Saturday, April 25, 2015

Olkhon Island

After spending no more than a couple nights each in Ekaterinburg, Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk, and Irkutsk, I made a longer stop at Lake Baikal. For the last five nights, I’ve been staying at a guesthouse on an island in the deepest lake in the world. Until recently, Olkhon wasn’t much of a travel destination. But with the recent arrival of electricity to the island, it’s become a bit more tourist friendly. Give it another decade, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a paved road or two here.

Olkhon Island in Lake Baikal

My 6-hour journey to the island started with a marshrutka ride from Irkutsk. The 14-passenger van was devoid of foreigners, though there was a dog along for the trip. We crossed through barren steppes where the only signs of civilization were the occasional settlements of dilapidated wooden houses, but nothing that would even qualify as a small village. Much of the ride was along bumpy dirt roads—our vehicle’s suspension system left much to be desired, and the ride was about as smooth as if I had opted to make the journey on horseback. In the winter, you can drive across the frozen lake to reach the island, but now the ice is already half-melted. Therefore, we took an air-cushion hovercraft that can travel across both ice and water.

The hovercraft arriving at the island

In the off-season, there’s not much to do on the island. It’s too warm for snow sports, but far too cold (and icy) for swimming. Instead, I’ve spent the last five days exploring the island and meeting other guests. I spent a day hiking through the forest with a woman from South Korea who is riding the Trans-Siberian with her parents, a day walking to the second largest village on the island (population: 200) with a thrice-divorced and mostly insane Russian man who shares the same name as my novel’s hero, and I was adopted by an Argentine family for a few days. Three days of speaking entirely in Spanish did nothing for my Russian, but I’ve now got an invitation to visit them in Santa Rosa de La Pampa that I’m going to have to capitalize on—Argentina isn’t so far from Texas, right?

Siberian spring

As expected, the Siberian wilderness is an entirely different world than the Russian capital. Life moves at a different pace and lacks the conveniences of Moscow. The grocery stores have very little selection (you can’t even find bread), and since you can only buy gas on the mainland, most of the roads are deserted. On the other hand, the residents of Olkhon get to enjoy natural beauty unlike anything you would see in Moscow. There are playgrounds perched on cliffs overlooking the icy surface of Lake Baikal and cow-yak hybrids wandering untethered through a former gulag. While everyone tells me Olkhon is far more interesting in the summer, I loved the abandoned calm of early spring.


Today I return to the mainland, then I’m catching an overnight train to Ulan Ude. Only 73 hours and 22 minutes of train rides left!

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