Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Olkhon Island (8th of August)

After a ride on the number 1 tram and then a walk we left on the 8.10 a.m. coach to Khuzhir on Olkhon Island, halfway up lake Baikal. It’s a wonder the buses don’t have punctures before they leave the bus station seeing that it’s full of potholes. The bus passed by a box of cucumbers lying in the road, five horses at the roadside and a few cows lumbering across it, shortly before we got to a very nice road sign with a horned cow on it. The fields here do not appear to have fences to keep the cattle in. We also passed a dead horse with its guts hanging out, victim to the lack of fences. By the roadside little memorials can be found with flowers and steering wheels where people have crashed. The variety of landscapes we passed through was quite impressive- farmland with a few birch forests, grasslands rich in flowers, coniferous forest with bilberries aplenty and then the vast barren Northern looking steppe landscape that dominates this area.

Not long after we had started driving in this Mongolianesque area we came across a crash site on a sharp bend. Two minivans were at the side of the road, both with mangled bonnets. Three girls were lying on their backs, evidently in pain, and the rest of the passengers were standing around looking shell-shocked. It would have taken hours for an ambulance to reach them. We (and it seemed most people on the bus, judging by their gasps) were worried by this and decided we were lucky to be in our larger coach, with a relatively careful driver. However, we weren’t so sure anymore when the road became an extensively potholed dirt track. The coach had to go extremely slowly and had a tendency to tilt as it moved to avoid the potholes. Seatbeltless I was left clutching on to my armrest. Earlier we couldn’t imagine why the trip was meant to take eight hours, but all became clear on the track. Bumping up and down we entertained ourselves looking for ground squirrels.

The ferry was just pulling away as we got to the crossing so during the half an hour wait we walked up a small hill and observed the rubbish eating cows. We sat back down in the coach but for some reason everyone got off as soon as the engine started and walked on to the boat instead, so we just followed suit. This was a Russian roll on- roll off ferry where the boat immediately turned around and went across the lake backwards so that the vehicles had to reverse off.

Olkhon island is massive, 75km by 15km and it just doesn’t feel like an island. It’s is pretty in its own barren way. Most of the island is steppe, with woodland in the middle and some dunes on the west coast. The man from Bolshie Koty told us that it is famous for its Shamanic energy, but he doesn’t like it because it makes him feel ill. Khuzhir where we stayed is very much a tourist town, with everyone trying to capitalise on the area’s appeal.

No sooner had we got off the bus than we were accosted by a Russian lady who we figured out wanted us to stay in her accommodation. We weren’t really sure how we could shake her off and walked with her to the tourist information office. The lady there could speak English and we asked her advice. She told us that ‘Nikita’s’, which is the place where western tourist stay, would be far more expensive than what this lady was offering (350 roubles), and that we should follow her and look at it and walk away if we didn’t like it. We were taken behind one of the mysterious Russian fences and shown around. The room looked rather cosy and we would be able to cook rather than have to refuse fish and do our cooking on the trangia. They offered us ‘Chai’ and tried to communicate with us. Having asked where the toyalet was I was pointed to the bottom of the potato patch. We’d cross that hurdle later.

A stoll along the cliff tops with views over to the Primorsky mountains and along the coast was very pleasant, apart from the cars that were parked there. Seems that on Olkhon Island people can drive anywhere they want, if they are foolish enough. As soon as we got back in the garden we were offered ‘Chai’ again. This is a kettle that never stops boiling. We needed some help with knowing what water to use for washing up and where to put it after we’d finished and felt like helpless foreigners. It also turned out that there was a hut with a hole in the ground in it, so we wouldn’t be peeing on the potatoes. In the evening we went to sleep to the sound of the lady in the room next door throwing up (Shamanic energy to blame?).

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