The small town of Khuzhir, on Olkhon island in the middle of Lake Baikal is one of the strangest wee places I've ever been. Lake Baikal is the world's deepest fresh water lake. If Lake Baikal was the only source of water on earth, it could keep the entire planet's population alive for 40 years. That is some stat and after four days on a train we thought Lake Bailkal would be the perfect place to experience Siberia and stretch our legs.
And who would have thought Siberia would look like this - blue skies and sandy beaches:
A few other notable bits from the four days we spent in Khuzhir
Getting to Olkhon
This journey deserves a mention. The first two hours were stunning. We drove North of Irkutsk down a road lined with pine forests either side. We were lucky and managed to catch the trees in the height of autumn fabulousness, all of them displaying amazing copper, orange and gold colours. I've only seen colours like this before in October in New York's Central Park. It's similar, you just need to times by a couple of million size wise to imagine what the Siberian landscape looked like when we were there.
All hostels across the Baikal area will help arrange pick up and drop-off at Irkutsk railway station and you can also get a local bus. Both costs roughly 800rub.
We also met a girl called Anna on the ferry to Olkhon who told us a great love story. Originally from Saint Petersburg, her and her ex-boyfriend broke up in December. To take a break she decided to head to the Ural Mountains where she hired a guide and did some hiking. They got on well but she didn't think anything else of it. Two weeks later, she got an email from the guide saying he is Saint Petersburg and has been thinking of her, he knows that she is the girl for him, the perfect wife, mother of his children and life long partner and could he possibly see her.
She agreed - that was the second time they had ever met. The third was their wedding day. That was back in April. She has since given up her city life and is living a new outdoors life with her hiking guide husband in the mountains. She goes on all the treks with him. When I ask her how married life is, she replied 'now we are so in love. How can you not fall in love with someone that gives you everything?' - ahem Michael... I liked her and her romantic if not slightly crazy story stuck with me.
Arriving in Khuzhir: Six hours and four sore bum cheeks later we arrive in Khuzhir. It's sandy, very sandy. The guide book totally forgot to mention this. Nobody is around when we arrive at 5pm. It felt like we were on the set of a spaghetti Western and the rest of the cast had forgotten to turn up.
Occasionally a Lada would drive by followed by a cloud of sandy dust, a dog would bark or someone would shut the door, insulated their home from the wind. Apart from that it was a ghost town. Off-peak has its benefits but it was also a bit eerie. After being dropped of on the 'main' road we walked to our hostel to settle in and take showers.
Our little home was really cute - a hut with under floor heating- this is where we experience our first long drop loo and the infamous Banya or Russian sauna. You can't go to Russia without feeling what 140 degrees heat feels like when it's reaching freezing temperatures outside. There is something very satisfying about the hot to cold thing. Lake Baikal is around 5-8 degrees in the height of summer. In the winter, the lake freezes over completely and you can enjoy all sorts of winter sports on the ice and around the lake.
We passed quite a few 'banya on wheels' which are saunas inside little vans which are parked on the beach. They idea is to sweat it out and then plunge yourself straight into freezing lake. Each Banya has funny looking fluffy hats hanging up - we weren't sure and branches of bay leaves which are apparently for whipping each other with to cause extra pain in the burning heat. It all sounded a bit sadistic to us so we chose to just sit and sweat it out the way we know. A must do experience if you are in Russia and all cities and towns will have them.
We met a great bunch of people staying in our hostel from French speaking Switzerland, France and Argentina. Among the Swiss was one guy who was clearly a wildlife enthusiast. He had heard about the unique fresh water seals (Nerpa in Russia) which you can only find at Lake Baikal. During a drinking session in Switzerland he had convinced two friends to join him on an adventure to see these rare seals. They had agreed and so began the plans for their epic five week journey.
Over a bottle of Lake Baikal vodka, they had been trying to convince (actually beg) us to join them on their boat trip to the seal island the next day, saying 'don't put me on the China boat' over and over again. Throughout Russia we'd seen thousands of Chinese tourists with there megaphones, red caps and shouting. Our friends at the hostel didn't want to us get on a boat with thousands of Chinese tourists. They needed minimum five people to get a private boat and we were the chosen ones to make up the numbers. We didn't join in the end and felt bad when they told us three days later that they hadn't seen any nerpas. They are fair weather seals apparently and only come out of the water in perfect sunshine. It had been hazy and partly cloudy the whole time we'd been there so the boat trips hadn't gone ahead. They had made a long journey to then not see any nerpas in the end. This is exactly how we felt about seeing a yak so we felt for them.
O and to the drunk owner of the hostel who had army tattoos up his arm and kept pointing at himself saying 'Alexander Sasha is mafia' - thank you for the memories, the copious amounts of vodka, the slobbery snog and for telling Bex how much you loved her over Whatsapp on her birthday. You are mental but we liked you anyway.
Mike also got a much needed run around and football game with the locals which was great fun. I could hear them all shouting out his name to pass the ball, 'Mikey, Mikey'. Playing and talking football is such a great way to hangout with locals, transcending all languages and culture barriers.
All in all Lake Baikal is beautiful and impressive and a worth while stop if you're on a long journey through Russia. Be prepared to eat lots of pozy (Russian dumplings) and early nights (which we love btw) if you go off season.