Around Baikal Lake: visiting Tazheran Steppe on a day trip from Irkutsk

The view from Shebeta Mountain in Tazheran Steppe

Tazheran Steppe… so far, the most beautiful place I have ever seen.

I came across this place by pure accident: I was looking for things to do around Baikal Lake and saw a picture of a fantastic place: autumnal hills alternating with valleys, lit by the fading sun. After a bit of digging I found out that this place is called Tazheran Steppe. And I decided to visit it at all costs 🙂 But regardless how long I searched for it, I could not find a way to get there independently, so I had to book a tour with a local agency.

So below there is everything I know about Tazheran Steppe, the mystical place shrouded in legends, and why I strongly recommend everyone to go there.

Tazheran Steppe from above

Frankly, after visiting Norway, I thought I would never see anything as beautiful, but I did 😊

What is Tazheran Steppe

If you hear the word steppe and expect endless flat fields, you are wrong. Tazheran Steppe is a huge area with various landscapes including mountains, hills, valleys, stone formations, lakes and caves. It was formed about 400 million years ago and is home to about 150 minerals, sapphires and rubies among them. Tazheranite, a rare stone, was named after the steppe. I have heard stories of people finding some precious minerals here. Frankly, it is quite possible you can stumble upon any of these stones, but I doubt it will be rubies 🙂

Tazheran Steppe is about 40 kilometers long and 15 kilometers wide. It is located roughly between the Anga River and Maloe More which separates Olkhon Island from the mainland. People who have visited more countries than I say that this steppe reminds those in Mongolia. I just have to believe them 😊

Tazheran Steppe

This dry landscape is somewhat foreign to this part of Siberia which is covered in forests. And the deepest lake on the Earth is nearby 😊

The steppe borders Baikal and it means that climbing some of its summits you will have spectacular views of the lake.

There are multiple caves in the area, and some are so big that there are lakes inside them, and stalagmites and stalactites are formed.

Waters and muds of the mineral lakes in Tazheran Steppe are used by locals in medical treatment.

Locals allow cattle, sheep and horses to wander freely in the steppe so you will see the results of their body functions everywhere 🙂 And in addition to numerous birds there are hundreds of ground squirrels there, you will see plenty of them.

Horses in Tazheran Steppe
Horses in Tazheran Steppe

Interesting fact: the people who first inhabited this place named it tazheran which means summer nomad camp.

How to get there: the tourist agency

The steppe is far from any of the big cities: it is more than 200 kilometers away from Irkutsk and it takes about 3 hours to get there. If you have time, you might go there for longer than a day to really explore the place, but I had only one day available.

Just like I said, the steppe is vast, and I knew I could not do it on foot, so I opted for an organised tour by Baikal Maverick. I am glad I did as I had amazing guides, Ksenia and Aleksandr, knowledgeable and patient, which is very important as I am slow when it comes to climbing anything and I take lots of pictures which takes time too. And, as our countries had common history and we are native Russian speakers, we had interesting discussions and conversations. In addition, they picked me up at my hotel and drove me back there.

My wonderful guides
My wonderful guides Ksenia and Aleksandr

But don’t worry if you don’t speak Russian: if they can’t speak your language, they will provide you with an interpreter!

What you need to know: this opinion on the agency is my own. The tour was not sponsored, I paid for it myself. This agency was recommended to me by a local guide, and I genuinely liked the tour and the guides.

If you think that you must get to Tazheran Steppe on your own, you might consider buying a bus ticket to/from Elantsy, the village close to the steppe. I think you might rent some means of transport in the village like bikes or quad bikes, but I am not sure as I have not done it myself.

Frankly, if you can, rent a car and do everything at your own pace and see everything you want. I don’t have a driver’s license, but if I did, I would have opted for this. But in any case, if you do it yourself, you will need to obtain a permit (more about it below) as Tazheran Steppe is a protected area. When you go with the tourist agency, they take care of everything.

Meals

As you are going to spend the whole day outside in the wilderness (well, not a total wilderness 😊 ) without any access to restaurants or supermarkets, you will have to think about food.

One thing you can do is buy food at the supermarket in Irkutsk, pack it and have a meal in between climbing the summits. I considered this option first but then changed my mind. The reason is that there are small cafes in Elantsy and tours usually stop at some of them at the beginning and end of the day.

We stopped in the same café Home fire (Домашний очаг) both times. I loved the food, it was simple but delicious. If you go there, make sure to taste their sponge cake: it is the yummiest I have ever had!

The food in the cafes is usually cheap: the most expensive item in the menu of Home Fire costs 150 RUB (roughly 2,1 EUR). The portions are big, I could not finish my laghman 😊 So the supermarket food and meals in a café will cost pretty much the same, so it’s up to you what to opt for.

How to prepare for visiting Tazheran Steppe

– The first and most important thing is to get a permit to visit the steppe if you organize the visit by yourself. Tazheran Steppe is a part of Pribaikalsky National Park, a protected area, and visitors need permits. As I have not done it myself in Irkutsk, I do not know the exact procedure. On Olkhon Island they asked for my passport and my route. And payment, of course, as it is not free. On Olkhon I paid 100 RUB for a day, so I suppose it should be around this amount. I searched the Google and found this post on getting the permits. It is in Russian, but Google makes miracles these days with translation 😊 The address of the office in Irkutsk is Baikalskaya str. 291B (ул. Байкальская, д. 291Б). Go to the tourism department in that office and get the permit 😊

– Make sure you have hiking boots as you will have to climb some summits. The mountains I climbed during my visit weren’t that high, but having appropriate boots definitely eased the hike. As the weather around Baikal is unpredictable, take a coat or a jacket with you, preferably a water- and windproof one. Depending on the season of your trip, you might need warm and thick clothes as it can be very cold. I was there at the end of June, it was about 18° C, a bit windy, with a short drizzle, and my light waterproof jacket did well. It was cloudy the whole day during my visit, making the sky dramatic and my pictures dark 😊

– If you travel to the area around Baikal in May and summer, then make sure to have a spray against ticks. These are the months when ticks are active, with May being the worst. I sprayed myself every possible time as the last thing I wanted was to be bitten by a tick and then dealing with the consequences. Ticks are dangerous as they are carriers of encephalitis and Lyme disease. Just spray yourself: better safe than sorry. Usually, residential areas are disinfested, but as locals told me there is still no guarantee no tick will bite you. And Tazheran Steppe is not exactly a residential area. Luckily, I have never seen a tick during my trip. If it is possible, get vaccinated before your trip to Baikal.

– Take a bottle of water with you: it is a whole day outside, after all 😊

– Sunscreen will be useful if it is a sunny day.

– And don’t forget your camera as the place is stunning!

What I saw during the tour

The road to Tazheran Steppe lies through magnificent taiga forest with mighty pine trees and delicate birches. It is a steep road meaning you will go up and down. And when you will finally enter the steppe you will be truly surprised by the contrast between the taiga and treeless valleys and hills.

We started the day with climbing Sakhyurte Mountain. It is famous for the petroglyphic drawings: some of them are 2.500-3.000 years old. I think it would be quite difficult to find them on your own as they are faint and not readily discernible on the stone. In addition to that, there are ruins of a Kurykan settlement on top of the mountain.

The petroglyphic drawings on Sakhyurte Mountain
The petroglyphic drawings on Sakhyurte Mountain

A part of Sakhyurte is whitish, and it is sometimes called the White Mountain. Well, I think there is not enough white to be called like that 😊

The whitish part of Sakhyurte Mountain
The whitish part of Sakhyurte Mountain

But the most precious thing about Sakhyurte is the views from above. Just look at these pics:

The view from Sakhyurte Mountain

The view from Sakhyurte Mountain
The view from Sakhyurte Mountain

Our next stop was at the sacred mountain Yehe Erdo. Unlike the other mountains of Tazheran Steppe, this one looks differently: it is too smooth, has a right form and looks like it is man-made.

The sacred Yehe Erdo Mountain in Tazheran Steppe
The sacred Yehe Erdo Mountain

It was a sacred place for the people who lived there and even today only shamans can climb it. And it means that this time we stayed at its foot. As the place is sacred, it was the right time for burkhaning or propitiating the gods. As we wanted the gods to be kind to us, this was what we did.

If you have locals with you, they will show you how to do it. In case there is no one to guide you, I will tell what you should do. You need a glass, vodka, milk, bread or biscuits. First, we poured vodka into the glasses, dipped the wedding fingers in it and then splashed it at the four sides. Then we repeated the same procedure with the milk and crumbled up the biscuits around us. I hope it worked as no tick bit me 😊

Next to the mountain there are serge, wooden pillars with colourful ribbons wrapped around them. These ribbons symbolize different things depending on the colour and wrapping a pillar with a specific ribbon means praying for the thing it symbolizes.

Nowadays the famous Erdyn Games which include national sports competitions, contests, craft fairs are held at the mountain once in two years and attract thousands of people. The highlight of the games is a ceremonial dance around Yehe Erdo. A very important condition for the dance to happen is to have enough people to make an uninterrupted circle. There are stories claiming that sometimes dancers formed three or four circles around the mountain.

After burkhaning we headed to our next stop, Shebeta Mountain. It is the tallest one of the three we visited and the view from above is more than spectacular! I guess other than the views there is nothing special about Shebeta, except the ruins of a Kurykan wall, but those views are worth all the effort it takes to climb to the top which is more difficult than climbing Sakhyurte. From here I saw Baikal, the Anga River, the mountains and valleys of the steppe, Aya Bay and everything was just stunning!

the view of Tazheran Steppe from Shebeta Mountain

The view from Shebeta Mountain
The view from Shebeta Mountain

After taking dozens of pics on Shebeta, we drove in the direction of the Valley of the Stone Spirits. On our way I saw a glimpse of the mineral lakes and the eagle statue. Eagles are sacred birds on Baikal, and Ksenia told me that if a visitor sees an eagle, it means that Baikal has accepted them. I am happy to say that I saw one from afar on Olkhon Island 😊 Well, at least, I think it was an eagle 😊

Now, about the valley. This place is legendary as it is here that two shamans, or good against evil, fought. People joined them, but all were turned into stone, including the shamans. It is said that they will become people again when there are no wars anymore on the earth. Well, hopefully, one day…

The Valley of the Stone Spirits

The Valley of the Stone Spirits
The Valley of the Stone Spirits

If we forget about the legend, the valley is full of interesting rock formations. Some people see faces in those rocks, hence the legend. I am afraid my imagination is not that rich and vivid as I struggled to see anything else than stones.

That was our last stop in Tazheran Steppe. Frankly, I regret that I did not have more time to spend there. Next time I will go there in autumn: the colours will be amazing!

What else to see in Tazheran Steppe

There are so many interesting places in Tazheran Steppe, so trust me when I say that one day is not enough.

Tan Khan Mountain

Tan Khan Mountain is the tallest in Tazheran Steppe: about 990 meters. Naturally, hiking it is not easy, but the views from above will be really spectacular.

The name tan khan can be translated as the god of darkness. According to a legend, Tan Khan was that evil shaman from the story about the Valley of the Stone Spirits.

The caves of Tazheran

The caves of Tazheran Steppe deserve a special mention. The most famous of them are Dream, Big and Small Baidinskaya, and Tontinskaya caves. They are very old, the most ancient ones in Siberia. In some of them skeletons of fish that lived 20 million years ago were found. Others were inhabited by early humans.

The Dream Cave is 830 long and has numerous passages, halls and grottoes. Stalagmites and stalactites are formed in this cave.

Tontinskaya Cave seems to be the most interesting one. There is a lake inside it, but so far there is no explanation to the chemical composition of its waters and to how it appeared. There are many passages leading from the lake. Two burial places were found in the cave.

When it comes to visiting the caves: I am not sure you can do it alone, especially if you are inexperienced. Better get a guide as you can get lost in the many passages.

Aya Bay

I saw Aya Bay only from Shebeta Mountain and it looked absolutely spectacular. Aya means beautiful or nice in the Evenk language. The bay is protected by mountains and makes a perfect dock for boats. And there is a semicircular sand beach which is a popular place with locals and tourists alike. It gets really crowded in warm summer days.

In addition to that, in its northern part there is another set of petroglyphic drawings.

Mineral lakes

As I told already, I only got to see a glimpse of a couple of small mineral lakes on the way to the Valley of the Stone Spirits. The most famous and biggest lake is Dabakhtai-Nur: it can be translated as salt lake. The locals believe these lakes have curative effect, but no research was ever made to prove it.

My final advice: if you ever visit Baikal, don’t miss this place. Somehow, despite its beauty, Tazheran Steppe is not as popular as Circum-Baikal Railway or Olkhon Island, so you will not see crowds here. Which is a nice thing 🙂

SAVE IT FOR LATER!

Visiting Tazheran Steppe on a day trip from Irkutsk | What to do at Baikal: visiting Tazheran Steppe

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