My guide to Olkhon Island, one of the most beautiful places in the world!
Siberia, one of Russia’s most vast regions, has many natural wonders, and Baikal Lake is one of them. The surroundings of the lake are rich in landscapes, including mountains, taiga, steppes, a volcanic depression, spectacular bays. While I wanted to visit all of them, Olkhon Island in the middle of Baikal was a priority for me.
I have heard many stories about how beautiful Olkhon is. I googled for pictures, and they were stunning, but the reality is much better. I regret that I had planned 4 days for the island, I would have loved to stay longer! So here is everything I know to ease your planning efforts and decide on the itinerary.
Before we go further, some info about me: I am a native Russian speaker, but I am not a citizen of Russia but of Moldova, a former Soviet Republic. This is the reason that I do not need visas to enter Russia. I travelled to Baikal solo from mid-June till the beginning of July. I was on Olkhon during the last week of June.
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Where and what is Olkhon Island
Olkhon, territorially located in Irkutsk Oblast, is the biggest and the only inhabited island on Baikal Lake in Russia’s Siberia. It is about 73 kilometers long and 15-20 kilometers wide. Olkhon can be translated from Buryat as a little bit woody.
For such a small piece of land this island has an interesting variety of landscapes. One third of Olkhon is covered in forests, which are a highly protected area. Its rugged northern shores are steep and rocky, and its southern part is hilly and treeless. And the island is surrounded by clear blue waters of Baikal that are inviting when the weather is nice.
Olkhon is precious for its incredible landscapes, there is nothing here for architecture or museum lovers. The pristine nature of the island is perfect for slow travel and long meditations sitting on the shore and looking at the snowy capes of the mountains on the opposite side. Olkhon is the place where people find peace.
The island is considered sacred by the aboriginal people, and every cape here has a legend. Some capes are three brothers turned into stone because the rocks resemble faces, others remind fangs (like the famous Khoboy Cape: khoboy is fang from Buryat language). Shamanka Rock was considered to be the home of Burkhan, the most powerful god of Baikal, hence its second name Burkhan Cape.
These legends and spectacular landscapes were enough to put the island to my bucket list and I am more than happy that I have visited Olkhon.
How to get to Olkhon Island
I would advise to start the trip to Olkhon Island in Irkutsk as it is the closest city. Buses from Ulan-Ude will pass via Irkutsk anyway.
Getting to Olkhon Island is easier than you imagine 🙂 There are a couple of ways to do that:
– by bus. Buses, or better say marshrutkas, depart from Irkutsk bus station every day, usually in the morning as it takes about 6 hours to get to Khuzhir, the biggest village on Olkhon and probably the only place with facilities for tourists. The bus has to get on a ferry to cross the strait between the mainland and the island: the ferry station is called MRS (МРС in cyrillic). When the bus comes to the ferry, passengers are expected to get out and board the ferry on foot. As a rule, passengers are not allowed to sit in the bus during the ferry ride, but rules are easily bent. After the ride find your bus and get in.
There is no proper bus station in Khuzhir, just a sign in front of the supermarket Gastronom (Гастроном in cyrillic). Consequently, there is no ticket office, but there are many places around to buy tickets. Anyway, I strongly recommend buying return tickets in Irkutsk and, if possible, in advance. If you are not comfortable speaking to the staff, here is the official website of the bus station. As far as I know it is not mandatory to print tickets, it is enough to have them in your phone.
Before my trip to Olkhon I spent 6 days in Irkutsk, so I bought my tickets the day after arrival in the city. One-way ticket costs 600 RUB (about 9 EUR). My plan was to go to Listvyanka after Olkhon and there was only one suitable route for 1.500 RUB (about 22 EUR). The bus ticket includes the ferry ride, so there is no need to pay anything extra. But my ticket did not include baggage fee which is at the driver’s discretion then. As there is no price list, it is hard to argue. For example, on the way to Olkhon I paid 100 RUB, but on my way back, which included extra 70 kilometers from Irkutsk to Listvyanka, I was made to pay 250 RUB.
I would advise to come 15 minutes before the bus departure as the driver will need time to check you against the list of passengers and help you with the luggage.
As it is a long ride, drivers stop for 20-30 minutes at roadside cafes for meals. Food is usually cheap, and credit cards were preferred over cash in the cafes we stopped.
Interestingly, the bus to Olkhon was full, but was almost empty on the way back to Irkutsk.
I have read almost everywhere that queues for the ferry can be endless and that people had to wait for hours for their turn. Luckily, there was no queue when I was there, we boarded immediately after arriving at the pier. And I have read somewhere that public buses are given priority when boarding.
– by car. Well, the road to Olkhon will be the same as with the bus, and you will have to take a ferry anyway. If you come by car, you will have to pay for it and the passengers aboard, but, unfortunately, I don’t know how much. I would guess it is about 500 RUB per car and 100 RUB per passenger, but, again, I don’t know. I suggest to have cash for payments, not sure they accept cards.
Frankly, the car will come useful on the island as its 73 kilometers will be hard to explore on foot.
– by plane. Now, don’t get too excited 🙂 There is an airport in Kharantsy, another village on Olkhon, and the air connection has recently been reinstated. But, I guess the planes will be used for transporting cargo as the island depends heavily on the goods from the mainland. Maybe, later, they will transport passengers as well.
Where to stay on Olkhon Island
There are a few villages on Olkhon Island with about 1,700 residents in total. Khuzhir is the biggest village and, most likely, the only one where there is infrastructure for tourists. Maybe, except some camping sites around the island. Naturally, all tourists, who prefer to stay in hotels, opt for Khuzhir.
Despite Olkhon being a popular tourist destination, I struggled to find a suitable accommodation. I did not have a huge budget, but everything that was cheap enough for me had bathroom outside the room, and in many places toilets were outside the house itself. I was not ready for this level of comfort, so I had to compromise 🙂
I have heard many nice things about Nikita Bencharov’s Homestead on Olkhon, it seemed to be the most popular hotel among tourists, and I decided to book with them. As singles were expensive, I opted for a room with twin beds which meant that I might have a neighbour. I was not afraid of this, as I had stayed in hostels before, and this room had an en-suite bathroom, so I booked it. And I did not regret it even for a moment!
Nikita’s Homestead consists of many wooden buildings with different levels of comfort. Buildings are decorated with paintings and carvings which is quite interesting. Everything inside the rooms is wooden: shelves, beds, walls. This rustic style is very appealing for me, and it felt nice and cozy. The bathroom had a shower cabin, but there were no shampoos or shower gels: it is not a complaint, it is just for you to know that you have to bring your own. But they provided towels. Internet was a bit weak, but it was enough for my needs. Overall, the room was spacious, comfortable, clean and tidy.
But the best thing about my booking was that it included breakfasts and dinners! I had no idea about it when I booked the rooms, so it was a nice surprise. Despite being a bit outside of my budget, it helped me to save on food, so I was happy in the end 🙂 For breakfast they had crepes, eggs, sausage, cheese, salads, cereals, fruit and soups (yeah, I know 🙂 ). For dinner it was soups, salads, boiled rice or buckwheat, fish and meat. In general, it was a nice selection. Tea was available the whole day: the dining room is open for self-service. In addition, there is a tap with potable water and everyone is free to fill their bottles.
And I just have to mention the staff: they are the friendliest people I have ever met! Many of them are not locals, and they come to work there every year. All of this means that I can wholeheartedly recommend this place 🙂
Below are some alternatives to Nikita’s Homestead (as always, I select the best options, but read the reviews first anyway). They have pretty much the same facilities as the hotel I stayed at. When it comes to Villa Malina Hotel, I have heard about it from a family that I was together with on a tour. They said that the hotel is new, the rooms are comfortable and the breakfast is exceptional.
Where and what to eat on Olkhon
Well, this one is tricky as I have never eaten out on the island: Nikita’s Homestead provided me with everything I needed. Still, basing on the reviews these are the places you can consider:
– Cafe Yurta on Pushkin 5 has good reviews: people seem to genuinely like their buuz (more about it below) and chebureks (meat pastry).
– Cafe Sunday on Pushkin Street not far from Yurta is famous for its coffee and desserts.
– Baikal View Cafe on Rossiiskaya 17 boasts spectacular views of Baikal Lake. Tourists like this glass cafe on a hill mainly because here staff speaks English, and they seem to enjoy desserts, coffee and pizza. And everyone just loves the view because it overlooks Shamanka Rock.
When it comes to what to eat you can’t miss buuz (буузы) or pozy (позы), a kind of dumplings, a local Buryat specialty. Basically, it’s minced meat in dough that is steamed instead of boiled, so the first thing you have to do is to bite the dough and drink the bullion and eat the rest after. I guess you don’t have to eat the upper part, it was raw to my taste. You can find buuz almost everywhere around Baikal.
If you see anywhere traditional Russian food like borscht, shchi, dressed herring, salads like olivier and vinegret, try them!
Things to do on Olkhon
This is a quick guide to things to do on Olkhon: a longer and more detailed one is here.
As I have already said Olkhon is famous for its nature, so the main tourist attractions here are capes, mountains and picturesque views.
As far as I know the biggest part of the forest on the island is forbidden to visit, so visitors mainly stick to the waterfront areas.
The most popular tour on Olkhon is to the north of the island: it starts in Khuzhir and goes in the direction of Khoboy Cape. The driver stops at Kharantsy village, at Peschanka, Three Brothers, Khoboy and Love Capes. The final destination of the tour is Uzury village and from here the driver take tourists back to Khuzhir.
Another tour is to the south of Olkhon. Unlike the tour I mentioned above, there are no rugged rocky shores here, but hilly valleys with incredible views. This tour allows getting closer to the water, the driver stops at Kurykan wall (Kurykans were an aboriginal people), at a cape that allows magnificent views of Ogoi Island with a Buddhist stupa, at some peculiar rock formations that I do not know the names of and Khalzany Bay, where a rock formation reminds Joseph Stalin in profile.
Ogoi Island with the Buddhist Stupa is an interesting tour as well. It is combined with a visit to sacred springs in a forest on the mainland.
I had no car, and I am not one of the people who can live in tents: I need access to proper bathroom and kitchen facilities. But I have to admit that it is much better to explore Olkhon hiking it from one end to the other. I know for sure that there are people who do that, and I would love to do that one day as it gives you the freedom to see the places you want and to spend as much time there as you want.
Other things to know
Some additional useful information about Olkhon Island:
– Bumpy roads. There are no asphalted roads on Olkhon. Instead, they are clayey and sandy and stony. And they are extremely bumpy despite being quite plain. I could feel every stone, every bump as they made me bounce every time. A local told me they do not want asphalted roads because even more tourists will flock the island and spoil the nature.
– cash or cards? Frankly, I came to the island with cash only which was easy as I knew the cost of the tours. I paid in cash for my hotel as well, but I think they accept cards. In general, hotels should accept cards, but it does not mean they will, so ask about it in advance if you don’t want to run into troubles as there are no ATMs on Olkhon! I don’t know whether cafes and restaurants accept cards, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they don’t. For one tour I paid at the hotel reception where they might accept card payments, but for the other tour I paid directly to the driver who, obviously, had no means to charge cards. I recommend having enough cash for cafes and tours to be on the safe side.
– supermarkets. There are a couple of supermarkets in Baikalskaya Street, the main street of Khuzhir. I think the biggest one is Khoroshii (Хороший, which is good in Russian): you can find here everything you might need. Some supermarkets accept card payments, and, considering that many tourists prefer to pay by cards they might have hard time finding change.
– spay against mosquitoes and ticks. If you travel when it is warm outside. Mosquitoes are huge here! I did not expect them to be so big, honestly 🙂 Luckily, they stay close to the water, and I did not see any in the room. If you intend to spend time outside in the evening, better get a spray.
Ticks are much more dangerous than mosquitoes. These little monsters are active in May and summer, with May being the worst month. Ticks are carriers of dangerous diseases, like encephalitis and Lyme disease, so spray yourself whenever possible. Like I said, I was in the region at the end of June, and I did not see any ticks.
– permits. Olkhon is a part of Pribaikalsky National Park, making the entire island a protected area. What it means is that every time you want to explore the island outside the village you need to get a permit from the forestry unit (the address is 50 Baikalskaya Street, next to Khoroshii supermarket). A permit for a day costs 100 RUB (roughly 1,4 EUR). In the forestry you will need to present your ID and your intended itinerary as it will be noted in the permit. You might meet officers on the island that might ask to see your permit.
– how much time to spend there. Basically, I had three full days on Olkhon (there was a heavy rain the day after my arrival, so I do not count it) and it was far from being enough. I would have loved to stay another three days if I could. If you choose to stay at a hotel like I did, there are enough tours to keep you busy for 4-5 days. And you may want a day to explore it independently like I did. Frankly, that day was precious. If I had a more significant budget, I would have stayed on the island for at least a week.
– when to visit the island. When it comes to my experience, I can speak about June only. And I can say that June is perfect for visiting Olkhon: it is not the season yet (the high season is in July-August), the temperature is comfortable (about 17 degrees Celsius), everything is green around with flowers blooming. Yes, the waters are cold. In general, they are rarely comfortable for swimming as they warm up to 18-20 degrees Celsius in some bays. Nevertheless, I saw some people swimming anyway.
July and August are warmer, which means more tourists, so it’s up to you which summer month to choose.
Autumns are cold, but the beginning of September still might treat with nice weather.
It is winters that are spectacular on Olkhon. When the lake is covered in sick ice forming different structures reflecting the sun, tourists and photographers come here for an incredible experience. I think starting with January and till March the ice is thick enough to hold cars, so it is a perfect time to explore the shores and caves that are not easily accessible from the land. Next time I want to go to Olkhon in winter.
– weather. Yes, the weather… I would not say it is unpredictable, it rains here and the sun shines just like everywhere. What I personally find curious is that when I was there, the temperature in Irkutsk and Listvyanka (which is right on the shores of Baikal) was around 30 degrees Celsius, while on Olkhon it was about 17 degrees. Yes, Olkhon is a bit more to the north, but still :). It rained and was foggy for two day when I was there, but the other two days were sunny and warm. Let’s hope you are luckier than I was 🙂
– comfortable boots and warm clothes. As you will spend a lot of time exploring the island, I suggest you bring comfortable hiking boots with you: they will come handy on the rocky capes.
Depending on the temperatures, have warm clothes with you: I had a light water- and windproof jacket and pants and they were enough to keep me warm.
Now, about money. The biggest expense is accommodation, of course, but mine included breakfasts and dinners so I did not have to pay for food. Tours are expensive as well, but I took only two of them.
Bus tickets: 2.100 RUB
Baggage fee: 350 RUB
Accommodation: 12.500 RUB
Tours: 3.800 RUB
Permit: 100 RUB
So, my total budget for Olkhon is roughly 270 EUR.
When you think about it, a trip to Olkhon Island is not that expensive. That is, when you do not add up the cost of the ticket to get to Irkutsk. But it shouldn’t stop you: Baikal is an incredible place and is worth every penny!
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