Olkhon Island – part 1
Photos to follow; the internet connection is too slow to upload them!
We had been told that the bus to Olkhon Island could take anywhere between 5 and 8 hours, depending on how reckless your driver was! We were prepared for a rough ride, as some of the journey was over dirt tracks. It was indeed a bit hairy at times, especially as the seat belts seem to be used to keep the seats in place rather than the people, but you get used to the jolting after a while, and of course, if you’re Luke, you can even manage to grab 40 winks! I will post a picture of the minibuses that drove us round – they are brilliant hardy vehicles, but a Russian make I have never heard of. Maybe someone can tell us what they are!
There was a short ferry ride to get to the island, which has a barren, windswept appearance – straw yellow against the blue of the lake. It looks quite smooth, like the back of an animal humping out of the water.
We arrived in Khuzir, the largest village on the island, around 4pm and were dropped at Nikita’s. Guillaume, a lovely and funny Frenchman we had met on the bus, decided to join us and head to Sergey’s. Khuzir is like nowhere I have ever been before. It has a temporary feel – ramshackle houses made of wooden planks that are more like huts, dirt tracks instead of roads, and wooden fences hemming in parts of the village. The ‘main’ street is wide, and what little traffic there is has caused ruts in the road; there are no pavements as such and the only vehicles on the move seem to be the minibuses. It resembles a frontier town you might see in a Western film. There are dogs everywhere – all pretty friendly and healthy looking, they seem to occupy their own patches. We had our own funny little dog that was always close by Sergey’s. I’m not sure if it was a he or a she as it was so tufty. It would seem like it wanted to say hello, then run away at the last minute. Once, when I went out to the loo late at night, I was just going back into the house when it licked my hand and I was able to stroke it, but the next day it ran away as usual!
We made our way to the church, which lay on the edge of the village, close to the lake. It is a small, pretty, white and blue painted wooden church with a golden cross and a row of bells on a pole outside. Sergey’s place is on the church land. From all accounts, he is something of a couchsurfing legend. He has built a house separate to his own, specifically for housing travellers free of charge. Like all the other buildings in Khuzir, it is made of wood, and has a homely higgledy piggledy feel to it. Inside, there is a small porch with a sink and shower basin. There is no running water – you have to fill milk churns with water from the lake and the tap of the sink is just attached to a metal reservoir. There is no shower attachment; just buckets – for the brave! The main room has a small kitchen along the wall that faces the church and the lake with a two ring hob, kettle and toaster. There is a large table in the middle of the room surrounded by brightly painted benches. The rest of the walls are lined with beds – mostly bunk beds. There was another room of bunk beds upstairs, but we never went up there.
In exchange for staying in the house, you have the option (but are under no obligation), to help around Sergey’s house with maintenance and building work. He is building himself a new home. He currently lives in a smallish building next to ‘Philoxenia’, but the new house is going to be a bit larger. The grounds are full of the evidence of building works – but very little in the way of machinery; most things are done by hand.
Our lavatory was a triangular wooden hut with a drop toilet in it – basically a round hole cut into some floorboards with a pit underneath. Surprisingly, it didn’t smell much and I actually preferred it to the train toilets! At least the ground didn’t move beneath you!
Sergey was away for a few days when we arrived and so we were greeted by Valérie, a remarkable, lovely, extremely capable (and strong!) French girl who had been on the island before and had returned to do a longer stint working for Sergey helping with the building and instructing of travellers. A Belgian girl and her French boyfriend also gave us the lowdown on how things worked; where the shops were, what to do about washing and cooking etc.
That evening, we went to the main street, ‘5th Avenue’, as the Belgian girl called it, and purchased some things for dinner. I found the shops quite strange, as all the items were behind the counter. I spent a long time looking and trying to decipher what things were from a distance, so I could do all my mute pointing in one go! When I knew a word, I would use it, but for the most part international tourist sign language seemed to suffice. That night, I cooked a risotto using the pickled mushrooms we had carried all the way from Yekaterinburg – it was very tasty, and no one died or had hallucinations (as far as I am aware). There is always a slight paranoia when eating wild picked mushrooms… As we were eating, the Slovakian couple we had met on the train to Irkutsk walked in – which just goes to show what a small world it is!
The next day was Sunday, and the priest had come over from the mainland to take the service. I snuck in towards the end and stood at the back. Apparently, it was a special occasion, as there was a foreign lady (French American perhaps?) who was being accepted into the Orthodox church. Most of the service was in Russian however, sung by the priest in a rhythmical low sonorous chant. There was also a lady singing for much of it – again, a bit more like chanting, but quite high in pitch and my goodness, did she cram the words in! I don’t know how she managed to speak so quickly! I didn’t go fully into the church, as it was pretty small and the service looked quite intimate. It is normal in Russian orthodox churches for the congregation to stand – there are no pews. There were bright paintings on the walls, with lots of gold accents. It was very pretty and, as you would expect, more rustic than the other churches I had been in. The air was heavy with incense and it was really quite atmospheric. In the porch area where I was standing, there was a tray of teas, some cubes of bread and a plate of what looked like very small scones. From my position, I could see two priests; both had magnificent beards. They seemed quite solemn and imposing in their floor length gowns and I was a little frightened in case I was spotted and expected to do something!
I left before the service ended, and took a walk towards Shaman’s rock, which was quite close to Khuzir. Whilst I was off sneaking into churches and exploring, Luke was out drawing and had a strange encounter with a man who told him to stand up, then pointed to the church and the crucifix indicating that he should put his arms out in the same way. Bewildered, he did so, and the man grabbed hold of his back and cracked it, then got him to sit and did the same with his neck. He then gave him his card and told him he was an osteopath! Luke has a bad back, so was pretty pleased about the free treatment!
Shaman’s rock is a special, sacred place for those on the island that practice shamanism. There is a beach on either side and a little spur of land separates the two, with the rock towering up at the end of the spur. On the walk up to the rock, the trees are festooned with colourful ribbons, part of the shamanic rituals. The only colour not allowed is black, as it is the colour of death. I didn’t quite make it to the rock then, as I wanted to wait for Luke. As I wandered back along the windy ridge, I bumped into four Orthodox priests – two of whom I recognised from the service, and the others I think must have been in the back room out of my sight. I waved and they called me over. They were actually a really jolly bunch, not the serious men of the cloth I had imagined! They asked me to take photos of them with their i pads and smartphones and I obliged, then go a photo in exchange (I will post this later!). One of the priests told me he had grown up on Olkhon Island, but had been in New York for 15 years and had come back for the occasion. I felt privileged to have been lucky enough to meet them all!
Later on, I walked all the way to Shaman’s rock with Luke. It was fantastic watching the crows swoop and fall on the wind. There were two that seemed to be having a great time – they would gain height, then drop and somersault as they fell; when they got close to the water, they would arc upwards again. Watching the black birds sail past the rows of colourful shamanic posts that lined the ridge leading to the rock was a real spectacle. It’s true there’s a special kind of peace to the place – the refreshing wind, the expanse of sky and water and the windy, sparse landscape all combine to give a sense of elation and freedom. I even found myself imagining the birds were spirits sent from another world!
That afternoon, Luke, Son and I decided we’d better try to earn our keep. We sought out Valérie to see what tasks she might have for us. We settled on moving a pile of very heavy wooden posts from one part of the land to another. We weren’t quite sure what they were going to be used for, but it was something to do with the building of the house. It was quite a struggle! We were getting tired, despite Valérie’s inhuman strength, and then Andreú came to our rescue! We had seen him traipsing about with a rucksack earlier, and Luke had said hopefully, ‘maybe he’s looking for Philoxenia!’ It turned out he was! Andreú is a smiley, insansely enthusiastic, patriotic Catalan boy scout. Or as he would say, ‘boyer scout’. The wok was so much easier with five than it had been with four. I then did a bit of painting and sanding of the fence.
That evening, just before the sun went down, we went to a small beach with Son, Valérie, Guillaume, Andreú and a wonderful young German chap called Michael, who had been out having drawing instructions from Luke that morning. His wise thoughts, wry and sardonic outlook and doom laden conversation kept us entertained back at the house. And nearly gave me nightmares! ‘The machines! The machines are comink!’ Beware our dystopian, drone-filled, technology-ruled future. Luke’s impression was that he is superficially pessimistic, but at his core, an optimist.
We had another bracing swim and warmed up back at Philoxenia with a hearty pasta soup. It was great sitting around the big table hearing other peoples’ stories. Andreú is passionate about boy scouting; he has learnt a lot from it and is now a leader. He had hitchhiked from Norway and had done a lot of camping along the way. He was really excited to be staying at Sergey’s place and hoped in the future to set up a similar establishment with his girlfriend. He also told us that Catalonia was going to have a vote for independence from Spain in November – it had been declared the day before. He was very keen for independence – including independence of other Catalan speaking areas, such parts of France and the Balearic islands. Son is planning to head to Europe and do the Compostela Santiago walk through the Pyrenées. Not being from Europe, he had no idea that Catalonia was a region of Spain with a different language. When hefound out Barcelona was in Catalonia, he said, ‘Ohh!’ And then that Picasso and Dalí were also Catalan, ‘Ohh! Ohh!’ Son is brilliant. He speaks pretty good English, but there are times when things go a bit quickly and he doesn’t quite follow. Then there will often follow a sequence of dawning realisations, where he gets closer and closer to understanding what is actually being said, ‘Oh! OH! OHHH!’ followed by grinning and laughing. I have to say that we have it VERY easy, as the language everyone can communicate in is English, and it is quite humbling to see how good they all are at it!