Olkhon Island is a rather large but beautiful island in the middle of Lake Baikal in Russian Siberia. This ancient lake is believed to be the deepest in the world and is also a popular tourist destination for Russians. In the summer, Russians come here to bask in the sun and experience the Siberian ‘banjas’ (saunas). For reference, this experience involves sitting in a sauna, running out of said sauna into the freezing cold waters of the lake, running back into the sauna, and then getting whacked with sticks for good measure.
By contrast, during winter the waters of Lake Baikal get so cold that they freeze over to a depth of about 2 metres! When this happens, instead of getting the usual ferry to Olkhon Island, visitors get to travel to their destination directly overland (well, water) by 4WD. How cool! Despite apparent Siberian winter temperatures of about -40 degrees celsius, this sounds pretty darn awesome to me.
When I visited Olkhon Island is was neither winter nor summer. It was in the off-peak season of late-Autumn, when it was too cold to enjoy the beaches, but not cold enough to enjoy all the fun winter activities associated with the lake freezing over. Instead, what I did get to experience was magical in its own way. Olkhon Island had become a practically deserted ghost island, where almost everything was shut except for a few guesthouses. Apart from a few locals and backpackers scattered around the place, there was virtually no one there. Basically, we had the island to ourselves!
The main town on the island is Khuzhir, which is home to about 1200 of the island’s 1500 residents. The best place to stay on the island is Nikita’s Homestead, which is full of character. Alas, on our tight backpacker budget this was not meant to be so instead we stayed somewhere mysterious. Mysterious because we booked a place called Sunny Hostel on HostelWorld, but were delivered by our shuttle bus driver to somewhere completely different. In any case we got to spend 3 nights in a nice, private hotel room with breakfast included for a combined total of USD$70. Score!
On our first night we walked around Khuzhir for a bit in the evening and were treated to absolutely spectacular sunset views.
Unfortunately, once the sun went down (and it went down early), there wasn’t much left for us to do. It was too cold for us to stay outside so we went back to Nikita’s with a couple of other backpackers in the hopes that we could have dinner and some drinks with them. However, because we weren’t guests this wasn’t allowed. Instead, we roamed the streets looking for food and alcohol, but because it was off-season everything was shut. Eventually, we made our way back to our hotel where a set dinner was being served. Although I’m not usually a fussy eater, there are two things I don’t eat: seafood and bananas (yuck!), and that night fishcakes were on the menu, so instead we just went to our room and cried into our bowls of 2-minute noodles.
The next day, we got up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and explored Khuzhir in more depth. Despite the freezing cold temperatures and being knocked around by strong winds, the beauty of this little island town was absolutely surreal.
Leaving the hotel we were followed by a stray dog through the forest and down to the beach. I named him Putin, but later renamed him Anastasia after realising that a) he was a she, and b) that she was quite lovable. The beach was gloriously rugged with a backdrop of snow-covered mountains. it was an epic view that was only made more epic by the crazy weather.
From here, Anastasia and us walked up the hill to the island’s famous Shaman Rock, a site comprised of white marble, granite and quartz that the island’s traditional Buryat (Mongolian) habitats feared entering, believing that only shamans had the right to approach this forbidden place due to the belief that the deity Azhin lived in a cave here. Nowadays, Pagan priests perform rituals in the cave on those willing to pay to cleanse them of any ancestral karma and curses. Whether you believe in this stuff or not, Olkhon Island certainly has a spiritual sense about it, even if this is simply that of being at one with nature.
After picking up a second stray dog friend, Boris, we continued on to explore a part of the island that was equally beautiful, but in a very different way. Down by the water was an area full of shipwrecks and abandoned buildings, most of it decorated in some pretty astounding street art.
Afterwards, we walked through the town itself, which had been completely shut down over Autumn. The kitsch old wooden houses were delightful to look at, each fitted out with their own unique features, including some pretty extraordinary window frames. With no one else around it really did feel like we were walking through the land that time forgot. Of course by this stage we also had a few more doggie friends following us around as well – Swarovski, Baryshnikov and Anna Karenina. 🙂
On our second day there we planned to go to another part of the island, Khoboy Cape, but sadly, due to the distinct lack of tourists on the island this wasn’t possible as there wasn’t enough demand for a tour. For both my information and yours, this is apparently what the Cape looks like…
All in all, travelling to Olkhon Island off-peak was an unique experience. The island was hauntingly beautiful and surreal, and I would visit again in a heartbeat.
Does this sound like somewhere you would like to visit? Let me know in the comments. 🙂