take away from the breath-taking first views of Lake Baikal, an enormous mirror of endless deep blue, so flat it was hard to tell the sky from the water.
Set midway along Lake Baikal’s western shore, Olkhon is only accessible by ferry which provided a short but welcome relief from the torture bus. Our final destination was the village of Khuzir, a dusty ramshackle collection of wooden houses surrounded by dirt roads, which despite being the largest settlement on the island felt all but deserted. It was one of the strangest places we’d ever seen – Wild West mixed with a bit of Scandinavia, plus a sprinkling of Deliverance. The local ‘supermarket’ contained just one or two of each item on sale, meaning our purchase of two beers and a bottle of water pretty much wiped out their entire supply, forcing us to shop in a rival establishment down the road when we fancied another the following day.
The lack of people was countered by the large number of cows, who would emerge from hidden alleys and wander through back gardens without any obvious owner or clear pasture. We were somewhat alarmed by the lack of branding or defined, fenced-off field for them to graze. “But who the hell do they belong to?” I questioned as we stumbled across yet another herd sniffing through some rubbish. “Maybe they’re communal for the whole village?” replied El. “You just go up and milk them straight into your tea and no one actually owns them.” I nodded, pondering this wise response. In the end we concluded they must be wild.
We were staying at Nikita’s Homestead, an amazing complex of log cabins, with its own restaurant, bar and sauna(?!) all constructed and run by volunteers from Irkutsk and beyond, keen to learn new languages from foreign tourists. The food was delicious. Pancakes and porridge for breakfast and a buffet style dinner with salads, rice, local fish caught from the lake (Omul or Greyling) and other local delicacies. And, joy of joys, we finally got our clothes properly laundered. Exhausted but glad to be out of the city (and alive), we settled in for an early night. The next day we’d be exploring the oldest, deepest lake on Earth.
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