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Blue. A beautiful, bountiful and breathtaking blue. It bowled me over, overwhelmed and humbled me.
Tranquil Lake Baikal is where dreams are made. I wanted to cry for joy as I watched the gentle wind making ripples, like someone painting strips of light blue onto the surface of the water.
I had traversed seven cities to get here. The idea of going to Russia had been so remote in my mind; for years, Malaysians could not visit the country. And now, here I am in Siberia, where in my mind’s eye, people were once sent to the gulag for defying the state. But far from a frozen tundra, I find here a sunny beach.
Lake Baikal is a Unesco World Heritage Site. The 25-million-year-old lake measures 31,500 sq km and at a depth of 1,700m, it is the deepest lake in the world.
In winter, the ice is 1km thick and people can drive across the lake. The WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature) estimates that the lake is home to 2,500 species of known plants and animals, including 1,500 endemic species. An abundance of reeds and sponges act as a filter for bacteria, making the water crystal clear.
Olkhon Island is the best place to enjoy this vista. Most tourists head to Listvyanka, an hour-and-a-half away from Irkutsk. Only diehard travellers like me would endure the bumpy six-hour journey on dirt roads by minibus and ferry to reap this reward of tranquillity.
Barely 24 hours before, I was reeling from the hostility of a bunch of unpleasant middle-aged Russian women at the tail end of my delightful three-night Trans-Siberian rail journey.
My taxi driver met me on the platform in Irkutsk at 9pm, arranged by Irkut Hotel at my behest, as I did not want to lug my heavy bags around in uncharted waters in the dark.
At 700 ruble (RM55) for what was a mere 10-minute journey, I knew I was being ripped off. I would not even pay this much in London. The same hotel sold me a return ticket for a six-hour, 250km journey to Olkhon Island for a mere 900 ruble (RM70).
As soon as I got to my room, I rang the number that my Trans-Siberian friend Stephanie Khoueri had given me, and booked a room in Nikita Bencharov Homestead. Tired and hungry, I rummaged through my luggage to find that I had no instant noodles left. I settled for coffee and some biscuits, barely awake to pack my bag for Olkhon Island.
In the van, I made friends with two Chinese girls, Yang Dan Rong and Nancy Cui, who were also going to Nikita’s. We talked about the couple, Nikita and Natalia Bencharov who owned the accommodation and wondered how they could be a couple when they were both women. Wasn’t Nikita the name of a female spy on TV? And there was that song Nikita by Elton John about a woman.
The homestead in Khuzhir village is a collection of wooden structures all gaily decorated, with a twist of Arabian Nights to it. I checked into my room and headed to the Bistro Francais for a bite. A middle-aged man was behind me, talking in French to a young woman.
“Mademoiselle,” he called out a few times. There was nobody else in the bistro. Eventually, I turned around. He introduced himself as Nikita.
My jaw dropped. “I thought Nikita was a woman’s name,” I said. Travel broadens the mind, they say, and I had to come halfway around the world to find out that Nikita is a man’s name.
Olkhon Island, with an area of 730 sq km, is mainly taiga (pine) forest and only has a population of 1,500 Buryat people. Shamanism is widely practised here, and you can find many shaman totems and trees decorated with colourful ribbons throughout the island.
Olkhon Island pioneer
The development of the island as a tourist attraction is largely due to the pioneering work of Bencharov. The 55-year-old former national table-tennis champion came to the island for a two-week holiday, 20 years ago – and ended up staying.
He was offered a job working with the local children on a community project and coaching table tennis. After perestroika in 1985 and foreigners started visiting, he was roped in as an interpreter and hosted a Korean businessman. A French journalist who stayed with him asked if he could bring his family the next year and pay to stay with him. And that was how the idea for the homestead developed.
Today, he and his wife Natalia provide accommodation for up to 100 people here. The homestead is the only hotel with its own tap water piped in from Lake Baikal. Bencharov is not keen to expand so that he can maintain the quality of his service. It sees 15 different nationalities staying there each day in summer.
Nikita Bencharov Homestead is also actively involved in an ecology project to protect the environment. Apart from planting trees and grass on the barren ground around the lake, the staff keep the beach clean.
His pet project is an exchange programme at the local music school. It enables the children to travel and perform all over the world. They have performed in Germany, France, South Korea, Mongolia and Indonesia. Bencharov is keen to extend the programme to Malaysia and other Asean countries.
The homestead also organises excursions to different parts of the island and helps walkers and fell (hill/mountain) runners with maps. Staff members, like Rene Khamitor, Stanislav Brusugul and Ivan Varushin, also double as guides and help develop new trails for walkers.
An excursion in the 4×4 UAZ (Ulyanovsky Avtomobilny Zavod) vehicles used by the Russian military is a must, if only for the experience of a rocky ride on hilly dirt tracks. I took the trip to the northern coast of the island, which included an al fresco lunch cooked by the driver. There were several different nationalities in our group. Over a simple lunch of fish soup, bread and tea, we talked politics and poked fun at one another, united by a common language – English.
On one of my walks, I met a young couple, who have set up a company developing cycle facilities in Irkutsk. Irina Iftody and Grigory Skarchenko were keen to practise their English so we walked to the village for tea. Khuzhir is so small that the streets are just dirt tracks, with no street names. Mongolian yurts are used as shops, and one caravan, as an Internet café. There was no ATM in the village and the café we found did not accept cards so they ended up giving me a treat.
We went to the post office, run by a typical unsmiling Russian from the bygone Soviet era. Tired of seeing so many dour, middle-aged women, I decided to say the magic words, “I love you” in Russian. I hoped it would elicit a smile. Barely moving her lips, she said she loved me too. Once outside, the young couple and I burst out laughing.
Lake Baikal has certainly been the best stop on my rail odyssey, so far. After three blissful days, it was with a heavy heart that I left Olkhon Island for Irkutsk where I would board the Trans-Siberian train to Ulan Bataar in Mongolia.
Find out in a fortnight, what happens next to our traveller.