Lake Baikal, so big, it contains one fifth of the world’s fresh water! Sam and I stayed almost one week around this incredibly beautiful part of Russia and I can easily say that these were the best days of my Trans-Siberian adventure. It already started with a day trip from Irkutsk to Listvyanka, the closest city at the lake. Here we got our first glimpse of the beautiful lake and tried some of her fruits: the Omul fish. When we came back from a hike to the viewpoint we bought some freshly smoked Omul from a woman on the street and loved it so much we bought two more to take back to the hostel. The next day, we would depart for our real Lake Baikal adventure at Olkhon Island.
After 1 full day at the island, where we would drive to the north with a Russian minivan (I’ve never bounced around a car as much as that day) and we would see the most stunning views of Lake Baikal, we decided we wanted to stay another night at Nina’s guesthouse. We wanted to enjoy the island a day more, one day that became the best day of my trip until now.
We would wake up with the sun shining bright into our little wooden house in Nina’s courtyard. It might be cold in winter, but this area of Russia is super sunny, with 300 days of sun per year! I was able to make my favorite breakfast, the ‘big’ supermarket on the island was equipped with just what I needed: yoghurt, banana, apples, chocolate and some nuts. And M&M’s for Sam. Because he loves them. Small things can make us happy.
We dressed ourselves warmly and started walking through the little village of Kuhzir. With only 1500 people on the island, it wasn’t a coincidence we bumped into on of our fellow travellers we met in the minivan while driving from Irkutsk to Olkhon. It was an Italian photographer. For him, this was only the start of his time at the island. He planned to stay there for two weeks, to tell and document the stories of the people living there. He told us he just arranged his driver and we could join him if we wanted. After a short stop at the post office to get money (no ATM’s at the Island, so we do it old school!), we would make our first stop at the small harbour. A place that used to be a lively area because of the fish industry… Now all that is left are abandoned buildings, rusting ships and a few fishermen with their boats. It was saturday, so some kids were playing in an old ship which was docked at the rotting pier. It looked picturesque in some way, but I realized that it was because of this faded glory of the fish industry, the playing kids didn’t have any future on the island, since there were hardly any jobs left. Our second stop was supposed to be on the east side of the island. Unfortunately, even the 4×4 of the driver couldn’t cope with the steep, bumpy and icy roads crossing the forest of the island, so we had to turn around. Instead, we went to a viewpoint, from where you could see Kuhzir, lake Baikal and the beautiful stretch of hills on the island. The landscape almost looks like how I imagined the Mongolian landscape to be.
The second part of the day, we walked along the snowy beach of the lake. We found a ritual, Shaman place where someone obviously made a fire before. So we figured we could make one too. We needed it, because we had a mission today: Jump into the world’s oldest and deepest lake! It was going to be cold, but we couldn’t change the fact that we visited Baikal in winter. The lake is the coldest right before summer, in june, and the warmest at the end of august. So we were pretty ‘lucky’ and had to bear a temperature of around 8 degrees celsius. And we did it! The water temperature was actually not the worst, my problem where my feet, which already felt like two ice cubes before I went into the water, because of the ice-cold sand. We warmed up around the fire and ate some crackers with German cheese (this had become a habit, like the yoghurt-banana-nuts breakfast). In the trees around the fire hang a skull of a cow with yellow sunglasses. We weren’t sure if this was part of some Shamanist offers, like the feathers, glass and stone objects which we saw, or just a joke from local teenagers, or backpackers with a weird sence of humor. We made some funny pictures with it, hoping it wouldn’t badly influence our Shaman Karma… It definitely didn’t, because shortly after this, we experienced something really mysterious. Sam picked up a feather from the beach with a beautiful pattern. He put it in his hat behind his ear. When we walked back on the hill towards the village, close to the famous Shaman rock, Sam stopped and turned around, because he noticed (somehow) that he lost his feather. He found it on the ground, pointing towards a glove. It was his glove he lost two days earlier (he thought he lost it on the bus to Olkhon…)
We came back at Nina’s place and where happy to find a new guest we already met in Irkutsk. He made enough food to share with us and Nina even brought us some fried eggs from her chickens and some home-grown tomatoes. A perfect dinner after a perfect day. But it wasn’t over yet. Nina prepared the Banja for us, a Russian sauna. A small cottage in her backyard with a really hot stove and two buckets of ice-cold water. We could mix the cold water with the warm water (tapped from the stove) in smaller bowls to wash ourselves. We didn’t have a shower for 3 days, so this was heaven. A sauna and fresh cold water from the clear lake Baikal. I went in the Banja with two french girls, who just arrived, and Sam would go with our Australian roommate. Funny to be naked in a sauna with two strangers, talking about our travels and life stories and only after 1 hour realizing we didn’t even know each others names. After sweating out all the dirt and washing ourselves, we all felt reborn and shared a Belgian beer to celebrate … what. a. day.