Listvyanka to Olkhon Island
I stayed a couple of nights in Listvyanka. Breakfast at the hotel didn’t start until 9am, and so that was a good excuse to have a lie in. I noticed the forecast suddenly change from cloudy to sunny and back a couple of times, which demonstrated how changeable the Siberian weather can be. It turned out to be sunny when I left for Olkhon Island, which certainly made a welcome change.
Before setting off I conducted my usual bike checks and saw the oil level was below the minimum. I’d noticed it slowly getting lower and lower over the past couple of weeks, but foolishly I didn’t have any spare to top it up with. It was due for an oil change & service anyway, and so I planned to find a garage an hour up the road in Irkutsk and get it sorted.
I arrived in Irkutsk around 11am and thought I might as well take the opportunity to look at a couple of sights that ‘trip-advisor’ said was worth seeing, including the 17th century Epiphany Cathedral.
My Sat Nav showed a motorcycle garage not 5 km away, which saved a lot of messing around asking people in sign language, and took me directly there. I bought 4 litres of oil and an oil filter and took them round the corner to the workshop where one mechanic was busy working on another bike. I imaged just turning up for an oil change at any motorbike shop in the UK, and laughed to myself because I knew they would tell me to book the bike in at reception, and they would be full for the next 2 days at least.
I said “Hello!” in my best Russian and hung around outside, as I could see he was busy working on something. After a few minutes he came outside to see what I wanted, and, with the help of Google Translate, I explained I needed an oil & filter change.
“No problem” he said, in Russian, and made a space for me to wheel my bike into the workshop.
Thirty minutes later we were all done, and my Tiger must have been breathing a sigh of relief having had the same old oil for the past 12,000 km (the rest of the service would have to wait, but I couldn’t see anything major needing doing). The guy only charged me 300 rubles (a fiver), and once again I felt truly humbled by the way he’d gone out of his way to fit me in at zero notice. I gave him some more money and told him to buy himself a good bottle of vodka on me.
It felt great riding off with my new tyre and new oil, and the bike was running like a dream.
By now it was 2.30 pm and I’d completely forgotten about lunch, so I got out of the city and pulled over in a scenic spot to eat the bread and cheese I’d bought for just such an occasion. Then, for some unknown reason, I bit almost completely though the end of my tongue. Why on Earth would my body do such a thing, after all these years?
Northeast of Irkutsk the scenery changed noticeably, and I saw lots of farm animals for the first time in any number; cows, sheep and horses. It was arable land and stretched out flat before me in the wide, fertile flood plain of the River Angara.
The road intermittently changed from tarmac to gravel to clay, and it was time once again to dodge the potholes.
Along the way I was pulled over for the 3rd time by the diligent Russian Police. This time I wasn’t speeding and so I assumed it was just a routine document check. It must have been, because he checked all my docs and let me go soon after.
My GPS had me arriving at the small Olkhon Island Ferry dock at 17:36, which was 6 minutes too late to catch the 17:30 ferry that crossed the small gap between the mainland and the island. I arrived to see it sailing away, but it didn’t matter because it would back in 30 minutes, according to the schedule of the noticeboard.
Waiting with me were several Russian UAZ 4 x 4 vans nicked ‘Bukhankas’ or Bread Loaves, as that’s what they looked like. These vans were everywhere in Siberia, and I thought they looked pretty cool.
45 minutes later they managed to squeeze 3 trucks, several Bread Loaves and a few cars onto the tiny ferry, with only inches to spare between each vehicle. I squeezed the Tiger on up the side of one of the trucks in a space too small for a car and got off for a leg-stretch as the ferry bumped along the pier and set off.
Riding off the ferry onto Olkhom, things soon got very bumpy and threatened to rattle my luggage off the back seat as I faced 38 km of sandy, stony washboard. It would have been lots of fun had I not been loaded up with all my luggage, but I was concerned my cable-tied pannier would fly off. It didn’t, which was good.
I stopped a few times when I gasped wide-mouthed at the awesome view across the island. It really was beautiful.
Lake Baikal (meaning ‘nature lake’) is 636 km (395 miles) long and 79 km (49 miles), and being a rift lake is very deep (the deepest in the world), reaching depths of 1,642 m (5,387 ft). It is thought there’s another 7km of sediment underneath that, which would make it the deepest rift valley on Earth. The tectonic plates beneath started drifting apart around 25 million years ago and are currently pulling apart 2cm a year, creating the occasional notable earthquake.
The lake is fed by as many as 330 inflowing rivers and is home to more than 1,700 species of plants and animals, two thirds of which can be found nowhere else in the world, including the Baikal Seal (I unfortunately didn’t see any) and the delicious Omul fish. It contains 27 islands, of which Olkhon is the largest, 72 km (45 miles) long and it is the third-largest lake-bound island in the world.
This time, for once, I was pretty well prepared and had learnt the name of the accommodation I had booked in Russian, which is completely different to the English spelling of the word of course. On entering the only sizeable town on the island, Khuzhir, I soon spotted a sign for Усадьба Дарьяна (which was Usadba Dariana in English) and found it to be a wonderful wooden resort close to the water full of wooden huts.
It was still too early in the season for most tourists to arrive, and there was only me and one other guy there. The old lady in charge quickly warmed to me, after her initial typically stern Russian welcome, and to my pleasant surprise dinner was included in the price, which I wolfed down in minutes with several cups of delicious hot tea.
I spent most of that night picking 5 splinters out of my right hand with a sowing needle. This wasn’t easy for me as I had to use my left hand to get them out (I’m right handed). I got them when I opened the wooden gate to the camp so I could ride my bike in, and it was almost like it had been booby-trapped by an old splintered lump of wood used to bar the gate shut.
I unpacked my bike and cut the cable-ties of the panniers to bring them inside. It was OK – I had some more – but I wanted to spend the day exploring the island on my bike tomorrow, without the extra weight and rattle of the panniers. I was looking forward to it!
I was actually staying in a large 2 storey wooden hut divided into several rooms. I had to make my own bed up again, which seems quite normal when checking into Russian hotels and hostels (at least the ones in my price range), which is no hassle, but it does make me wonder why all Russian sheets are too small for the bed, and aren’t long enough to tuck all the ends in.
I popped to the shop for supplies and then stayed up for a while writing a little blog, and before I knew it, it was past midnight. I went to the bathroom at the end of the corridor and when I came back to my room the door was locked. Yes – I’d locked myself out of my room! Sugar!
I had a feeling this was going to be a problem, due to the fact that everyone else was asleep. I studied the door handle and tried my luck with the old credit card trick (luckily I had my ‘false’ wallet on me, full of old credit cards – a trick I always use in case I’m ever held up at gun-point again).
It didn’t work.
I wondered outside in bare feet, in the dark, and found my way to the old lady’s cottage. I knocked on the door and, quick as a flash – nothing. I knocked again, louder. Nothing. I looked through the window – nought. I waited for a bit, waiting for a miracle, and when nothing happened I knocked again VERY loudly. Zilcho.
OK – time for Plan B.
What was Plan B again?
I walked around the hut and considered climbing up onto the 1st storey roof to try and get through my window (my room was on the top floor), but I could see the window was double glazed and dead-locked. Oh bugger!
I went back to my room door and studied the lock again. There must be a way to open it without the key! I really didn’t fancy sleeping in the corridor as it was freezing and uncomfortable, and my lovely warm, cosy bed was a few feet away.
I tried the credit card trick again, and doubled it up with another one. Nothing. I started pulling the doorframe apart, but then saw it wasn’t going to work.
An hour had passed and I was getting fed up.
Not to be defeated I tried 3 credit cards in different positions and also pulled down on the door handle while pushing the door back hard against its hinges.
As if by magic the door opened! I couldn’t believe it and breathed a huge sigh of relief. I’m not doing that again!
Exploring Olkhon Island
The next day I had a late breakfast at 9am, because that’s when the old lady served it, and then set off for the very northern tip of the island, Cape Khoboy.
I was prepared – the bike was naked (without luggage) and with new oil and a new back tyre she was raring to go.
It was 38km to the cape and from what I gathered from the old lady and other guest at the camp, the road was going to be rough. The other guest told me he went by truck and it took 7 hours for a round trip. I reckoned I could do it in half the time. At least I’d better, because I had no lunch to take with me.
The remoteness and peacefulness of the whole area had already won me over, and when the sun came out, I was sold.
First I rode down to the coast at Khuzhir to see the famously beautiful Shamanka Rock – and it really was beautiful. I’d heard Lake Baikal is not often calm, but today it was perfectly flat and looked crystal clear. I’d picked a perfect day to go! Apparently the lake is one of the clearest in the world, and so pure you can drink the water straight from the lake (although I didn’t test that theory out).
As there were no proper roads on the island, I was free to ride pretty much wherever I chose. I chose to ride up a big cliff to catch a great view of the rock and the bay. It was a huge amount of fun, racing over the grassy hills and skidding over the loose gravel.
On the island & around Lake Baikal I recognised the Buryat people (as I also had done in Ulan-Ude), who are the largest indigenous group in Siberia and a subgroup of the Mongols. This part of Siberia is called the Buryat Republic (a federal subject of Russia) and is where most of the remaining Buryat people live (only around 500,000 remain). They are easily recognised by their Mongol features, following the same way of life and traditions, and mostly live in the republic’s capital of Ulan-Ude, a stone’s throw from Mongolia.
Buryats hold great reverence for trees and they are an important part of their tradition. Large or unusual trees are believed to be the residence of powerful spirits and are honoured by tying on pieces of coloured cloth (or leaving tobacco). Trees are also their places of prayer, as they are the place ‘heaven and earth touch’, and ribbons are also left when praying for healing, luck, or some other wish.
Many Buryats still practice Shamanism, which involves the Shaman reaching altered states of consciousness in order to encounter and interact with the spirit world. Within this world he is said to have influence over benevolent and malevolent spirits, and can use them to treat illnesses by ‘mending the soul’.
I came across these wooden stakes which I guessed were also decorated with ribbons for some spiritual offering.
The road to the Cape started out fine, and then got steadily worse. I actually got a bit worried when the road turned into a huge sand dune, but committed myself and kept ploughing through slowly but surely. After all, it would have been more difficult to turn around than keep on going (depending on what lay ahead, of course).
Luckily the road firmed up again, but then got worse as I faced huge (luckily dry) muddy ruts as the road went through a forest. I thought at one point I was going to fall into one, which would have probably hurt.
Just when I thought it was going to take forever to cover the last 20 km, the road opened up again onto solid steppe, and I rolled on the power, the bike riding like a dream and effortlessly gliding over the uneven, rough surface. It was fun to build up some speed and I really enjoyed getting clear air beneath both wheels as I jumped small hillocks.
It only took me about an hour to get to the cape, where I stripped off and relaxed to cool down for a bit. I couldn’t believe my luck with the weather on this gorgeous, clear, sunny day.
I walked the very last couple of hundred metres to the very end of the cape, as it was blocked off to vehicles – it was a stunning view and one of the highlights of my trip so far.
On the west side of the island I could see the remnants of the ice that had covered the whole lake 2 months ago. The lake was so big it was hard to imagine it all covered in ice up to 2 metres (6.5 ft) thick.
It was now 12:45 and, getting hungry, I turned the bike around and sped back to Khuzhir at full speed to get some lunch. It was much easier on the way back; it always is when you know what’s coming – the hardest part of doing anything is tackling the unknown.
I got back into town in no time at all and stopped by a café/bar with chairs outside, as it was still lovely and sunny. However, always expect the unexpected; inside were a bunch of Siberian fishermen that had finished lunch and were now on their desert of vodka shots, and I was instantly invited over to join them for a shot.
Actually, in Russia, there’s no such thing as just one shot of vodka, and before I knew it more vodka was being bought and more shots were being knocked back. After the third bottle wet dry, I bought the 4th to show my appreciation, which I really didn’t need, but what the heck – it was Friday after all.
I finally escaped after the 4 bottles were dead, and slowly weaved my bike across the road back to the wooden camp with the intention of having a little snooze.
As I was parking my bike in a wobbly fashion, four new Russian arrivals at the camp came up to chat. They had all just finished a business conference in Irkutsk (they worked in construction specialising in wooden housing) and were taking a couple of day’s holiday, and invited me to join them for a drink.
“Of course!” I said, as that was just what I wanted!
So several hours later I fell into bed after a fantastic day – one of the best I’ve had so far on my tour, in fact.
I didn’t even care what I was going to do tomorrow.
Back to Ulan-Ude via Irkutsk
With Lake Baikal explored, I was now ready to head south into Mongolia. To get there I had to double back on myself, back to my favourite city of Ulan-Ude. On the way there I stopped in Irkutsk for a couple of days to relax, look around the city and do some washing; yes, I like my washing breaks!
The hotel I stayed in in Irkutsk was lovely, and only a couple of pound more than a shared hostel, so I thought I’d treat myself to some luxurious privacy. I went for a great run along the river bank, following the Irkut River, which joins the Angara River (the only river that drains Lake Baikal) directly opposite the city. The Angara River flows north from Lake Baikal to join the Yenisey, which is the largest river system flowing to the Arctic Ocean.
In the early 19th century, many Russian artists, officers, and nobles were sent into exile in Siberia for their part in the Decembrist revolt against Tsar Nicholas I. Irkutsk became the major centre of intellectual and social life for these exiles, and much of the city’s cultural heritage comes from them.
It was a nice couple of days, but then it was time to move back to Ulan-Ude and prepare for Mongolia.