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: email@example.com
Oymyakon is known by another title ‘The Pole of Cold’. This is because in 1924 it recorded its lowest temperature (-71,2C) making it the coldest inhabited place on earth.
Initially, we were planning to make this trip in late December into January, but after a lot of research of the area we decided to move the journey until March when the days are longer and the roads are safer.
The safest time to go through the river on the ice road is from the second week of December up until the end of March. Everybody in Yakutsk told us it had been warmer than the year before, and the temperature hadn’t drop below -60C for the last 20-30 years which proves that it has some global warming issues.
George Kourounis, the host of the program “Angry Planet”, a Canadian adventurer and storm chaser, had Oymyakon on his list of the most spectacular places to visit and we were happy to organise and assist the Canadian crew in this exciting adventure (note: Alyona Pimanova worked as fixer on this trip with Dan Smith supporting from the Moscow office).
To reach Oymyakon we had to cross the river Lena, the 10th longest river in the world, then to drive 8-10 hours to Khandyga followed by another 12 hour drive to get to Oymyakon. The road is a picturesque mountain highway which spiral past the most remarkable turquoise colored rivers. It is narrow with a shear drop on one side, and when you get really high it makes the heart soar. Trucks fallen over the edge is not an uncommon sight. Normally, it is a two day drive to Oymyakon from the city of Yakutsk but our crew had to get to another village of reindeer herders first, known as Topolinoe, where there are some remains of Gulag camps on the way.
The camps are 100 kilometers away from Khandyga on the way to Oymyakon, and then another 200 km after the turn to Topolinoe (in a Northern direction away from the main road). Depending on weather conditions, the journey can take between 5 to 15 hours. The local driver will never tell you exactly how long the journey will be, as the road is very unpredictable. Lots of trucks run from Yakutsk to the North with food and construction materials as long as the road is iced, which is why it is quite a busy road. Our journey did take us the full 15 hours due to getting stuck several times on the road which is only one lane wide, and made more difficult by the snowfall the day before, as well as having to pull over to avoid trucks coming towards us.
In such unpredictable weather and road conditions it is recommended to travel with two vehicles (It is very likely you will get stuck and the second vehicle can pull the other out). Although people you meet on the road are always very willing to help you in case you need it. But when it is -40C and dropping, when you get stuck every minute of waiting seems like a life time.
We were instructed by the Federal Rescue Service in Yakutsk to check in with them by satellite phone every evening when we reached each designated location where we would stay for the night. If we didn’t call them, that would be a signal to launch a search and rescue.
There is no mobile connection on the road to Oymyakon, only when you get to the village locations. So check with local drivers if they have satellite phones or bring one with you. When you get to the location, it is also important to know that not all mobile companies work in all settlements. If you are going to buy a local sim-card, it should be of the mobile company “Beeline”. It is the only mobile company that works in settlements such as Topolinoe, Oymyakon and Uchugey.
ROAD OF BONES
(Russian Federal Highway M56, also called “Kolyma” or “Kolyma Route”) is built upon permafrost between Yakutsk and Magadan which is 2032 kilometers, 1197 km on Yakutsk territory, 835 on Magadan. When gold and platinum were discovered in the Kolyma region in 1927-1932, one of Stalin’s projects was the construction of the main mountain road through the Olchan passes. They built 80 separate Gulag camps in the Kolyma region using hundreds of thousands of prisoners over the years to build the highway. The road of bones was built almost entirely by hand in the harsh conditions and workers who died there were buried where they fell which is how the road got its name.
In Khandyga there is a museum of the Gulag Camps, but recently the owner of the museum moved to another city and the museum is no longer open. Instead there is the museum of Magadan TRASSA (road) in Teply Kluch (70 km away from Khandyga in direction to Oymyakon). Zinaida Viktorovna, the director of the museum, and Maria Mukhailovna, keep the photographs and the memoirs of many prisoners. Locals don’t like to remember or talk about the time of the Gulag, but when they do open up and talk about it it is even more horrific than you imagine.
After meeting with these ladies we continued our journey to Oymyakon. There is only one café on the way in Kubume (the so called CAFÉ) with homemade pies, borsh (Russian soup) and plov with reindeer meet. This was a beautiful surprise after many hours of bouncing around in the minivan on the bumpy road. Driving through the Olchan mountain pass was not as scary as on the way to Topolinoe, because the road has barriers to help protect vehicles falling, but even with these barriers you still come across trucks which have gone over the edge. Our driver took this part of the journey very carefully.
When we finally arrived in Oymyakon at midnight, our host Tamara Egorovna was waiting for us. The stove was warm and table was spread for dinner awaiting our arrival.
Note: Oymyakon used to be an administrative center and regional capital of the Oymyakon region (so called Ulus in Yakutia language) in the East of Yakutia. The region (ulus) consists of 7 urban type settlements, including Oymyakon, Tomtor, Ust-Nera, Uchugey. But in 1954 Ust-Nera became the administrative center and the leaders of the region moved there from Oymyakon.
Next morning it felt so much colder than in all other villages where we had stopped before, and when we checked the temperature, it showed -39C. The sun was very bright that it was impossible to stay outside without sunglasses. No wind but hard frost under the feet and very quiet. A silence which wraps itself around you.
After having been blessed by the spirit of fire (Yakut people believe in spirits and have a tradition of purification when the guests come to their ground), accompanied by the performance of their national instruments and throat singing, we visited the well-known site of the ‘Pole of cold’.
OYMYAKON OR VERHOYANSK
Tamara Egorovna, our host has been struggling for many years to fully have the title of Pole of Cold, which she is convinced should be given to Oymyakon, not to Verhoyansk (these two villages have arguing for the title for many years). Tamara has written several books with arguments proving that their village of Oymyakon deserves this title.
There is a village of reindeer herders called Uchugey which is not far from Oymyakon. Reindeer herders live there in small houses and have their pasture several kilometers away. When we came to see them, their reindeer were in pastures 8 kilometers away, so it took us an hour on a sledge pulled by reindeer to reach the pastures. It isn’t the most comfortable way to travel as it is very bumpy and the icy wind bites any exposed skin. That and you can often fall off the sledge into the deep snow, but that said it was the most amazing and memorable ride, seeing the beauty of nature and the snow glittered in the sun, as well as breathing the air which feels so clean and fresh.
The Evenki (Eveny – reindeer herders in that area) when tending their reindeer live in tents made of a simple fabric. They make a fire in the tent, put benches on the ground where you can sit or sleep. Some of the crew stayed in the tent for the night with the Evenki, but three of us returned to the village by snowmobile where we had a quiet night in a warm house.
When it is below -20C, the vehicle should be put in a warm garage for the night, which we did in all places we stayed. But in Uchugey it was not possible and our vehicle had to stay all night with its engine running so not to freeze up.
In the city of Yakutsk we stayed in a very nice hotel the ‘Polar Star’ which is in a good location and has very friendly staff and great breakfasts which are essential for film crews who spend most of the day filming outside.
In all other locations/villages there are no hotels, but homestays instead. Because of the Festival “Pole of cold” which takes place in Tomtor and Oymyakon in the middle of March (this year it was on the 22 of March) we had to book rooms months in advance.
Here is a short ‘behind the scenes’ (mostly all the funny moments and memories of this wonderful trip)