Friday 13th (April 2012). I am in the van living out my dream of driving on the frozen Lake Baikal. Sergey, the driver, is concentrating hard so as not to fall into the cracks in the ice. A crevasse right ahead! To avoid falling in, Sergey steers sharply to the left and the van starts sliding. It’s so slippery! In the van next to me is an engine soaked in grease and artists’ canvases piled up to the roof. We get around the danger and arrive at Khuzhir. What a relief! Once we are in the village I hear that two vehicles have sunk today…
During the dark Stalinist period exiles from all over the USSR were put to work in a fish processing factory. This house is the last remaining trace of the gulag village.
Horses that used to be wild, indomitable, are now semi-tame; they still live free but under their owners’ control.
The female Buryat Shaman is ready for the ceremony. She will soon be in a trance, beating her drum for hours, communicating with the ancestors' spirits.
The Shaman’s Rock (also called Burkhan) has been worshipped by the Buryat people from time immemorial. Ugutenoion, the most feared god in Baikal, shelters in a cave in the rock. Nowadays still, shamans gather there to offer up gifts and carry out rituals. The Shaman’s Rock has become the emblem of Olkhon. There are pictures of it on post-cards. As it is situated on the coast of Khuzhir, tourists never miss an opportunity to take pictures of its very distinctive shape against the sunset.
The Small Sea and the Great Sea join together north of the Island of Olkhon, at Cape Khoboi. This is the not-to-be-missed spot which attracts crowds in high season. In winter, tourists can only admire the cliffs and the immensity of Baikal from down below on the frozen lake where the excursions take place.
At the beginning of October the forest is carpeted with larch needles. One week later early winter snow already covers the autumn landscape. What a surprise! Preserved under the ice the autumn colours reappear in Spring when the thaw sets in.
The visitors find it difficult to keep their balance on the tangle of slippery, brittle slabs of rock. After three people have fallen they go on all fours sliding from slab to slab.
The Theophany is a Greek Orthodox ritual that is practised all over Russia in the depths of winter. The faithful celebrate Jesus’ baptism by diving into the icy water. In the port of Khuzhir, the pope and the men dig out the pack ice using chainsaws to construct an ice cross. After the Sunday morning liturgy the pope bids the parishioners to follow him to the port to carry out the Theophany ritual.
The participants mostly seem quite relaxed. One after the other unhesitatingly they climb down the ladders, totally immerse themselves while making the sign of the cross. It is a divine feeling. One’s body bubbles with life. One’s hair freezes in a couple of seconds in the open air. One’s skin feels softer than ever...
The waves freeze on the coastline. Well before the lake freezes, trees, beaches and rocks are thickly coated in ice.
The rocks are covered in a thick layer of ice in fantastical shapes. Out of view the moon is rising and lights up the scene.
“Yesterday, everything here was still and stable. We did not notice anything in particular. Today the crack moves so much that the water does not have time to freeze. As we were curious we went as near as possible to the fluid element, hoping the lake would ‘surge’. After about twenty minutes our waiting was rewarded: a growling seized us and we trembled from head to foot. Antoine backed away a couple of meters. And then, when we thought the crack would open further, it closed up. A huge block of ice right by my feet tilted over and slowly disappeared into the depths of the Lake. Then the tremor stopped, but our adrenaline rush stayed with us.”
Siberian fishermen also enjoy telling stories of miraculous catches and of oversized fish. In winter when it is -20°C the fishermen do not seem to notice the cold and sometimes stay out of doors for several days with only their van or vaguely heated tents for shelter.
The Buryats, like some other primary peoples, believe in shamanism. Settled around Lake Baikal they believe that the Olkhon island is a sacred place endowed with special energies. They implore their ancestors’ protection by tying coloured ribbons and by placing offerings of coins, cigarettes or vodka bottles -the vodka having been emptied onto the earth- onto the island’s peaks, headlands and rocks.
The nearly fifty-year-old bi-plane flies over Cape Khoboi. Each passenger in turn is allowed into the cockpit. The co-pilot is happy to open his window to let me take this photo.
Walking through the forest in Spring takes us from surprise to surprise. The azaleas remain in bloom for two weeks and treat us to a scene where plants and birds wake from their winter sleep.
The summit of the Island of Olkhon certainly does not look gigantic as it rises only 800 meters above the level of the lake Baikal. In fact Mont Jima is the tip of something like Everest, nearly 10,000 meters high, but buried under 1637 meters of water and 7 kilometres of sediment.
The weather-station of Uzury, the only inhabited place in the north and east of Olkhon, looks over the Great Sea. When heavy snowfall makes driving on land impossible, the inhabitants have to drive round the island on the ice of the frozen Great Sea.
The only species of freshwater seals in the world live in the Baikal. The Russians affectionately call them “nerpa”. This endemic animal is the symbol of the lake and its extraordinary ecosystem. It is capable of diving down to a depth of 200 meters and staying 45 to 60 minutes underwater to catch fish. It can devour up to 4 kilos of fish a day. When it has eaten enough the nerpa enjoys the sunshine on semi-immersed rocks. This species of seal has no natural predators and its population is rapidly increasing. In past times men hunted them from boats or hidden behind stone walls. I came across this small colony of nerpas one day when my curiosity sends me to the end of a path that supposedly leads to nowhere.
The fishermen zigzag amongst the shards of ice on board the old “Jiguli” whose tyres are completely worn down to the thread.
The Orthodox Easter: after the candle-lit procession the parishioners and priest enter the church singing “Christ is risen from the dead!” They go on singing Easter hymns for hours. Finally, an open-air banquet is served to put an end to seven weeks of Lenten fasting.