Friday, May 30, 2008

Touring the "surreal siberia" by motorcycle.

By Jane Keeler Via: everywheremag

"In May 2006, my friends and I were able to travel to Siberia. During part of our trip, we journeyed to Olkhon Island located on Siberia’s Lake Baikal. Baikal is the world’s deepest lake (over 1600 meters at its deepest point) and it contains around 1/5 of the world’s fresh water – that’s more water than all the water of America’s Great Lakes combined. The lake is an amazing habitat, home to large numbers of aquatic plants and animals found only in Lake Baikal, including the delicious omul fish and the adorable and endangered nerpa seal. Olkhon Island is the largest Island on Baikal, stretching roughly 72 kilometers, and running north-east to south-west (although it’s only 15 kilometers wide). It is the traditional home to Buryats (the indigenous people of the region) and although it was discovered by Russian explorers in the 17th century, it was only colonized by Russians in the Soviet era. Currently the island is home to ethnic Buryats, Tatars and Russians. Only about 1200 people live on the island year-round, although as many as 300 people per day visit the island during the summer tourist season. Our arrival at the shores of Baikal preceded the arrival of the tourist season by roughly three weeks. As such, we were the only non-locals in sight.

During the winter, the waters of Lake Baikal freeze. The ice is thick enough that an ice road is opened between Olkhon Island and the Baikal shoreline, allowing for regular traffic of heavy vehicles, back and forth between the island and the mainland. During the summer, the island is accessible by ferry. In the spring months, the weakened ice is no longer strong enough to support the weight of cars and trucks. In order to reach the island, one must cross the island on foot – or, if one is brave, by motorcycle. This was the state of the ice at the time of our arrival in early May 2006.

We arrived at the shore, where we could see the Island of Olklhon rising up against the horizon approximately five kilometers away. Soon we saw a small red motorcycle with a sidecar approaching us from across the ice. It turned out that the passenger of the car was Valeriy, the owner of our hostel. The driver of the motorcycle set off with two Russian girls who were returning home to Olkhon, while Valeriy reassured us. He told us that he was a Buryat, and had lived on Olkhon all his life, and had crossed the ice many times. We figured that if he would be our guide, we would be okay.

We put on our coats and backpacks and set off across the ice on foot. Walking on the ice was incredibly slippery and difficult for all of us. I was terrified that if I fell, I would go right through the ice. Luckily, Valeriy (who is a pro when it comes to walking on ice) noticed that I was having trouble, and gave me his arm.

We had walked approximately half a kilometer or so across the lake when the man with the motorcycle returned. I climbed into the sidecar, and many bags and a fur coat were piled into the sidecar with me. Two of my friends were instructed to climb onto the motorcycle behind the driver. We were all quite skeptical, but as the driver and Valeriy seemed confident, we figured that it would be safe. Our ride across the lake was thrilling in a somewhat frightening way, although I didn’t feel at any point as though I were in danger. The driver of the motorcycle let us off about half a kilometer from the shore, and went back to collect the rest of our small group.

Soon the motorcycle arrived bearing our companions. Misha and Joanna were pale as sheets and clearly ecstatic to have reached the shore. Apparently, Valeriy had told them that the motorcycle was safe as long as the ice was slippery, as slippery ice = hard ice. When they began their ride, they started off on hard, slippery ice... but soon drove into areas of mushy, slushy ice. Valeriy began to yell at the driver, saying things like, “What are you doing?” and “Don’t drive over your own tracks! That’s weakened ice - we’ll fall through!” The driver’s response? “I’ve never fallen through yet!” No wonder they were terrified! But, I guess the driver knew what he was doing after all – we all crossed the lake without injury or death! (Later, several residents of the island told us we were crazy for having crossed the lake when and how we did!)

We were quite relieved to be on dry land, and quickly loaded our bags into an ancient van, and bumped our way along a dirt track to the only sizeable settlement on the island, the village of Khuzhir. After arriving in Khuzhir and settling into our hostel, we immediately set out for a walk along the shore of the lake, where we took many photos, climbed several trees and played on the ice. We made our way to the nearby rock formation known as Shamanka in Russian and Burkhan in Buryat. Burkhan is incredibly beautiful, and we were lucky to reach it just as the sun began to set. Burkhan is a sacred spot to shamanistic Buryats, and is supposedly a focal point of shamanic energy. The cliffs surrounding Burkhan were littered with offerings of rubles and cigarettes, left to appease the spirits.

The next morning, we set out on an excursion arranged for us by Valeriy. We piled into yet another ancient van, and set off into the wilds of Olkhon with Ilyas, our guide. Ilyas was an ethnic Tatar from the area, with an incredible history: He had been in the Soviet Army and a Communist Party Apparatchik who quit the party in the mid-80s because he was tired of being lied to and having to lie to others. The man was incredibly smart and knew a lot about the history of the island and was very interesting to talk to in general. He was an exceptional guide; although the entire tour was conducted in Russian... so non-Russian speakers would need a translator. None of the roads on Olkhon are paved, and when you go north of Khuzhir the “roads” become little more than deep ruts through the wilderness... which our guide took at a frightening pace, quite frequently while looking back over his shoulder at us, narrating.

Our first stop was a holy totem, consecrated by Buryat Shamans. The totem is located in the center of two stone circles (not standing stones, but flat stones, embedded in the earth), which are approximately 100-150 yards in diameter. The inner circle represents earthly life, and the outer circle represents the cosmos and spiritual life. It is tradition for the locals to leave offerings at the totem, either by tying something on the totem itself or by leaving money, wine or cigarettes at its the base. Ilyas left a cigarette, and then we traveled on. We came to another site with four totems, each of which represented a family in the nearby farming collective. Passersby left offerings of a similar nature here too, in order to honor those families and the spirits of the ancestors of those families.

Ilyas drove us as far north as possible, from where we could see Khoboi, the northern tip of the island. While Ilyas drove to a small glade to prepare our lunch, we explored the north end of the island. There were very few signs of spring, although the entire tip of the island was littered with small, fuzzy purple flowers; the first flowers of Siberian spring.

While we were exploring Khoboi, Ilyas whipped up fresh ukha for us. Ukha is a simple Siberian soup, consisting of little more than fish, potatoes, onions and a few spices. We each received a whole fish in our bowls, and learned that when the fish eye pops out of the socket, that means the fish is cooked. It looked terrifying, but it was actually quite delicious.

The next morning, we arose and decided to explore the village of Khuzhir. The village is tiny, crisscrossed by wide, dusty streets. After lunch, the weather grew cold, damp and unpleasant. We didn’t want to spend too much time outside, so we decided to see if the local museum was open. We had been told by Valeriy that the museum was excellent for a museum covering life on an island with such a tiny population. The museum is named after a Mr. Revyakin – a teacher and founder of the museum – and it contains exhibits representing the traditional lifestyles of the Buryats and the original Russian settlers, as well as exhibits on the plant and animal life endemic to Baikal. To be honest, the best part of the museum was its docent, a tiny woman in her upper sixties, who was passionate about the museum and its contents, and who turned out to be the daughter of Revyakin, the museum’s founder. After hearing how and when the five of us had crossed the lake, she had us gather around an old motorcycle that was on display, and she told us the following story:

The motorcycle belonged to Mr. Revyakin. One day in early May, Revyakin and a friend decided to cross the ice on his motorcycle, as the ice seemed thick and firm. The friend was carrying a large and heavy bag of fish, which was strapped to his back. They were in the process of crossing the lake when suddenly the ice broke, and the two men and the motorcycle fell through. Revyakin was able to climb free, and then he had to cut the bag of fish off of his friend’s back in order to pull him out of the ice. The two men were lucky to reach the shore alive. Two years later, a fisherman “caught” the motorcycle in his net. Revyakin cleaned it up, put some gasoline in the tank, and it worked! The moral of the story for us was that under no circumstances were we to cross by motorcycle on our way back to the mainland. Luckily for us, she told us that the ice at the narrow Olkhon Straits would be melted enough for us to cross the following day by boat.

And she was indeed correct; the following day we left the Island of Olkhon by boat."

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