We arrived in Irkutsk with a few areas of uncertainty, would we be able to get out to the Airport and back in time to catch our original 10am minivan, when we got to the Airport would we have one bag, two bags or no bags. For speed we decided to get a taxi. Looking for the official yellow ones and drivers with badges. It seems even the official taxi do not use the meter. Aeroflot and various guides say 350 Rubles, we managed to get the driver down to 500, and he was in a hurry, running a couple of lights. We arrived. I saw my big red bag through the glass, then my son also spotted his – at last, with some dismay we had proper large backpacker bags.
Coming out of the Airport we met peak taxi pestering. The yellow ones now wanted 700, though we got one for 600. We arrived at Master Grill opposite Irkutsk bus station the inauspicious pick up point for minivans at 930am. I called the company we found by googling. Could we swap back to the 10am slot. No. Then suddenly yes, and with our bags strapped to the top we headed out at speed. Great speed nervy speed helped by some heart raising over taking and near misses. A local Russian who worked on Olkon our ultimate destination told us the driver was a Buryat and they have their own rules, and so it proved at the ferry when he slipped the lengthy qeue and got straight on. At least he would slow down when on the dirt tracks I thought, unfortunately for my backside and nerves he did not.
The guide books tell you Khuizir the “capital” of Olkhon is a dusty and dung filled shanty town, and the real island is the rest, the wild parts. We stayed at Nikita’s Homestead, it’s a ramshackle series of wooden homes in a large compound where you get breakfast and dinner. Great homely Russian food like kasha and soups and millet porridge, and the local delicacy we quickly become obsessed by – Khushuur, a fried meat/veg pastry.
Figure 1: Just one More …Dugald eating Khushuur
On the first full day we filled our bags with packed lunches and just walked. Following the shore line we went North, walking through sand dunes, wild flowers, cliffs, Russians camping and at play. We swam in the waters of Baikal, it is supposed to add five years to your life, I think perhaps the cold is more of test of your good health rather than a cause of it. We did two firsts, our first backpacker trip, around the North end in a TMZ van, our first old people’s trip a whole day on a boat with middle aged Russians visiting sacred Shamanic and Bhuddist sites.
Figure 2: Cattle Grazing on Siberian Machair, Olkhon Island
Both were well worth it. They took us to extraordinary places, and it was fascinating to see how each group inhabited these places. My son says I overthought it. The backpackers seemed image hungry, often careful to set the scenes without people, or posing in the edge. The older tourists and families took similar ones, but also posed groups, they travelled in larger groups and enjoyed food and good company. Of course it is not as simple as that but I couldnt help thinking about the way visitors back home “consume” the Highlands, or bouncy yellow buses full of backpackers, or Lochs and Glens, same places, different stories.
Figure 3: A Trip to the North End of Olkhon
In the evenings and afternoons we explored the muddy streets of Khuizir, grabbing a icecream or something for a packed lunch, I don’t know why, but to me the guide books seemed wrong, I liked the town. Perhaps it reminded me a little of the Highlands, laid back, in a time when every highlander felt a duty to have an old car rotting outside, maybe more, if you were really doing your duty. Or maybe it was hearing the same said of many rural areas which didnt have romantic old buildings, but was built fresh and quickly often with cheap materials. Places to house people. Places people say are ugly places, to be used as a base to explore the sublime landscape. Things people say about Highland towns. One of “the Russians” who worked on the island in the summer told me in Winter the island dies, “it is just locals”. Something else I have heard before.
Figure 4: A View of the Capital from the Homestead
On our last morning we rose early – one final dip in the sea. The sun was just rising, the water even colder, we edged in for the briefest moment. Then back to the homestead for a shower and porridge and eggs. We said goodbye to the fine people of Nikita’s, and bumped along back to Irkutsk. Stuck our bags in left luggage at the Bus Station, and wandered down to the central market, bought sausages, cheese, black bread, wet wipes and bits for the train, grabbed a coffee and went down to the river. Later at the train station we eat a snack in the canteen – just one last Khushuur. Then back on the train.