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xEurasia Odyssey

Irkutsk and Olkhon Island

RUSSIAN FEDERATION | Wednesday, 8 August 2018 | Views [186]

Shamanka Rock and Cape Burhan, Olkhon Island

Shamanka Rock and Cape Burhan, Olkhon Island

Exploring Northeast Asia– August 2018

Day 1 – Arrival, Outdoor Museum, Lake Baikal

I was luckily met by my travel companion, Paul,  and guide, Ivan,  at the Irkutsk airport after the arrival of my delayed flight from Moscow. The flight procedures had clearly demonstrated that I was once again in Asia and not in the West with the passengers complete disregard for queuing and fair line protocol; it was everyone for themselves in a huge push to get onto or off an airplane that wasn’t going to go anywhere until everyone was adequately accommodated. The urge, however, not to remain behind is strong and the subsequent elbowing, hipping, kneeing and generally shoving formed a mass with a parasitic life of its own.

Once on the road, however, this behavior did not appear to be standard practice – perhaps because cars are so expensive? Who knows… the road we were taking towards Lake Baikal was one that was built specifically for President Eisenhower’s intended visit, the one that Gary Powell’s downed airplane derailed.  While the meeting never materialized the road from Irkutsk to Listvyanka did, along with an accompanying hotel at the lakeside destination. The first part of the road has been refurbished as a split four-lane highway, but after about 20 km, the road reverts to the one from the 1950s. It takes about an hour to drive from the 1 Million + city to the mouth of the Angara River and Lake Baikal, which is the location of the village of Listvyanka, a delightful place with a beautiful wooden church, St. Nikolas, with a number of impressive icons, including those of the Holy Virgin Mother with child..

The day’s itinerary began well before the visitation to St. Nickolas, however; instead it began with a discussion of the world tree and of the purpose of religion and its effect on the population with a visit to the outdoor ethnological museum.

The museum is broken into housing/village units by era and religion.  The first thing I noticed was the elaborate carvings on the shutters of the wooden houses. The carvings followed the same pattern within the same structure, but were quite different based on village. Some of the early carvings were quite intricate and were symbols said to be hold overs from pre-Christian time, including one that had three balls with an arrow through them.  There are various meanings that could be attached to this sign, but the guide, Ivan, didn’t venture a guess as to what it might mean. One aspect of all the Christian houses that was similar throughout the different sections, was a small shrine in the upper right hand corner of the main room with images of God Father, Christ, Mary or particular saints. The figures were based on household preference, but the placement of the shine for daily worship was consistent. The one section of the outdoor museum that was non-Christian was the Buryat shamanic village direct on the Angara riverfront.  The main structure was an octagonal wooden building that was reminiscent of yurts. There was a large fire place in the center with the air hole directly above and the room was supported by four posts, two of which are male and two of which are female designating which side of the house which gender resides.  It appeared that the women were on the right side of the house.  I have no idea how the marital sleeping arrangements in these structures work. In the Christian houses, which all had a tile stove/‘Kachelofen’, the parents would sleep above the hearth for warmth. The children were often out of luck and seemed to get most of their heat from being huddled next to one another.  This in an area where the winter temperatures can dip to -55C and the entire lake and river freezes over.  Water had to be hauled by sled from the river as there were no wells. One village was dedicated to an administrator’s house; it had a jail behind it. All of the other houses and stalls were wooden structures, but the jail was built from stone as that makes it even colder. Cruelty can lie also

 in construction techniques. It was clearly an incredibly hard life regardless of a person’s status, the era or religion and from what we heard from the guide, it isn’t particularly easy in the winter now. 

From the museum we made our way to the mouth of the Angara River where she enters Lake Baikal.  This region was flooded when the hydroelectric dam was constructed in the 1950s. There is a large stone near the exact mouth of the river that is mostly underwater now.  There are a couple of versions of the legend of the rock, but both deal with a daughter disobeying her father’s wishes.  In one version Angara was in love with the Yenisei River, in the other she was in love with warrior Enisey, but in both cases her father, Baikal, wanted her to marry Irkut, a tributary of the river or a warrior by that name. She refused to follow her father’s wishes and ran away; her father was so mad that he threw a rock at her. In some versions it hit her, in others it missed, but the rock stayed and is now a quasi pilgrimage wishing site for locals who take boats out to Shamansky rock, place their hands on it to receive its power and offer coins to have their wishes fulfilled. Our boat captain had other things to offer us, namely a local Schnaps, called Samogoun, which warmed our bodies while the views warmed our souls.

The next stop on our journey was to walk along a stretch of the Circum-Baikal train tracks. This section was once part of the Trans-Siberian Railway, which Tsar Alexander III initiated. Since the dam this section now functions a few times a week as a tourist attraction.  The Circum-Baikal Railway does not go around the entire lake, but instead is only about 110 km on a section near the southern end.  The tracks were laid in the late 19th C with workers from a number of countries.  In this short stretch there are 40 tunnels, one of which is 778 meters long, and they were all made by hand as there is no way to haul equipment into the narrow stretch between the cliff face and the water’s edge. The walk was graced by carpets of wildflowers in multi-hued bloom. An occasional burning nettle reminded me that amid the beauty there is also potential danger.

It is the fishermen in the region who often face the greatest danger as the winds can without warning whip up waves with tremendous force. According to local lore, in the 19th C  merchant Ksenofont Sibiryakov was caught in one of Baikal’s storms and thought he was going to lose his ship and die; he prayed to St. Nickolas of Myra, the predecessor of Santa Claus and patron saint of seafarers for help.  He, his crew, and ship were saved and as thanks he built a church in the saint’s honor.  The original church was built in 1844 near where the current church is. It had to be moved due to the dam. Their work, however, provides the livelihood for much of the village of Listvyanka along with tourism.  The fishmarket there is famous and while rows of stalls sell fresh, smoked and baked fish, specializing in Omuls, a kind of salmon that is only found in Lake Baikal, there are also a number of rows of trinket sellers.  One of the most common items for sale were purple and blue colored polished stone jewelry from the region. Tourism is important and there is a small ski resort behind the town. In the summer a chairlift carries Chinese, Russian and other nationality tourists who don’t want to walk up to an observation platform from where one can see across the lake.  Wishing trees line the top with multi-colored pieces of cloth blowing in the wind. Each color is for a particular kind of wish, the most common was blue, which is for good health. For those who don’t want to walk down or ride the chairlift, there is the option to zipline with tremendous force through the mixed arbor taiga forest, braking with enough impact to warrant a bungee line backache.

The drive back to Irkutsk was uneventful as Ivan skillfully managed to avoid the free range cattle that regularly cross the highway. 


Day 2 – Irkutsk – Orhkan Island

We met our city guide, Julia, a recent linguistics graduate from the local university, in the morning for a short tour of the major sites in the central area.  Hotel Rus is located conveniently close to the river and the central square, so the tour went in a large circle/square around the hotel. We started with the Imperial Arch on the bank of the Angara; it is a modern reconstruction of an arch that once greeted all travelers to Irkutsk as they came by river. Trade was by boat during the summer, spring and fall and sled over the ice in the winter. The river and lake regularly freeze, except now by Shamansky Rock due to the dam. Irkutsk is one of the oldest cities in Russia. According to legend, Cossack Yakov Pokhabov founded an ostrog, fortress settlement, in 1661. He named it Yandashsky after a local prince, but the name didn’t stick, instead it became known as Irkutsky Ostrog due to its location on the river. The settlement became a major trading center for the entire Baikal region and a major hub for the fur trade. Sable, fox and bear furs along with fish were main sources income and Babr, the image of an extinct Siberian tiger with a sable hanging from his mouth, is the symbol of the city. Hunters, like fishermen, are subject to the elements and give thanks for health and prosperity. The first wooden church in the ostrog, the Church of Our Savior, no longer exists, but there is another out of masonry in its place.  The church is unique in that there are frescoes on the outside of the structure. The main one is a triptych with baptismal scenes, from that of Christ to those of the indigenous population of the region.  Julia insisted that the conversions from Shamanism and/or Buddhism to Orthodoxy occurred without external pressure.  All three religions retain a presence in the city in addition to Roman Catholicism brought by the Poles. When Poles were sent to Irkutsk they raised sufficient funds to build their own church, Our Lady of Assumption, that is now also a convent. The local monastery is Znamensky and belongs to the Orthodox faith. A bit outside the very center of town up a small hill is the Church of Our Lord, also called Jerusalem Church, as a local merchant wanted to bring a piece of Jerusalem back to his home town. When he did he built the church to house the relic.  The hill, which now looks like a park, used to be a cemetery. The patron saint of Irkutsk is St. Innocent, who is said to have brought Christianity to the region. His was the last church we visited and houses 18th and 19th C icons. The churches that are still standing were used as graineries or otherwise repurposed during Soviet times.  The main Cathedral of the city, Our Lady of Kazan, was destroyed and in its place now stands the town’s Duma.

Some of the secular buildings faired better than the Cathedral and Irkutsk has old wooden buildings with ornate wooden shutters and frames.  The Merchant Trapeznikov Mansion is now a museum and has plaques explaining how to ‘read’ the era of a building based on the intricacy of the carvings. The city appears to want to preserve the best of the past while promoting a healthy community for the next generation.  On islands in the middle of the river they have recently built ‘the island of youth and Konny Island’ completed with ferris wheel, bike paths and amphitheaters.  The boardwalk along the river is lined with parks dotted with sculptures.  One is of Tsar Alexander III who was helpful to the ‘modern’ development of the city with the railway.  His sculpture used to have a crown, but it was stolen and whenever a new one was made it disappeared as well. Today he  wears only local seagulls as a headdress..

It was time to head back to water and Lake Baikal. In pre-historic times, there were a number of lakes, geological movement in the region joined them into three large bodies, that then became the huge lake that contains 20% of the world’s freshwater today. It is 1642 meters deep, 636 km long, 27-81 km wide and in the summer the average water temperature is 11-14 degrees centigrade. There are four national parks around the island providing protection for over 1000 plant and 2000 animal species, the majority of which are endemic. The Baikal seal is one of the most famous and we were lucky to see two brown bobbing faces with huge soft eyes while we were in a boat.

The three and a half car ride to the ferry for Olkhon Island was broken by a few stops along the way. The first was to the border of Buryatia, which is marked by a wooden sculpture with Christ on one side looking towards Irkutsk and Buddhist as well as Shamanic symbols on the other looking towards Buryatia. It is a nice testament to the variety of religions that currently live in harmony with one another in the region. The next was to a large bronze eagle statue dedicated to the East and to the shamans, the last prior to embarking on the ferry was to a sculpture of “the wanderer” who is accompanied by a poem Ivan said explained that after the figure was released from prison he went in search of his family but was ended up wandering and journeying without end.  The ferry did have an end, in fact it took less time to cross the short strait than it took to wait in line.  We opted to leave the car on the mainland and get another vehicle on the other side as the line for the cars could take many hours.  It turns out Ivan had another reason for suggesting this as the roads – if one can call them that – on the island would not have been suitable for his vehicle. The dirt road from the ferry to Khuzhir, the main village of the island, took about an hour with the driver pushing the old Russian jeep to its maximum, and that was quite fast for those tracks!  Nikita’s guesthouse was the first one on the island and has private rooms as well as hostel facilities.  The restaurant was called the “French Bistro” and while the food was definitely not French, it was quite good. The best part of staying at Nikita’s, however, is the proximity to Shaman’s Rock at Cape Burhan.

This rock is perhaps the most famous site on Olkhon Island, and the site of pilgrimage for shaman from across the world. The day after we were there a gathering of hundreds of shaman from all over was scheduled to take place.  I was sorry I was going to miss it, but the sense of peace –broken only by the masses of tourist busses with mostly domestic and Chinese tourists – exuding from the site was special in and of itself. The rock is said to be the palace of Khan Khute-baabay and his wife Halmon Khatan Egi. He was the oldest and strongest of the divine sons of Father Tengris, who came from heaven to be judge people. He chose the cave on the rock at Cape Burhan as his dwelling. According to the sign at the site:

“One legend says: ‘Han-Kute baabay, as a king of all shamans, chose Island Olkhonas his permanent residence.  He became the master of the island, and protected it and shamanism of the northern wing.’ “ Respecting him was so important that locals dismounted and lead their horses silently past with the hooves bound in skins so that they would be silent as they passed by the Great Spirit. “According to the legend, Khan Khute baabay has three ghostly palaces: one in the heavens, one on the ground, at Cape Burhan, and the third in the underworld.”  While in ancient times riders would dismount to walk silently past the cape and rock, today one is requested to:

  1. Live in harmony with Mother Nature, protect her, because this is the Great Power, which allows existence of you and your descendants.
  2. Know your ancestors and honor them, because they grant your support and wisdom at all times.
  3. Calm down, make your mind peaceful, allow all agitated thoughts and feelings to disappear, reject vanity, take a look in the depths of consciousness, for there your are given the opportunity to clearly hear the voice of your heart and the music of Heaven.
  4. Do not defile the holy places with evil thoughts, words and actions. Just try to radiate with love, joy, and gratitude, or be peaceful. Remember – in places of great natural forces everything that a person carries becomes stronger. Clime the rock and the cave is not recommended – remember: rash acts in holy places bear negative consequences.
  5. For safety reasons, do not come close to the edge of the cape, to the breaks. Children should be supervised! Talk quietly and in a positive way, avoid the use of rough, ignorant words, be polite and courteous to the people around you.


Watch your thoughts – They become words.

Watch your words – They become actions.

Watch your actions – They become habits.

Watch your habits – They become character.

Follow your character, it determines your destiny.

Take garbage with you or put it into garbage cans.


This last line should probably be read both figuratively as well as literally.

Despite the warning against climbing the rock, today it is permitted for men to perform ceremonies in the caves; women are prohibited from going near the rock or the caves as women are considered impure, and it would not be appropriate to have another woman enter Khan Khute baabay’s wife’s space.  When a man dies his children call him ‘baabay’ as a sign of respect; when a woman dies she is only called Hatan Egi if she was a shaman, otherwise she has no title.


 Shaman’s Rock at Cape Burhan Olkhan Island is said to be one of the nine holy places in Asia, although I was unable to verify this as there are so many sacred sites in Asia. Olkhon is considered to be the origin or the Buryat people. According to legend, the first Buryat shaman to have received his power there. He was Horiday, a hunter, who fell in love with a beautiful Baikal swan. He wanted to marry her and she finally agreed to transform herself into a woman. Horiday hid her swan cloak so that she couldn’t leave him. “They had 11 sons who became the ancestors of the 11 Khorinsky tribes.” (Irkutsk Easy Traveling Guide) After the sons were grown, Mother Swan asked to try her swan cloak back on to see if it still fit. Horiday granted her wish, she put it on and disappeared reverting back to her original nature. He, however, remained connected with a swan’s power.  Swans are very important to Baikal shaman and Neolithic swan figures have been found in the region, one of which is in the Irkutsk National Ethnological Museum, and worn on shaman cloaks so that the shaman has their protection and power.  One of the creation legends has Grandmother Swan coming down to the earth to protect it.


Even if I wasn’t going to be able to attend the shamanic gathering later in the week, in the evening I was fortunate enough to meet with Dashi Auyshiev, a local shaman.  He explained that there are the three realms, the heavens ruled by Father Tengris, the middle world – this one  - overseen by the 13 spirits, and the underworld, which has many levels, only eight of which are accessed by shamans. Erlik Khan is one of the main goddesses of the underworld along with Lo Satan, a goddess of water as water comes from below. The rains get moisture from the earth. Female deities are primarily associated with the underworld or this world, such as Tega Neyon, the goddess of the forest or Sumburula, Goddess Mountain. In the heavens, they are ancestors. Humans have three souls, while animals have two that are reincarnated. The body is like clothing that can be cleansed and exchanged. The third human soul is that of the ancestor, sort of like a transference of genetic code. When sinful people die then Erlik Khan transforms them into stones, plants or animals. Those without major sin are reincarnated as people and the best are reincarnated as shaman to help people.  The concept is similar to that of the bodhisattva. People’s souls are like energy balls and ancestors’ energy can light up the sky during shamanic ceremonies. Dashi was looking forward to an exchange of ideas and skills with shaman from other cultures during the upcoming event. His chants were very similar to Navaho chanting in Northern Arizona/Southern Utah and I was amazed to see a variation of a dreamcatcher for sale in the local tourist stalls.  Globalization is alive and well in the indigenous communities as well as in the marketplace. I intend to participate in this exchange by sending Dashi a CD with Navajo and Hopi Northern Arizona chants. I am very grateful to him for his time and to Ivan for attempting the translation.


Day 3 Olkhon Island

The day was devoted to exploring the major sites on the island. Our driver with the rickety Russian Jeep picked us up at 8:30 to take us over somewhat muddy roads to the first overlook north of Shaman’s Rock. From there one could see islands named for what they look like, namely the Crocodile & White Islands. The coastline is magnificent and one looks across the lake to the western shore of Lake Baikal with white cliffs flowing down to the water’s edge. The far coast was capped with white billowing clouds, creating a perfect picture.  From there we headed to Peschanka Village and the remains of the Fish Gulag that once stood there.  Life must have been beyond description hard. The Gulag stands at the waters edge and everyone was required to work. Fishing took place throughout the year, even when the lake was frozen.  All fish had to be given to the guards. It was supposedly acceptable to eat a fish in the boat, but once on shore all the fish were to be turned over to the authorities. If someone kept one fish and got caught, they were sentenced to another year in the gulag, for two fishes, two years, and so on.  This was for all people in the region, not just for the prisoners.  Man’s inhumanity to others seems to know no ends.

From the Gulag on the coast, the jeep track winds through the forest. As it had rained during the night, the mud had created troughs rather than dips in the road.  I’ve been on some pretty bad roads in the Himalayas, Central & South America and in the backcountry in the Southwest, but this was a new – and somewhat terrifying – experience.  The old Russian jeep was expertly handled and the driver managed to keep us upright, but just barely.  We did see a vehicle that didn’t make it, and it looked like it had broken an axel. I was glad when we exited the forest and the normal jeep track reappeared near the next stop at ‘Three Brothers.”  The three brothers are three large rocks by the lakeshore. There is a smaller rock in their middle that is their sister.  According to one story, the sister fell in love with someone their father didn’t approve of. When she ran away, the brothers were sent to find her and bring her back.  When they got to her she begged to stay with her new family as she was so in love. The brothers agreed to let her be happy, so upon returning home told their father that they couldn’t find her.  The father, however, was a powerful shaman and knew they were lying. As punishment he turned them all into rocks. Another story says that the three brothers wanted to be eagles, so their father transformed them on the promise that they not eat any dead meat.  They promised, but after they had flown awhile and were hungry they spotted a dead animal and ate it. Their father turned them into the rocks as punishment.

The most northern end of the island also has a story of a woman. At Khoboy Point a shaman and his wife lived with all the blessings of this world. They had a beautiful place, food to eat, shelter and each other.  The wife, however, always wanted more.  She was never satisfied with what they had.  God had granted them everything, but it was never enough for her. As punishment, he changed her into a rock.

Her face is outlined on the northern side of the point. - There seems to be a theme going in these stories…. Khoboy means ‘fang’ and that is certainly another way to look at the outline.  The rocks create lots of different images and the view from the island on the clear day was spectacular. The lake is huge and blue. The highest point, oat around 1200 m., is right by the deepest part of the lake and the cliff goes down dramatically. At each of these sacred places, wishing trees are filled with colorful pieces of cloth flying in the wind. The multi-colored clothed green trees, the carpet of wildflowers, the stark cliffs and the deep blue sea-lake create breathtaking beauty.

From the northern end we traveled next to Shuntaleft, otherwise known as Love Cape.  The latter name comes from the fact that the rock formations look like a woman lying down with her legs open. Infertile women, or those who simply wanted a child, would come here and throw a stone into the sea. If they heard the stone hit the water, then their wish would be granted. If they threw the stone from the right leg they wanted a boy, if they threw it from the left, then they wanted a girl.  Today general wishes seem to be acceptable, but I couldn’t throw far enough to have mine granted by the spirit of this particular place. Paul threw farther than I, but was also unsuccessful. Ivan, however, did hear his drop into the water so I hope his are granted.  I think Paul and I are blessed enough to be on this trip, so not trying to be greedy like the woman at Khoboy Point, we can simply be grateful for what we have.

There are only two places on the Western side of the island that have any shoreline. The first is Uzury, which is a small cove with a meteorologicalstation and a camping site. It was pretty, but not like the places on the eastern shore.  The other site is only accessible by boat so we didn’t get there.


After our brief tour of the island it was time to head back to Nikita’s to pick up our luggage and then on to the ferry for the trip back to the mainland and Irkutsk. On the way back there was one more story based on a lone tree that grew out of the steppes on the southern part of the island and the area near the ferry on the mainland. The legend states that there were were two young people from different tribes who fell in love. Intermarriage wasn’t permitted and their parents were both vehemently against the union.  The couple was determined to stay together, so they went to the local shaman. The parents had to agree to whatever the shaman said.  The shaman took a seed and said that if a tree grew, then the couple should be together. No one expected that it would sprout, but it did and the couple could stay together for eternity. This story finally had a positive ending.


A few miscellaneous things I learned while in Irkutsk and on the island is that there is no relationship between the cost of the pay toilets and their cleanliness or functionality.  Sometimes the cheapest ones, 10 Rupees are much better than the smelly pit toilets that cost double the amount. & I learned not to pick up coins off the street or ground.  People throw the coins there as offerings, apparently even in the street and not just at the sacred sites. It is very unlucky to pick one up.


Day 4 Irkutsk to Ulan-Ude

When I booked the Trans -Siberian train from Irkutsk to Ulan-Ude, I purposely chose the one leaving at 9:20 so that we could see the lake during the journey.  What I hadn’t realized is that the ticket was on Moscow, not local time, which is 5 hours later. What this meant was that we had a free morning in Irkutsk, which I used to go to the National Ethnological Museum.  This turned out to be an excellent accident as the museum, albeit small, has a few very unique artifacts, including the previously mentioned Neolithic bone swan, and three 19th C shamanic orgons that are reminiscent of figures from 9500BCE Göbekli Tepe.  This find alone needs further inquiry.

After a walk along the river, I went back to the hotel for our taxi to the train station.  The day was cloudy and the stretch on the western side was often so foggy that the lake was barely visible.  It was a good day for a train ride.








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