Many people consider Lake Baikal a sacred place. And its largest island, the heart of the lake - Olkhon Island has the status of an official sacred Place of Power. Its quite easy to believe it - the island is even shaped almost exactly like Lake Baikal. Even the strongest skeptics, once they are on the island, begin to believe in the power of its energy. They start to buy amulets, dream catchers and treat the Spirits of the lake and forests with candy and coins (according to Burkhanism).
Olkhon is the largest of all the Baikal islands and it is the only one populated by humans. Most of them are Buryats, whose main religion is Burkhanism. They try to solve all their problems with the help of shamans, they make offerings to the forests, streams and to sacred stones and rocks.
There are 174 capes on Baikal, 30 of them on Olkhon Island. Most of the photos that catch your eye are shot near this island. In winter, most visitors, including our group, usually just drive around the island and photograph capes dressed in magical frozen snow-white robes. At every steep cliff there are frozen splashes, sharp icicles, and frozen waves.
We left early in the morning and headed along the icy road in a UAZ to the largest island in the Small Sea (Maloe More) strait - Ogoy. It is easy to identify it - at the top of the island there is the Buddhist "Stupa of enlightenment." Most visitors travel along the classic route - grottoes at Cape Kobylia Head (Khorin Irgi), hike to a stupa and a photo shoot at the southern Cape Ogoy.
The main target of our morning tour was to split off from the other groups. And here is some advise: if you can get just a little bit off of the typical schedule, there is a good chance you’ll spend time at the most beautiful places with only your small group.
It was pretty crowded at Cape Kobylya Head, all the groups from nearby were there. The weather was wonderful and sunny. But, you know, locals assured us that the weather is almost always perfect around Olkhon Island. According to statistics, there are only 48 cloudy days per year in this area! Several cars were parked at a distance from the ice grottoes, there were many tourists. All the ice "burrows" were occupied by smiling people hugging the huge icicles, or rather holding on to them so not to fall, because many of the visitors were ice skating. However, half an hour later, the wave of tourists subsided, and in this heap of icy stalactites and stalagmites, our group was left alone. And then I repeated the funny "slippery dance" - climbed into the cave and hugged an icicle.
The Buddhist "Stupa of Enlightenment" stands on the very top of the island of Ogoy and can be seen from a far. At the eight-meter high building there are many offerings - money, tangerines, sweets, toys and even cigarettes. Apparently, people are asking for what they are missing. For the offering and prayer to work, you need to walk around the Stupa three times in a clockwise direction, in complete silence and think about something desirable - something kind and happy, but not material.
And this is the most difficult thing - while walking around the stupa you have to sweep away thoughts about a new apartment or tons of money. Well, the chances that everything will be fine are high - the sacred Lake Baikal, the sacred Olkhon and Ogoy islands are protected by the spirits and Buddha. In general, all stupas around the world are built in order to neutralise negative energy and transfer it into positive energy. Superstitious people came up with the idea to make a wish though. Well, "to each his own”… Some people make a wish, others bring milk to the stupa, and some descend onto the ice of Lake Baikal already being very kind.
In front of Cape Burkhan there is a row of wooden prayer columns (ancient hitching posts) tied with "ribbons of desires", all the stones nearby are covered with frozen milk. Someone made offerings to spirits.
The spirits, however, did not bother the big dog, which was napping in the sunlight. Somewhere down the coast is Shamanka Rock which is sacred for the local shamans. Inside of it there is a cave, in which women are not recommended to enter. Buryats believe that these places are guarded by the Master of Olkhon, who “lives" in the shape of an eagle. He has a whole pantheon of subordinate spirits, and he is married to the daughter of the Eastern sky. They say that this is one of the nine shrines of Asia. Well, after many years of travel, I could easily name a couple of dozen shrines, but let's not take an inventory of Asian shrines. Let's leave Cape Burkhan to the shamans who come here from many places and conduct their rituals.
From Burkhan it is an easy walk to Khuzhir village. We stayed there overnight. Before dinner, we went shopping. The choice of souvenirs made me study the price lists more detailed - there were many different animal skins on sale: a bear, a lynx, stuffed wolves (my Thai friend even considered to buy it as gift for his mom), raven claws, hats made of sable and fox fur. I was literally horrified by bottles containing some strange substances, such as an embalmed red deer penis, or crushed wolf bones.
On the second day of our stay at Olkhon, according to plan, we went to visit other capes and ice grottoes. First we went to the Three Brothers Capes, and then north to Cape Khoboy. At the northern end of Olkhon Island, visitors usually build a pyramid out of ice, and when it falls apart and crumbles with a crystal clink, people become both a little upset and have fun at the same time.
There are always a lot of ice hummocks at the cape. Baikal freezes up for a long time and “nervously": the stronger the storm, the more ice blocks and fragments that will lie near the Khoboy rocks. "Khoboy" in the Buryat language means a sharp molar. It is believed that the molar fell out of a dragon flying over Lake Baikal. Well, apparently the dragon was old and sick. But perhaps these tales are echoes of a real fallen meteorite that scared the ancient people very much. Anyway, the rock doesn’t look like a fang, but you can see the shape of a woman lying on her back.
“Girl” was quite noticeable, but looking at her hooked nose, she clearly reminded me of a witch. According to legend, a woman was ordered to be petrified by the Father of Everything Existing Tengri. Poor thing suffered for her envy - she wanted to have the same palace as do the heavenly beings. “As long as evil and envy are on the earth, you will be a stone,” the gods said, and turned her into a rock.
Walking along the cliffs in bad weather, it is not possible to see the other side of Lake Baikal. Cape Khoboy is located near the widest part of Lake Baikal. The distance between the shores there is 79.5 km.
We had a simple ice picnic on the island: omul fish soup, tea and sweets. As an aperitif - a cranberry drink in a shot-glass made of ice, which had been cut out of the ice with an ice pick from right under our feet. I was pretty hungry and walked around the campfire chatting with the drivers, who were cooking fish soup in the cauldron. They told stories and legends, sometimes laughing at their own jokes, and showing off a row of golden teeth. “Mining" for the gold for tooth crowns is most successfully done while hunting. For example, Yuri found a heavy nugget in the stomach of a killed capercaillie, which was enough for an entire jaw of golden teeth. I stood with a bowl of soup and carefully peered into the rock formations. They say that on Cape Khoboy you can see your own past incarnations. But the past, fortunately, did not return and did not smile at me with golden teeth. Also, it was not possible to see the spirit of the White shaman that appears from the waters of Lake Baikal. Perhaps this area of open water surrounded by ice was too small.
The easiest way is to take an organized tour. In winter it’s simpler - instead of a ferry, you can come right along the ice road right to Khuzhir - by UAZ or Khivus. A more curvy way is 256 km by car or bus from Irkutsk to the ferry crossing. And then another 30 km to Khuzhir - the main village. Total travel time is about six hours.
The Four Seasons of Russia project is supported by the Russian geographical society www.rgo.ru
A visit to winter Baikal is recommended by the Russian Geographical Society.
Also read about Baikal:
How I Met a Shaman at Olkhon: What Spirits of Ancestors Explain
Baikal: Winter trip. Part 1. Listvyanka. Taltsy
Baikal: Winter trip. Part 3. Buryatia
How I spent the night in a tent on the ice of Lake Baikal
Lake Baikal: What do we know about it?
Ivolginsky datsan: A cloister that gives happiness
Questions and life hacks about a winter trip to Lake Baikal
Translation: Irina Romanova, Instagram: @astrabella1