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.