I had big plans for my only full day on the island of Olkhon, an island that is actually a mile-high mountain, with only its peak poking from above the mirrored lake surface. I had it all mapped out: get up at around 8.30am, having a delicious breakfast, sort out some lunch to take, pack my rucksack and hit the dirt road on a mountain bike.
It’s just a shame that Arthur, the chap who rents the bikes out, had different plans. His idea was to sleep off his vodka-fuelled hangover, only emerging from his cabin at about 11am – despite the stream of people who had spent much of the previous 2 hours banging on his door.
He was in a pretty sorry state when I asked if I could rent a bike. Barely able to focus, he stumbled over to the shed and asked me which model I’d like. I opted for the one with full suspension – I’d spent enough hours in cars without adequate suspensions to endure another day of bump-induced pain.
As it happened, my choice wasn’t all that good. In my enthusiasm to get out on the road I had neglected to check the 21 gears, and it was only when I was a couple of kilometres down the track that i realised that only 7 of them worked. Not to worry though, after all, hadn’t it been a teenage policy of mine to never use the lower 7 gears, something about not stooping to that level of laziness?
Pepe attempts to fix the gears for me
Off I went, turning right out of the gates of Nikita to follow the main ‘road’ south towards the next village. There, in accordance with the hand-drawn map of Arthur’s recommended route, I turned inland, pitting myself against a long incline that was to lead me to the forest that smothered the central section of the island.
As I slowly wound my way up the slope, muscles shouting that this level of violence simply wasn’t called for, so the view opened up before me. In the foreground lay gentle yellowing slopes of grassland, contrasting sharply with the deep blue of the Pearl of Siberia behind. In the distance the horizon was formed by a range of chalk-toothed cliffs that punctured the western shoreline. This is what it’s all about I thought as I powered higher and higher, my heart becoming lighter with every rotation of the wheel. This was indeed a dream come true – mountain biking in Siberia with not another soul around, surrounded by nothing but pure and natural beauty.
It wasn’t long before I entered the forest and my pace slowed significantly. It wasn’t the continuing incline that was the problem, it was the beauty of Autumn crying out to be captured by my camera. The vivid yellows of the deciduous trees had me stopping again and again, if not to take a photo then just to say “Wow!”.
After an hour or so I reached the summit of the backbone of the island. Being deep in the forest I couldn’t see far beyond the perimeter of the small clearing in the sea of silver birches, but no matter, I had a feeling that the island had a treat in store for me if I was to continue along the track.
It’s me. In the woods.
And so it did, in the form of an unexpected opening in the forest, in which were nestled a series of golden meadows, some still sporting their lines of hay waiting to be carted off for the cattle that wandered the western shoreline. This, in collaboration with the thrilling downhill slope, had me straight back in the Swiss Alps where, in the summer months, I had frequently biked down valleys just like this one. There was one significant difference though: at the end of this valley lay the world’s largest lake, ready to welcome me into its deep blue waters. At least, water that appeared blue from a distance. In fact the slightly alkaline water was completely transparent; as light pierced the lake’s depths so other colours were filtered from its spectrum, leaving just the blue, the least absorbent.
Baikal has other peculiar properties. Being located over the fault-line between two tectonic plates it is constantly oxygenated from below. This means that whilst it can host deep-water species unseen anywhere else on Earth (and 60,000 of the world’s only freshwater seals), it proves fatal to regular marine life should it enter through one of the many rivers that supply the lake. Bodies of fisherman thrown overboard in the vicious gales that often whip the region are devoured by the magical liquid, bones, clothes – the lot.
Perhaps it is these abilities that have added to the island’s claimed significance as an important centre of shamanic powers. Directly behind the Nikita guesthouse two great shafts of rock just out into the deep water. The trees that have dared survive the harsh climate are blue with prayer flags, and on the cliff top, sitting exactly halfway between the two pillars, believers are gathered, recharging their batteries.
Nowadays it is thought that no real shamans remain in the area, and that the shamanic significance of the rocks is simply being exaggerated and promoted to draw visitors to an otherwise unknown village. Yet the film crew told of how they had located and interviewed the last remaining shaman – had they been duped? Watch for yourself and make up your own mind.
After the briefest of dips in its cold waters, I sat on the pebble beach for over an hour, gazing at the barely discernible eastern shore, munching on my cheese sandwiches and losing my thoughts in the constant crash of the waves. It was absolutely idyllic, and I thanked my lucky stars I’d been able to make it all the way there. I certainly was a long way from central Tokyo…
A butterfly sunning itself on the shore
I wasn’t quite sure how it was possible (considering the laws that govern the surface level of lakes), but there was considerably less uphill on the way back to the Eastern side of the island than there had been on the way there. Perhaps the Earth had been temporarily tilted in my favour? Unlikely perhaps, but possible nonetheless.
Once back at camp I felt satisfyingly shattered. My body having that nice physically knackered but-don’t-have-to-do-anything-else-today feeling about it, I headed off to the Banya (Russian sauna), sweated pints from my grimy pores, then washed all the filth away with a refreshing shower. Thinking about that shower, one odd thing did happen whilst I was washing my hair – a (clean) sanitary towel fell on my head. I have no idea where it came from and I remain utterly stumped.
Olkhon’s eastern shore
That night, following a hearty vegetarian supper and a brief spell attempting to connect to the internet via a bluetooth phone belonging to a member of staff who, unusually for a Russian was also a Mac fan, it was early to bed for Joseph. My bus for the mainland was due to depart at 6.45am, and after all the exertion of the previous two days I was only too keen to sink down under the covers of my comfy cosy bed and drift off into the land of nod.
Sunset over Lake Baikal