Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A Belly Full of Shamanic Energy and Hearty Russian Food

Can you feel the Shamanic energy?
Our first stop in Russia was Lake Baikal, the deepest freshwater lake in the world, and we had resolved to spend our first few nights in the peaceful setting of Olkhon Island, a 72-km long island located in the middle of the lake.
Damn, Russia is big.
Olkhon Island in Lake Baikal
But first we had to get there, and so unfortunately, after a 36 hour train ride from Mongolia, our initial impressions of Russia involved haggling for a taxi from the Irkutsk train station to the bus station, and then wandering helplessly around the bus station trying to figure out how to get to Olkhon Island.  In a land where all signs are in Cyrillic, all people speak only Russian and all (well, most) transport is by rundown, un-marked minibuses, this was no easy task.  Luckily we had our destination written in Cyrillic and by showing this slip of paper to about two dozen people, and after a small detour to a ticket office that sold tickets that apparently we couldn’t buy and running back and forth across a busy road a few times we finally found a minibus headed to Olkhon Island.
It's business on the outside, but I can assure you it was all party on the inside.
This fringed, velour-leopard-print seat-covered, techno-blasting minivan, piloted by a middle-aged, skin-tight tanktopped, yellow-tinted-shooting-glasses-wearing driver with a need for speed, would be our home for the next five hours.  Dave set off in search of food for the bus and discovered the joy of Russian convenience stores: a giant wall of beer, a giant wall of cigarettes, and about three packets of crackers.
Scenes from a Russian bus station convenience store
Not pictured: food (because there was none)
Dave then found a cafeteria and proceeded to buy a half roast chicken, which he gnawed on it in the parking lot while we waited for the minibus to fill up.  Yup, that’s my husband.
Want a bite?
Uh, no thanks.

Once we got to Olkhon Island, five hours of driving and a quick ferry ride later, things were looking up, especially given the fact that we had survived.  (We’ve been in many vehicles driven by maniacal drivers over the past year, but this one seemed like a special exercise in tailgating, swerving and speeding.) 
The ferry from the mainland to Olkhon Island
Olkhon Island is gorgeous: rolling grasslands to the south and sheer, dramatic cliffs to the north, and all of it surrounded by sparking, crystal-clear blue water.  In some directions it was water as far as you could see; in others, snow capped mountains dominated the horizon.  Wooden houses with sharply pitched roofs (exactly how I had pictured Siberian houses to look) were interspersed with gers in the small main settlement of Khuzhir.
Just a taste of the spectacular scenery
Typical Siberian house
We stayed at the “famous” (famous in Olkhon Island circles, I guess) Nikita’s Guesthouse, a small compound of wooden buildings.  Our room was oddly large yet cozy (except when it rained and the roof leaked), the bathrooms were outside, shared, and smelly, and the showers were also outside, shared and cold.  I was fine with cold showers when we were in the tropics, but in the 50 degree weather of Siberia each shower was a special kind of torture.
Our room at Nikitas:
The honeymoon special: four twin beds - two to sleep in, two to dump our stuff on
Our room had its very own sink. Note that the sink is not connected to anything.
You use the bucket of water on the left, and the water lands in another bucket under the sink.
(well, hypothetically you use it, it was too ice cold for us, and also, ew, gross standing water, no thanks)
[DSM: I assumed they just switch the buckets once most of the water has moved from one bucket to the other.]
Meals were included, communal and hearty, and they were quite tasty if you like fish balls (no), fish cakes sneakily masquerading as pizza (no, and that was a horrible surprise), beet salad (yes) and carbs (yes!).  I still dream of their thin, crepe-like pancakes and their dense, sourdoughy-ryey bread.
Live "entertainment" in the Nikita dining room.
Stew over carbs
Carbs on carbs on carbs
Carbs over stew
Privyet, delicious pancakes
Privyet, delicious bread
We also got our first taste of Russian hospitality from the girls in reception and excursions. Ha!  I joke.  We were all terrified of their withering looks and harsh words.  We cringed in fear every time they deigned to speak with us. Any questions we had they answered with a curt "nyet" and slammed a door (proverbial or actual) in our face.
The hospitality of the Russian pups at Nikita's, however, couldn't be beat
Too cute for words
Even the kittens were warm and welcoming
Olkhon Island is considered one of the five global poles of shamanic energy by the Buryat people and we spent a fun afternoon with some new friends and some of the dogs from Nikitas climbing up and around the island’s Shaman Rocks.
We also enjoyed long walks on the nearby beach, littered with rusting boats and empty vodka bottles, and boasting a Russian banya in a beachfront trailer.  More on this later.
Rusty boat #1
(there's the banya in the distance)
Rusty boat #2
Rusty boat #3
Rusty boat #4
Remember the chicken Dave bought at the bus station?
The leftovers (in the bag) bought him a new loyal companion.
[DSM: this was actually a vicious stare-down]
An excursion with a minibus full of Russians took us through densely wooded forests to the north of the island.  Attached to each of the sights documented below is a Siberian folkstory or a Shamanic legend.  We know this because each time we stopped, the bus driver would regale the spellbound passengers with stories and information, in Russian, for five to ten minutes.  Then an English-speaking Russian passenger would turn to us and explain, “He says this is famous rock.  You have fifteen minute for photo.”
Our van was obviously previously used by the Dharma Initiative
The scenery was dramatic
The people-watching was entertaining
We missed the explanation of this thing
And this had something to do with an elephant
We never learned why all the Russians were posing in this spot in a Warrior 2, but we went with it
(and added a double peace sign wassup).
But the gorgeous landscape needed no translation
Did I mention that we had just discovered the panoramic setting on our new camera?
The lunch was simple yet delicious.  It felt like ages since we'd seen fresh vegetables.
[DSM: These were, unquestionably, the best tomatoes I've ever had.  Ever.  Amazing.]
We also appreciated the fact that there were trees to pee behind.
[DSM: Look close, there's J in the lower left. Sniped!] 
The bus ride back from Lake Baikal to Irkutsk was your typical crap Russian minibus.  Initially, however, it seemed that our friends Brian and Erin had gotten lucky.  They had the entire back seat to themselves!  They spread out, they lounged, they looked at the rest of our smugly (me and Dave weren't even sitting next to one another).  It wasn't long before the driver pulled over in the middle of nowhere and picked up a random dude.  A random tall dude.  Brian and Erin shifted around, but things were still ok.
Fairly happy (ok, not-pissed) faces from Brian and Erin in the back seat.
And then?  The driver pulled over yet again, in a field, and picked up another lady.  Erin clearly is not pleased.
Other things of note:
1. How swarthy is Dave!
2. We've been driving for 10 minutes and all the local people are already fast asleep.
3.  Me, on the left, in my special place. See photo below.
You may remember the awful minibus ride from Mandagolbi to Ulaanbaatar, when I was wedged between an obese Mongolian woman and a giant rusty nail.  I put my headphones in, I closed my eyes, and I went to my special place.  Well, that day was too hot for a sweatshirt.  But Siberia? Definitely not too hot for a sweatshirt.  It is here that I would like to give a resounding shout out to my Lululemon sweatshirt.  He has been with me since day one, and although I have appreciated his convenient zipper pockets, cozy thumbholes, stretchy material and longer fit, it is the giant hood that I value most.  This giant hood: (1) is cozy when it's cold; (2) stops my hair from flying around in a high wind; (3) is an important layer of protection between (a) my head and (b) disgusting surfaces; and (4) acts as a blackout shade.  And when things get bad, say on an unpaved road in a tiny non-reclinable seat located behind a reclinable seat (I know, it blows my mind too), a blackout shade can really take you one step closer to that special place, and one step closer to retaining your sanity.
Me, my ipod, and my giant hood.  All I really need out there (plus toilet paper and purell).
 You must be wondering where Dave was during this minibus ride:
Enjoying his bacon-flavored Lays of course! 
It seems any place with bacon is his special place.  Men are so simple.
If You Go:  State buses leave from the Irkutsk bus station a few times a day, but the minibuses are more frequent, faster and only about ten rubles more expensive.  You pay the minibus driver directly (500 rubles per person, including luggage (about $17)).  We stayed at Nikita’s Guesthouse, where around $60/night got us a private room (but with shared bathrooms and showers) and full board.  The French cafĂ© on the premises had pretty good coffee, and a tomato and cucumber salad that looked fantastic.  Our day-long excursion to the north was booked through Nikita’s and cost $20 per person.  Make sure to visit the banya down by the beach – it’s definitely an experience, and I definitely would never have braved the icy waters of Lake Baikal without it!  Warning: there are no ATMs on Olkhon Island, and although Nikita’s says they’ll change money, they rarely had any rubles available to do so.  Bring cash! 


  1. A very nice article, thanks guys! I really like that part about the minibus and the driver. It really tells everything about a summer trip to lake Baikal, with no bull stuff! :)

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  3. The scenery is beautiful, and also I like to travel, but I didn't have the time. Thank you for your pictures!


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