Breathe in and breathe out. When I stood on the top of the hill with the gaze focused on endless green valleys below me, magical atmosphere of the place went through my whole body. Apart from strong wind that toyed with our hair, everywhere reigned mysterious silence. Who knows, maybe the spirit of this place closely watches our every move on the island of Olkhon, the largest island on Lake Baikal in Russia.
Arrival to the island
Upon arrival to the island by ferry, which lasted from the lake shore about 15 minutes, we were welcomed by the smiling faces of people Buryats. You would not find many of these native people here anymore – on the island lives just a little over a thousand. To begin our journey we entered the small, obsolete bus. Until then we had no idea that the island has no paved roads and so we embarked on dusty roads for a new adventure.
How we needed to save our vehicle
“I would like to welcome you on the tour through the Olkhon Island, the largest island on Lake Baikal” … hop! … “It has an area of 730 square kilometers and” … hop! … “It is considered to be a shamanistic island where the powerful mystical powers live” … hop! Speech of our tour guide was constantly interrupted by bouncing of our vehicle. But wait, what’s happening? The bus started to sink into the mud! Concern over the fact that our trip would end sooner than we thought was replaced by determination, when everyone started to push vehicle to move further. And we succeeded!
We drove over the green steppe, which covered the island on one side and through the dark forest, taiga, that reigned on the other. Through the slightly steep cliffs we approached the capital of the island – Khunzhir. Place consisted of a few wooden houses built along the dusty road, interesting gift shop with a small museum and several restaurants offering local specialties.
Just few steps away from the city Khunzhir, however, is the greatest treasure on Olkhon Island, Shamanic cave. It is said that Olkhon Island is a mecca of shamanism, a place that is inexorably spreading magical energy. Shamanic cave is said to be one of the five world shamanistic power poles. It is believed that in this piece of rock supposedly lived Azhin, Lord of Lake Baikal. Shamans regularly meet in the cave to perform their rituals.
But beware, tourists can´t get to this holy place too close! However, you can comfortably watch the cave from a nearby peak. On the peak, you will find couple of high pillars with plenty of shamanistic coloured ribbons bounded to them.
And then the amazing moment came – we had the opportunity to participate in the ritual which people committed to shamanism normally do. In front of pillars was the place where the coins and cigarettes were placed – it was a sacrificial place where anyone who wanted to come closer to the columns, paid to gods for this honor. “Circle 3 times clockwise around the columns and think of something positive – make a wish.” My tour guide whispered to me and I knew I was entering the place I will never forget.
The whole group, otherwise very noisy, was suddenly without a word – each with his own story, with his own desires and wishes. After performing the ritual, participants in our group stood motionless at the edge of the hill, looking at the calm surface of the lake and the cave in front of us. We could almost tangibly feel the wishes of the people flying above us in the air. With whatever intention we, as the group, came into the island, this moment completely unified us. We had the opportunity to try something new, magical, something that may never happen again.
Traditional food of Olkhon Island
Still silent group returned full of impressions to the city Khunzhir – time for lunch. We sat down to a local restaurant and tasted traditional food. We drove away the greatest hunger with smoked fish, called omul. Omul is a freshwater fish similar to salmon, which can be found only in Lake Baikal. The fish is very tasty and therefore no wonder that it is the most hunted fish on the lake. The largest fishing of omul was in the 40s in last century, when even gulag camp was build for this purpose in village Peschanka on the island.
As main course we were served with perhaps the most traditional meal on the Olkhon Island – Buuzy (another name Pozy). Food consisted of minced meat with cooked onion hidden inside special dough. We were impressed by it´s shape – it should look like yurt, tent dwelling for nomadic tribes from this area.
In the end locals brought us a traditional alcoholic drink – Tarasun. It is a strongly alcoholic, colorless liquid which is prepared by fermentation and distillation of mare milk.
The island of traditional culture
After strengthening lunch we returned to our minibuses and moved to the place where our guides revealed us even a little bit more of the local culture. We learned the local dance. At the beginning movements felt silly and ridiculous to us but soon it completely catched us. We were following tour guides circling uncontrollably around singing different sounds reminiscent of an eagle. It’s just a pity that we could not catch a glimpse of nerpa from the cliff, the only freshwater seal in the world that lives only in Lake Baikal.
Beautiful evening at Olkhon
Early evening on the island of Olkhon was wonderful. Silence reigned over the green countryside, some brave members of our group jumped into the icy waters of Baikal and the rest of us admired wild horses freely galloping around. Thank you, dear guides, for such an amazing experience. Even now, sometimes when I close my eyes, I feel the magical atmosphere of the island Olkhon.