It’s always been our dream to visit Lake Baikal and with Swiss TV we had the chance to see it twice this summer.
Located in South-central Siberia, not far from the Mongolian border and surrounded by mountains, forests and rivers, Lake Baikal is the oldest and deepest fresh water lake in the world and is famous for its breath taking natural beauty and wildlife.
In June we went to Ulan-Ude with Corinne Eisenring, Swiss correspondent, to film a story about a local shaman and her rite of passage. We flew to Ulan-Ude and stayed at the hotel Praga which is very close to the shamans who were happy to accept us in their big shaman family for the next 3 days.
For Buryat shamans the rite of passage lasts for 3 days during which the shaman who takes the rite of passage is helped by around 20 people. These people are mainly their relatives and other shamans who help them to go through this important event in their life.
During the whole summer shamans get into the process of the rituals, one shaman after another take the rite of passage to rise to the next level of shaman hierarchy.
The first day is devoted to preparations. We were really impressed how much care for detail is taken into consideration and how carefully they treat each step. The shamans with their families and friends decorate birch trees that they bring from the forest with red and blue ribbons and then replant them in the ground as later they will circle around the trees and get into a trance. One tree should be big and stable enough for the shaman to climb up it when they get into this trance state of mind.
The next two days while the shaman we were following was getting into a trance many times, other people were constantly singing to help her reach this state of mind. When this happens the shaman starts talking with their ancestral spirit. The tribal music stayed with us for the rest of the trip and in my memory it was the most interesting experience that we shared with this community and feel honoured to have been allowed so close to this very personal event.
After the shamans we went to scout several locations and got to see two villages not far from Ulan-Ude where old believers (followers of old Russian Orthodox traditions) live according to information we found on the Internet. Although it turned out that they were not genuine old believers but something more like a promotion for tourists. The real old believers are very close knit community and don’t often communicate with people from the outside world.
We also visited Ivolginskiy dastan which is known to be the home for the last 7 years to Dashi-Dorzho Itigelov Lama, the chief figure of Russian Buddhism before the October Revolution in 1917. After being buried for decades, his body was exhumed, only to find that there were no signs of decay at all. Now he is worshipped as a saint, 7 times a year on special days Buddhists come to see how the incorruptible body of Hambo Lama Itigilov in lotus position in the cedar casket is taken out of the temple.
In August we came back to Olchon, a place known for its shaman rock and spirituality.
This time we flew to Irkutsk. The road to Olchon takes 4-5 hours from Irkutsk to the ferry and then 40 minutes by a local car. This is where you should be ready for a very bumpy stretch of road. There is a lot of talk about road construction in this part (from ferry to Huzhir) so maybe next year it will be much better.
This time there were more tourists on the ferry and the water of Baikal seemed to have changed colour. When we were leaving this place (on the 24th of August) it felt like mid-autumn, mainly because of the strong wind and the grey colour of the lake.
The most touristic season at the lake is considered to be from 20th of June until 20th of August. Then the weather can change very suddenly and the temperature can drop up to 0, -1C in the end of August.
We had two main stories to film at the island Olchon. One was about a Buddhist who came to the island for the summer to enjoy living the simple life and to do stand-up paddling. He showed to us the beauty of Baikal from the water. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to try it overserves but we did experience that very unique and peaceful feeling of the lake that he was talking about, when we were on the boat to get the shots of a very happy Victor on water.
We went by jeep to the bay from where we could see the white silhouette of the Buddhist stupa on the island Ogoy. From there Victor and his two friends reached the island on their boards in about 30 minutes and we climbed to the highest point of the island. The Buddhist Stupa of Enlightenment was built in the summer of 2005 with the initiative of the Moscow Buddhist centre.
Besides Olchon, we experienced a wild Baikal when we went to Onguren to film the story about a priest. The way to Onguren took us the whole day. The road stretched through the massive rocks and deep roots of trees, with deep forest on one side and the lake on another side. At times the scenery reminded a dry and dusty red planet like Mars.
We made really good contacts at Olchon and it was a little bit sad to leave this beautiful, peaceful and very special place in Russia.
Tips for visiting Olchon, Baikal
- Usually there are 3 ferries that take cars and people every 20 minutes but during the hot summer season (20 June – 20 August) it becomes really busy and cars get into long queues. We didn’t experience this ourselves but we were told that if it’s so busy, it’s better to leave your car by the ferry and swap to another car on the island to avoid a long wait.
- The wind is really strong at lake Baikal and it feels colder than you expect. So a wind proof coat, warm jumper and a hat will be very welcome. Also make sure you have sun cream and cover your shoulders as you can get burnt very quickly.
- In some remote areas (like Onguren) there is no electricity. They have solar batteries and give electricity only for 5 hours a day which is sometimes not stable so better to take extra batteries with you.
- We stayed at the homestead of Nikita and found it was a perfect location (reachable from everywhere) and with their breakfasts and dinners in the canteen it was very convenient before and after the shoot.
- There are a few places in Huzhir where they make fresh coffee: Bistro at Homestead Nikita, Art café (Pushkinskaya street), and hotel Baikal view and café from their brand on the hill.
- Some areas are national parks and you need a permit to visit (a small fee you need to pay in advance). Each region has its forest district who you can apply for the permit. Or you can send your details to the touristic company in Irkutsk, for example to this: firstname.lastname@example.org