siberia

Russia: Arshan - An Escape To The Siberian Mountains

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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.

The sleepy mountain spa village of Arshan

The sleepy mountain spa village of Arshan

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.

 
Natural mineral water from the spring

Natural mineral water from the spring

 

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.

Mark bathing in the hot mineral bath

Mark bathing in the hot mineral bath

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!

A scenic trek up the mountain of love

A scenic trek up the mountain of love

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.  

 
The waterfall in the valley

The waterfall in the valley

 

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!  

 
The Buddhist Monastery

The Buddhist Monastery

 

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.

Camping in the woods by the Kyngyrga River

Camping in the woods by the Kyngyrga River

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!

Local supplies from the corner shop

Local supplies from the corner shop

 

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.  

 
The Autumn leaves

The Autumn leaves

 

 

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.

 

Tips

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.

Our furry friend

Our furry friend

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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Russia: Lake Baikal - A Journey Into Shamanic Siberia

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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.

The message on the beach

The message on the beach

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.

Lake Baikal

Lake Baikal

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!

Travelling across Baikal by ferry

Travelling across Baikal by ferry

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).

Mali at the mystic tree

Mali at the mystic tree

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.

Another wild camp out

Another wild camp out

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.

Shaman rock on Olkhon Island

Shaman rock on Olkhon Island

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.

The Shaman poles

The Shaman poles

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.

Read about Patagonia

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.

Local food on lake Baikal

Local food on lake Baikal

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. 

The sunset on our last night

The sunset on our last night

Tips

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!

Lake Baikal Vodka

Lake Baikal Vodka

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Russia - Lake Baikal, A Journey Into Shamanic Siberia, by Studio Mali
 

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