Small bumps in the road feel different when you sit in the back of an old crappy Russian van. It’s 10 AM and Cathal and I are leaving lovely Irkutsk for a few days on Olkhon Island. The island is situated in Lake Baikal, and it’s a place where spirituality and shamanism are important aspects of life.
THE ROAD TO OLKHON
We’re still only 30 minutes on our way when I first feel like I won’t survive the trip. I’m literally being launched 30 to 50 centimeters from my chair with every bump in the road. The bumps repeat themselves every 2 meters, and the van we’re sitting in looks like it’s already been driving this route for at least 10 years. The trip will take another 6 hours, at least, and I’m trying not to think too much about my sore breasts who are threatening me to leave my body if I don’t protect them better from the wobbling van.
After a few agonizing hours we get to stop for a few minutes. A small wooden house with cyrillic signs for ‘male’ and ‘female’ tell me where I can relieve my shaken bladder. I open the door of the small wooden house, look inside, and my heart sinks. A huge hole in the wooden floor, at least three meters deep, is awaiting me while flies are circling above it. A quick scan of the place tells me there’s no toilet paper. I’m glad I’ve already prepared myself for that by carrying some with me.
Trying to look at the experience as a crash course ‘toilets of Asia’ I close my eyes and do my thing. My nose, unfortunately, I can’t close, and I wish I were able to hold my breath longer. Below me is the smelly history of hundreds of visitors before me. Above me I can see an impressive amount of spider webs, including its inhabitants. Around me flies are having a party, excited about the little paradise they call home.
Feeling like taking a shower after this visit to the ‘toilet’, we get back on the road. Slowly the scenery outside of the van changes. The bumpy road becomes a dirt road, the first sign we’re getting off the beaten track into a more remote part of Russia. The air changes too, from crips and sunny to hazy, which apparently is a side-effect of a huge amount of forest fires that are not yet under control in a big part of Siberia.
Finally, around 4 PM, we arrive at Khuzir, the biggest village on Olkhon, with about 1500 inhabitants.
Walking along the village I feel like being in an alternate universe. Dirt roads of at least 20 meters (!) wide are being used by cars, vans, cyclists, pedestrians, dogs and cows. There are no lanes, so crossing a ‘street’ is a matter of guessing where a car will go. This can be done by spotting gullies in the road the car will not dare to cross, or noticing a cow which a driver will definitely try to avoid.
Alongside the dirt roads I see smaller and bigger wooden houses. These are mostly typical Siberian houses, made of dark wood and decorated with blue or green frames and doors. Huge new electricity poles (the whole village lived without electricity until a few years ago) are planted on the dirt roads, sometimes exactly in front of the main window of a house.
Walking on the streets after sunset is an adventure in itself. Street lights are a luxury, and with the irregular roads getting home without a broken leg means you have to use a flashlight. Better to get inside our own little wooden house soon, where we have the luxury of two beds, a shower, and… somewhere outside a ‘toilet’ in the form of, again, a hole in the floor where, again, flies are celebrating the good things in life.
REBORN IN BAIKAL
Curious to see more of Olkhon, we take some tours to different parts of the island. The amazingly horrible, but cute-looking Russian vans take us to some of the most beautiful parts of the island. According to the driver “These vans are the only cars that can survive the roads on this island“, and I guess he’s right. Making it a sport to drive faster than any other car on the island, the driver passes other vehicles who are desperately trying to stay horizontal instead of flipping over.
However, even more adventurous than any van I’ve been sitting in on Olkhon Island, is riding on a mountain bike. Getting up a hill on a bike is one thing. Getting up a hill that also skews left or right and is a little more challenging. Getting up a hill that skews left, complemented with gullies and a thick layer of sand because you’re driving alongside the shore of the lake is… well, I don’t want to talk about it.
But then, when Cathal and I finally stop on one of the dunes, seeing Lake Baikal shimmering in all its green-blue glory between the green trees and the white sand, walk down the dune, onto the beach, and I finally, finally take a plunge in its refreshingly cold water, I know why it’s worth to lose two years of your life to get here. The awful roads, gruesome toilets, flies, and even the challenging bike trip are nothing compared to the fact that I can swim in Lake Baikal. The cold water washes away the dirt from the past days, and every second I lie in its clear green-blue water I feel myself re-energize and blessed I can be here. And what is two years of your life anyway? Because like they say: “A swim in Baikal adds five years to your life“.