Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Olkhon Island - Ольхон

8th -12th September

Our bus driver wore a somber look at the Irkutsk bus station as we left to Olkhon Island. The day was gloomy and the autumn wind seemed to creep closer and closer. As we began to approach Lake Baikal 6 hours later, the body of water we would need to cross in order to get to our destination, he began to perk up with the rest of the local travelers.

As we crossed the lake by ferry and began driving to Khuzir, the main village on the island, we began to ask around in the bus for accommodation. A 40-something guy with crystal-blue eyes named Sasha offered us his house. All seemed to fall into place. What follows can only be described as a destined meeting and the best darn time anyone can ever want.

On the way to the island, we had began to chat with other travelers on the bus: Monica, an Austrian teacher living in Irkutsk teaching German, in love with the region of Lake Baikal and fluent in Russian, with an authoritative German accent; Agneshka, a Polish teacher living in Irkutsk teaching Polish; Matteias, a German violin maker living in Milano; and lastly, Cranmore and Anna, a Bristol couple who are on the road to Australia for a friends wedding. After a few laughs, all agreed to set our bags and bums at Sasha’s place and see what will come.

Once we arrived at Sasha’s, we met his mother Tamara, a hardworking village local with large stranglers hands and a larger than life hospitality. She heated the stove in our rooms, warmed up our backside and we toasted with vodka and slept like babies that night.

Sasha offered to give us a tour the next day in his olive Russian military ambulance jeep refurbished with faux marble vinyl and plenty of cheap carpet. While we bumpily drove to our first destination, Sasha began to give us a sense of Olkhon Island and its residents, an ethnic mix of Russians, native-Siberians, and Buryats living mostly harmonious. Many locals are Christian Orthodox but with an eastern blend of Shamanistic Buddhism. The island is considered sacred and spirit-filled and there is a great amount of energy in its waters and soil.

Zhenia at the "Three Brothers" above Cape Khoboy.

A blooming wild flower over looking Cape Khoboy. Tom and Zhenia on the purplish sandy beach on the shore of Maloe More on the western side of the island.Tom plays hide and seek.

We drove by plenty of horses that roam freely on the island.

Cows watch the sunset. The cows roam around freely in the street and often block shop doorways and force cars off the dirt track.
That night Sasha and his friend, Igor invited us for a little drink and some laughs. Here Sasha, Zhenia and Igor discuss the pros of having a mistress and a wife. This apparently is totally kosher in Russia.
Tom and Cranmore sit in the cab of Igor's luxury truck. Very drunk on Tamara's home made hooch. We both later drank even more with another friend of Sasha's, Sergey, who was a spy for the north vietnamese during the war. He made us arm wrestle him (we lost of course) and he made stabbing motions with his (large) knife everytime he mentioned americans. I don't think I've ever been so happy to be English.
The beautiful weather of Baba Leta (literally translated as Grandmother's Summer or two warm weeks in September) allowed Sasha to show us his favorite beach spot on the island, coincidently where he brings his mistress on their 'excursions'.
A view the from above.
Tom, the brave soul, was the first one to get into the waters. You can tell by his face just how cold it really was. Zhenia bravely tackles Lake baikal near naked.
Lake Baikal is known to be so clean that one can put a cup and drink it straight without worry (which we did). Here, cows stop for a water break.

Olkon Island is known for it's delicious and tender Omul fish. Fisherman are known to catch and sell Olkhon Omul all over Siberia and Russia. Since we were in the presence of a great fisherman, Sasha wanted to show us his net-catching tactics of fishing. Here, Tom, Matteias and Cranmore smile on the waters of Lake Baikal.
Cranmore and Tom are rowing, not posing. Sasha waits for the right moment to drop the net into the water.
The fishing team is quiet while Sasha carefully picks the net out of the water not to lose our catch.
At the end of the fishing trip, we proudly cooked our catch on the campfire and ate it proudly.
On the ferry back to Irkutsk, with a smile worth every penny.

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