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IrkutskThe last two stops in Russia before heading to Mongolia were Irkutsk and lake Baikal. We haven’t done Irkutsk much justice by only staying there two half days. It mainly served as a springboard for lake Baikal, which many trans-siberists seem to do as well. Nicknamed both ‘The capital of Eastern Siberia’ and more interestingly ‘The Paris of Siberia’ (couldn’t really figure out why), Irkutsk has a population of just under 600.000 and a compact centre rounded by the river Angara. Half a day of walking around the city left the following impression:

IMG_0278There are a few interesting churches, statues and other buildings, which are all around the Karl-Marx street which runs right across the centre and has interesting buildings, cafe/restaurants and shops.  These sights can easily be covered by foot. Once you do take one of the many small busses (marshutkas) it gets confusing with lots of different sized buses with a high variety of numbers all making their way through the predominantly one-way system. Also there don’t really seem to be defined bus-stops (don’t even think of schedules, routes etc) so you just join people standing on the pavement and hope for the best. Interestingly, you pay the bus-fare (about 30 eurocents for a trip anywhere in town) at the bus-driver at the end. So you end up with a queue ‘the other way’ with people trying to get out at the front-door.

IMG_0293What mainly caught our eye was the amount of wooden cabin-like houses scattered around the city. A lot of them were quite run-down and some in the process of renovation.  With all the woods of trees you pass through in Siberia it isn’t surprising this is the main building-material for these small houses. Also, you can tell you’re in the Asian part of Russia by the wider variety of ethnic backgrounds of the people in Irkutsk. Apart from the now known Russian faces (although slightly grumpier than in the West) there are more Mongol and even Chinese influences here. Signs on the streets and inside were also not just in Russian, but often also in Mongolian and/or Chinese.

IMG_0300A 6 hour drive away by mini-van filled up with 12 people, 8 backpacks, 1 bag of onions and bad Russian music, will take you to Olkhon island, just off the west-coast of lake Baikal. Quite a change of scenery! Lake Baikal is the deepest lake in the world (1.6km), has clear blue freezing cold water (never warmer than 15 C), contains nearly 20% of the world’s fresh unfrozen water and …. is shaped like a banana.

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Olkhon island is probably the most popular place on the west side of the Baikal lake for both Russians and tourists (incl Chinese) to spend their beach or hiking holiday. At the same time it’s one of the holiest Shamanic places for the Buriyat people, indigenous people of Siberia.

IMG_0312The months of July and August are the peak-season, October is a bit chilly (about 10 C during the day, below 0 C at night) and a lot of guesthouses shut down after summer. October however has two main advantages: the island is pretty much empty and autumn shows it’s beautiful colours everywhere. Nikita’s guesthouse in Khuzhir is open the whole year and has been driving Olkhon’s tourism for over a decade now. They have a wealth of information on the island, organise various tours and have a wide variety of rooms/cabins available. If you rent a room you also get 3 courses per day served in their ‘restaurant/canteen’, which mainly consisted of porridge/eggs/pancakes for breakfast (not a choice, you get all 3!) and a mix of soup, fish, chicken and rice for lunch and dinner. It’s from this guesthouse that we undertook our two most memorable activities:

DSC_0780If you don’t feel like spending time in a minivan again or don’t want to pay, but still would like to get out of the main town of Khuzir, Nikita has a 15km (one way) hiking tour mapped out that takes you from the west side of the island through forest and over the main hill to the east side. After walking out of the town, during the 3,5 hours hike we saw nobody. Literally…nobody. At the east part of the island there is a wide open view of the lake where you can see the hills/mountains on the eastern side of lake Baikal. Here you can have your (Nikita’s packed) lunch, enjoy the vastness of the lake, fresh smell of the forest and the sound of the waves against the rocky beach (yes, a lake with waves?). Walk 3 hours back to the guesthouse – more downhill – and you can get a well-deserved hot baniya (kind of sauna), cold beer and enjoy the sunset.

This brings me to our second main activity: Photography. We don’t pretend to be experts at capturing the world with our camera, but we definitely gave it a go on Olkhon! There are so many things to focus on: the landscape (lake, hills, trees, skies), pretty wooden cabins, sunsets and our favourite category: old, neglected, dumped, burned-down and/or rusty houses, vehicles and ships. There was such a strange contrast between the beautiful nature and the ugly ‘things’ that people left behind that we dedicated a separate post to it. Our nicest pics in the other categories are again on g+: Irkutsk here and Baikal here.

The last Russian leg of the trans-Mongolian train-ride will be from Irkutsk to Ulaan Batar, the capital of Mongolia. Apparently it gets cold there at night, so we finally get to use our long sexy thermal underwear!

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Nasa posledna zastavka v Rusku pred cestou do Mongolska bolo mesto Irkutsk a Bajkalske jazero. Irkutsk sme nemali vela casu preskumat cely, kedze sme tam stravili len necele 2 dni. Tak ako vela trans-sibirskych cestvatelov, aj nam Irkutsk sluzil ako mostik na Bajkal. Irkutsk je pomyselnym hlavnym mestom vychodneho Sibiru a – zaujimavo – sa nazyva i “Parizom Sibira” (nestihli sme zistit preco). S cca 600 000 obyvatelmi ma celkom kompaktne centrum, okolo ktoreho tecie rieka Angara. Pol dna chodenia po meste v nas zachovalo niekolko dojmov:

V meste je niekolko zaujimavych kostolov (ortodoxnych i katolickych), soch a historickych budov, vacsina ktorych sa sustreduje okolo ulice Karla Marxa. Cele centrum sa da prejst velmi jednoducho peso. Ak sa ale rozhodnete vyuzit sluzieb autobusov a minibusov nazyvanych marshutka, caka vas mierny chaos – rozne druhy autobusov, nahodne zastavky a pravdepodobne sa nedohladate rozpisov casov a tras. Doporucujeme stat tam, kde stoji pri ceste skupinka ludi a dufat, ze autobus, ktory vam zastavi vas odvezie zhruba na spravne miesto. Alebo sa spytajte miestnych, ak ste dobri v rustine! Dalsou autobusovou zaujimavostou je, ze za listok sa plati pri vystupovani – u vodica, takze nastupovat zadom, von predom.

Cim je Irkutsk asi najviac zaujimavy v porovnani s ostatnymi ruskymi mestami, ktore sme mali moznost vidiet, su tradicne drevenice tu a tam rozmiestnene medzi modernymi budovami. Dreva sme z vlaku videli dost, takze konecne sme videli i jeho pouzitie vo velkom. V Irkutsku je uz aj jasnejsie i z tvari ludi, ze sa posuvame na vychod – mongolske ci cinske typy nie su zriedkave. Zaroven i napisy na uliciach su v akomsi dalsom jazyku / pisme.

6 hodin v minivane s posadkou 12 ludi, 8 ruksakov, 1 vreca cibule a hitparady ruskych hitov a sme na ostrove Olkhon pri zapadnom pobrezi Bajkalu. Velka zmena scenerie oproti nekonecnej tajge Sibira. Bajkalske jazero je najhlbsim jazerom sveta (1,6 km na najhlbsom mieste), ma mrazive modre vody (nikdy nepresahujuce 15 stupnov), obsahuje 20% svetovej zasoby sladkej nezmrazenej vody a… ma tvar bananu. Ostrov Olkhon je asi najoblubenejsim miestom na plazovu ci turisticku dovolenku na zapadnom pobrezi jazera pre lokalnych i zahranicnych turistov. Ostrov je zaroven jednym z 5 posvatnych miest sveta pre tzv. Samanske nabozenstvo a povodnych obyvatelov oblasti Buryatov, ktori ho uctievaju.

Hlavna sezona na ostrove je v letnych mesiacoch a oktober je uz trosku chladny (asi 10 cez den a okolo 0 v noci) a vacsina ubytovacich zariadeni (hostelov) je po lete zatvorenych. O to viac sme si mohli uzivat 1, klud a prazdno a 2, jesenne farby prirody. Nikita’s Homestead hostel v mestecku Khuzhir je otvoreny celorocne a ma hlavnu zasluhu na rozvoji turizmu na ostrove. Hostel sluzi i ako akesi kulturne centrum so svojou ‘kulturnou sienou’ a ako hlavny organizator vyletov a exkurzii. S kazdou izbou dostanete v cene i plnu penziu (ranajky, obed, vecera), co je hlavne v zime, ked vsetko ostatne je zatvorene, velmi fajn. Jedalen podava trio: kasa – 2 volske oka – 3 palacinky kazdy den na ranajky – a nie, to nemate na vyber – daju vam vsetky tri – a kombinaciu ryza, ryba, kura, salat ci polievka ako obed a veceru. Najete sa dobre.

Ak nemate chut travit dalsie hodiny v minivane trmacajuc sa po ostrove alebo sa vam nechce minat rubliky na exkurzie, ale aj tak by ste si chceli vyjst mimo Khuzhir, vezmite si na recepcii mapku a vydajte sa tak ako my na turu na opacny koniec ostrova cez hory a lesy. Po tom, co sme opustili mestecko, 3 a pol hodiny sme nestretli ani zivu dusu (okrem par datlov sprevadzajucich nas po ceste). Na vychode ostrova sa ponuka otvoreny vyhlad na jazero a hory na druhom brehu. Na drevenom piknikovom stole si mozete vybalit ‘balickovy obed’ od Nikity a uzivat si vyhlad na jazero, cerstvu vonu lesa a zvuky vody bijucej o skaly pod vami. Cesta naspat je o cosi kratsia a viac dole kopcom nez cesta tam a ako odmenu v Nikite si mozete dopriat typicky rusku ‘banyu’ (sauno/vano/sprchu), studene pivko a fotografovat zapad slnka.

Fotografovanie. Nepovazujeme sa za profesionalov, ale na Olkhone sme sa na nicht zahrali. Ostrov ponuka velky vyber tem: krajinky, drevene domceky ci zapady slnka nad jazerom. Nasa oblubena kategoria: stare, zabudnute, znicene, zhrdzavene ci zhorene domy, auta ci lode – ukazuje zvlastny kontrast medzi tym peknym a skaredym co ostrov ponuka. Vyber z nasich fotiek pozostatkov minulosti najdete v separatnom blogu. Najlepsie fotky z tych krajsich kategorii najdete zase v separatnom albume: Irkutsk tu a Bajkal tu.

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3 thoughts on “Deep Blue Lake

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