Baikal, the oldest and deepest lake in the world, is nature at its best: just being there feels you with joy and peace. We visited Baikal’s largest island, Olkhon Island, at the end of September. That was the farthest we went into Russia. It felt like we were at the end of the world. We could hear the wind announcing winter was just around the corner. The tourist season was wrapping down, so it was us with a bunch of Chinese tourists and a Korean couple. And fog, a presence that never left, static and happy. Of course, let us not forget the endless Siberian horizon. We got to feel how big Russia is: 17 million km² under our feet.
Baikal Lake Tour
Baikal Lake is easily accessible from Irkutsk, a beautiful city full of elegant neoclassical buildings and charming wooden houses. However, the lake is huge so you can spend days exploring it. In fact, Ulan Ude the capital of Buryatia Republic, is 7 hours away on the other side of the lake. It seems the perfect place to stay for those continuing their Trans – Siberian route. We decided to skip it, there doesn’t seem to be decent tourist infrastructure and we didn’t want to spend our entire time traveling so far.
Listvyanka, the Popular Option
Listvyanka, the closest access point to the lake is just an hour and a half away from Irkutsk. Its landscapes seem interesting and it often gets too crowded. Hotels of different class operate in Listvyanka. The place is brilliant to practice all sorts of activities, including boat rides and winter sports. However, the town is not that nice. In fact, Listvyanka is so popular because of its location. On the good side, the Great Baikal Trail starts in here, so you can go on spectacular hikes around the lake.
Olkhon Island, the Coolest Option
Why wouldn’t you admire the lake from the best place possible? The dramatic scenery and the archeological sites in Olkhon Island rival the splendor of the lake. Olkhon is the largest island on Baikal Lake and one of the largest lake islands in the world. Steppe, taiga and a small dessert cover Olkhon. What’s more, there are a couple of lakes. The island is magical and completely authentic, with no asphalt, big hotels or street light at night. Beautiful forests occupy most of the territory, and there are hills up to 800m high. The northwestern coast is especially interesting, due to its sharp cliffs and sandy beaches.
History of Olkhon Island
Olkhon Island separated from the mainland after millions of years of tectonic movement. The Kurykans settled here some 3000 years ago. They built walls so unique you can see their remains on the Khorgoy peninsula. Their successors, the Buryats, came much later (probably in the 13th century), and stayed until today. In the 17th century, the Russian Cossacks arrived. There were bad times too. The Soviets established a small gulag on the island.
There are several settlements on the island. However, Khuzhir is the only one with hotels (basically guesthouses) and restaurants. A large unpaved square with a monument to the heroes of the great patriotic war is the center of Khuzhir. You will find the largest supermarket on the island, Khoroshiy, there too. Other than guesthouses and restaurants, there is a museum, a pharmacy, a school, a medical center, a church, and an art gallery. You can walk to Shamanka, the sacred rock north of the city, on Cape Burkhan.
Thirteen tall poles guard the sacred rock Shamanka. These 13 poles represent the 13 deities of Olkhon. You will notice layers of ribbons called Khadag wrapping each pole. Pilgrims from around the world place them as part of a spiritual ritual. Though originally Khadags were used as Lunar New Year decorations, nowadays people place them on trees and shrines. The ribbon colors symbolize different elements: red is for fire, blue for the sky, green for earth, yellow for religion and white for milk.
How to Get to Olkhon
It is fairly easy to organize an Olkhon Island tour. The journey from Irkutsk takes some 6-7 hours on a minibus, riding on a paved road till the lake, then getting on a ferry and continuing on a dirt road. Most minibuses stop at a local tavern halfway to the island. We stretched our legs and played with a very cute puppy. You can buy a minibus ticket at many guesthouses and hotels in Irkutsk. For those of you that rather take public transport, there are 4 daily buses from the central bus station. A one-way ticket should be around 20e. If you are traveling with a small group, consider hiring a car with a driver.
Olkhon Island Accommodation
Olkhon Island is still a somewhat isolated destination. Therefore, the accommodation offer is still developing. When we visited, some hotels didn’t have constant power or warm water. Our Baykal Khan Hotel had plenty and fantastic views. Though we didn’t use the kitchen, the room was quite comfortable. Ask for a top floor room. At night we could see thousands of stars from the privacy of our balcony! Another comfortable place in Khuzhir is Olkhon Story. If you want to be a bit more isolated, directly in front of the lake, stay in the lovely LakesideBaikal. If you are looking for a bit of luxury, stay at the Baikal View Hotel, Olkhon’s fanciest hotel.
Where to Eat in Olkhon
As mentioned above, Khuzhir is a small village. Thus, don’t expect big restaurants or chains of any type. That said, food in Russia is delicious, and it’s easy to find good homemade restaurants all around the country. We tried a few near the main square that didn’t impress us. Then we focused on hidden places. Since the day we discovered the Kafe-Bar Paluba, we kept coming back. The charming lady prepared for us delicious meals we would eat playing with cats. The Nikita Homestead is a popular guesthouse for backpackers and alike. We went there for coffee and cakes and enjoyed every moment of it. Finally, for snacks, we would visit the supermarket on the square.
Why should you choose Olkhon Island on your visit to Baikal Lake?
- The island is absolutely beautiful and completely authentic.
- It is much less crowded than Listvyanka.
- The accommodation and gastronomical offer is quite satisfying.
- Plenty of places to visit on the island.
What to do in Olkhon
We walked through the village, inside pine forests, on sandy beaches, above and around cliffs. We had great coffee chatting with friendly locals whose life hasn’t changed much since the arrival of tourism. One afternoon, a cute dog followed us, chasing rodents hidden in the ground. We spent three days just wandering around Khuzhir. One day we walked far through a forest and some very long sandy beaches to reach the beautiful Cape Kharantsy. Then we visited the Shamanka Rock next to the village. The next day all we did was walk about the village soaking up its relaxed atmosphere.
On the last day we took an excursion to the Cape Sagan-Khushun, colloquially known as the Three Brothers, and the unbelievable Cape Khoboy. Since the island is so big, we went to a local agency and hired an organized excursion in a minivan. As you know, we usually try to go on our own, but it wasn’t an option. Our annoying driver never stopped joking about us and our Korean friends. He prepared lunch for us, and we picnicked in the forest. We loved the super tall cliff in Cape Khoboy. The two sections of Baikal Lake meet here. We could’ve stayed all day staring at the Big and Little Seas.
Russia is gorgeous
Our 2 month journey around Russia yielded 3 favorites. In no particular order our top places to visit in Russia are: Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea, Moscow and the Golden Ring, and Olkhon Island on Baikal Lake. It’s difficult to describe the whole atmosphere and thanks to the fog even our photos don’t showcase its real beauty. I have no doubts that spending a couple of days there rivals the beauty of the Trans-Siberian journey. You become one with nature and get to see life as it once was, well, it still is, follow our advice, go there, and experience it yourself.
Please note: we didn’t book any private Olkhon Island tour. Instead, we purchased tickets for the bus at our hotel in Irkutsk and booked our accomodation online.