Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Lake Baikal and Olkhon Island

Our trusty wagon
This part of the trip was something we had been looking forward to for some time.  I had never heard of Lake Baikal a year ago but now knew it was the largest freshwater lake in the world by volume, mainly because of its depth.  It is enormous and breathtakingly beautiful.  The photographs just do not do it justice.  But it is not only the beauty of the place, it is the fact that it is so unspoilt and despite all this, relatively unscathed by tourism.

We had elected to add a 3 day 4WD excursion to Olkhon Island as part of the whole organised Trans Siberian trip which was a bit pricey but it was a bit of a treat.  We both wanted to spend some time there because it looked a bit special, and it seemed like the best way to do it.  We are now glad we didn’t choose a hiking trip!  There was a lot of ground to cover and we have spent hours traipsing round cities.  It was nice to sit back in relative comfort and rest our legs a bit.

Our guide for our trip was Vladimir, who was very laid back, a teacher of chemistry during term time, and who spoke good English.  Our driver was also called Vladimir, who spoke next to no English, but who drove like a superstar and loved to chatter away, not caring whether or not anyone could understand him.  And he loved his camera, almost as much as the Chinese love their cameras!

Vladimir and Vladimir
Vladimir and Vladimir collected us about 9.30am on the Sunday morning and we piled into a 4WD vehicle not dissimilar to a VW combi van but with the capabilities of a tractor. This vehicle was, we later discovered, a UAZ-452 (thank you Lucy Foskett for doing the research) and there were hundreds of them nipping about Irkutsk and Lake Baikal, in various states of apparent disrepair.  They are amazing little vans - loads of room in the back (six seats), and Vlad the driver, handled the vehicle amazingly over the roughest of terrains. 

I may have mentioned that we’re not too great on these guided excursion trips, but Vlad and Vlad were ideal – there were a couple of attempts at stilted conversation to begin with, but as we headed out of Irkutsk towards the ferry to Olkhon Island we all soon all settled into a comfortable silence just enjoying amazing landscape north of Irkutsk and beyond.

Part of the coastline Olkhon Island
The journey took 6 hours from hotel to accommodation on Olkhon Island, with many stops along the way, for fuel, lunch, cigarette breaks, and photo opportunities.  Vlad the driver, was always the first out of the van when we stopped somewhere picturesque, snapping away with his Sony camera, and always keen to show us his photos, and explaining in Russian and sign language, how he had captured his shots.  He managed to teach me a few things about my camera which has come in useful!

The scenery was breathtaking.  One minute you were driving through dense forest, or passing through mountains, and the next you were travelling across miles of prairie type landscape which Paul said would not be out of place in America or Australia. 
After about 200km, the road turns into dirt track and this is where the fun begins.  Vlad the driver handled his vehicle with just the right amount of skill and speed to make the ride great fun and exhilarating although by the end of the trip I was wishing I had packed a sports bra!

Travelling through the Siberian hills
We hopped on the ferry to Olkhon Island, and after a crossing which took about 10-15 minutes continued our journey towards Khuzir, the village where we would be staying for 2 nights.  On the way, we were taken off road, to a couple of bays in the south of the island – great photo opportunities and a chance to appreciate where we were.

There was very little other traffic on the road and even less off road.  During our 3 day stay, Vlad and Vlad seemed to know when to head towards places to avoid the “crowds”.  By this I mean, no other vehicles, or leaving someplace just as the group of 27 Chinese (also staying where we were staying) were arriving, as happened early on the second day when we headed up to the northernmost point of the island.

Nikitas Homestead
Upon arrival at Nikitas Homestead in Khuzir we were shown to our room, on the first floor of a basic but pretty wooden structure with an ensuite.  For us, it was luxury.  We had a balcony where we could sit and watch the comings and goings of the higgledy piggledy resort we were staying in.

There were a variety of other tourists:  an older German couple next door to us staying for 3 weeks, a smaller group of Germans, a few Americans, a couple of Australians, a lone French traveller, and the tour group of 27 Chinese. 

The Chinese were by far the happiest people we had seen since we left London, without doubt the happiest this side of the Russian border.  They spent every minute snapping photos of everything they could see including flora, fauna, vistas, dogs, cats, each other - all the time.  Their laughter resonated through the resort, as they giggled their way through their holiday. 

Sunset on Olkhon Island
After a couple of beers on our first night Paul decided he needed to practice his Chinese and was absolutely delighted when they understood him first time, and responded in Chinese.  He really was very chuffed.  They then proceeded to take lots of photos of us standing on our balcony, can or beer in one hand, cigarette in another, doing what we do best!

All meals were included at Nikitas– all very basic and traditional Russian fare, washed down with plenty of tea.  We had dinner that evening, and in the canteen hut noted that the resident cat was happily curled up on a bench with some of the Chinese tourists.  They did give him the odd tickle under his chin and we did wonder whether they were just sizing him up for dinner but the cat seemed unfazed by it, and of course we may have been wrong, it could have been genuine affection!  All I know is that cat is still on the menu in certain places in China and if I was that cat I would be a bit wary! 

Vlad the driver "chatting"to the
They weren’t so keen on the dogs – pretty much all of them were scared of the dogs.  But these dogs were not on leads or in handbags and neither were they on a plate so to your average Chinese, they must appear to be wild, when they are just really domestic dogs with a lot of freedom.

After dinner  we headed up to the cliff and snapped a few mandatory sunset shots, headed back to our balcony for a few beers, and stayed up late enough to see the stars in the moonless sky.  At about 9.30pm we couldn’t stay up a minute longer and trotted off to bed exhausted but looking forward to our trip the next day.

Breakfast was at 9am and we spent 20 minutes watching the Chinese continue to photograph anything and everything that moved, including anything that didn’t.  I commented that they were like the paparazzi and the lone French traveller laughed at my (feeble) joke.  This was a good omen for later on in our trip.

Us at the northernmost tip of Olkhon Island
Vlad the driver was busy holding Russian/Chinese/sign language conversations with some of the Chinese as they all took copious pictures of some of the flowers.  We then piled into our UAZ and headed off to the north of the Island.

The road was bumpy and the driving was fast.  That sports bra would really have come in really handy but I didn’t reckon I’d be attending any aerobics classes anytime on our travels.  The ride around the island certainly bounced us all around the van and I’m sure we would have toppled over on some of the terrain in a lesser vehicle.  Vlad expertly overtook several other UAZs along the way and we were soon perched on the top of a cliff ready to explore the northernmost tip.

Our Siberian "prairie dog" friends
From this point of the island you can see the mainland to the west but to the north and the west is just clear blue still waters, for as far as the eye can see.  It was another beautiful day and the while we were there the whole place was deserted and so peaceful.  Not another soul around for miles on land or at sea.  We stayed there for a while, before heading off again, just as the 27 Chinese tourists turned up in the UAZs Vlad had so expertly overtaken earlier.  Perfect timing.

The next couple of hours were spent looking for somewhere to have lunch.  Every so often Vlad slowed down so we could both (he and I) try to take photographs of what we were calling Siberian prairie dogs  There were lots of them with their little fat bottoms, scurrying around the landscape, popping up out of holes and back down again, every now again standing up on their hind legs, meerkat fashion, having a good old look around.  They were  adorable.  We can only assume they hibernate in winter so were collecting supplies.

Settling down for lunch in the forest
Our first stop was a bay near a Buryat village but the Vlads decided it was too windy so after a wander down to the lake front we packed up again headed off into the forest.  Vlad followed no discernible path and I have no idea how he found his way around but we soon stopped in the depths of the pine forest, miles from any road, and the coastal wind, and it was decided that this was the place to eat. 

There was evidence of deer in the forest (poo), but the only noise we could hear apart from ourselves, was the rustling of leaves and the chattering of birds.  It was idyllic.

The Vlads busied themselves with the portable Samovar, and gas cooker.  They concocted a picnic of fish soup with potatoes and carrots, bread, salad, pastries (prianik), apples, tea and vodka (of course). 

The desolate but incredibly
beautiful landscape
Vlad the driver had some planks of wood on the floor of the UAZ which he balanced on a couple of tree stumps, Paul found another couple of tree stumps, and then two more were sawn off a fallen tree – one by Vlad and other by Paul who could not resist getting involved.  In no time at all we had a picnic table and benches.  I chopped up the salad and we were ready for lunch.

We had a makeshift picnic table, laden with food, in the middle of a forest on an island in the middle of Lake Baikal, Siberia.  And the weather was amazing.  It was just perfect. 

After lunch everything was dismantled and packed away, and as we drove off we looked back to our little clearing and it was like we had never been there.

Off we went again, twisting and turning on invisible paths through the forest.  Vlad found his way out of the forest somehow avoiding only the largest of holes, and once we were back on an identifiable dirt track, we headed back to the homestead the long way round over prairie, through forest and eventually along the shores of Lake Baikal telling us we were nearly home.

Working together
to build a table in
the forest
It was an amazing day and we were tired and exhilarated after the long and bumpy road trip.  We had dinner, headed up to the supermarket for more beer (and more grumpiness from the shop assistant, which was almost beginning to become an endearing part of our Russia experience), and then sat on the balcony again until about 10pm when the stars were coming out.  We couldn’t last any longer and hit the sack.

The next day we returned to Irkutsk.  We saw more of the same amazing scenery, more Siberian prairie dogs, herds of horses and cows lining the dirt track road, and when we were dropped off back at our hotel we were very sorry to say goodbye to Vlad and Vlad.

It was such a memorable trip, to such a beautiful part of the world, which remains unspoilt (some feat in this day and age), and it was by far the best part of the trip so far.  It was just so good to be away from cities and to actually get out and actually experience some of the amazing landscape we have only passed through on the train.  Our only regret was that we hadn’t planned to stay longer.

By now we were really looking forward to our stay at the ger camp in Mongolia, but Ulan Ude was the next stop before leaving Russia and heading into Mongolia.

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