A beautiful Buddhist town at the foot of the Sayan mountains, this stunning backdrop has an aura of tranquility and an unbeatable charm. The brightly painted houses in hues of blue and greens spectacularly contrast with the crimson and yellows of the autumn leaves, and the pot-holed dirt tracks give an air of decay and timelessness. On the cusp where Russia meets Mongolia sits this sleepy village, which is a strange cultural mix of people, traditions, architecture and food, that all interestingly intertwine to form this uniquely special place. Take some time to get to know the friendly locals, the stunning setting, and you will be pushed to find a more welcoming place to visit.
Top Things To Do
Drink From The Buddha
Walk up the market strip just to the East of the river and just as the stalls start to thin out you can see a shrine in the woodlands and thousands of coloured ribbons tied to the trees. This is probably one of the most special places we have visited, incredibly spiritual, and not forgetting serene. If you wonder through the woodlands towards the river you should be able to spot a few locals filling up their water bottles from the Buddha, which is actually a natural mineral spring. The taste of the water is quite extraordinary! The iron and minerals really come through, it's very rich and almost tastes carbonated. So fill up your bottle here and enjoy the natural scenery.
Relax In a Mineral Bath
Just a small amount of time in the natural mineral bath is wonderfully relaxing, and if you are wild camping like us then you can get a sneaky wash in…. bonus! At the same end of town as the Buddha spring, there is one of the indoor hot spring spas, and on the opposite end of town is the other. They are sort of health centres so do other things like physio and massage in the same building. It costs 250r (£3.20) for a hot mineral bath which lasts about 10 mins. The mineral water is naturally exfoliating so expect to shed a bit of dead skin in the tub! We thought that the 10 minute time limit may be to do with the fact that any longer and you might not have any skin left! Wear a swimsuit that you don't care for much, as it does end up a bit red from the iron in the water.
Trek Up The Mountain of Love
This is Arshan’s treasure, an accessible mountain with a stunning view of the vast valley below. The trek takes around 6 hours up and down, and requires a good level of fitness. We would say the trek is ‘challenging’ because it's a constant steep incline, but if you are willing to put in the hard work then the views are well worth it. Maybe reconsider in wet weather though as the ground is crumbly in places. The trek starts from the top of town after walking through the public park. If you stick to the main gravel track through the park towards the mountains then after about 5-10 minutes you will get to the beginning of the hike. It's not very well signposted but you can tell it's a route because the ground is well trodden and people have tied ribbons on the trees. Enjoy some of the best views we have ever seen from a mountain!
Visit The Waterfall
It is a pretty woodland walk in the valley up to the waterfall with coloured ribbons tied to the trees that dance in the wind. This is a lovely place to pitch up for a spot of lunch and is only a short wander from the town. Someone may or not be there on the way up to collect a 50r (60p) fee for entry. Look out for wildlife here, we were lucky enough to see chipmunks, woodpeckers and black squirrels.
Hear The Singing Monk
The Buddhist monastery on the West side of town is a must-see for any traveller. It is a place where locals come together to practice Buddhism with their leader, and the temple itself is beautifully located at the foot of the mountains in the woodlands. Follow the dirt track up through the woods just to the West of the river, after about 5-10 minutes you will see some ribbons tied to the trees and hundreds of rocks balanced on top of one another. Carry on down the path and you will find the temple in an open clearing. On our visit to the temple was a monk sitting at one of the staggered tables in the centre of the room, chanting a ritualistic song that he was reciting from his pages below. The tables were decorated with brightly coloured silk fabrics, all layered and stacked on top of one another, and small instruments were carefully arranged as part of the practice. We took a seat at the side of the room and watched the monk chant his daily tune!
Camping & Accommodation
We found a spot to pitch our tent in a wooded area next to the Kyngyrga River and quite close to the road because the ground was flatter, but if you want a bit more privacy then you can follow the river down a bit further. The spot we chose also had a section of denser tree coverage which is perfect for toilet stops! Even though we were camping in quite an obvious place, no-one bothered us other than a local once asked for a cigarette. The cows were the only ones that came over to say hi in the night time. Having said that, we would recommend taking any valuables with you when leaving the tent. There are lots of signs of people having fires there, just remember to keep it contained because you are in woodlands.
Another great option for accommodation is to do a homestay. Any building that has the sign outside can offer a room for the night at a great price. If you get approached by women as you get off the bus trying to offer you a room it's worth knowing that the price is high and can be negotiated down. They start pitching at 1500r (£19) per night and within a couple of minutes it may drop down to 350r (£4.50). I believe you can get it even cheaper if you hunt around at other local places.
Food & Drink
There are plenty of supermarkets to pick up supplies and ample places to eat out from, so there really is no need to bring food with you. Dinning out is super cheap, hearty, and a main dish will set you back around 100r (£1.30). We ordered 2 mains, a side dish, a huge bowl of 10 dumplings, 2 beers and our bill came to 460r (£5.80)….. bargain! We would recommend trying any of the local beef dishes, pastries and pancakes with condensed milk. The local beer is also a winner! It seems as though you can get away with having a drink on the street here because it is a very quiet town, but that it not the case in all areas of Russia so be careful of where you choose to drink. If you get caught with a beer on the street in Irkutsk then you can get arrested on the spot, eek!
When To Go
We visited at a wonderful time of year in mid September because it is coming into autumn and the trees are turning brilliant shades of yellow. The weather is also pleasant at this time, sunny most of the days and not too hot. At night time it can get a bit chilly going down to about 3 degrees, so be prepared if camping. It's also just nearing the end of the tourist season so everywhere is quiet and most places have closed up for winter. It means that you get to enjoy everything in peace and share the experience with the locals. Summer is an obvious time to visit given that the weather will be much more balmy, but the small town may be busy with tourists so will feel a bit less zen.
How Long To Visit For
We had 2 full days here and 2 half days which was a good amount of time, but you could probably cut that back to 2 full days and you will have seen all of the key bits.
Getting There and Away
From Irkutsk, if you head to the Central Bus Station at 8am then you can book a coach journey to Arshan for 8.45am for 400r (£5) per person at the kiosk. You can get them to book the return journey there also. The bus leaves Arshan daily at 2pm so just note down the date and time you want to return on a piece of paper if you can't speak Russian and they will be able to arrange it for you. You will get given a paper ticket for each journey with the date and time on so just check it before leaving. Expect the big coach to take between 4-5 hours which includes a few stop offs for food and toilet breaks.
There are also lots of guys outside the Central Bus Station who will be filling up minivans to Arshan and will approach you before entering. The only thing with these guys though is you may not be able to secure a return journey and I think the coach is slightly cheaper because it's slower (and safer as a result!).
There is plenty of snacks to munch on at the cafes at the bus stop offs. Most of the baked goods are laid out on the top counter so you can just point to which one you want and they will heat it up for you. It's always fun trying to guess what each one is, most of the time though it does tend to be pastry with some sort of minced meat in it. The cabbage filling is always a bonus, and one time we got a salmon fillet with a grated potato rostie on top which was delicious.
Leaving for Arshan, there wasn't another tourist in sight and for the first time we were on a bus with only locals. Suddenly you feel as though you are out in the wilderness and it's really exciting!
For the return journey, the bus will pick you up where it dropped you off in the top of town. You get given a bus number on your ticket so you can always double check that if you are unsure. On the return journey, we were picked up in a minivan rather than a big bus which ended up taking just over 3 hours, so I guess they just arrange the right size vehicle for the number of people.
It is possible to hitchhike around this part of Siberia if you can communicate a little Russian. We had read online that the local people expect to be paid well for hitchhiking, about $20 per hour, but from what some travellers said that actually did it, the locals didn't expect any money and actually ended up giving them gifts. We think it's a nice idea to have a small gift available as a thank you for a ride, maybe some vodka or chocolate goodies.
There are also daily buses that go to and from Ulan Ude which take around 7 hours.
None of the locals we spoke to there spoke any English, so basic things like ordering food is always fun! Maybe save a few words beforehand or download google translate to help with menus etc. Everyone is super friendly and really does try to help. Lots of people tried to chat to us in the street and even when you say you can’t speak Russian to them they continue to jabber away in good spirits! The locals are also very generous, a couple we spoke to got given a huge chunk of smoked salmon, some pens and a pack of postcards from a stranger at a bus stop! You really won’t find a friendlier bunch of people if you tried.
There are some village dogs, we take it they were strays rather than pets, but they were no problem. Always friendly and didn't bother us too much even when camping. One even followed us up to the top of the mountain, he was like our sidekick for the day! All other trekkers at the top gave him a bit of their lunch and so he had a lovely day out of town.
You can’t get a map of Arshan in the town so try to get a map before you come if you want one. To be honest though, it’s such a small place that it’s fine to navigate without one.
There are a few midges around at this time of year so get some insect repellent spray and some sun cream for those sunny days where the sun is still strong.
If you are looking for great place to visit for a couple of days either side of your Trans Siberian adventure then Arshan is on the top of our list along with Olkhon Island on the stunning Lake Baikal. You can read about our trip here to the biggest and deepest freshwater lake in the world!
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