As travellers mount trains from Moscow weary of the 7 days of travel to come they pass dozens of Siberia's empty stations, fields and pine forest; only a few places stand out as must-sees. Lake Baikal stands out the most! The lake is a huge mass of water that faintly aligns with the sky, seemingly shrouded in mist. It is the largest fresh water Lake and also the deepest lake in the world. You'd be forgiven for thinking you were on a beach gazing over the ocean not at 1000km in-land. Finding this in the heart of Siberia is something of a surprise and what's more its a rare source of tourism, people from across the world are travelling to marvel at it.
When to travel
We travelled in early September, which was a perfect time to visit as high season had passed with fewer travellers, although still popular with Chinese tourists. The weather is still pleasant by day, getting colder in the evenings with 3 degrees being the lowest for us. We met some great people in Siberia, normally an older traveller who wants to get off the beaten path. We firmly recommend lake Baikal, more people need to see this stunning and remote part of the world. Of course in the full summer expect much higher temperatures and far busier beaches.
How to get there
From the Trans-Siberian train most travellers get off at either Irkutsk or 9 hours down the line at Ulan Ude. If you opt for Ulan Ude the train will snake around the lake for large parts of the journey giving you a little peak of its scale before heading in land to U U. We got off at Irkutsk, with 8 days to explore the area, taking mini buses to Olkhon island on the lake and later to Arshan in the mountains just North of Mongolia. If you plan on visiting the lake from Ulan Ude look on http://waytorussia.net/Siberia/UlanUde/Guide.html for information.
Getting from Irkutsk to Olkhon island
In Irkutsk, we stayed at the Rolling Stones hostel, which is one of the best rated in the city and was a great base for our two trips out of Irkutsk. The hostel was excellent, with cool modern decor and really friendly staff who all spoke perfect English and who were just as helpful with organising our local travel. They were able to book a private mini van (15 seater) to pick us up from our hostel for 900R (£13), which was only about 100R (£1.20) more than walking 15 minutes to the bus station and getting a ride there. The driver picked us up on time at 9am but be warned Russian drivers are reliably close to their stereotype; they speed like hell, overtake whenever they can, all have cracked windscreens, chain smoke and some don't have seat belts. We found the state run buses all had seat belts, and the drivers didn't smoke in the coach, perhaps consider the short walk to the bus station if those things are appealing!
The journey to the island
The journey takes around 6 hours and includes at least one stop at a cafe where you can buy an array of pastries, soups and sweet things, healthy snacks cannot be found so pack these before hand. Our outward journey driver stopped many times to pick up friends drop off bits and picked up some huge marrows! Which delayed our journey by an extra hour. It took about 5 hours to get to lake Baikal from Irkutsk but don't be fooled because as you cross the lake by ferry to the Island the fun is about to start. Being a National Park the authorities aren't allowed to put roads onto the island, you guessed it, cue uncomfortable gravel paths! This is quite fun for ten minutes but quite annoying after an hour, it takes that long to reach the main town of Khuzhir. Word of advice don't eat too much before hand! What we've failed to say is that during the bumpy ride you are surrounded by outstanding natural beauty that moves from badlands, to beaches, to tiny settlements to wooded areas all set against the lake and the Siberian landscape behind. We'll never forget it. Word is that because the path is so bumpy the mini van drivers have created many, unofficial, side routes across the fields, creating more damage to the park. A guy in a hostel said they plan to tarmac the gravel path for the summer of 2018 to prevent further paths being created, alas reduced sore bums! (fingers crossed).
Where to stay in Khuzhir
Arriving in the town of Khuzhir was pretty exciting. An eclectic mix of wooden shacks, Asian style structures, shamanic flags and loads of dogs. You're in the wild now! Having camped out all summer we were well equipped for wild camping, with many spots to choose from just 20 minutes walk down the sandy beach to the right of the Shaman rock. We had been recommended a spot that was actually set up for camping in that it was set behind sand dunes in a small forest with the odd long drop toilet around. The mini van driver laughed when he saw we were camping but there were a few other Russians there at this time of year. You should be prepared for all of natures eventualities with good kit, warm clothes, water, food, toilet roll etc. Definitely check the weather because the island gets crazy wind storms, which makes the lake have waves like the sea. For our trip in early September the weather was beautiful on the island; sunny days with a few clouds, although the lack of cloud cover meant for chilly evenings. Cue campfires made from scavenged timber! Oh and you can apparently drink the water from the lake making drinking, cleaning, cooking and eating a whole lot easier.
If camping is bit too wild then Khuzhir has many hostels and individually run homesteads. Trip advisor states Nikita's as the best and so you'll find it is also the most expensive, there are many other options, especially if you travel out of season like we did. In town you'll find supermarkets with basic provisions but it's almost cheaper to eat out in the many Russian/ Mongolian cafes. If you plan on spending cash and eating out be sure to bring money with you as Ohklon island has no cashpoints, they only got power from a grid in 2015! We brought water, food and cash from Irkutsk, which took a bit of forward planning. Once you are setup Khuzhir has quite few bits explore.
What to do from Khuzhir
Every soul that visits the island must see the Shaman rock, it was by far the busiest part of the town. If you're camping you would have already passed it, signalled by ribbons dancing in the wind, poles with animals carved onto them and the large rock where the Shaman once lived. The quietness, the flapping ribbons, the sunset all combine to create a spiritual ambience. This is contrasted by many other people also trying to have their bit of the mysticism, with the faint click of an SLR never far off. It's still a beautiful place and a photographers dream setting. We witnessed two beautiful sunsets from the rock but be careful; It's worth reading the notice board, as there are many things can bring bad luck on you, drinking alcohol there is one of them.
Many travellers take a mini van up to the northern edge of the island, where there are cliffs and views of the main mass of the lake Baikal. The snag is this journey is a 7 hour round trip with only 30 minutes viewing time on the northern end. To us this seemed silly as Khuzhir and the surrounding areas are all stunning too. So we shunned getting another van and explored the local area walking the beaches for hours either side of town. We witnessed destroyed boats, quirky wooden structures, hills of sand, unfinished buildings and crumbling concrete towers. I think we made a good choice as we spent the whole day soaking up the local ambience, with a day full sunshine, barely seeing another person. Most tourists just go to the shaman rock and the northern bay. This isn't a place with lots to do, more so a place to relax and allow the setting to wash over you, it reminded us a lot of the end of the world in Patagonia, you can read about that trip here.
We bumped into some friends from our Trans Siberian train journey, they had taken an excursion across to a number of smaller islands by speed boat, seeing white seals on the way, whilst also getting a view of the island from sea. This can be organised from town via a homestead or you can ring a local number with the right SIM card. That evening we met for dinner at 8pm. Feeling like we were aged 12 again, pre smartphone, when you met a friend not knowing if they were going to turn up on time! We ate traditional Russia/ mongol cuisine, which was tasty and pretty beefy, very cheap and satisfying after a days walking. They serve a local fish dish called Omul, which was so popular it had run out when we were there. If you find yourself eating out in Khuzhir try it. We also heard of a trek up one of the local mountains but the route started out of town, for those driven trekkers you could arrange a car to take you to the starting point, information can be found the tourism office.
Returning to Irkutsk
We had two days on Olkhon before an early start so we could take our camp down. We had a mini van arranged to pick us up from outside Nikita's homestead for 9.30am, organised by Rolling Stones Hostel. We're sure that most hostels in Irkutsk can organise this for you. Another 6 hours of travelling later and we were back in Irkutsk planning our trip to Arshan. Travelling around these parts isn't too difficult but remember that there's only one or two mini vans each day and they leave in the morning so be organised to ensure you don't miss them and have to wait 24 hours.
Google translate came in handy for translating menus and signs, we didn't meet many locals who spoke English so be ready to point, do charades or draw your way out of any language barriers. We got a tip off from a Russia later in our the trip that Baikal Vodka is one of the best in Russia and its organic. Bottles are cheap in the local area so pick one up. This last tip might actually be a fable used to scare campers from staying on the beach. One of the locals told a guy at the hostel that bears roam the beaches of Olkhon island looking for food leftovers. Whereas much of the literature says there no bears on the island. Scare factor to keep people in homesteads? Or are there mystical bears roaming the beaches? Who knows? What we did find out on our last day is that there are 13,000 bears in Siberia, that's a lot of bears!
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