Next stop on the Trans Siberian Railway. RUSSIA. So far I’ve covered my first two stops: Beijing and Mongolia (Central Mongolia and Ulaanbaatar). Both places my friend and I had previously visited when we were in college. Russia was going to be new and familiar for the two of us. We were excited and a little nervous. Especially since whenever I told people that I was going to Russia, most people’s reactions were less than favorable. There were lots of… “Really. Why Russia?” or “I don’t ever want to go to Russia.” or “Will you be safe there?” Most people were completely confused why I would want to go to Russia for one thing. Secondly, people wondered why I wanted to travel by train the whole time.
Turns out. Russia is kind of really amazing. If our Russian visas would’ve allowed it, I think my friend and I would’ve wanted more time there. We’ve even talked about going back in the future, perhaps during winter. Especially Lake Baikal.
So after leaving Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, our next stop would be Irkutsk. Monoglia to Irkutsk was our longest time on the train. Our journey to Irkutsk was a total of 35 hours which included going through Mongolian and Russian immigration as well as a 3 hour stop at one station in Russia. We slept on the train for two nights. We arrived in Irkutsk in the morning and immediately made our way to Olkhon Island on Lake Baikal. We decided to go directly to Olkhon Island to give ourselves plenty of time to enjoy the splendor of Lake Baikal.
Getting to Olkhon Island from Irkutsk
If you want to go to Olkhon Island, there are a number of ways to get there. You can go by local bus which takes you to the ferry to Olkhon Iskand. Then you will need to take the ferry to the island. People who take this option, I’m not sure how they get from the ferry to Kuzhir Settlement, the little town on Olkhon Island, because I didn’t see any local buses while I was on the island. You can also take a speedboat from Irkutsk to Olkhon Island. The speed boat only runs from July to August.
The easiest option that I found to get to Olkhon Island was to take a minibus, which can be arranged with most guesthouses on Olkhon Island. Be sure to reserve your spot on a bus beforehand. Especially if you’re traveling during the summer time when it’s peak season. My friend and I wouldn’t be staying at a guesthouse since we would be camping on Olkhon Island but were able to book bus tickets through Nikita’s Homestead. Nikita’s homestead is also the most popular place to stay on Olkhon Island and is booked well in advance. If you have the budget, I would highly recommend this place. The staff were AMAZING. But i’ll get to that later.
Minibus tickets to Olkhon Island were 800 rubles each plus 115 rubles for booking in advance. (When my friend and I were in Russia, the ruble was about 55 rubles to the dollar. When we left, the ruble was about 63 rubles to the dollar. While I’m writing this, the ruble is 77 rubles to the dollar.) Buses only leave from Irkutsk two times a day: 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. If you’re going to Olkhon Island from a hostel or hotel in Irkutsk, then a shuttle will pick you up. If you’re going from the train station, then you’ll have to get to the bus station on your own.
Once we arrived in Irkutsk we had to get to the bus station. From the train station Minibus #64 or tram #4A go to the bus station. Or you can take a cab which is significantly more expensive. We caught the tram to the bus station in Irkutsk. From there, the minibus was across the street from the local bus station. We were given the buses license plate number ahead of time so we knew what buses to look for. All buses going to Olkhon Island have signs on the buses written in Russian Cyrillic. We got to our bus, checked in, dropped off a couple of our things, and then went to the grocery store to grab food before it was time to go. It was a good thing that my friend and I got to the bus early so we could stake out our seats ahead of time. The bus ended up being quite crowded and the ride was less than comfortable. It took about 6 hours to get to Kuzhir settlement which included our ferry ride. We didn’t have to wait in line for the ferry but we did encounter other travelers who did and it ended up taking close to 10 hours to get to Kuzhir. So if you’re going to go to Olkhon Island, be sure to set aside enough time to get there and back.
While on Olkhon Island
Lake Baikal is considred the deepest lake in the world. It’s also the largest freshwater lake in the world. It’s one of the world’s clearest lakes and oldest lakes on the planet. It’s so big that I kept accidentally calling it an ocean when I was there.
My friend and I are big outdoorsy people so we knew when we were planning our Trans Siberian adventure that we wanted to spend as much time as we could fit at Lake Baikal. We ended up being at Lake Baikal for 4 nights. If our Russian visas were longer than 30 days, I think we would’ve wanted to spend even longer at Lake Baikal.
We decided to go camping on Olkhon Island because we heard that this was possible, but before our trip we couldn’t really find any information on camping there besides seeing on a wikitravel page that you could maybe rent camping gear while on the island. Since we weren’t sure what was possible, my friend lugged her camping gear from the States so that we could go camping on Olkhon Island. It’s a good thing we did. Once we got to Kuzhir, we told our minibus to drop us off at Nikita’s Homestead since it was the homestead we knew on the island. From there, we were hoping we could 1. Get a map of the island from the homestead. 2. Ask the homestead if it was possible for them to store our extra baggage. Since we went straight from the train to Olkhon Island, we didn’t have a chance to store any of our luggage. They didn’t have very useful maps and couldn’t store our things unless we were guests of the homestead which was understandable but unfortunate. The homestead did, however, help us to register our visas, which you need to do within the first week of being in Russia. You would normally register your visa with your hotel or hostel but since we weren’t staying at a hostel until we got back to Irkutsk, we had to do it while on Olkhon Island. They were able to make an exception for us despite us not being actual guests of the homestead. We ended up signing up for a couple of excursions through Nikita’s Homestead which I’ll mention in a bit.
Nikita’s Homestad pointed us to a direction that might be able to help us with luggage storage. My friend and I wandered and asked around without much luck. We did buy a map. Which ended up being useless but made us feel better about our adventure. And then we eventually wandered down to the beach to see if we could find a camping spot.
Camping on Olkhon Island
Turns out Olkhon Island had a lot of people camping out at the beach. Everyone we saw camping though were Russian. We were the only foreigners that we could see that decided to camp out. Which probably explains why we couldn’t find any information about camping on the island. It also turns out that Russians got the whole camping thing down pat. I thought Americans were pretty outdoorsy but damn. Russians are way better at the whole outdoors thing. People’s camping setups were pretty impressive. Most even included their own changing and toilet tents. Anyways, we found a spot for the night. My friend brought her camping stove but we were unable to find fuel for the stove so we ate canned and dry foods while on Olkhon Island. Being two females camping alone, we felt pretty safe. We debated whether or not our stuff would be okay if we left our luggage in the tent. It seemed that most people left their tents up and would leave their tents during the day. While I think our things would’ve been safe, we didn’t want to risk losing our things so every morning, we packed up camp and lugged all of our belongings about a mile up the giant hill up to Nikita’s Homestead. This was pretty grueling since we had to hike up and down a very steep hill to and from the beach every morning and evening with very heavy packs.
Since we booked a couple of excursions with Nikita’s Homestead though, they agreed to store our things during the days when we were out on our excursions.
We went on two excursions on two different days while on the island. One was the standard excursion which included visiting Cape Khaboy and other really beautiful sites. The sites were absolutely gorgeous and the day was made even better since we were with a really great group of Nikita Homestead guests from all over the world that were all really fun.
The other excursion that we went on was the Idiba valley tour which was supposed to be a hike but ended up being a walk to a pretty secluded and beautiful area. Our group were basically the only people on the beach. We were able to swim in the freezing cold lake. Then we hiked back to the van where we ate lunch. Then we visited another area.
Lots of other places offer excursions on Olkhon Island but we found Nikita’s to be exceptional. When we went on our two excursions we would run into other groups but we found that our drivers were always the first to get to a destination so we were able to enjoy the scenery before the crowds of groups descended.
I had and amazing time on Olkhon Island. We had lots of time to relax. I think the whole island and the lake were absolutely beautiful. This portion of our trip was probably one of my favorite parts of our entire trip.
Getting back to Irkutsk
We booked our journey back to Irkutsk the night before we intended to leave. The bus left at 9:30 a.m. and this time, our bus was fairly empty. The bus dropped us off at our hostel where we were surrounded around hot showers and running water once again. In the next post of this series I’ll talk about our day in Irkutsk.