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We call this section of the website “Lake Baikal” but it also includes the time we spent in Irkutsk and Ulan Ude.

This scene of our final rite for blessings and luck was taken after a brief climb on our way to visit the Old Believer village south of Ulan Ude. It was the last of our Baikal Vodka. We will always enjoy the Baikal shot glasses we were given for the memories of this trip and our delightful guide, Lydia.

The river in the background is the 600 mile-long Selenga which starts in Mongolia. It flows through Ulan Ude before flowing into Lake Baikal.

 

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We flew from Kamchatka to Irkutsk, in south central Siberia, just north of Mongolia. Our first leg was about 1,000 miles; the second leg was about 1,300 miles more. Russia is a very large!

 

From Irkutsk we drove north and crossed by ferry to Olkhon Island in Lake Baikal. After the ferry, we were picked up and driven for 45-minutes to the village where we stayed for three days.

 

We drove back to Irkutsk (our driver stayed near the ferry at a camping place and fished while we were on the island) and then took an overnight on the Trans-Siberian Railway (10pm – 6am) from Irkutsk to Ulan Ude. From there we flew back to Irkutsk and had lunch with our guide Lydia and our driver Serge before flying on to Tuva.

 

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This is the iconic image of Lake Baikal; the holy Shaman rock, where access for centuries was only for Buddhist and shaman priests. That changed after the arrival of Russian fishermen who went wherever they wanted. 

 

Lake Baikal is part of the Russian Buryatia Oblast (state) which was created around the area populated by the Buryatia Buddhist people.

 

Lake Baikal is the biggest and deepest (5370’) freshwater lake in the world and contains 20% of all  non-frozen fresh water. It is an UNESCO World Heritage Site. At 20 million years old, it is one of the oldest lakes in geological history as well. It is popular with Russian tourists and has winter activities as well. We visited a village on the SW shore in 2006.

 

Last winter, after the lake had frozen, Lydia accompanied a tour for 20-days that never left the ice. There were about 40 people on ancient motorcycles, some with sidecars; they circled the island. They were entirely self-catered: each carried his own tent and enough food for the entire time. Lydia said that every morning one or two motorcycles would have to be worked on. The tour staff, including a physician, was only there for guidance and emergencies! Lydia plans to go on a similar tour this winter. Now that is adventure travel!

 

Lydia spent her junior year of high school in Oklahoma in a very small town. The high school only had a few hundred students. She loved her time there and is still in touch with the friends she made. Her American experiences include everything the local Baptist youth group did and Friday Night Football. She said otherwise she would have had nothing to do. She was the only girl on the cross-country track team which she joined because she said how she was doing wasn’t as obvious as it is running track if you aren’t the fastest.

 

Two hours away from Irkutsk, Lydia, her boyfriend and other friends built a very simple cabin in the woods on a mountain. She said the cabin has very little other than a stove in the center. There is a platform above the stove where everyone sleeps. They travel there for weekends during the winter. They hike through snow to get up to the cabin, and then everyone works collecting wood and getting the fire going before they prepare dinner. Remember this is Siberia! The next two days they spend hiking up the mountain and snowboarding down. She said that if the snow is very deep they make the biggest guy break the way going up! She loves it!

 

We were lucky we had Lydia, one of the best guides we ever had.

 

On our way from Irkutsk to Lake Baikal we stopped at the first Buddhist/Shamanist shrine we came to and Lydia started a ritual that we did very often during our time with her.

 

On this occasion she took out her “survival kit” and presented each step in the ritual as if it was the last, but the experience just kept unfolding. She was a great actress and always played her part perfectly building suspense and we never ceased to enjoy her doing it.

 

First we were presented with Baikal shot glasses (a gift for us) along with some Baikal vodka. Then we put our ring finger from our left hand into the vodka and flicked it in four directions and then touched wood with it.

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After that we drank the vodka and ate cornichons from her little jar. She even had tiny forks as part of her survival kit.

 

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This is what the shrine area looked like. The tall poles are symbols of the old hitching posts used by this nomadic culture.

 

 

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This monk is from a local monastery and is a good friend of our Siberian tour company’s boss (Lydia’s boss).

 

He answered questions and told us how Buddhism is being re-established.

 

During Stalin’s rule in the 1920s, most of the temples and monasteries were destroyed and the Buddhists executed or worked to death in the Gulags.

 

 

This monk (the Gelupka school of Tibetan Buddhism: Yellow Hat, like the Dalai Lama) was doing a walking meditation when we arrived.

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The monastery building is new.

 

As well as in Mongolia, Buddhism is coming back in the Russian areas which are traditionally Buddhist.

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The ferry on Lake Baikal was a welcome experience as our trip was almost cancelled due to the summer’s long wild fires burning throughout Siberia (matching our US west fires).

 

Visibility on Lake Baikal had been almost zero and most tourists had cancelled.

 

When we arrived, wind had cleared the smoke a bit so it was decided we could continue with our trip as planned. Fortunately there was only a slight smell of smoke.

 

The night we arrived it rained and the next morning everything was great!

 

This is the iconic scene for all of Lake Baikal: Shaman Rock.

 

The Buryats are one of the largest groups of peoples in the area and arrived in the 10th C. They bred cattle, horses, camels, herds and flocks. They also hunted and fished.

 

They believed horses were “pure” creatures, so tethering posts were sacred and related to a families’ well-being. They were good blacksmiths and jewelers.

 

Today there are a half-million Buryats and they have their own “republic” in Russia: Burybatia.

 

The Buryats are also adherents of Shamanism and believe this to be a spiritual place. It is considered to be one of the nine most sacred places in Asia.

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This is the shrine at Shaman Rock where we had a personal blessing ceremony by one of the local shamans.

 

These poles represent the traditional “horse-tethering” symbol; one for each of the local family groups.

 

He was a “white” shaman, which are responsible for taking care of the community’s emotional needs.

 

There are also “black” shaman, whose job it is to help with individual’s spiritual problems.

 

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We went shopping the day before for our “offering” for the priest to use in our blessing.

 

There were seven things required: Cookies, cigarettes, milk, vodka, and three others.

 

He used them all, “flicking” the vodka in the four directions as we did when we did our “blessings” rite with Lydia, and putting some milk on the poles.

 

A view to Shaman Rock through the shrine.

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Blessing the four directions.

 

 

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From the hill behind our B&B we could look down on the most popular beach on the island.

 

There were vacationing Russians camped in the trees; there would have been far more vacationers here but most cancelled due to the forest fire smoke.

 

We were so lucky it cleared for us with our first night’s rain.

 

Was it that blessings rite the first morning which helped?

 

This is down on the beach shown above.

 

There were two “sauna” (banya) trucks which complimented going into the cold Lake Baikal water.

 

A good idea! We’re sorry we didn’t do it.

 

They also sell beer.

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These women had just used the banya.

 

We stayed in Khuzhir, the largest settlement; only 1500 Buryats live on the island.

 

From there, we spent a long day in a crude jeep traveling rough dirt roads to the north, to the Khoboi Cape, and east along beaches and through forests visiting nearly every “pointy” part on the north side of the island.

 

This one is visited by people wanting to have a child.

 

If you want a boy you leave a coin at the top of the rock to the left; a girl and you leave a coin at the top of the rock to the right.

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Our driver cooked us fish soup while we hiked around a point.

 

This is where he hung the pot to cook our soup over a fire.

 

The fish is Omul, an endemic whitefish.

 

Lake Baikal Omul soup, freshly cooked for our picnic.

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We happened to be on Lake Baikal on the first day of the school year which is a big celebration everywhere in Russia.

 

Everyone is dressed up and the students bring flowers for their teachers.

 

It is a small school so this “gym” is used for everything.

 

It was interesting to watch.

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Back in Irkutsk we had a city tour.

 

The Znamenskiy (the Omen) Convent was founded in 1693 by Peter the Great as Christianization of Siberia was underway then.

 

 

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Another view of the Znamenskiy (the Omen) Convent.

 

 

 

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We visited the Church of Our Savior, thought to be the oldest in the area.

 

It was built in 1706 and was originally surrounded by a wooden fortification.

 

The exterior walls have nice details as well as a large fresco that has been restored recently.

 

 

 

The historical center of Irkutsk contains street after street of these merchant houses of the XVII-XIX centuries.

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The ringing of bells is one of the essential elements of an Orthodox church. Bells are sometimes referred to as “singing icons.”

 

Here the clappers do the moving, the entire bell doesn’t swing as it often does in the west.

 

We were lucky to be allowed up in the Church of the Exhalation of the Holy Cross’s church tower.

 

It is also at the highest point in Irkutsk so the view was amazing.

 

 

This man collected the above bells and reconstructed the bell tower. He now plays very complicated music before and after each of the two daily worship services in the church.

 

He used to be a folk singer, but for the last 13 years he has been ringing these bells, a job he loves.  He works as a “bouncer” in a pub when he’s not ringing bells.

 

A very short section of his long performance can be seen in this movie. We think watching it will give a great impression of how skillful he is!

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Climbing up/down the tower took concentration in navigating the very old stairs and rickety banisters.

 

 

 

The Siberian wooden shutters are wonderful; the last time we were in Irkutsk (2006) we walked many streets and took very many photos of the shutters on different houses.

 

This is the “lace” house and is acclaimed the nicest in Irkutsk.

 

 

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This is a typical market view in Siberia: so many berries in incredible quantities, both gathered in the woods and grown.

 

This is how they’ve traditionally gotten their nutrients during the long winter – just like the bears!

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By now, you can read the sign:

“Café.”

 

We loved this front door “knob.”

 

 

From Irkutsk we took the Trans-Siberian Railway to Ulan Ude which is on the east side of Lake Baikal.

 

We were on the train from 10pm to 6am in a 2nd class sleeping cabin for four. We had the entire cabin so we could lock the door.

 

There we visited the Ivolginsky Buddhist Monastery which is another of the monasteries which are getting reestablished due to post-Soviet religious freedom in Russia.

 

This monastery contains a holy relic, the body of a lama who lies in state for 82 years without being embalmed.

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This Lenin monument in the center of Ulan Ude is the largest in the world. It was installed in 1970 for Lenin’s 100th birthday. It is 25’ high.

 

 

 

We went to an Old Believer’s village for dinner.

 

On the way Lydia had us climb a little hill, and surprised us (yet again!) with a “luck” rite, this one our last together and we finished off the little bit of vodka that was left.

 

The title photo for this website was taken of that “last” rite and again shows this river in the background.

 

This river, the Selenge, flows through Ulan Ude and is the major inflow to Lake Baikal.

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Walking down the hill back to our car. Fall has arrived in Siberia.

 

 

The Old Believers of Buryatia are a colorful branch of Orthodox Russians who were exiled to Siberia by Catherine the Great.

 

In the 16th C century a powerful patriarch, Nikon, changed the Russian Orthodox church to be more in line with the Greek Orthodox church.

 

These Old Believers refused to accept the changes. They have saved their culture, polyphonic singing art, and religion as it was centuries years ago.

 

We spent an evening in their village and had a dinner in this woman’s home.

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We first had a tour of their garden, hen house, turkey family.

 

Beyond this area was a cow stall and beyond that a field of the potatoes that would last them through the winter.

 

Even their dog’s house was decorated!

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We ate in the kitchen with the hostess and her cousin.

 

They had cooked everything we ate…and drank (homemade vodka) … a lot …

 

After dinner the two ladies sang many of their traditional songs that covered all topics.

 

One that was cute was of a woman to her husband as he was leaving the house warning him what would happen to him if he as much as looked at another woman.

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These berries came from her garden. She had many big berry bushes of different kinds.

 

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Here the cousins were outfitting Yvonne.

 

They wear an amazing number of layers of clothing that gets heavier with each layer.

 

They even lent Yvonne the precious amber.

 

The amber is from the 1700s. Their ancestors brought it with them when they were exiled.

 

Many villagers have travelled the world performing, as have these two.

 

They performed in New York and Boston and remember how hot it was, especially because they were wearing these heavy outfits!

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Here they are: All of them born in 1940! That’s the first time in a very long time that Yvonne had met two women who were born in the same year as she was!

 

A short movie clip shows them (and Lydia) in action. Remember we had consumed a bottle of their moonshine.  Check out the food on the table; all food and drink was made by them. Lydia explains one rhyming song – sort of: don’t eat potatoes from a fork, don’t like many girls or you will be alone afterwards. (It doesn’t work in English)

 

Back in Ulan Ude we flew to Irkutsk with Lydia. We were met by Serge, our driver and went to lunch and did a bit more sightseeing.

 

Then we went back to the airport, told Lydia and Serge goodbye before flying on to Tuva, the place we wanted to visit that started this entire adventure!

 

This photo, shot from Olkhon Island is of the western shore showing the mountains that we only saw that once.

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