Floating in the deepest freshwater lake in the world, Olkhon island a spiritual pearl with magical sunsets. A Russian island in Lake Baikal where the clock stopped ticking. Abandoned shipwrecks, rusted cars and wooden houses set the scene on Olkhon island. Our guesthouse hostess in Irkutsk explained she experiences certain powers when she visits Olkhon island. It was difficult for her to exactly explain what those powers were about. We had to experience it ourselves. And so we did.
Lake Baikal in Russia has 25 percent of the freshwater resources of the world. Sixty-five percent of the Russian ecosystems are in danger. So let’s preserve what we have, and let’s take good care of nature.
In this article we share all you need to know for your visit to Olkhon island:
- 5 reasons to visit Olkhon island
- Where to stay
- Great things to do
- How to get there
- Travel tips for the perfect trip
For many travellers on the Trans-Siberian Railway, Irkutsk is a popular 2-day stop. If you have a little more time, I recommend travelling to Olkhon island and Lake Baikal. It is absolutely worth the journey! Why?
1. Enter a world where time stood still
At least I did. Paved roads don’t exist, potholes all the more. Think twice if you get car sick easily. Luxury – as we know it in the Western world – doesn’t exist on Olkhon island. Locals sell fresh omul from Lake Baikal out of their motorbikes, dogs play on the unpaved streets and Russian military vans disappear in dust clouds. Houses are made of wood, not stone. Meals are made of primitive ingredients like cabbage, potatoes and carrots. And that is exactly its charm and what I liked about the island. It’s all part of Olkhon’s charisma.
2. It’s Siberia
And Siberia sounded like a region I wanted to discover. I didn’t know what to expect and that triggered me to travel there. You may have endless snow fields and bears in mind when you think of Siberia. That is what Google tells you right? Siberia has extremely cold winters and tropical summers. South East Siberia, where Olkhon island is situated, has winters that are less cold, summer temperatures can go up to 30°C. And there is more! If you are looking for a Siberian beach holiday, Olkhon Island with sandy endless beaches is your place. Who would have thought…!
3. Swim in Lake Baikal
Being a basin of 23.000 km3 water, Lake Baikal is home to 20% of all the fresh water in the world. What, really? Yes! In September when I was there, the water was way to cold! In spring and summer, you can enjoy a refreshing dive in the crystal clear waters of Lake Baikal!
According to Buryat people – the bulk of Olkhons population – the island is a sacred place. They consider Olkhon island one of five global places where shamanic energy prevails. Lake Baikal and Olkhon island are linked with many legends. The locals tell us it’s one of the most magical places on earth. Travelling to Olkhon island is like travelling to a world famous temple where spirituality takes over.
5. Nature & animals
Olkhon island is home to taiga’s, steppes and even a tiny desert. The bays near Khuzir and beautiful views of the rocks are stunning! If you are lucky you can spot seals at the northern part of the islands. We spotted herds of deer! If you don’t, don’t be disappointed: in Khuzir there are many dogs, especially puppies, looking for some love.
There is one sad thing I would like to share. I found it difficult to see that not all inhabitants and tour guides pay nature the respect it deserves. During our tour I saw large lumps of waste. Off-roading sounds great – and believe me it was – however soil erosion is a unpreventable consequence. Quite some rocks were ruined by graffiti and I heard vandals set up forest fires. Let’s hope the community of Olkhon island soon handles its nature with care and love.
After the survival of car sickness for a few hours, we made it from Irkutsk to Khuzhir. In Khuzir, the capital of Olkhon island, live only 1.200 inhabitants. Khuzhir is a town with wooden houses with high fences, sandy Western style roads and old Russian vans and Lada’s. In the town cows live on the streets and dogs bark all night long. It’s very unique and I can’t come up with another place that would resemble.
Restaurants and Accommodation on Olkhon island
Khuzhir is the only town on Olkhon island with shops, restaurants, guesthouses and homestays. Most rooms have shared facilities, a few have a private bathroom. During summer Olkhon island is inundated with a growing number of Russian and Asian tourists. When colder temperatures kick in, life takes place in the characteristic wooden houses. And certainly not in bars and restaurants. Khuzhir is as dead as heaven on a Saturday night. At least in September and I guess it won’t change until spring next year.
After sifting through the restaurant section of TripAdvisor, we ended up at Nikita’s homestead. Our, and many others ‘rescue’ for a nice meal and good company. Nikita’s homestead is where travellers come together. It is the most popular place to stay, it was fully booked when we were there. It is also the best place to have lunch and dinner when all other places are closed. If your guesthouse food is as loveless as ours, then Nikita is your place to go in September.
Olkhon Island owes the increasing flow of tourists to the efforts of Nikita’s homestead. This is where to get cash, sleep, get food, do your laundry, book tours, meet fellow travellers. Our guesthouse was a fine place to stay but is not something I specifically recommend.
1. Hike towards spirituality
From our guesthouse, it was just a 15-minute walk to the coast of Lake Baikal. Via the desolated harbour with dilapidated houses and shipwrecks, we walked to the cape. I really enjoyed the rocky coastlines, tiny yellow trees and turquoise water. You can even continue your hike to the Eastern part of the beach. We were accompanied by the Siberian husky of our guesthouse family, we named him Wolf. Take a look at the photo, you will understand why.
2. Cape Burhan
Cape Burhan is also called Shamanka or Shaman’s Rock. It is the most visited landmark of Olkhon island. On the top op the hill we found one of the most photographed places of Olkhon island: 13 piles of wood with ribbons. The coloured ribbons are representing good luck wishes from all visitors that have been to Cape Burhan. Cape Burhan is one of only nine sacred places in Asia. According to an ancient Shamanic legend, Bhurkhan – a religious figure of the Altai – lives in the cave of Shaman’s Rock. We didn’t find him.
3. Enjoy a Siberian sunset
Siberia’s sunset at Lake Baikal was as beautiful as sunsets should be: red with stunning clouds and rippling water.
4. Explore the northern part of Olkhon island
Go on an Olkhon island tour and eat fish soup
A handful of Chinese tourists, a lost French hippy and nature lovers. That’s the best description of travellers on Olkhon island. Which is great, don’t get me wrong, I love the blend! All guesthouses arrange tours to the northern part of Olkhon islands. It’s a full day trip and at least a 6 hours drive on the bumpiest roads I ever experienced. Drivers are no-English speaking Russians who race in military vans as if their lives depend on it. The tour guys make fish soup for lunch on an open fire. During the tour we made 6 stops, all with fantastic viewpoints of Lake Baikal. Three of many highlights of the tour:
- One of is the stops is near the beach dunes of Peschanka Bay.
- Cape Khoboy in the in the northernmost tip of the island. Khoboy means fang and represents the shape of the rock. We were told that Cape Khoboy or Khoboi is one of the most sacred places of Lake Baikal.
- Racing over the taiga’s 🙂
Olkhon island is easy to get to. All guesthouses and hotels in Irkutsk can arrange transport. The journey will take about 6 hours, including a 30-minute break and 15-minute boat crossing from Skahurta town. The road on Olkhon is sandy and not paved so prepare yourself for a bumpy 35-kilometre ride!
- Check before your leave Irkutsk if you have to pay your accommodation cash. 90% of my booking.com bookings are booked on my credit card and I never check how I need to pay. I either pay directly to the hotel with my Visa or I pay Booking.com. I share this because there is no ATM at Khuzhir or Olkhon island! It’s one big belt of cash. If you end up in the same situation as me: don’t worry. There is always a way to get cash; either at the post (not in our case), the pharmacy (closed when we were there) or Nikita (again, the only place where it all seems to work).
- BYO – go to one of the shops and buy some fruit or vegetables. From what I have seen, there is no real need for Russians to eat fresh fruit and veggies. I like my vitamin shots and found delicious oranges and tomatoes in the local shop. And chocolate of course.
- Save yourself the energy of going to the Tourist information Centre. There is literally nothing that you can do here other then disturbing a grumpy local from watching TV.
So, did we feel the magic powers of Olkhon island? I am not sure. I am down to earth, not superstitious or anything alike. However, Olkhon island in Lake Baikal is a stunning place to travel to and it was definitely one of the highlights of our Trans-Siberian Railway adventure.
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