5 Favorite Sites on Olkhon Island, Lake Baikal’s Biggest Island

5 Favorite Sites on Olkhon Island, Lake Baikal’s Biggest Island

Lake Baikal in south Siberia stands out from all other lakes on earth: it’s the deepest and the oldest lake in the world, formed in an ancient rift in the earth’s surface. It holds more water than all of the Great Lakes in the U.S.

The lake’s biggest island, Olkhon, stands out as well. It’s the fourth-largest lake-bound island in the world, created from the same tectonic movements that formed its parent lake. 

Shrouded in lore and legend, the island has been spiritually important to the people of the region for hundreds of years; it’s the place where the indigenous Buryats believed that the gods of Baikal lived. It’s said to be a center of spiritual energy, akin to the Camino de Santiago pilgrim trail in Spain, or sacred Mount Kailash in Tibet. Shamans have held ceremonies here for generations, surrounded by the brooding presence of great Lake Baikal.

Olkhon Island in Lake Baikal is considered one of the most sacred places in Siberia Photo credit: Vladimir Kvashnin

Shaman Rock on Olkhon Island in Lake Baikal
Photo credit: Vladimir Kvashnin

Olkhon is incredibly beautiful, too. Set in a peculiar rain shadow, it has more sunny days than the Black Sea coast. The northern half is covered in pine, fir, and larch, and the southern half is hilly steppe and sand dunes. The steep hills along its east coast plunge into the deepest part of the deepest lake on earth. The transparent Baikal waves breaking on the sandy shores of Olkhon’s western side and the rocky crags in the east combine to make it a national treasure.

Getting thereOlkhon is near Baikal’s western shore, some 155 miles northeast of Irkutsk. From the lakeshore village of Listvyanka, you can take a private boat, hydrofoil, or ferry to Olkhon during the summer months. It’s also possible drive further up the coast to catch a ferry. During the winter, hovercrafts and other vehicles drive out over the ice to the island.

Olkon Island map

 

Here are five of our favorite ways to experience the outstanding natural and cultural beauty of Olkhon Island:

1. Khuzhir: Biggest Little Village on Olkhon

Khuzhir on Olkhon Island on Lake Baikal (Siberia). Photo: Martin Klimenta

Flowers in Khuzhir Village
Photo: Martin Klimenta

Some 1,500 people live on Olkhon, mainly in the island’s largest town, Khuzhir, the administrative center. It’s located in the center of the island on the western side, and its people are fishermen, farmers and, these days, hospitality workers. Like many Russian villages, its homes and buildings are mainly of wood, and roads are unpaved. You may see a cow or two wandering the streets, and little kiosks selling fresh Baikal fish and fishing gear.

Although a small town, Khuzhir has all that a traveler needs to tour the rest of the island — shops, cafes, and guesthouses, as well as a natural history and local lore museum.

The view from the road connecting Khuzhir and Khoboi Cape on Olkhon Island on Lake Baikal (Siberia). Photo credit: Vladimir Kvashnin

Biking through the interior of Olkhon 
Photo credit: Vladimir Kvashnin

The view from the road connecting Khuzhir and Khoboi Cape on Olkhon Island on Lake Baikal (Siberia). Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

Love Mountain: Leave a coin on the left if you wish for a baby boy; on the right for a baby girl.
Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

 

2. Khoboi Cape: The Fang on Olkhon’s Tip

Northernmost point on Olkhon Island, Cape Khoboi is one of Lake Baikal's sacred places Photo credit: Vladimir Kvashnin

Northernmost point on Olkhon Island, Cape Khoboi is one of Lake Baikal’s sacred places
Photo credit: Vladimir Kvashnin

Khoboi is the northernmost cape on Olkhon, a sharp and narrow outcropping that gave it the name, meaning tusk or fang. It’s some 25 miles from Khuzhir over bumpy, dusty roads, but the drive is worth it ­— the view is glorious.

(click on photo to see a larger version)


The view from the road to Khoboi Cape on Olkhon Island on Lake Baikal (Siberia). Photo credit: Vladimir Kvashnin

The view from the road to Khoboi Cape on Olkhon Island
Photo credit: Vladimir Kvashnin

If the weather is clear, you can see all the way north over the blue water to the Ushkaniye Islands, home of the nerpa, the Baikal freshwater seal. On the left is Maloye More, the Lesser Sea, and on the right Bolshoye More, the Greater Sea, which is the deepest part of Baikal. Sometimes you can see nerpas basking on the sand, or their little heads poking up from the surrounding water.


 

3. Shaman Rock: Energy Center of Baikal

Lake Baikal, Russia. Photo: Vladimir Kvashnin

A lake of superlatives: Baikal is the oldest and deepest freshwater lake in the world
Photo credit: Vladimir Kvashnin

Photos of Olkhon often feature Shaman Rock, the best-known spot on the island, and a place charged with spiritual significance. Just off the sandy west coast near Khuzhir, the sharp white marble and granite rock juts up over a horseshoe cove, and has traditionally been used by shamans and Buddhists for ceremonies.

Studded with wooden poles wrapped in prayer flags and ribbons, the ceremonial area is near the top of the rock. This is where the shaman drums, chants, and offers gifts to the spirits of Baikal. In the old days, only shamans could approach this sacred place, and they wrapped their horses’ hoofs in felt or leather so they did not disturb the lord of Baikal.

Prayer flags wave in the wind on the approach to Shaman Rock in Siberia. Photo: Willis Hughes

Prayer flags wave in the wind on the approach to Shaman Rock in Siberia
Photo: Willis Hughes

Willis Hughes, friend of MIR, had this to say after a winter visit to Shaman Rock:

“I understand why it is one of Lake Baikal’s most recognizable landmarks. Locals treasure the sight as the home of Azhin, the lord of Baikal, and even today show the location great respect. Vehicles are not allowed within 200 yards of the area, and shamans regularly perform cleansing rituals and special ceremonies near the rock throughout the year.” (more photos and stories about his visit there)

Shaman, Olkhon Island, Lake Baikal, Russia. Photo: Vladimir Kvashnin

A shaman ready to perform a ritual near Shaman Rock, the heart of shamanism in Siberia
Photo credit: Vladimir Kvashnin

Shamanism is based on a spiritual belief that used to be an integral part of indigenous Siberian life. Shamans intercede for people with the spirit world, the unseen world that pervades the environment. Everything in the natural world — rock, tree, river, animal, and star — has a spirit that may be angered by a clumsy word, or soothed by a shaman’s rituals. A sick or unhappy person may ask a shaman to perform a ritual to help him or her.

A shaman sprinkles milk to the four winds on Olkhon Island on Lake Baikal (Siberia). Photo credit: Vladimir Kvashnin

A shaman sprinkles milk to the four winds
Photo credit: Vladimir Kvashnin

Willis again:

“The rock itself is impressive. Its outcroppings and crags are a unique composition of marble, quartz, and granite, all of which seem to absorb the color of their surroundings. In various lights, Shaman Rock displays hues of burnt orange and dusty beige, both of which are magnified by the reflections from the frozen green and blue waves that cover its base. From the ice, the sacred spot towers over the cape and shelters its shore from the wind, but the view from above places it alone in front of the breadth of Baikal.” (more photos and stories about his visit there)

Shaman Rock, Olkhon Island, Lake Baikal, Russia. Photo: Vladimir Kvashnin

Lake Baikal’s Shaman Rock has been considered a sacred place for generations
Photo credit: Vladimir Kvashnin

 

4. Peschanaya Village and Gulag: Soviet Remnants and “Walking Trees”

Peschanaya Village on Olkhon Island on Lake Baikal (Siberia). Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

Peschanaya Village on Olkhon Island
Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

Secluded Olkhon didn’t escape the Soviet gulag system. About an hour northeast of Khuzhir on the way to Khoboi Cape, the remains of a labor camp lie disintegrating in the sand along the lakeshore near little Peschanaya Village. Miscreants convicted of “hooliganism” and larceny were imprisoned here to catch and preserve Baikal fish, as well as to log parts of the island. The wrecked concrete foundations and sagging wooden sheds lead to a neglected pier where prisoners were unloaded during and after Stalin’s repressions. It’s said that the prisoners produced fine caviar from lake sturgeon for the tables of the Kremlin. Established in the ‘30s, the labor camp was abandoned in the ‘50s.

Peschanaya Village on Olkhon Island on Lake Baikal (Siberia). Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

The wrecked pier near Peschanaya gulag
Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

Peschanaya is also known for its “walking trees,” whose roots reach up from the sand where the wind has swept them bare. Not related to the mangroves of Florida, whose aerial roots allow them to receive oxygen, these trees’ roots were originally sunk deep in the ground, before wind and wave action exposed them to the air.

 

5. Kurykan Wall: 7th Century Mystery

Most foreign travelers don’t make it to the less-traveled southern part of Olkhon. Aside from gorgeous vistas and little lakes, this part of the island is intriguing because it was the home of a Siberian tribe that arrived in the region around the 6th or 7th century. The original inhabitants of the Baikal region were nomadic pastoralists from the Eurasian steppe whose presence can be traced back some 3,000 years. On Olkhon, they were replaced by the Kurykan people, who left significant traces of their occupation.

The Kurykans were also nomadic pastoralists, as well as ironsmiths, horsemen, and early agriculturalists. Their culture, known as the Kurumchin, can be partially deduced from the graves, rock art, and fortified settlement sites they left behind. Scholars can’t agree whether they mixed with Mongols to become the Buryat people, or if they died out by the 11th century.

Whatever their fate, at their zenith they built a striking 110-foot dry stone wall that separates Khargoy Cape from the rest of the island. In places rising to five and six feet, the well-preserved wall is still a mystery to archaeologists. It protects some gravesites, but no village lies behind it, and it’s therefore thought to be a ritual or sacred site.

Wandering along this early wall and wondering about the people who built it along the beautiful Baikal shore so long ago is a meditative experience that can cap off your exploration of sacred Olkhon Island.

Olkhon Island on Lake Baikal (Siberia). Photo credit: Vladimir Kvashnin

Olkhon Island
Photo credit: Vladimir Kvashnin

More Photos and Info About Lake Baikal

The deepest and most ancient lake in the world has a multitude of opportunities for every kind of traveler. MIR can put together an outdoor itinerary with hiking and kayaking, introduce groups to experts studying the lake’s native wildlife (including the nerpa seal, a species found nowhere else on earth) and take travelers across the lake to sacred Olkhon Island – by boat, ferry, hydrofoil or hovercraft.

Olkhon Island on Lake Baikal (Siberia). Photo credit: Vladimir Kvashnin

Hiking the beach on Olkhon Island
Photo credit: Vladimir Kvashnin

 

Visit Olkhon Island with MIR

MIR is your Siberia travel expert – with more than 30 years of travel experience to Russia and with affiliate offices in Ulan Ude and Irkutsk (both in Siberia), as well as in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Not sure what season best suits you?Read our guide:

Winter, Spring, Summer or Fall – Siberia Has It All

MIR’s full service, dedication, commitment to quality, and destination expertise have twice earned us a place on National Geographic Adventure’s list of “Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth.”

Why end might Olkhon Island on Lake Baikal on these small group tour itineraries:

 

Want to travel independently?30 years of travel expertise means that the specialists at MIR know how to get there, what to do while you’re there, and how to enhance your trip in each of our destinations. For more information about what to know before you go, check out MIR’s insider’s guide into travel to Siberia’s Lake Baikal and Buryatia Region

Chat with one of our destination specialists by email or by phone at 1-111-111-1111 to start planning your travels today.

Olkhon Island on Lake Baikal (Siberia). Photo credit: Vladimir Kvashnin

Shaman Rock in winter
Photo credit: Vladimir Kvashnin

Top photo: Photographing Lake Baikal from a cliff on Olkhon Island. Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

 

PUBLISHED: May 13, 2019

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