Donkey Crossing

Welcome to Donkey Crossing! Donkey Crossing is an on-line account of one Limey and one Yank living one Dream. From September 2006 until the end of 2007, we plan to visit friends and family on five continents and immerse ourselves into various cultures, natural phenomena and ways of life. We hope you enjoy our tales and visit often! Cheers, Jason and Rachel Napoli

Monday, July 23, 2007

Lake Baikal and Olkhon Island

We'd broken the long train journey from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, at Irkutsk so we could visit Lake Baikal. This unmistakable patch of blue on the vast map of Siberia is the world's deepest lake, containing more water than all the Great Lakes of North America combined.

Siberia's famous Lake Baikal

We chose to base ourselves on Olkhon Island, a long, skinny island on the northwest side of the lake, reached from Irkutsk by minibus then ferry. Jason sat in the front of the minibus and managed to make friends with the Russian driver, the mutual desire to communicate and some creativity on both sides overcoming the language barrier. Meanwhile, I made friends with both Russian & foreign passengers in the back.

I met Anya (left) in the minibus from Irkutsk. Thankfully her English was excellent, although I managed to exchange a few words in Russian with her sister Elena and her mother, with whom she was traveling.

The first stop during our six hour drive was at a roadside shrine. We all got out and threw coins, a tradition apparently originating from the indigenous Buddhist people of Siberia. The second time we stopped, our rubles went towards a plate of slimy Russian dumplings stuffed with mincemeat; very typical of the region and tastier than they sound.

Prayer flags dangle from branches at this roadside shrine

On arrival at Olkhon Island's "Camping Tourist Sunny", we all clambered out of the minibus, eager to check out where we'd be staying. The place looked great on their website, but was rather different in real life. Evidently the person who created the website wasn't overly concerned with presenting the facts, and had possibly never actually been here. In fact, the 'stunning lake views', '24 hour hot water', 'log fires in every cabin' and several other advertised features turned out to be completely fictional.

A view of Khuzir, Olkhon Island's only town, with Lake Baikal in the background. The view from our cabin wasn't quite as picturesque.

However, our rustic cabin came equipped with four walls and a bed, which was all we needed. Besides, we had new friends to hang out with and Olkhon Island to explore, so the accommodation situation was more comedy than tragedy really.

Our cabin, a.k.a. 'The Shed'

Meal times at "Camping Tourist Sunny" were especially amusing and often involved a lively debate amongst our friends from the minibus about what we might be eating. We typically reached the consensus that there was probably fish on our plates in some form or other, a deduction based more on our location on the shores of Lake Baikal than on taste, texture or appearance. Breakfast tended to be an equally confusing affair, consisting of some variation on a theme of white carbohydrate goo served with a bowl of fried, soft centered cheesy blobs which tasted slightly fermented.

These roadside pit toilets were actually far more pleasant than the ones at "Camping Tourist Sunny". Not surprisingly, they didn't mention the dodgy toilets on their website. Men on the right, women on the left, in case you were wondering!

Even though we couldn't see Lake Baikal from our cabin, walking a few meters from camp opened up views of the magnificent lake, with a wild but pretty beach to the right and a striking rock peninsula to the left. Looking inland beyond Khuzir, the tree covered hills and grassy steppe stretched out invitingly across the island.

This hill, just outside the confines of "Camping Tourist Sunny", was the perfect spot for taking in views of Baikal and the beach, and for playing frisbee.

For sunset fans, Lake Baikal is a treat

Intent on discovering the secrets of the island, we rented mountain bikes and set off to explore. Having exited Khuzir via the town's unofficial rubbish dump (an experience we've unfortunately notched up in several countries), we headed for the hills. Cycling up the sunny steppe proved a lot more demanding than it looked, but we eventually felt relief in the shady forest, and found ourselves cycling through stunning valleys reminiscent of the Swiss Alps, and across pretty meadows garnished with bright wild flowers.

One of Olkhon Island's delightful 'Alpine' valleys

It was a fantastic day of biking with memorably beautiful scenery, challenging climbs and exhilarating downhills. The only glitch was getting lost and having to repeat a tough 15 km stretch after we'd already decided we'd had enough for the day. There was no time for frustration though, as a thunderstorm loomed ominously between us and Khuzir and we had no choice but to force our tired bodies to press on. Then the rain came, at which point it began to feel more like a military exercise than a joy ride. We made it back to "Sunny" damp but basically unscathed, and we don't regret the two wheeled adventure that gave us a unique view of the island.

Our map proved useless. Gut instincts and a compass got us home in the end.

Tired smiles as we returned to Khuzir

We spent the following day resting our weary biking legs by the rocky peninsula, which is apparently considered a shamanic energy center. We certainly felt energized after a day there, though I'm inclined to attribute that to lying in the sun, gazing passively at the metamorphosis of the clouds. Our picnic feast of smoked Olmut, a delicious Lake Baikal fish, also gave us a tasty boost.

The dramatic shamanic rock jutting into Lake Baikal

Smoked Olmut, about to be devoured

We enjoyed our evenings on Olkhon too. The first was spent strolling on the beach and paddling in the freezing lake waters with Gerben and Veerle, a Belgian couple we'd met on the minibus. We chatted about our shared passion for Belgian beers and good cuisine, and Gerben entertained us with stories about his unusual job as a producer of cooking shows for Belgian television.

Veerle (left) and Gerben

The icy Baikal water was great for chilling our beer, but a bit harsh on the feet. We were back on dry land within seconds of this photo being taken.

We spent the evening of the 4th of July with Andy and Jane, a British couple also staying at "Sunny". They turned up at 'The Shed' with beer and balloons, and we celebrated American Independence Day in Russia accompanied by Bruce Springsteen on the iPod. Another lovely couple we met were Kristin and Carlos. Carlos is from Majorca, Spain and Kristin is, coincidentally, from Wheaton, IL, Naperville's neighbor to the north. We hope to bump into both of these couples as we press forward through Mongolia and China.

Jane and Andy on the ferry, heading back to Irkutsk

Lake Baikal was a delightfully tranquil place to conclude our time in Russia. We left with new friends, a good dose of natural beauty and a few souvenir bruises and scratches from the mountain biking.

Back in Irkutsk, we prepared to say our farewells to Russia. We would leave the next morning on our Trans-Mongolian train journey to Ulaanbaatar.

Farewell, Olkhon Island

Coming soon on Donkey Crossing: leaving Russia on the Trans-Mongolian Railroad and our time in Ulaanbaatar for the annual Naadam Festival.


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