5 Favorite Sites on Olkhon Island, Lake Baikal’s Biggest Island
Lake Baikal in south Siberia stands out from all other lakes on earth: it’s the deepest and the oldest lake in the world, formed in an ancient rift in the earth’s surface. It holds more water than all of the Great Lakes in the U.S.
The lake’s biggest island, Olkhon, stands out as well. It’s the fourth-largest lake-bound island in the world, created from the same tectonic movements that formed its parent lake.
Shrouded in lore and legend, the island has been spiritually important to the people of the region for hundreds of years; it’s the place where the indigenous Buryats believed that the gods of Baikal lived. It’s said to be a center of spiritual energy, akin to the Camino de Santiago pilgrim trail in Spain, or sacred Mount Kailash in Tibet. Shamans have held ceremonies here for generations, surrounded by the brooding presence of great Lake Baikal.
Olkhon is incredibly beautiful, too. Set in a peculiar rain shadow, it has more sunny days than the Black Sea coast. The northern half is covered in pine, fir, and larch, and the southern half is hilly steppe and sand dunes. The steep hills along its east coast plunge into the deepest part of the deepest lake on earth. The transparent Baikal waves breaking on the sandy shores of Olkhon’s western side and the rocky crags in the east combine to make it a national treasure.
Here are five of our favorite ways to experience the outstanding natural and cultural beauty of Olkhon Island:
1. Khuzhir: Biggest Little Village on Olkhon
Some 1,500 people live on Olkhon, mainly in the island’s largest town, Khuzhir, the administrative center. It’s located in the center of the island on the western side, and its people are fishermen, farmers and, these days, hospitality workers. Like many Russian villages, its homes and buildings are mainly of wood, and roads are unpaved. You may see a cow or two wandering the streets, and little kiosks selling fresh Baikal fish and fishing gear.
Although a small town, Khuzhir has all that a traveler needs to tour the rest of the island — shops, cafes, and guesthouses, as well as a natural history and local lore museum.
2. Khoboi Cape: The Fang on Olkhon’s Tip
Khoboi is the northernmost cape on Olkhon, a sharp and narrow outcropping that gave it the name, meaning tusk or fang. It’s some 25 miles from Khuzhir over bumpy, dusty roads, but the drive is worth it — the view is glorious.
(click on photo to see a larger version)
If the weather is clear, you can see all the way north over the blue water to the Ushkaniye Islands, home of the nerpa, the Baikal freshwater seal. On the left is Maloye More, the Lesser Sea, and on the right Bolshoye More, the Greater Sea, which is the deepest part of Baikal. Sometimes you can see nerpas basking on the sand, or their little heads poking up from the surrounding water.
3. Shaman Rock: Energy Center of Baikal
Photos of Olkhon often feature Shaman Rock, the best-known spot on the island, and a place charged with spiritual significance. Just off the sandy west coast near Khuzhir, the sharp white marble and granite rock juts up over a horseshoe cove, and has traditionally been used by shamans and Buddhists for ceremonies.
Studded with wooden poles wrapped in prayer flags and ribbons, the ceremonial area is near the top of the rock. This is where the shaman drums, chants, and offers gifts to the spirits of Baikal. In the old days, only shamans could approach this sacred place, and they wrapped their horses’ hoofs in felt or leather so they did not disturb the lord of Baikal.
Willis Hughes, friend of MIR, had this to say after a winter visit to Shaman Rock:
“I understand why it is one of Lake Baikal’s most recognizable landmarks. Locals treasure the sight as the home of Azhin, the lord of Baikal, and even today show the location great respect. Vehicles are not allowed within 200 yards of the area, and shamans regularly perform cleansing rituals and special ceremonies near the rock throughout the year.”
Shamanism is based on a spiritual belief that used to be an integral part of indigenous Siberian life. Shamans intercede for people with the spirit world, the unseen world that pervades the environment. Everything in the natural world — rock, tree, river, animal, and star — has a spirit that may be angered by a clumsy word, or soothed by a shaman’s rituals. A sick or unhappy person may ask a shaman to perform a ritual to help him or her.
“The rock itself is impressive. Its outcroppings and crags are a unique composition of marble, quartz, and granite, all of which seem to absorb the color of their surroundings. In various lights, Shaman Rock displays hues of burnt orange and dusty beige, both of which are magnified by the reflections from the frozen green and blue waves that cover its base. From the ice, the sacred spot towers over the cape and shelters its shore from the wind, but the view from above places it alone in front of the breadth of Baikal.”
4. Peschanaya Village and Gulag: Soviet Remnants and “Walking Trees”
Secluded Olkhon didn’t escape the Soviet gulag system. About an hour northeast of Khuzhir on the way to Khoboi Cape, the remains of a labor camp lie disintegrating in the sand along the lakeshore near little Peschanaya Village. Miscreants convicted of “hooliganism” and larceny were imprisoned here to catch and preserve Baikal fish, as well as to log parts of the island. The wrecked concrete foundations and sagging wooden sheds lead to a neglected pier where prisoners were unloaded during and after Stalin’s repressions. It’s said that the prisoners produced fine caviar from lake sturgeon for the tables of the Kremlin. Established in the ‘30s, the labor camp was abandoned in the ‘50s.
Peschanaya is also known for its “walking trees,” whose roots reach up from the sand where the wind has swept them bare. Not related to the mangroves of Florida, whose aerial roots allow them to receive oxygen, these trees’ roots were originally sunk deep in the ground, before wind and wave action exposed them to the air.
5. Kurykan Wall: 7th Century Mystery
Most foreign travelers don’t make it to the less-traveled southern part of Olkhon. Aside from gorgeous vistas and little lakes, this part of the island is intriguing because it was the home of a Siberian tribe that arrived in the region around the 6th or 7th century. The original inhabitants of the Baikal region were nomadic pastoralists from the Eurasian steppe whose presence can be traced back some 3,000 years. On Olkhon, they were replaced by the Kurykan people, who left significant traces of their occupation.
The Kurykans were also nomadic pastoralists, as well as ironsmiths, horsemen, and early agriculturalists. Their culture, known as the Kurumchin, can be partially deduced from the graves, rock art, and fortified settlement sites they left behind. Scholars can’t agree whether they mixed with Mongols to become the Buryat people, or if they died out by the 11th century.
Whatever their fate, at their zenith they built a striking 600-foot dry stone wall that separates Khargoy Cape from the rest of the island. In places rising to five and six feet, the well-preserved wall is still a mystery to archaeologists. It protects some gravesites, but no village lies behind it, and it’s therefore thought to be a ritual or sacred site.
Wandering along this early wall and wondering about the people who built it along the beautiful Baikal shore so long ago is a meditative experience that can cap off your exploration of sacred Olkhon Island.
More Photos and Info About Lake Baikal
The deepest and most ancient lake in the world has a multitude of opportunities for every kind of traveler. MIR can put together an outdoor itinerary with hiking and kayaking, introduce groups to experts studying the lake’s native wildlife (including the nerpa seal, a species found nowhere else on earth) and take travelers across the lake to sacred Olkhon Island – by boat, ferry, hydrofoil or hovercraft.
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Visit Olkhon Island with MIR
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Experience Olkhon Island on Lake Baikal on these small group tour itineraries:
Top photo: Photographing Lake Baikal from a cliff on Olkhon Island. Photo credit: Martin Klimenta
PUBLISHED: May 13, 2019