Into the Land of the Omul-Eaters

We took a stop at Irkutsk, like many people do. It must be the most popular stop on the entire Trans-Siberian. We wanted to head to the remote Olkhon Island, in Lake Baikal. A mile deep, holding 20% of the world’s fresh water and no small amount off the world’s powerful nature spirits, Baikal is a special place. But first you have to get there.

We had somebody make arrangements for us ahead of time. And just like last time, those arrangements weren’t really worth much. We had been told that a minibus would leave at 11am to take us there, from the train station. They’d have our names on a sign, waiting for us when we got off the train. And of course our minibus would have “Olkhon” written on a sign in its window, too.

We didn’t honestly expect to see someone standing there with our names on a sign, but we also couldn’t find the minibus, either. Must not be here yet, we thought, it’s only 9:30. No worries, just find a bench and relax. I bought a chebureki – fried dough filled with meat and onions. Three bites in I donated it to the local pigeons, fumbling it to the ground, then cursing myself for doing so. But seriously, there are a million variations of meat in dough around the world, and chebureki is one of the better ones in my experience. No idea why. It’s mystery meat of the highest order, greasy as all heck, and spiced according to Russian tastes, which is to say not at all. I probably shouldn’t even like it, but I do.

10:55 arrived and still no minibus. Now we were getting worried, especially after what had happened in Krasnoyarsk. We did not need to be stranded for 3 days in Irkutsk. With onward tickets already booked we knew we might be able to move on, but it would mean forfeiting the tickets we’d already purchased. Oh, and three days in Irkutsk is a lot, especially when sleeping on park benches.

11am rolls around and we’re getting worried for real. We didn’t have a place to stay in town, and we didn’t really know what we were going to do if we couldn’t get to the island. Drink beer down by the river, I suppose. I know I said that last time, but that’s what you do in Russia in the summertime. They set up seasonal beer tents. They’ve got sound systems, draught taps and the whole works. And then they all go drink beer by the river. And eat dried fish. Or smoked fish. Whichever you like better.

With our situation becoming rather murky, Sunshine suggests I ask at the minibus that’s been there a while and looks like it’s ready to leave. It has no sign, it looks a bit like a private tour actually, but it looked promising, I guess because the driver had a Baikal shirt. I am the designated “talker”, on account of knowing more Russian than Sunshine. I asked, and it was the minibus we wanted. What? Yeah, our fixer hadn’t fixed a single thing for us. Thankfully, we did it for ourselves. Crisis averted. We probably should have asked much earlier but no worries because we were on the minibus and on our way.

The road to Olkhon is long and mostly boring, through pastureland. Did you know they raise cows in Siberia? Well, they do. Sometimes, like when we’re rolling past birch forests, Siberia looks like Siberia. But green grass fields with cows? Who knew?

As you near the lake, the green of life disappears. The ground becomes a barren moonscape, the villages increasingly desolate. At the penultimate village, the roads are littered with stray dogs and fallen drunks, right in the middle of the street. Amid the desolation, there are totem sticks at the side of the road and among the Buryat people that live here, elements of shamanism must still exist. These totem sticks are not unlike shrines you see at the side of the road in a lot of Asian countries. We saw a stupa, too – Buryats are Buddhist, almost unique among Russia’s ethnic stew (Tuvans are as well).

A short ferry takes you to Olkhon. By this point we’d been blasting at 80 km/h on dirt roads, jarring our vehicles and our bones. The scenery, aside from the decrepit villages, was stark beauty. On the island, it is more of the same. The driver didn’t seem to care much for his vehicle and we hammered through the rocky landscape, laughing at the absurdity of it all.

The main settlement on Olkhon Island is Kuzhir, a ramshackle wooden village. Sunshine made a good point – it looked like what a village in British Columbia would have looked like in the 19th century, just ramshackle wooden buildings and a muddy main street. The island is basically split between the barren southern and western parts and the green northeastern parts. The village sits at the edge of the forested part of the island, close to both water and wood. Even at that, life must be tough.

Smoked fish are cheap here, and a traditional source of life. These fish are called omul, and they are among the tastiest fish on the planet. Our guide in Ulan Ude would later note, in reference to omul, “I eat no other fish.” By that point, after several days of indulgence, the statement did not seem unreasonable at all. Omul come in a lot of different forms here, different treatments, cures, and levels of smoke. You can buy fresh ones, too, and the locals use them to make a ceviche-like dish.

Olkhon only recently received electricity and is starting to become an eco-tourism destination. Such places – relatively undiscovered and underdeveloped – can be great, albeit with some frustrations as well, as there remain some kinks in need of ironing. Here, though, the biggest problem was the weather. It’s Siberia. It was cold and rainy. The week before was hot and sunny, we were told, great for hiking, mountain biking and excursions for shamanic sites and traditional Buryat villages.

For us, however, the deluge meant forgoing all of those things and staying in our warm and cozy cabin. I finally finished my book. I’m a slow reader, and books take me forever to get through. We comforted ourselves with delicious smoked omul and planned a trip to the banya. Once they get this place going, Olkhon will be a great destination. And if they leave that road unpaved and the crossing to the island unbridged, it will probably remain an off-the-beaten track treasure.

But who knows what they’ll do – they need the money. There is no economy. Most of rural Siberia is subsistence living. The wooden villages are pretty, but there’s no industry and the growing season is short. Olkhon appears worthless for agriculture, so it’s all about the fish. A few years ago, stocks were at a low level and fishing for omul was banned – the locals kept fishing anyway because that’s about all they eat most of the year.

Overall, the richness and variety of smoked and dried fish in Russia is unparalleled, and the prices are great. One could be excused, upon sampling some oily, smoke-rich omul, for thinking that a life of eating nothing else is really not that hard a life after all. We felt like Olkhon was the land of the lotus-eaters, substituting lotus for omul. Even the Wikipedia article on the fish cites it as a “highlight of travelers along the Trans-Siberian”. Yup.

The other thing about rural places is the quality of sleep. I grew up in the suburbs, and I remember having trouble sleeping at my grandparents’ place in the country. It was too dark and too quiet. Now places like this are unbelievably good for sleep. Yet, it’s also interesting that we’re so spoiled for daylight I feel a little cheated when we actually have night time. Why does it need to get dark at all? We start going south in a few days and the adjustment will be a little weird.

We never did see good weather on Olkhon. The sun finally arrived about the same time we left the island, so at least our evening in Irkutsk was bright. That was more fun. The same non-fixer who had “booked” our passage on the minibus – but clearly did not – had set us up with a guesthouse. This place did not exist. We went to the address and nothing. We searched around – we’ve stayed in unconventional places without signs before – and nothing. We ended up staying at the Hotel Irkutsk, the local Soviet-era monstrosity. It was perfectly fine, and cost less than we’d expected. We walked along the river (as did the rest of the city) and had beers on a barge as the sun set on us for the first time in days. It felt good, and the next day was just a six-hour train ride to Ulan Ude.


*this post was written by Josh

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