an extra five years of life
“Transfer to Olkhon Island with English-speaking guide and driver. Lada Resort Hotel in the settlement of Khuzhir. Walk to Burkhan Cape for sunset.”
It was the last place on earth I expected to find an Irish pub. Harat’s Pub sits in complete anachronistic perfection along the dusty highway that leads to the village of Sakhyurta, where a ferry crosses the narrow channel to Olkhon Island. It was the final frontier, the John O’Groats of Irkutsk Oblast. The pub itself was as anomalous as it is possible to be. Its manager was an enthusiastic Anglophile from Kyrgistan. His only other customer was a sozzled Buryat wandering in and out of the bar as though looking for something he’d misplaced or someone to buy him a drink.
The landing stage of Sakhyurta was beautiful in its simplicity. There was no concrete, no lights, no ticket barriers. There was nothing that had not been there since time immemorial. Baikal bathes in mystery, but no part of the lake is home to more myths and legends than Olkhon island. For centuries, Olkhon has been regarded as the centre of shamanism in the northern hemisphere. Due to its inaccessibility, it was the last stronghold of the North Asian shamans who fled here when Buddhism spread in Buryatia.
Everything was constructed from wooden planks – the landing quay, the walkway. We had driven for three hours through the steppes to get to the ferry. Hilly country surrounds Irkutsk. Just beyond the city are broad low pastures where, near the banks of the Angara, herds of horse and cattle feed. Further along, the land was less clearly inhabited. We passed shamanic altars by the road. Every locality has its own spirits, ancestors who have not moved far from their descendants. We stopped at each one to pay our respects. For the driver this meant leaving a cigarette in exchange for safe passage. Anatoly was a direct descendant of one of the Cossacks who came to Baikal under Yakob Pokhabov. On 6th July 1661 Pokhabov, the son of a boyar, made a dispatch about the foundation of Irkutsk. This date is considered as the date of the city’s foundation. So my fanciful presentiments had come true. A taciturn and conservative man, as one would expect of a Cossack, Anatoly was driving me across the steppe towards a satellite state of Tsarist Russia. He was surprisingly quick to humble himself before pagan shrines but his interest was pragmatic. Any notion of sensitivity was foreign to him. The bright colour that enlivened a part of the steppe, the deeper shade that darkened another part – all this meant nothing to him. His only thought was for the number of kilometres he needed to cover in order to reach the ferry on time. For me, obeisance at these shrines meant sprinkling mineral water, in the place of milk or vodka, north, south, east and west. I tried to invest meaning in each act but really I could only wonder what it would be like to believe.
I hoped a shaman would make me believe. The shaman is a middle man, a Mr Fix-it. He is an ecstatic, a soul-projector, a spirit-master; I was determined to meet one.
The cult of obo, holy places of power, is one of the most visible manifestations of Buryat shamanism left. At each obo there was a staging-post for basic amenities. I got out to feel the earth under my feet at each one. I longed to tramp into the distance and lose myself as I did in the exotic vastness of Hotel Angara. The wind-blasted treeless yellow moonscape received my tread in a sponge of thistles, herbs and pulses. The season switched from golden summer to silver rain and I was sorry because I knew I would soon have to leave land through which you can walk to China.
In earlier times these stopping-off points were known as the narodni dom, or “people’s houses” in which travellers could find a room and a samovar. In Russia, tea is the best drink of the country, and the most refreshing tea in the world. We supped on borscht and pelmeni in a yurt-shaped restaurant. But no one smiles here. Is it because of the land It is level or slightly rolling, and is exposed at every point of the compass, open to winds from from all directions, so that whenever the air moves the inhabitants feel it. Some distance from the highway there is taiga. In the foreground are scrubby meadows and pastures. It is cheerless and monotous but to my mind the steppe is as lovely as the forest.
My guide was a young woman with Asiatic cheekbones and almond eyes. Alina was training to be a yoga instructor and was looking for a husband. She wanted a sensitive man, she told me, not a Siberian.
“Siberian men drink beer, smoke and tell rude jokes,” she said. “They’re not interested in personal growth.”
Alina had spent some time in California sofa-surfing with Russian emigres and checking out the hot Vinyasa gurus. She wanted a modern man, a metro sexual. At the same time she believed a wife must follow her husband.
“I’m not a churchgoer but it’s what we are told in the Orthodox church.”
She looked straight ahead as she told me this, unaware of the inconsistencies in her desires. As was I.
“The main places on Olkhon island, that you will not miss, are Khuzhir— the main village, about 20 km from the ferry, Cape Burkhan — a sacred place on the shore of Baikal lake, and the beach which is about four km from Khuzhir.”
On board the ferry was quite cramped as there were several cars and a post van delivering mail to the islanders. We reached Olkhon after a 15-minute crossing. We then drove north for an hour or so and reached Khuzhir, the island’s main settlement with a population of around 1,500. It is straggling and unappealing, saturated with resignation and loneliness.
I walked through a haphazard constellation of clapboard houses and did not stop walking until I had reached the sandy beach and shed my clothes and was swimming in Lake Baikal. At its core, shamanism is about spiritual healing through union with nature. I have felt it on the Grand Union Canal and on the plains of Wormwood Scrubs. I felt my place on this planet magnified into awe and submission whilst swimming in Lake Baikal.
“The Buryats say you get an extra five years of life for swimming in the lake,” said Alina.
I am still floating. The evening air begins to cool, I imagine what life here is like when winter sets in; when a dense fog falls over the lake and the water freezes metres thick. Legend has it that the shapes of horsemen can be seen gallopping through the mist. These days local newspapers report on visions that suddenly appear out of nowhere; villages hanging over the water, trains rolling silently across the ice, castles and ships materialising in the distance. For now the sun is high and the sky is blue and the water is cool and transparent. I feel the rocks beneath my feet and the silkiness of water that was once the purest on the planet. I am content to leave these thoughts of ice-bound mirages to future pondering, but I wonder for how long. I’ve only just got here and Olkhon is already calling me back.
On the tourist trail, Alina proves as dogged as her counterpart in Irkutsk. She even hands me a fact-sheet for Lake Baikal that, I suspect, is designed for children. I put it in my rucksack and promise to read it later - she sighs at her dilatory pupil, and continues to lead me up the rocky path regaling me with so many myths, statistics and legends I can hardly keep up. Worse, I cannot make space for my own responses to this astonishing landscape.
I indicate I need some time alone and Alina recedes into the background. But I continue to try to figure her out. Her voice is ringing in my head – disingenuous in its gentleness, because she has an unbending will to be heard. I must relocate my own voice and figure out what it is I want to say. I cannot find a rapport with her and it’s affecting my ability to enjoy my surroundings. It’s as embarassingly simple as that.
When I resurface from the conundrum of Alina we continue trudging towards Cape Burkhan. She tells me more “interesting stories”. Azhin, the Lord of the Lake, is said to live in a cave here. The cave is an opening in the ridge between two mountainous rocks that are jagged as fangs. The swirl of water that nestles between them is intoxicating. Everything is the perfect expression of itself. Rock, water, shoreline, sky, tectonic plate. The two marble rocks of Burkhan, linked by the depression that houses the cave, are festooned with red lichen picking out the whiteness of the marble. The tops of the jagged teeth make a polite bow towards the Primorskiy mountain range across the lake, as if seeking protection from gorny, the most impetuous of Baikal’s winds. The cave is in fact a hole burnt through the Burkhan by Gorny. It is tall enough to contain the lord of Olkhon, it is wide enough to host the lamas who used the cave as a Buddhist sanctuary. It is large enough, even, to hold the grave of Chingis Khan.
The Buryats say that meetings are held here once a year by the spirits of Baikal, who come to pay tribute to Azhin. Others believe that tribute must be paid to Chinghis. Travellers in the 1800s noted that the locals would not ride past the cape in carriages, only on horseback. Even then, the horses’ hooves would be covered in felt in order not to disturb the cave’s inhabitants.
I am standing over the Maloye More, the Small Sea Strait that separates Olkhon from the mainland. Olkhon is the result of millions of years of tectonic movement resulting in the hollowing of this channel. Behind me is Khuzhir and to the right the thick pine forests that stretch across the eastern part of the island. I spend a while dutifully listening to Alina’s soundtrack and then start climbing, trying to dodge her.
I get there. I get to the top and find silence and a view, like the one from the beach at Khuzhir and the pier at Listvyanka. It offers a vanishing point that I’ve only previously seen in the open roads of American cinema. Now this sky is all around me. My foot is on the gas and the final destination in my sights. It is as though I am standing at the bottom of the thick edge of a wedge and the sky above is slanting downwards and the sea beneath my feet is rising upwards. The horizon is the interval where they meet.
Cape Burkhan has attracted the attention not only of Russian, but also foreign, archaeologists. In 1975 a joint Soviet-American expedition was undertaken. One of the results of which was the hypothesis that the indigenous peoples of North America have Asian origins. Speaking of which, I came across a group of Chinese tourists who had set up camp for the evening on the cliffs not far from where 13 prayer poles had been erected on the headland facing Cape Burkhan. The totem poles were covered in brightly colored ribbons, which flapped in the wind. I would discover their significance on the next leg.