Since we first picked up a Trans-Siberian Railway guidebook in a bookstore, I have been captivated by Lake Baikal. During our journey across Russia, I just had to stop there. The Trans-Siberian passes by the southern edge of the lake, but we wanted to see it for more than a few hours, so we got off in Irkutsk, the traditional jumping-off point for Baikal adventures.
Irkutsk was bizarre. In Russia, things are done a certain way, and we weren’t used to that– but it was also weird in its remoteness. It probably would’ve seemed even weirder if we hadn’t just come from Ulaan Baatar. For such a big city that’s also a regional center, there were few shops, supermarkets, or restaurants. We had wanted to try Russian food on our first night in town, but the only reasonably-priced restaurants we found were Italian and Japanese. We didn’t yet know how Soviet-style canteens worked. To complicate matters, we had arrived on a Sunday, when many businesses are closed. We ended up sharing a pizza.
The next morning, we left for Olkhon Island, which is in the middle of Lake Baikal. The journey, by bus and ferry, was rather harrowing. The roads deteriorated the further we got from Irkutsk, and once actually on Olkhon, are nonexistent. I was happy we’d decided to stay five nights on the island, so we’d have a few days to recover before doing that journey again. Happily, from our guesthouse, it was only a few minutes’ walk down to the beach.
It’s hard to convey the size of the lake. It’s so big that the Chinese, Mongolians, and Russians used to refer to it as a sea, not a lake. On a north-south axis, Olkhon is in the middle of the lake, but on the east-west axis, is very far west. The gap, at its narrowest, is was only about 20 minutes by ferry from the mainland. The strait then widens, but compared to the eastern side, this body of water is so narrow it is called the “Little Sea.” Yeah. I’ll say.
It is the world’s oldest, deepest, and most voluminous freshwater lake. For the record, its beauty is also superlative. We took a jeep tour out to the northern tip of the island, Cape Khoboy. Bob joked that it was called that because when you get there, you take one look and say “Oh boy.”
The area seemed to exude calm energy. There were several jeep tours that arrived at the same time, as well as Russian tourists who had driven themselves. People laughed and talked as they climbed up the cliff, but fell silent as soon as they arrived. While I was taking pictures, I noticed something strange: just about everyone was sitting down, staring out at the water. It was as if the lake had some mysterious pull, forcing contemplation from all its onlookers.
The lake is reputed to have mysterious powers: the local Buryat people believe that it’s one of the spiritual poles of the earth. Russians say that if you put your hand in the lake, an extra year is added to your life; your foot gets you two years; your head, five; and immersing your whole body gets you an extra TWENTY-FIVE years. That is, if you don’t freeze doing it. The water temperature, at the hottest time of the year, is maybe 60 degrees Fahrenheit. We took our chances.
The best way to do it is just to run in, immerse yourself, and get out as quickly as possible. I had said I wouldn’t do it, but after Bob did it, I had to give it a try. LET ME TELL YOU, it was cold. And I hate cold water.