It was a cold and long winter in Siberia this year.
Travellers at the hostel who came in from Lake Baikal reported that the lake was still frozen, so a few of us decided to go to the lake and on to Olkhon Island. The shortest distance from the mainland to the island is probably a 3 km wide stretch of the lake. When we got there we were told that the ice was getting too thin now to drive across at this part of the lake, so we were handed over to two "ice guides" who showed us the way to walk across. It was a lot of fun walking until the ice cracked and one of us fell through but got pulled up again. We were probably midway by then and suddendly everyone was getting very serious and concentrated about the walk. Another one fell through the ice and had to be pulled out again. This was the moment when I was happy to travel with a trolley that I could just let go and not a backpack that would probably pull me down. Finally all reached the other side and everyone started cracking jokes again, happy to have reached the shore.
We checked in at Nikita's Guesthouse. The Island is a place where you can get away from it all. The whole 72 km long island has a population of 1500, 1200 of which live in Khuzir, its main settlement. No bank, no hospital, no police. Olkhon was connected to electricity just in 2005, no landlines, just recently mobile telephony arrived covering Khuzir and around. No TV, there's an Internet cafe which is closed. A shop (supermarket would be the wrong term here) sells the basics and uses an abacus to do the math. There's a few guesthouses that cater for those who come here (mainly Russians in summer, French and Germans who want to camp on the ice during winter). No toilets with a flush, no hot water, no showers. There's a banya (something very close to a Finnish sauna) where you can mix very cold and very hot water to wash yourself.
Besides our little group there was a Spanish guy from Asturias who is staying for 3 months on the island to work with the local carpenters at Nikita's and a French girl, staying for three months as well, who is writing a novel here. Apparently there is another frenchman on the northern shore of the lake who is writing a book as well. About solitude.
The next day we charted an old Russian minibus and visit some of the smaller islands around. It does feel a bit weird driving on ice, but after a while you get used to it. It is actually a quite bumpy drive, since the ice breaks up and freezes over again and the driver tries to avoid the cracks wherever he can. The island is a centre for Shamanism and Buddhism so we go and visit some of the sites, have lunch on the ice and a tea. Main diet is "omul", a fish that only lives in Baikal. It is served for lunch and dinner everyday and is really tasty. We pass a "fishing village", which is in fact about 20 cars parked in a row who cut holes into the ice and set up tents and all.
On Friday most of us wanted to return to civilisation as we had onward trains booked. It was not easy arranging for transport. Due to the ice there are no ships going yet. The safest option would be a hovercraft, but it appeared to be undergoing repair. Walking back across the way we came is no longer recommended by now since the ice is melting. Also a story goes round that a car last week broke through the ice. I get slightly worried about this, but we are assured, that the ice is still good enough for driving in another part of the lake. Once on the lake our Russian minibus packed with 11 gets rather quiet.
I think about what happens if the ice would break. I sit next to the exit, but would it be possible to open the door?
I have a strange urge to listen to "swim until you can't see land" by Frightened Rabbit that I cannot explain. Maybe if you can swim the water would be resonably warm. How deep is the water here anyhow? The world's deepest lake, that holds an impressive 20% of the worlds whole fresh water resources goes down to 1637m, but I guess as long as it's deeper than the height of the bus it doesn't really matter...
I usually don't get worried, if an airplane gets into turbulences, but this was scary!
When we finally made it to the shore (the drive was probably 20 minutes, but seemed like ages to me) everybody started cheering and hugging the driver. He's my hero.
I am back in Irkutsk and off to Ulan-Ude today, my last stop before leaving Russia!
Crossing lake Baikal by foot
Buddhist Stupa on a small Island next to Olkhon
Cliff next to Olkhon
Our cars on the ice
Evening entertainment at Nikita's: Nicolai plays his accordeon and sings in Russian, Tajik, Belarussian, English, Spanish... and is clearly enjoying what he is doing. Listen here