My guide to the best places to visit and things to do in Olkhon Island, Russia
Olkhon Island is a gem in Baikal Lake region of Russia’s Siberia. This island, where less than 2,000 people live permanently, has stunning landscapes ranging from dense forests to rocky and steep shores. It is equally spectacular in summer and winter, with winter having its special charm when the thick ice sparkles with different colors under the sun.
Visiting the island had been a dream of mine, and I finally did it this year. I had only four full days in Olkhon, and I would have loved to stay longer! So here is my guide to places to visit and things to do in Olkhon Island.
I have a long travel guide with practical information on Olkhon, including ways of getting to the island, where to stay and eat, weather, etc.
The tours of Olkhon Island: my experience
It takes about 6 hours to get from Irkutsk to Khuzhir, the biggest village in Olkhon and the place where tourists usually stay as there are dozens of hotels there. I embarked on my trip on an early Monday morning and was supposed to get to my hotel around 2 PM. Well, the bus broke about 20 kilometers away from the village, but, luckily, some drivers stopped to help us out. By the time I checked in at the hotel it was well after 3 PM, and I fell asleep immediately as I had to wake up early a couple of days in a row (and I don’t like waking up early 🙂 ). This meant that I lost that half of the day which I reserved for exploring the village. There is not much to see except a museum and a church, so a couple of hours were enough, and I would have loved to visit them.
To make it even better, it rained the next day. It was a heavy rain, and, considering there are no asphalted roads anywhere in Olkhon, the soil is clayey, and the proximity of water means dense fogs, there was not much to do: trust me, wellingtons wouldn’t be of much help 🙂
It was still rainy and foggy on Wednesday, but I did not want to spend another day inside, considering that I had only four full days on the island (including the rainy Tuesday when I did not go anywhere). I decided to take a tour anyway.
If you, like me, don’t drive or don’t have a car, you will have to opt for organised tours when it comes to exploring the island: seeing it on foot might take a week. There are two tours: one is for the rocky northern part of Olkhon with Khoboy Cape being the highlight, and the other one is for the hilly southern part.
I decided to start with the tour to the northern part of the island. It was a rainy Wednesday, and I could clearly see the fog crawling up the rocks. So, forgive me for the dark pictures 🙂 I wish I could say that everything went smooth, but that’s not true 🙂 As the island is hilly and the roads are slippery during rain, many cars just got stuck in the mud, including ours. I even thought we would have to push it out 🙂 Luckily, these are sturdy Russian cars and the driver managed to get us out without pushing 🙂 But it was a bit scary to see other cars getting stuck or rotating or just going down the hills backwards. Still, adds to the experience 🙂
The northern tour starts in Khuzhir and continues along the coast (where it is possible) in the direction of Khoboy Cape. There are about 6 stops along the road and the tour ends at Uzur village. When it comes to the way back, there are two options: by car or by boat (a more expensive one). As I thought it would be boring to take the same road back to the village, I opted for a boat tour. I am still not sure whether it was a right decision as it was still foggy and rainy and extremely windy, and even life vests and covers did not help. Basically, instead of enjoying the island from the water the entire group hid inside the boat. Still, we got to see something as the sky cleared a bit closer to the evening.
But the next day the weather was perfect! It was sunny and warm, with little wind and blue sky, and I loved every minute of the tour. I took the tour to the southern part of Olkhon, and we had a very nice driver, much more talkative than the first one 🙂 I guess, weather influences many things 🙂 I loved this tour, the places we visited were more than stunning, and the views… the views were majestic! This part of Olkhon is not as rocky, and there is a possibility to get closer to the water.
Basically, these two tours cover almost every place open to tourists. I mentioned it before, but I will say it again: Olkhon is a protected area, part of Pribaikalsky National Park, so some parts of the island, specifically forests, are closed for visits. In case you decide to explore the allowed area of Olkhon by yourself, you will need a permit from the forestry unit: more info about it here.
Some info about the tours of the island:
– Tours start around 10 AM and take about 7-8 hours. And it means nobody has to wake up early 🙂
– There are no guides, just drivers who pick up tourists at their hotels and tell some stories about the places along the route. Usually they do not speak English, but you might get lucky to meet someone who speaks both Russian and English so that they can translate these stories. That’s what I did during one of the tours as there was a couple from Germany who did not speak Russian.
– Drivers take care of permits.
– Drivers cook soup from canned fish somewhere in the middle of the day: it means there is no need to take substantial food supplies with you. In addition, they serve salad, cookies and tea, but no water, so you might want to take care of it yourself.
– It is my understanding that drivers can omit some stops and go to other places. I do not know what the route depends on, maybe, it is the weather or driver’s mood 🙂
As I had seen the island during the tours only, I decided to take a stroll along the coast on Friday, my last day on Olkhon. I got the permit at the forestry unit, which was a quick process, and spent the whole day walking and taking pictures. It was fantastic to spend some time alone, enjoying the views, without any hurry or crowds. This is the day when I understood why people find Olkhon peaceful and re-energising: if you need some alone time to re-think your life, this is the place!
I am not someone who enjoys long hiking trips and sleeping in tents, but my honest opinion is that the best way to explore Olkhon is on foot. Naturally, you will need more than a couple of days to cover the island, as it is about 72 kilometers long, but I think it is so worth it! If you are not afraid of lack of showers and, probably, hot food, if you don’t cook, then this might be perfect.
Now, back to the places to see and things to do in Olkhon island. Below are the places I saw during the tours and some places I missed.
Things to do in Olkhon Island outside the tours
There are some other things to do in Olkhon Island outside the tours I mention above:
1. Shamanka Rock
Shamanka Rock or Burkhan Cape is the most famous place in Olkhon together with Khoboy Cape.
It is located at the northern end of Khuzhir village which makes it a famous pilgrimage place among tourists. Every evening dozens of people go to the cape to watch the sunset.
The white Shamanka Rock is probably the most sacred place in Olkhon. As I said, its another name is Cape Burkhan: Burkhan is the main god of Baikal, and the rock with its through cave is considered the place where he lives. Only shamans who made sacrifices to gods on the very cape could enter the cave, others were forbidden even to get close to it.
I suppose, but I don’t know for sure, that today tourists can visit the cave. I didn’t do it myself, but I saw people getting close to the rock, but I am not sure anyone entered the cave. Well, maybe, nobody wants to anger the gods 🙂
2. Take an evening boat tour
This tour is different from the one I mentioned above: it is an evening tour for 2 hours at the sunset. It takes passengers along the coast so that they can enjoy the island and Baikal Lake in the rays of the setting sun. Jeez, you can’t even imagine how much I regret not taking this tour!
3. Lounge at Saraisky Beach
There are many beaches on Olkhon, some shorter, others longer, but Saraisky is the most famous one as it is located next to Khuzhir village. Its soft sands attract tourists and locals alike, but, as I noticed, everyone prefers to stay as close to the village as possible.
The beach is more than a kilometer long, so if you go a bit further you will have plenty of space.
The waters of Baikal are cold, and on hot summer days the temperature at some bays can be 18 degrees Celsius. The only thing I did was wetting my feet, but I saw people swimming on Saraisky beach.
4. Watch sunsets in Olkhon
One advantage of being on an island is the opportunity to watch incredible sunsets. And sunsets on Olkhon are incredible! Just come to Shamanka Rock closer to the evening and enjoy a rave of color. The best thing is that each sunset in Olkhon is unique: one day you will be treated by deep orange light, and the next day it will be delicate pink with dark blue.
You will not be alone enjoying the sunset: in addition to tourists the locals who must already be fed up by sunsets (but aren’t!) come to watch this show of nature. If you want to contemplate it alone, just walk away from Shamanka Rock and you will have everything for yourself.
5. Revyakin’s Khuzhir Local History Museum
I think this is the only museum on the island. Revyakin was a teacher and director of the local school in Khuzhir and together with his students found about 20 neolithic sites on the island and collected many ethnographic materials.
Nowadays the museum has about 5,000 objects that tell the history of the island, archaeological findings, sacred objects related to shamanism, geological materials, etc.
6. The Church of Our Lady Derzhavnaya in Khuzhir
It is a very small church with interesting paintings inside. Its white walls with blue domes certainly attract attention. The church is new, it was built in the beginning of the century, so just go in after you visit the museum as they are close to each other.
The tour of the northern part of Olkhon Island
The tour of the northern part of Olkhon is the first one I took on the island. We had six stops along the road, mainly at the most famous capes with, I suppose, magnificent views as because of the fog I could not see much.
6. Kharantsy Cape
Kharantsy Cape next to Kharantsy village was the first stop along the road. Because of the weather we did not explore the place much, but what we saw was still spectacular. There is a beach at the right side of the cape, and, even despite the fog, we could see a couple of funnily shaped islands. One of them called Crocodile looked like a crocodile peeking out of the water. I wish the weather was better and we could get to the beach. Maybe, you will be luckier 🙂
Peschanoye or Peschanka is quite an interesting place. The name translates as sandy which is not a surprise as there are sandy beaches in Olkhon but here they form something similar to dunes which go far inside the island. Now, imagine sands with bright blooming field flowers: the landscape is spectacular.
In the last century inmates lived in the barracks here. They worked at the local fish processing factory. The work was very difficult as there were no facilities and they had to carry ice from the lake in carriages. A part of the pier is still there as a proof.
Now there are a couple of houses not far from the pier, a souvenir shop and a small cafe. And a paid toilet for 20 RUB 🙂
8. Three Brothers Cape or Sagan-Khushun Cape
Oh, this was an interesting stop 🙂 In addition to rocks covered with vibrant field flowers and orange-colored lichen, there is a legend about this place. And this is not the first legend you will read here 🙂
The main part of the cape is made of three white rocks, and the legend is about them.
Once there lived a shaman who had three sons and a daughter. The daughter fell in love with a guy her father did not approve of and ran away with him. The shaman sent his sons after her, and they did catch her. But the girl was very convincing telling her brothers that she loved the guy and wanted to spend her life with him, so they let her go. When they came back, they told their father that they did not find her. The shaman knew they were lying and turned them into stone as a punishment.
You can’t really see these three rocks from the land, they look much more spectacular from the water. And, it is said that if you look really close – from a boat – you might see faces in these rocks. I couldn’t 🙂
9. Khoboy Cape
People come to Olkhon to see Khoboy Cape. When I was there I could not see anything through the fog so I do not understand the excitement. Apparently, there are many spectacular places at the cape, like two grottoes where tourists can spend the night and face the sunrise, or long grottoes, accessible only in winter when the ice is thick.
Khoboy translates as fang from Buryat, but the legend I have heard about the place has nothing to do with fangs. There lived once a woman who was very envious of her husband whom the gods gave a stunning palace, so she asked for a better one. As a punishment for her greediness the gods turned her into stone. I should mention that locals call the rock a maiden and it looks like a torso of a woman from the water.
The stop at Khoboy Cape was the longest one, and this is when we had the fish soup. There was enough time to explore the place, but because of the fog, I could not see much. The view must be amazing when the horizon is clear.
PS: there is another toilet at this stop, but I wish I did not need to use it!
10. Shunte-Levyy Cape or the Cape of Love
Do you want kids? This is the place you should go to wish for one. Shunte-Levyy is a forked cape, so the right side is responsible for conceiving girls, and the left one – for boys. If you want twins, just go straight and make a wish.
The cape reminds me a lioness’s head, but, apparently, others see bent legs of a woman, which explains the belief.
11. Uzur village
The tour ends at Uzur village in Khaga-Yaman Bay: the bay surrounded by fancy rock formations is more spectacular during a sunny day. There is a meteorological station in the village and some neolithic sites nearby, but we did not get to see any, unfortunately. It was cold so we just went right to the boat hoping we would see all these capes I mentioned above from the water. Well, I managed to see some of them, so it was not a complete disaster 🙂
The tour of the southern part of Olkhon Island
I took this tour on a sunny and warm day. As this one is less popular, though I do not understand why, because the places we saw were spectacular, there were only four people in our group. We had really nice time together and it is the best day I spent around Baikal.
FYI: there are no toilets on this route.
12. Panoramic deck of Khuzhir
The panoramic deck was our first stop. Don’t be fooled by the mention of Khuzhir as the deck is still far from the village, about four kilometers away, I think. But the views are breathtaking! You can see really far from here, not only the village, but some farther parts of the island, mountains on the opposite side, capes, hills, forests… everything leaves speechless!
13. Khankhoi Lake
It is a bit hard to call Khankhoi a lake: it is separated from Baikal only by a narrow line of sand. Still, it is a lake and due to its specifics its waters get warmer which makes it popular among tourists. You will see many people with tents here and, I think, fishing is allowed. During the high season this place is bustling with people, so it is a much better idea not to go there in July and August.
Interesting fact: khankhoi might derive from a Buryat word khaankhai, which means closed.
14. Yelgai Cape
Oh, I loved this place! It is close to Khankhoi Lake, and the views are majestic! This is one of the few places where there are trees which make the landscape even more dramatic.
But I was mostly interested in the piles of stones which were everywhere on the cape. I had seen piles like these before in Tazheran Steppe and it is my understanding that this is a way of appeasing gods. Naturally, I was surprised to see so many of them in one place, but as our driver told they were erected by builders who worked in the area. So, they have nothing to do with local beliefs.
I have read some articles claiming that this is a dangerous practice as it is harmful to the local flora and fauna, so refrain from doing it.
15. Seven Pines
Our next stop was quite an interesting place. Its name Semisosny can be translated as seven pines, but there are no pines there, just a lonely birch tree. Naturally, there is a legend about the birch 🙂
Many years ago two tribes lived there, and they were at feud with each other. It happened so that a girl from one tribe and a boy from the other one fell in love, but no one would bless their union. So they went to a local shaman who married them. When the people found out about it, they decided to punish shaman by killing him. Before the execution the shaman said that if a birch tree grows on his grave, then he did the right thing marrying the couple.
Well, that’s not the only legend, you will most likely hear a different one, as I noticed that versions differ from one driver to another 🙂
Anyway, the birch is sacred and it is believed that if one hugs it and makes a wish it will be granted. Frankly, it is difficult to do it as nowadays there is a fence around the tree 🙂
16. Shara-Shulun Cape
Tours stop at this cape due to one reason only: it is the best place to see the famous Ogoi Island with a Buddhist stupa on top (more on the island below).
While it is definitely a highlight, the views of the mountains on the opposite side, rugged indented shores of Olkhon, blooming field flowers make the place even more appealing.
17. Khorgoy Cape
Another cape with breathtaking views: yes, all views here leave speechless 🙂
The cape is famous for the ruins of a Kurykan wall. Kurykans were aboriginal people, but there is not much info about them, and scientists still argue who they were.
And when you go to the farther end of the cape, you will see an island that looks like a baby whale 🙂
There is a bay at the foot of the cape and this is the place where we had lunch. We had about 40 minutes to explore Khorgoy while our driver was cooking.
18. Green rocks of Khula
This is my favorite place on the island! When I was preparing for my trip I marked all the capes I considered interesting in Google Maps, but I had no idea this place existed. You see, the maps of Olkhon are far from being detailed and it is hard to find less known places. So I will try to explain its location: the southern end of the island looks like a trident, and the rocks are somewhere in the middle ‘prong’.
The rocks are not green per se, it’s just that some parts are covered with green lichen. Locals call them Trident, Dragon’s tooth or Khula Castle. As the rocks are on high ground, the opening views are magnificent! From there it is possible to see one of the ‘prongs’ with the famous Mare’s head Cape or Chorin-irgi (it is a popular place, but we did not go there. I think partly it is my fault as I spent much time taking pictures in other places). When we came to Khula Rocks, the sun started setting down, and it was getting darker. Still, the rocks themselves with purple flowers and green lichen and the views were stunning.
19. Khalzan Bay
Khalzan Bay was our last stop. Well, it was not the bay itself, as we could see it from above only, but a rock, the lower left part of which reminds the profile of Stalin. Yep 🙂 I honestly struggled to see it, but once I did, it was hard to unsee it. Do you see it?
The rock has different names: Angel, Eagle, Eagle’s Head, so call it whatever you want 🙂
When it comes to the bay, it seems to be a popular place. There is a beach there, and tourists put up tents there. It is not easily accessible, but the place is worth all the efforts.
Tours from the island to other parts
In addition to the things to do in Olkhon Island itself, there are a couple of tours to some other parts in the area.
20. A visit to a Buryat village
Buryats are a nomad people aboriginal to the region. The conditions of life in Siberia led to the appearance of specific types of dwellings, traditions and cuisine. A visit to a Buryat village is a fantastic opportunity to see their way of living and everyday objects and eat buuzy, a type of Buryat dumplings, if you have not had them already.
21. Zama and Zunduk
Both Zama and Zunduk are located in the mainland, so you will have to take a boat first. I have not been to these places but considering what I have seen in the region, they must be spectacular. Imagine clear blue waters, dense virgin forests, views from the cape… Just keep in mind that it is not a flat road but a steep ascent, so make sure you are fit enough for this trip.
22. Ogoi Island and the sacred springs on the mainland
Ogoi is one of the biggest islands close to Olkhon. On the top of the island there is a white Buddhist stupa with relics. The stupa is made of three levels: under the first one weapons are buried as a symbol of keeping away wars, coins are in the second level as a symbol of prosperity and protection against poverty, and the main part is reserved for sacred texts. If you want to cleanse yourself of problems and sorrows, you should make 8 circles around the stupa barefoot.
The sacred springs are located about 3 kilometers away from the shore. Locals consider them curative, so drinking it should help cure some diseases. And, apparently, one spring helps women, and the other one – men.
I tried to put on the map all the places I visited. You will see that the tours do not cover the eastern part of the island. I do not know why, maybe, it is difficult to get there by car. Another reason may be that that part is covered with forests that are closed for visits. I think there must be boat tours that allow to see the eastern part of Olkhon, but I didn’t research it as I didn’t have time for that anyway.
I did not have a car, so I had to opt for organised tours, but if you have a possibility to get a car, do it. It is so much better to be able to go wherever you want and spend there as much time as you want. And it is even better if you opt for hiking the island with a tent.
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