It hadn’t occurred to me to take sunscreen to Siberia. But as I lay baking in 85-degree sunlight, I realized that a tube of SPF 30 was as important here in the summer as a down jacket in winter.
Siberia tends to conjure images of an Arctic wasteland and unforgiving weather, a place of harsh exile for people who did not toe the Soviet line. And although there is some truth to that stereotype, Siberia is a different place in the summer, as I found out during a two-week visit here last July.
In summer, the sun remains above the horizon until 10:30 p.m., as though working overtime to make up for its pitiful performance during the long, cruel winters. The snow melts, revealing a landscape bursting with wildflowers, birch, cedar and pine trees, and countless rivers and lakes -- including Lake Baykal, one of the most remarkable lakes in the world.
The 395-mile-long, crescent-shaped lake is the oldest existing freshwater lake on Earth -- about 20 million to 25 million years old. It’s also the deepest -- more than a mile at some points. It holds 20% of the world’s fresh-water supply.
But the lake is much more than statistics. It is also a place steeped in myth and religion, considered one of the holiest sites in Eurasia. Its spiritual center and largest island, Olkhon, was my destination.
Baykal is relatively unknown outside Russia, though it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I knew of it only because I had passed by it 10 years earlier while traveling from Moscow to China aboard the Trans-Siberian. From the train’s soot-stained windows, the lake had appeared majestic and beckoning. I vowed to return so I could explore it.
Thick pine forests
I had flown from Moscow to the East Siberian town of Irkutsk, where I joined two Frenchmen in their mid-20s, Alexandre Kotenkoff and Jean-Luc Viallet, and Leonard Simanovsky, our Russian tour guide. Leonard, a slightly stocky, good-natured local, had never traveled outside of Siberia, but he provided a wealth of information about the region and was an amicable companion besides.
Irkutsk is only 43 miles from Lake Baykal’s southern shore, but Olkhon Island is about midway up the lake, and we had to drive about five hours along a road that was alternately good pavement and -- far more common -- lengths of dirt and mud.
It took less than 30 minutes in Leonard’s Toyota Corona to destroy my preconceived notions of Siberia as frozen tundra.
The suburbs of Irkutsk gave way to grassy hills, which, as we gained altitude, grew thick with pine trees. The forest was a surprise. Not only was I not expecting it in Siberia but it also reminded me of driving to Lake Tahoe, which coincidently, I would find out later, is the sister lake of Baykal.
Once we started back downhill, the forest disappeared and the terrain mellowed into rolling steppes. These grassy plains -- the quintessential Siberia -- dominated the scenery for most of our drive.
When we stopped occasionally, Leonard pointed out various wild herbs among the grasses and numerous wildflowers, which, when crushed, gave off pungent odors. The locals, he told us, used the herbs for medicinal purposes.
The Buryats are the largest ethnic minority in Siberia, and they inhabit most of the area surrounding Lake Baykal. They were originally from Mongolia, just south of Baykal, and were shamanists for many years until their conversion to Buddhism and Christianity. A handful of modern shamans, however, have hung on to the beliefs of their forefathers and still practice today, performing services and healings.
Olkhon Island is the spiritual epicenter for the Buryat. Generations have held it sacred, passing down a rich heritage of legend and spirituality. Every rock on Olkhon that resembles a man or animal seems to have some ancient fairy tale behind it, every cave or soaring eagle, a spirit lurking within.
Fueling its mystical allure is the shape of the island itself: At 45 miles long and 9 miles wide, it mirrors the form of the lake.
I caught my first glimpse of Olkhon and the lake at the same time. We had just rounded a bend in the road and were heading downhill to a small, wooden ferry dock when the sparkling blue of Lake Baykal came into view. Olkhon and its grass-covered hills lay a mile offshore.
After crossing to the island, we caught a bus to Khuzhir, a small fishing village where we would stay. Khuzhir is a desolate place with a few hundred wooden homes and wide dirt roads that are used more often by dogs and cows than residents. Though it’s the unofficial capital of the island, it has no phones and only three hours of electricity a day.
It also has no hotels. Instead, many residents have turned their homes into bed and breakfasts, and Leonard had arranged for us to stay at one. Olga Zvereva, our jovial, hardworking proprietor, made sure we were settled and comfortable before busying herself with chores.
The main house was rustic yet comfortable, a wooden cabin with an outhouse in the back and no running water. We ate our meals there but slept in a more recently built, two-story cabin in the backyard. It held eight rooms, and each was decorated, with wallpaper, a bed and a small dresser.
The B&B;'s most luxurious amenity was a banya, a traditional wood-burning Russian sauna stocked with birch branches, which are used as whips to bring blood to the skin’s surface. At first I was reluctant to try the banya, but once I did, I found it deeply cleansing, relaxing and far more enjoyable than any shower I could have hoped to have in Khuzhir.
Dinner was another pleasant surprise -- nearly all of it was grown in a garden behind the house. Each day, Olga picked tomatoes, cucumbers, chives, potatoes and dill. Everything was fresh and delicious, especially the Siberian tomatoes blessed by the long summer sunshine. The other parts of our meals came from the lake.
Lake Baykal is renowned for omul, a relative of the salmon, which is most commonly dried and salted. It’s chewy, like smoked salmon, but has a salty, earthy flavor. But in okha, a traditional fish soup, omul changes texture and is light and flaky, more like a whitefish.
Galapagos of Siberia
The fish exists nowhere else in the world. Lake Baykal is among the most biologically diverse lakes on the planet, earning it the nickname Galapagos of Siberia. Of the 2,200 animal and plant species in the lake, about 80% are endemic, including the translucent golomyanka fish, which gives birth to live young, and fresh-water nerpa seals, the only mammal living in the lake.
One of the great heroes of this native cornucopia is the tiny epischura, a minute crustacean that helps keep Baykal’s waters clear by continually filtering the water, removing algae, bacteria and calcium. The water is so clear in parts of the lake that I could see the rocky bottom 120 feet below.
The water is said to have restorative properties as well. Local lore has it that those willing to brave its frigid waters will live 25 years longer, providing the shock of the cold water doesn’t kill them first. So we took our chances, alternating quick, gasping plunges into the lake with hours of baking in the warm Siberian sun.
Some Los Angeles friends had predicted that I would end up with frostbite or hypothermia on my visit here. But summertime temperatures average in the 70s, thanks to a microclimate created by the lake. Winters are warmer and summers cooler and less humid than other areas of Siberia. The island has more sunny days than Russia’s premier vacation resorts on the Black Sea, Leonard proudly pointed out.
The microclimate is also responsible for the abundance of flora -- wildflowers, grassy steppes and forests so thick I could hardly see a dozen feet ahead.
One remarkable place I found was Khoboy Cape, a slender, grassy spit of land at the northern tip of the island. To reach it I had followed a narrow dirt trail along the backbone of a ridge, hundreds of feet above the lake, to a weathered lookout point. Lake Baykal spread out before me, an expanse of unruffled water interrupted only by shifting shades of blue and hazy mountains in the distance.
At the tip of the ridge stood a 5-foot-tall shaman holy post, which visitors had festooned with bits of cloth, prayer flags, bottle caps, cigarettes, ruble coins -- pretty much anything else one might find in their pockets. I left my business card.
The holiest place on the island is Shaman Rock, which juts up from the rocky shore and overlooks a small moon-shaped bay on the edge of Khuzhir. Powerful spirits are said to inhabit the rocks and a small cave that lies within.
One late afternoon as the sun was setting, I climbed to the top of the rock, closed my eyes and took a deep breath to try to soak in the energy. I would have loved to report a feeling of religious fervor or holy contentment, but as I was beginning, my leg brushed against some stinging nettles. Nirvana had suddenly become unattainable.
Olkhon Island may be full of spirits and shamans, but I realized that the holiest force on the island -- the one responsible for the overwhelming feeling of peace and serenity I felt every time I looked out over the azure waters or flower-strewn meadows -- was nature, stinging nettles notwithstanding.
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Siberia, on purpose
From LAX, at least three changes of planes are necessary to get to Irkutsk, Russia. Air New Zealand, Virgin Atlantic and British fly to London, connecting to Moscow, then to Siberian Airways to Irkutsk. United and US Airways fly to Frankfurt, Germany, connecting to Lufthansa to Moscow, then Aeroflot to Irkutsk. Air China flies to Beijing, then to Dalian, China, connecting to Siberian Airways to Irkutsk. United and Alaska fly to Seattle, connecting to Aeroflot to Moscow, then to Irkutsk. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $1,615.
On Olkhon Island, there are no car rental agencies, but drivers and guides can be hired through tour operators.
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 7 (country code for Russia), 3952 (the area code for Irkutsk) and the local number. There are no telephones on Olkhon Island, but most tour operators are based in Irkutsk.
Baikal Explorer, 303 13 Zhukova St., Irkutsk; 172-440, www.baikalex.com. Offers tours throughout the Lake Baykal region. Three-day trips from Irkutsk to Olkhon Island start at $180 per person.
Green Express, 291 Baikalskaya St., Irkutsk; 563-404, fax 563-400, www.greenexpress.ru. Specializes in adventure and ecotourism in the Lake Baykal region. A six-day sailing tour of Lake Baykal, with three nights on Olkhon Island, starts at $1,008.
WHERE TO STAY:
Because Olkhon has no phone service, you can make reservations at bed and breakfasts only through a tour operator. Accommodations start at about $15 a night. Amenities can be sparse, so ask what is included.
Harmony Camp, 2 1/2 miles from Khuzhir, see Green Express, above. Owned and operated by Green Express. Visitors stay in traditional yurts upgraded with modern beds and heaters. Separate shower cabins are available, as are a satellite telephone and banya. Full room and board, $40 a night.
Nikita’s, 8 Kirpichnaya St., Khuzhir, Olkhon; www.olkhon.info. Among the nicest places to stay on the island. An eclectic collection of cabins and huts (some with indoor chemical toilets). There are separate shower cabins, a playground for kids, even a small bar. Accommodations from $18 a person.
WHERE TO EAT:
Olkhon has no restaurants. Tourists can get meals at bed and breakfasts, which usually arrange three meals daily for guests when requested. The exception is Nikita’s (above), which allows visitors to eat in the dining room for $3 to $5.
TO LEARN MORE:
Getting a Russian visa is a difficult, time-consuming process. I recommend using a visa service. I used Go to Russia, (888) 263-0023, www.gotorussia.com, which has offices in San Francisco and Atlanta and offered professional, timely service.
Russian National Group, (877) 221-7120, www.russia-travel.com.
-- Neil Woodburn