Olkhon Island Guide
If you have at least 4-5 nights for your Lake Baikal tour we would suggest to start your trip with sightseeing of Irkutsk and Listvyanka for a couple of days and then to head off for some remote location at Baikal to enjoy splendid landscapes and natural beauty of the lake that can be found only in the wilderness. Many tourists continue with their journey to Olkhon which is the largest and the only populated island at Lake Baikal. This is a great choice if you want to discover a bit more of Baikal outside of developed tourist centers.
For many centuries Olkhon used to be a sacral center for Buryat people who lived in this area and practiced Shamanism as their major religion. Olkhon Island is renowned for a variety of landscapes from the vast steppe and even a small desert at the south to the dense taiga forest growing on steep maintain slopes of the north-eastern coast. Besides the area’s ethnographical value and picturesque natural sights, Olkhon Island separating the shallow warm waters of Maloye Morye (Small Sea) strait from Baikal main waterbody has became a very popular recreation area which attracts large numbers of leisure tourists in the summer. You can enjoy nice sand beaches located in a short walk from hotels while we can organize trips to unpopulated north and east of the island for some beautiful views to the vast expanse of turquoise Baikal water seen from the rocky capes.
Distance from Irkutsk to the village of Khuzhir which is an administrative center and the biggest settlement at Olkhon Island is about 300 km (188 mi). It takes some 6-8 hours to get there. Time spent on the way highly depends on the line at a ferry from the mainland to the island. On summer weekends it may take several hours to board the ferry that carries only 13-15 cars at a time. Since it requires almost a whole day to travel to there and another day to return to Irkutsk, it is probably reasonable to stay at least a couple of nights at the island.
There aren’t any regular multi-storey hotels at the island at all. You should rather expect log cabin and guesthouse type of accommodation. Most of these are rather basic countryside properties. Be prepared for much less comfort here then, for instance, in Irkutsk or Listvyanka hotels. Olkhon Island is a remote rural area with no central water supply and sewage systems. Power line has been pulled to the island only some 5 years ago. Before that locals enjoyed only diesel generators. So, it is probably true to say that the most typical accommodations at Olkhon would not have any regular amenities at all.
However, there are still some lodges found in Khuzhir that have real showers and flushing toilets either in rooms or shared ones on the floor or in a separate building. Such properties pump water from private boreholes and use septic tanks for waste disposal. Only few accommodations in Khuzhir settlement offer private amenities in rooms. So, property owners charge superior rates for that. Since number of these lodgings and rooms are very limited they are also sold out in advance. Among such options we can suggest Camping-Hotel Olkhon (USD 150 per night per DBL/TWIN room with HB meals), Lada’s Lodge (USD 190) or Mini-Hotel Baikal (USD 165). Breakfasts and dinners are included into the room rate which is normally fine since there are no restaurants in Khuzhir settlement to dine out.
For our most favorite accommodation we always advise Nikita’s Guesthouse which is a family-run business that has been specializing at hosting guests from all over the globe for many years. This is the most typical choice for foreign travelers and especially backpackers. Guesthouse provides accommodation in log huts heated in the most traditional Russian way by burning chopped wood in stoves. Lodging is rather basic, but yet with a very good service. Most of their rooms have one chemical toilet per two rooms, shared shower facilities on site and Russian banyas (steam saunas) available for guests free of charge on everyday basis (upon prior reservation). Room rate is USD 50 per person in DBL/TWIN room. It includes full-board homemade meals made of local products - vegetables, diaries and certainly Baikal fish. Hosts can cook an incredible variety of dishes from the famous Baikal omul fish. See Nikita's Guesthouse page
There is a wide range of other accommodation options in Khuzhir settlement from cheap beds for rent at homestays (these come with pit toilet and wash-hand stand outside) to quite good log cabin type of guesthouses that normally have regular bathrooms, but shared ones in a separate building on site.
Transport to Olkhon
There are different means of transportation to Olkhon Island. Permanent road connects Irkutsk to the small village of Sakhyurta (also known as MRS) located at the mainland across the strait from the very southern tip of Olkhon Island. Ferry which carries cars, coaches as well as passengers commutes from here to the small pier on Zagly bay at the island. It operates from May 15 till December 15. In the summer public ferry runs from the early morning till late night. However, the ferryboat takes only 13-15 cars on board, and thus, there can be a huge line of car campers especially on Fridays nights on the way to Olkhon and on Sundays on the way back to Irkutsk.
In the winter from January till March when Baikal ice gets thick enough to support the weight of vehicles temporary ice road substitutes commuting ferry to Olkhon. However, there are still periods of time when the island can not be accessed other than on private boats or small hovercrafts. This happens during late fall and in December when storms with strong winds are quite frequent and during the spring before the ice completely thaws out.
Public coach departs from Irkutsk intercity bus station to Khuzhir settlement at Olkhon Island. We also have a few private transport companies that operate regular minibus service to Khuzhir. During peak tourist season minibuses depart several times a day from different locations in Irkutsk. This service can be booked and paid in advance through a travel agency. We also operate our own minibus service from Irkutsk to Olkhon Island. Read more about bus service to Olkhon. Public buses as well as transport belonging to local citizens from Khuzhir do not have to wait in the line to board the ferry. For this reason it is often faster to get to Khuzhir by pubic transport rather than by a private car.
Though, we still often arrange private transfers from Irkutsk to Olkhon Island for people who prefer to travel with more comfort or carry oversized baggage (e.g. for tent camping), or maybe arrive to Irkutsk in the afternoon and do not plan to spend overnight in the city while all regular buses depart in the morning. In order to save time we often bring our clients till the ferry pier with one vehicle while a different car is waiting for them at the island to continue further north to Khuzhir for another 35 km (22 mi).
Hydrofoil Boat Service
In the peak summer season from July and till mid-August there is a regular ferry boat connection from Irkutsk to Olkhon Island. This can be a nice and enjoyable alternative to the long and quite exhausting bus ride. Besides, taking a hydrofoil to Olkhon instead of a ground transfer may leave you with a very different impression of Lake Baikal that one may get only when observing the lake shoreline from the water.
Ferry boat departing from Irkutsk to Ust-Barguzin once a week stops at Sakhyurta village which is at the mainland next to the island and then continues to Khuzhir settlement on the island itself before heading off further to the east coast of Lake Baikal. This route is the only direct regular water link between Irkutsk and Khuzhir settlement. Another hydrofoil boat stops at the very southern tip of Olkhon Island on its way to NizhneAngarsk. Hydrofoil arrives to the area called Zagly Bay from where frequent car ferry commutes to the mainland while Khuzhir settlement is further north about 35 km (22 mi). If this one better suits your travel dates we can organize a ground transfer from there to Khuzhir settlement by locals' transport.
Excursions and Sightseeing
When staying in Khuzhir you can tour the village to see Local Lore museum with an exposition devoted to the nature and ethnography of the island. Some artifacts of Chingis Khan warriors are exhibited here. Famous Burkhan Cape with Shaman Crag which is a sacral place for all Shamanist believers is located in a short walk from Khuzhir. It is one of the most well-known sights at Lake Baikal that can be found on many postcards and picture albums. Natives believed that Burkhan, a religious cult figure, lived in the cave at this rock. Legends say that horseback riders used to dismount their horses when passing near the crag and walked here by foot so that clatter of horses hoofs would not wake evil spirits. More about Shaman Crag
Nice sand beach is found north of the Shaman Crag. The bay is quite shallow, so in the summer when it stays nice and sunny for several weeks in a row water can get warm enough to swim. Some years it may reach the temperature of 25 C (77 F). Though, this place is usually very overcrowded due to a large number of car campers from Irkutsk. You can easily walk to these sights or take a ride around the area on rented mountain bike or scooter motorcycle. For the latter please note that dirt roads at Olkhon are very poor so you would probably find a long distance motor bike ride rather exhausting.
Most of Olkhon lodges offer a half-day excursion to the Khoboi Cape at Olkhon’s very northern tip. This is a shared excursion with a group of 8-10 people per one off-road vehicle (Russian military jeep "UAZ"). En-route you will visit many picturesque places of Olkhon Island including steep cliffs that plunge down into Baikal abyss, abandoned village with Soviet-time prison as well as wide sand beaches at the shallow bays and the endless steppes. More about Cape Khoboi
We normally advise to order this excursion once at the lodge since it is cheaper to join a group than to take an individual tour for 2 or 3 people. However, we can always arrange the excursion in advance if you already have a group large enough to reduce per person cost of a vehicle rent. As a whole, trip to Khoboi cape is a perfect way to spend a day at the island. Khuzhir itself which is a home for virtually all the island’s population is somewhat ruined by chaotic development of numerous log huts while absolutely unpopulated northern part of the island has been mostly kept untouched by humans. This trip is a good chance to actually see the nature, landscapes and beautiful scenes of Lake Baikal at the wilderness.
Visit to Buryat ethnographic village can be an interesting cultural insight into lifestyle and traditions of local population that used to live at Olkhon Island. Those are a couple of traditional Buryat yurts (nomad gers) that form sort of an open-air museum in a neighborhood not far from Khuzhir settlement. Hosts dressed in traditional costumes will welcome you in a ger and show the traditions, way of life, arts and crafts Buryat people.