In Siberia aboard the Baikalo-Amourskaya-Magistral

Shaman Rock on Olkhon

Shaman Rock on Olkhon

Elena falls in love with the Island of Olkhon

After a night in Irkoutsk at the youth hostel I finally catch the marchroutka to Olkhon. Travelling with me are both an English girl called Eve, who had decided to return home after spending 7 years in Singapore, and a Venitian, Marco, who came to Siberia for a photography project, fell in love with a Siberian woman and never went back to Italy. He lives in a tiny village between
Irkoutsk and the Mongolian border, right nearby the place where the group of geologists discovered Agafia, the woman written about in my cult book Alone in the Taiga. He had heard about her of course. Maybe he shook the hand of someone who shook Agafia’s hand, and that is all it takes to leave me in awe.

boarding a new minibus

boarding a new minibus

Our driver seems rather disappointed that there are only 3 of us; This 6 or 7 hour trip for only 3 passengers is hardly worth it for him. But after quite a wait a few people show up to drop off various parcels that are to be delivered, and once these goods are packed in the trunk of the bus, among which a washing machine that topples and hits Marco in the ribs at each bump in the road, we finally take off for our trip through the steppes. For some reason there is less snow in this region, cattle grazes here and there and the landscape runs as far as the eye can see. It is like the Wild Wild West, I almost expect an Indian tribe to gallop by followed by an army of cowboys. During this 7 hour trip, we pass no more than one or two cars.

We do welcome a hitchhiker on board though, who travels with us for about 50 km (31 miles); had we not driven by and given him a lift I don’t know how he would have made it where he is going. I remain amazed by these people walking, alone, along these frozen roads, carrying just a plastic bag filled with practically nothing. Where are they going, what can their lives possibly be made of, I am light-years away from the simplicity and the bareness in which they live. The man sits down in the opposite direction of the road and I am afraid he will get carsick. I signal to him to sit in the free seat between Eve and me, in the right direction, he obeys but I should have kept quiet, I think he is embarrassed to be squeezed between the two of us.

I can’t help wondering about him, do his feet hurt – we can spend a whole day and a fortune to buy ourselves good trekking shoes – he goes trekking every day without a second thought!

Mikhail Chichkine writes, on his country:
“Part of the people, by far the most part, miserable, drunk, ignorant, with a mind from the middle-ages, lives far from the big cities. The other part, concentrated in the two capitals, is educated, well off, has travelled throughout the world and has a European view of democracy and social organization. “

I also remember that phrase by Bouida, the author of Potemkine or the third heart:
“This downward Russia, were one hardly survives, where everything, be it the food, healthcare, schooling, housing, is disgusting. “

We are two worlds in the same minibus. I would like to see his feet. To buy him a pedicure… Now now Elena, pull yourself together!

Arriving at the shore of the Baikal, over-excited and restless, we step down from the bus which is to return to Irkoutsk and board a small Soviet bus with the proper tires to drive us across. Before “hitting the ice”, we drive around for a while searching for someone by the name of Youri to whom we are supposed to deliver one of the parcels, then off we go, leaving the dry land to descend onto the lake, where, for the first 20 meters there are road signs in the ice indicating the “road” to follow. After driving for a few kilometers we come upon a surreal vision: 2 big guys are standing in the middle of the ice thumbs out, waiting for a lift. Once on board they tell us they are mountain-climbers and are returning from a trek of several days. Their noses are bright red. We turn mute with respect.

As for the three of us, we are thrilled; we watch as the wheels roll over the crevasses in the ice, we fall in awe before the orange-brown rocky peaks that surge out of the water between the coast and the island. We are navigating in the middle of nowhere.A good two hours after, our minivan hugging the island coast, we arrive at the village of Khuzhir. We could have made our way there on land but the road is bad (and we still haven’t dropped off the washing machine that bangs into us at each bump).

As the old Siberian saying goes, “God is very high and the Tsar is very far”.

Indeed, I don’t really know who would come looking for you all the way here…

The village of Khuzir

The village of Khuzir

The village of Khuzir on the island

We mount on land at the small port of Khuzhir, cross the village dirt road, feeling more and more like we are part of some Clint Eastwood film, but then we spot the little grey Soviet jeeps just like ours and Russia comes rushing back to us.

The island of Olkhon is mythical for several reasons. First, it’s a famous shaman spot, with its mysterious Shaman Rock and the host of superstitions attached to it. It’s also known for the famous Nikita’s Homestead, a hostel built cabin after cabin by the vastly respected Nikita, today in his sixties, who began by lodging a friend from abroad and then opened a few rooms and one thing leading to another he now owns the one place where all backpackers, scientists or artist from the region meet for the few days or more they spend on the island. But above all, the island is known for its exceptional beauty, and exceptionally beautiful it is, your humble servant confirms.

Arriving at Nikita’s Homestead I feared a sort of Disney World (indeed on quite a different scale, this is 6000 km (3700 miles) east of Moscow, but still), I was dreading some sort of guru trap where I would be told how grand this man was and where I would be expected to be in awe before his organic lentils. I had in fact planned to sleep in a rented room nearby but I find myself strangely attracted by the Nikita spirit. Nikita turns out to be a very grand little man, who managed to bring life to this little village dying of inactivity, created a soccer club for the island kids, a choir and various workshops without ever making a big deal about it all. I seek him out in the homestead, he is shy and speaks rather poor English, I think he is a bit overwhelmed by the dozens of youths who turn up in the summer, the two meal services, the multiple excursions in the little grey Soviet minivans, but he has remained soulful and the place is just as much of a mess as I was hoping.

Apart from Eve and me – Marco has rented a room somewhere in a more remote area of the island – there are about 5 people staying here. I hadn’t expected to like it here, but in fact I almost cry when I leave. That is partly of course due to René, a young Kazakh who gets room and board in exchange for whatever work there is to do, including the not so fun job of taking me ice skating – and whom I fall in love with. The kid travelled by foot from Kazakhstan, he wears a long, woolen Chinese coat and a red hat, and silently appears out of nowhere when you need him, lights the fire in the room I share with Eve, tells us all the Nikitaland gossip and has me promise that I’ll send a soccer ball for the kids once I return to Paris.

We take off the next day for a trek out on the ice, I want to see the tip of the island 70 km (43 miles) north, but the tip keeps hiding behind other rocks as we approach, so we never really spot it. What we do see though is the ice covered in snow all along the coast, then farther out the dark blue ice where different levels of freezing form stratum that we call, depending on the shapes and designs, either pancakes or spermatozoid.

The ice is fully clear, in the summer I am told you can see 40 meters deep, and when I walk out far from the edge, after fifteen minutes or so I start to feel vertigo. I sense the 1600 meters (1 mile) underfoot in certain places, such as directly under the highest peaks where I’ve read that the water is the deepest. To think that I had planned on crossing the lake… Very presumptuous of me, in fact once out there I would most probably have been terrified. I walk back to the edge, where the ice swells up, takes on shapes resembling a whale’s back and breaks, forming gigantic, clear blocks, much like ice cubes; it’s like being inside an oversized, very disorganized freezer. There are all sorts of shapes and our small group gets a kick comparing them with all the earthly animals.

There are 6 of us, Eve, a couple from the French embassy in Moscow travelling with their guide, a German woman who complains a lot and me (no, to my dismay René did not come for the ride). Our driver has brought along a delicious lunch of leftover omul from last night’s dinner, brown bread and hot tea which we sit down to enjoy on a big slab of ice table. We take hundreds of pictures, everything is so beautiful, I’ve never seen anything so untouched by man, this ice is just fascinating, I can see myself in it, like in a mirror, and it speaks to us with big bangs that take us by surprise at first but then make us laugh; the ice is belching, and somewhere, on this 35 000 km (21 800 mile) square expanse, each of those belches creates a gigantic crevasse on which one had better not be taking a stroll.

I can’t figure out if when the whale backs, as I call them, burst open to free the ice which, as it expands (like a bottle in your freezer that bursts when you forget to remove it), they do so slowly or in one big bang. I try to get the answer later on but no one seems to understand the question. Not even René.

In the evening, an hour or so before sunset, René takes me ice-skating. He won’t let me carry my skates, and Katia, the young woman who comes along with us, carries with her a small cushion for us to sit down when we put them on. A little 6 year old girl who apparently (also) has a crush on René runs after us and comes along as well. René skates like a god, he seems to be walking on air; as for me, I take very small steps, I was a good skater in my day but this ice is covered with bumps and cracks and I don’t dare take off at a faster pace. By the time I start feeling comfortable the sun is disappearing behind Shaman rock and René signals that it’s time to head back.

It was a magic moment. Years ago, my friend S. said to me, on returning from Thailand “I swam with manta ray, I can die now”. I kept repeating to myself, I’m skating on Lake Baikal, and if I die, I hope they burry me on the island of Olkhon.

Bye Bye

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