Monday, 20 June 2016

Olkhon, a gorgeous and impressive island in Lake Baikal

Once again, this is no faraway land on the extreme North - this time we are in deep southern Siberia. For me, Thule means not only maritime remote locations, but also remote interior locations which can be accessed by a river or a lake, and with a special, odd, magic feeling, and outstanding beauty.

Olkhon is one of these: the largest island in Lake Baikal, once a prison for imperial and soviet dissidents, is now a dream paradise of an island. To get there, the trans-siberian long route from Moscow, Vladivostok or Pekin is a must - or at least from Irkutsk, a 7 to 8 h ride. Many boats and ferries daily cross Baikal waters to Olkhon in the warm season.

And, though this is not Arctic at all - in fact, it's rather mediterranean ! - the frozen waters of the extremely cold Baikal winter also make for a fine ice holiday in February or March.

Olkhon Island

At 53° 09' N, 107° 23' W, the island measures 70 km long and 15 km wide, and is one of the major tourist attractions on the lake; bays and sandy beaches framed between rocks and cliffs - it's like an amazing seaside resort in the middle of Siberia.

The island is a combination of taiga (larch, pine and birch), steppe and even a small desert of sand dunes, constantly moving under the wind's command and direction.

Cabin over Peschanaya Bay.

Peschanaya Bay is one of the best sand stripes; here some unusual trees grow with exposed roots over the sand.

Peschanaya bay's sandy beach. 

There is also a small salted lake inland - a lake within the lake ! - , the small Shara-Nur, known for its healing sulphurous mud:

Shara-Nur is a Buryat name. Surrounded by forests and hills, its shallow waters are warm in summer.

People have lived in Olkhon for centuries: they are Buryat, an ethnic group of people that live in shamanism belief and have a legend of Creation of their own; several sites on the island are sacred places of their cult. Russians (cossacks) only came in the 17th century, and in imperial as well as in soviet times the Buryat were left to themselves, even when a prison was built for dissidents.

Until recently the Buryat subsisted poorly on the lake's resources and a few goats, used to centuries of remoteness and abandon; but in 2005 came electricity to the island, together with TV and internet and a small income increase; now they have learned to work in... 'tourism' ! Guest houses, restaurants, travel guides, dogsleds hiring...

Cape Burkhan, a sacred place of Buryat shamanism.

Probably the best-known postcard from Baikal.

The main village is Khuzhir, with most of the usual services - health centre, post, grocery, restaurants and hotels, even a small Olkhon Museum, bike renting...

Khuzhir, Хужир

Coordinates:  53° 11′ N, 107° 20′ E
Population ~ 1300

The fortified village still keeps part of the former prison's wooden palisade.

And inevitably a few izbas, more or less well-cared for:

Watermelons for sale.

'The' Internet-Café.

The small but richly decorated orthodox church Bozhiyey Materi Derzhavnaya was built in 2000.

Panorama 360º here.

The best treasure, though, is the territory itself.

Cape Sagan-Kushun - Blue bay.

Uzuri Bay, close to Khuzhir - fine grained sand and mild waters:

Cape Khoboy  is the northernmost  tip of Olkhon:

Located at the northernmost extremity, it has a walkable ridge that leads to the edge of the mountain overlooking the lake. 

An Island out-of-time, Treasure Island, Island of Neverland, Island of the Day Before...

And then comes winter:

With Baikal surface frozen, cape Burkhan looks quite different.

As does Cape Khoboy' s nothernmost ridge.

The frozen waters of lake Baikal are a Nature wonder. The deep blue mirrored surface is crossed by fracture nervures in a rich variety of patterns.

By sledge, SUV, hydrofoil, bycicle or even on horse, many enjoy wondering on the lake's solid waters.

Lake Baikal is frozen from February to March.

"Lake Baikal is situated seventeen hundred feet above the level of the sea. Its length is about six hundred miles, its breadth seventy. Its depth is not known."(...)"This immense basin of fresh water, fed by more than three hundred rivers, is surrounded by magnificent volcanic mountains. The sun set at five o’clock in the evening, and during the long nights the temperature fell to zero. (...)The first snows, which would last till summer, already whitened the summits of the neighboring hills. During the Siberian winter this inland sea is frozen over to a thickness of several feet, and is crossed by the sleighs of caravans."

Jules Verne, Michel Strogoff.

Khuzhir in Christmas season.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Scalloway, on Shetland's atlantic coast: Up Helly Aa !

The Shetland Islands are closely related to Pytheas arctic sailing adventure in quest of the farthest Thule - he probably sailed eastwards to the Scandinavian coast, but he may well have harboured at the Islands.

Twenty centuries later, Walter Scott and Stevenson visited the Shetlands and Scalloway. Then in Victorian times the Shetland Islands were greatly in demand by tourist ships in Thulean wonder. The present days are calmer and better anyway, as life standards have increased and there is a large choice of connections - ferries, flights - with Scotland's mainland.

Lerwick is a vibrant little town, I gave notice of it here on U.T.. Scalloway, on the west coast of Mainland, is the second largest settlement on the islands, a pretty village of about a thousand people with a growing number of visitors. They can find there a Hotel, Guest Houses, Museum, Castle, History, a coloured waterfront, and a lively little port, well known since the Hanseatic era - for Scalloway was at the time a sheltered harbour on a northern route from Hamburg and Bergen.

Scalloway was then called Schaldewage. Ships from Hamburg, Bremen and Lubeck sailed to Shetland every summer, bringing seeds, cloth, iron tools, salt, spirits and harder currency.

Coordinates: 60° 08′ N, 1° 16′ W
Population: ~ 1000

Scalloway (Old Norse:Skálavágr ~ "bay with large house") is presently the largest settlement on the North Atlantic coast of Mainland Shetland. Until 1708 it was even the capital of the Shetland Islands.

The Waterfront

A few houses by the water's edge have been restored recently, some with a side or front private pier.

The historic waterfront, with the purple "booth".

After the war Scalloway served as harbour of the Shetland-Orkney ferry service on the Scalloway–Stromness route.

The 'Main street' runs along the shore, with a row of colourful two-storey houses.

Scalloway Castle is located near the quay and the Museum. Built in 1600 by Patrick Stewart, second Earl of Orkney, the old ruins of the Castle are the most notable feature of the village.

In use for only a short time, the castle fell into disrepair since 1615.

But Scalloway is worth a larger stroll around, along Main Street, the pier and side alleys.

The beginning of Main Street.

Gabled stone houses and colorful painted house rows.

New Street. Most buildings were built in the early 19th century.

The Old Haa

The Old Haa, at the end of New Street.

Shetland's Haa are large, substantial houses, with pronounced garrets, rising high and aloof above their surroundings.

The Old Haa ('laird's house') of Scalloway, in New Street opposite to the docks, is a 1750 three storey gabled house, currenrtly under restoration.

Church of Scotland

Built in 1840-41, the small kirk is a square building with a piended roof and a bellcote above the entrance porch. White-painted horseshoe gallery and pews and red carpets make the interior bright and welcoming.

Little charming details elsewhere:

Kirkpark view.

The water edge's 'booth' in spring.

Alley detail.

Modern cast iron railings. Ironwork is also a local tradition.

This house was until recently Yealtaland bookshop and Post Office.

The oldest and grandest hotel.

The docks

For hundreds of years the salt fish trade was in the hands of German merchants of the Hanseatic League. Today, the little port still gets busy when the ships unload.

Fishing industry is, as always, one of the main activities in Scalloway

Scalloway is also the location of the North Atlantic Fisheries College, which offers courses and supports research in fisheries sciences, aquaculture, marine engineering and coastal management.

'Up Helly Haa' festival

Up Helly Aa is an yearly fire festival in Shetland in the middle of winter, to mark the end of the yule season. The festival involves a procession of some hundreds guizers formed into squads who march through the town or village in a variety of themed costumes.

The Scalloway Festival has a procession of torch-bearing guizers, accompanying a Viking longship (or “galley”) through the village from Lovers Lane, singing and cheering all the way down New Street and onto Main Street.

After arriving at the port, they sing the traditional Up Helly Aa songs as the galley is launched into the sea, filled with the flaming torches, where it burns in all its glory.

After the galley has burned, the festival moves to several venues where the party continues well through the night.

This madness only happens at the end of January. Then returns the undisturbed, quiet Scalloway, its almost permanent character.