How to visit Olkhon Island, Russia’s shamanist center on Baikal

How to visit Olkhon Island, Russia’s shamanist center on Baikal

Buddhist and ancient pagan polls covered of prayer flags on the island of Olkhon on Baikal lake in Siberia in Russia

Olkhon island is located in the world’s largest freshwater lake Baikal, in the republic of Buryatia deep in Siberia and thousands of kilometers away from Moscow. Each year it attracts tourists from Russia and abroad but also shaminism believers.

Olkhon is a must-visit place when travelling the Transsiberian railways and is just a small detour from Irkutsk by russian standards.

Full of legends, beliefs and superpowers, Olkhon is the shamanism center of Siberia that holds a very special place for Buryat people.

In this detailed Olkhon travel guide you will find everything you need to know to visit the island independentely : from how to get to Khuzhir from Irkursk to where to sleep and of course the best places to visit + my personal tips.

Olhkon island 1
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Note : While doing research for this post (aka checking out the competition), I noticed Google’s top results are travel blog posts who barely mention the importance of Baikal and Olkhon island in Russia/Asia’s Shamanism and Buryat people’s beliefs.

Olkhon is more than mystic capes names, it’s more than colorful ribons hanged on trees and wooden polls. You don’t need to be a believer to feel this place is like no other. When I say “feel”, I mean it.

Maybe it was the location of Olkhon itself, thousands of kilometers from Moscow, a solitary place where somehow I didn’t feel the lonelyness, maybe it was the complete silence around because very little people are keen to visit a rather empty island by -20°C, or maybe it was actually the effect of Diedushka Mikhail who shaman-blessed me with vodka the week before on the Baikal shores of Barguzin. Who knows.

Olkhon is a very special place for Buryat people, and it felt special to me as well.

Basic stuffs to know about Olkhon island

• Olkhon island is located on Baikal lake in the Republic of Buryatia in central Siberia and is about 70 kms long & 15 kms large.

• The name “Olkhon” in the Buryat language means “little forest” or “little forested”.

• There is one town (which is more like a big village to me) named Khuzhir and a few settlements scatterred across the island.

• There is one big enough supermarket called Khoroshiy in Khuzhir and a few other small stores. Products prices are slightly higher than in Irkutsk obviously.

• Make sure to have enough rubles in cash as there is no exchange currency office nor any bank or ATM on Olkhon island.

• Phone signal with MTS, Megafon & Beeline works well enough in Khuzhir but sometimes not in more remote places of the island.

• There are also a couple of pharmacies, a post office and an information center on Baykalsk 29 in Khuzhir.

• There is no asphalt roads on the island as it’s against environmental laws protecting Baikal’s territory. A good thing you may think ? Not at all. It’s estimated that some 150 000 tourists visit Olkhon each year, especially in July-August, some foreigners (Chinese making half of them) but also Russians coming with their own cars and making new tracks everywhere as the main ones are in a terrible state. By doing so they are simply destroying the steppe.

Good news is that they are supposed to built an asphalt road in 2024 but only 5 kilometers from the ferry to Khuzhir.

Who are the Buryat people ?

The Buryat people are indigenous of Siberia and inhabit the region around Lake Baikal plus the surrounding areas. Their origins back centuries ago and they are believed to have migrated to Siberia from Central Asia and Mongolia. They used to have a nomadic lifestyle until the Bolshevik Revolution and many customed dissapeared during the Soviet times. Buryats have maintained a deep spiritual connection to the natural world, influenced by both Shamanist and Buddhist traditions.

They are often divided in 2 “groups” : the Eastern Buryats (Ulan – Ude and, the Barguzin valley and around) are mostly buddhists and the Western Buryats (Olkhon island for one) have more shamanist beliefs. But overall they practice a blend of Shamanism and Tibetan Buddhism, embracing spiritual beliefs that honor nature and ancestral spirits.

They are one of the largest Turco-mongol minority in Siberia and have their own republic of Buryatia within the Russian Federation but also during the USSR with the The Buryat ASSR (Buryat Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic).

Buryat people, 19th century, Siberia, Russia

Olkhon & Shamanism

Why is Olkhon island considered the center of Shamanism in Siberia ?

Often Olkhon is named the spiritual center of Northern Asia’s Shamanism. In the 13th century many believers fleed persecution under Gengis Khan and Kublai Khan rules and in the 17th-18th centuries Buryat shamans hid on Olkhon to escape persecution from Buddhist lamas.

For Buryat and Siberian shamanism believers, Olkhon is a sacred place where the spirits of Baikal live. According to the legend, this is where the Khan Khute-Baabai came down from the sky. His son Khan Shubuu Noyon was the first to receive a “shamanic gift” from the God Tengri.

In the 1990’s, the shamans of Buryatia officially recognised Olkhon island as the cult center of pan-mongol and central asian importance.

I’ve read somewhere there should be a Tailagan (shamanic ritual) called “Ехэ тайлаган” in buryat celebrated early summer each year and sometimes it happens near Khuzhir.

How to get to Olkhon island ?

  • From Irkutsk in winter time : By marshrutka all the way to Khuzhir via a road on frozen Baikal. It varies each year but roughly from the beginning of February to the middle of April, the road of ice is monitored 24/7 by the МЧС, the Ministry of Emergency Situations, so it’s a government approved road, no worries to have.

    The road is 11 kilometers starting from Kurkut village all the way to shores of Olkhon. There’s at least one bus daily leaving in the morning (9ish AM) from Irkutsk bus station but you can also take it from Irkutsk central market (Right here on Yandex maps – look at the panoraic 2020 view, you’ll see the marshurtka with Olkhon express name on it, super easy to spot here)
  • From Irkutsk in summer time : by marshrutka and ferry. The ferries (there are 3 different ones) runs daily from Sakhiurta village and are free, so you pay your marshrutka ride from Irkutsk to Khuzhir. The priority is given to mini-buses over private cars.

    Daily buses from Irkutsk bus station or the central market (look above at the winter time section) though if you don’t have your ticket in advance maybe it’s best to buy it at the station beforehand. The ticket is about 2000₽ and it takes 6 to 7 hours.

    Note that you can order the marshrutka to come and pick you up at your hotel directly like plenty of other blogs suggest, but the driver might go and pick up other people too, so you will be driving around the city for a while before actually heading to Olkhon. I usually go to the bus stop/station and hope everyone else does the same so we can all leave ASAP.

    The bus will stop in some café for lunch (cheap place, expect to spend around 500₽ for a salad, warm meal and a drink)
  • From Irkutsk in between winter & summer seasons : meaning in January and from mid April to mid June, the lake is either not free of ice completely or not frozen enough so ferries don’t run and vehicules aren’t allowed on the lake.

    Instead locals use some sort of hovercraft. They leave from Sakhiurta village like the ferries (MPC) (Check the website for the news of the routes &calendar). The hovercraft is a Russia made Khivus, the ticket is extra and was 500P in 2023.
  • From Ulan Ude by plane : Yes, you can fly to Olkhon island with SiLA airlines (Siberian Light Avion airlines) from Ulan-Ude to Khuzhir for 1035₽ one way. There are several flights per week in a 19 seat L-410 Turbolet airplane (not a Tupolev hey …). If you own a russian card you can buy your tickets directly on Aurora’s airlines (in partnership with SiLA airlines). Apparently they fly very low you you get great views of Baikal from the air
How to travel to Olkhon by bys from Irkutsk. A road in the steppe on Olkhon Island, Baikal, Russia

When is the best time to visit Olkhon island ?

I only went to visit Baikal and Olkhon island in the winter time and I cannot recommend it enough. Driving in a soviet looking bukhanka UAZ on the world’s deepest lake (never wear your seat belt just in case you need to get out ASAP) is crazy. You can feel Baikal being alive beneth your feet, hear it cracking, see the frozen bubble of air imprisonned in it, and the the deep blue ice cracks are incredibly stunning. A once in a lifetime experience really ! Best part, not everybody is brave enough to visit Siberia in the middle of winter so there are a lot less tourists. You can just show up there without any bookings.

Best time to visit Olkhon Winter 1


July and August are the touristy season for Baikal and when most people, russians and foreignrs alike visit Olkhon. The pros : you don’t need any special winter gears, you can camp on the beach and swim in the lake. The cons : “crowds” of tourists (yes, for usually rather empty Siberia, that’s crowded), queues to get the ferries and booking accomodation in advance is recommended.

Best time to visit Olkhon Summer

Where to sleep on Olkhon island

There are plenty of accomodation for every budget in Khuzhir, from hotels to hostels and guesthouses, some offering full board, banya and bike rental. Here are some suggestions you can book and pay in advance with your foreign Visa/Mastercard :

• Budget : Bagulnik Hotel

• Mid range : Usadba Nabaimar or Dacha BaikalEco Hotel €€

• Fancier : Villa Malina Hotel €€€

• Camping : If you travel in summer you can wild camp pretty much anywhere you wish, for free. Of course leave no trace please, something russian tourists do not always apply, so don’t be surprised to see rubbish and plastic bags.

Where & what to eat on Olkhon island

Olkhon is an island in a lake so expect lots of fish meals and if you have no time to visit or simply don’t go to Ulan-Ude (though you’re missing out the giant Lenin’s head and buddhist Datsans – temples), then this is your chance to try Buryat cuisine. Some food I recommend you :

• Pozy or Buzy (буузы in Buryat – there’s some sort of debate about the proper way to say it) are one of Buryat’s national dish. If you’re familiar with georgian cuisine, this is the local version of khinkali. You eat it the same way : bite, drink the broth and eat the rest of the dumpling. They’re supposed to have 33 folds exactly.

• Bukhler (бухлер) is a lamb stew but you can find it made with beef.

• Shulen (Шулэн) is a lamb broth with small pasta in it., kind of like Central Asian lagman.

• Saguday (Сагудай) is like a fish carpaccio, prepared with raw fish, vinegar and onion. Not cheap though.

• Russian salad but Baikal style, not sure there’s a proper name for it though : it’s the usual hard boiled eggs, veges, herbs and mayonnaise + the local ingredient, smoked omul.

• Fish soup, everyone has its own version that sometimes include red caviar so watch out if like me you’re not a fan of fish eggs.

• Various fish meals such as grilled fish, baked fish and if you can find fish pirozhki don’t miss out they are delicious.

• They also make desert with honey, various berries like cranberries, sea ​​buckthorns and pine nuts.

• Siberian style teas : sea buckthorn tea (I’m an huge fan of ablepikha chai), black tea with berries, herbs, honey.

Some cafés/restaurents I recommend in Khuzhir :

  • Café Baikal view
  • Villa Malina Olkhon
  • Café Ol’khon
  • Udatsha in small café in the village of Khakhantsy not of Khuzhir
  • Café Dakay
Where what to eat on Olkhon island 1


Note that if you travel in winter, there might be a lot less cafés open because it’s not the touristy season.

The 13 best places to visit on Olkhon island

Some places are easily accessible on foot from Khuzhir, wether you travel in winter or summer time. Locals offer tours to visitors on and around the lake in winter in their bukhanka UAZ and also boat tours kayak tours, horse ridding trips in the warmer months. To arrange a tour simply ask at your guesthouse, they will organise it for you.

Shaman Rock on Cape Burkhan

Cape Burkhan with Shaman Rock is the most famous place on Olkhon island, located within walking distance from the village of Khuzhir (about 15 minutes).

According to the legend the spirit/owner of Olkhon Khan Khute-Baabay lives in the cave (Burkhan means “god”). Buryats have lots of superstitions about the cave : one should not drive on wheels (vehicles and bicycles) next to Shaman Rock in fear of disturbing the spirit, kids will go mad if they enter the cave, and women will become infertile (the lady from my guesthouse very serioustly warned me not to get in).

Some also believe Gengis Khan is burried in the cave, but archeologist researches never found him.

Shaman Rock on Cape Burkhan

Buryats consider Shaman Rock sacred and even back in the days buddhists used it as a sanctuary and orthodox had placed an icon inside.

Apparently a few people fall from climbing Shaman Rock every year : coincidence or result of an angry spirit ?

The 13 pillars

The 13 pillars are called “serge” in Buryat language. There are located in front of Cape Burkhan, right before the way down to Shaman Rock. They represente the links between the “3 worlds”; like a tree, the roots are like “hell” and the tops are the sky. For shamans and believers the pillars are sacred and are a way to communicate with the spirits.

Each of the pillars represent the 13 sons (noyons) of the god Tengri who came down on earth to judge the men. They are located in front of Burkhan as the spirit of Khan Khute-Baabay is believed to live in the cave.

The colorful ribbons covering the Serge are in fact called khadak (like the tibetan Khata), they carry messages/prayers to the gods when the wind blows. Different colours for different requests for example the white is for health, the red for family matters and the blue is considered universal.

The 13 pillars

Serge should not be destroyed, they should fall by themselves in time but apparently one on Olkhon fell down in 2021, shamans said it was the wrong kind of wood and saw it has a bad omen.

Saraisky Bay Beach

The Saraiskiy beach stretches along the Saraisky Bay for three kilometers right next to Khuzhir. You can go for swim in the summer months and even get a banya as there are a few wooden banyas directly on the beach

Saraiskii Bay Beach

Khankhoy lake

15 kms south of Khuzhir is Khankhoy, a lake separated from lake Baikal by a narrow strip of land. If the water of Baikal is too cold to swim even in the middle of summer then head to Khankhoy where it is much warmer.

Khankjoy lake 1

The ethnographic museum/traditional buryat village

The ethnographic museum is a traditional Buryat village located about 5 kilometers before Khuzhir on the ferry’s road in the village of Maly Khuzhir.

You won’t find traditional Buryat yurts used by nomads but wooden houses in a round-ish shape of a yurt. This is how Buryat people lived when they first settled from their nomadic lives. It’s interesteing as it’s kind of halfway between a russian isba and a yurt. 800₽ entrance fee, free of charge of children.

The ethnographic museum traditional buryat village

Cape Khoboy and Deva rock

Cape Khoboy is the Northern tip of Olkhon island. Day trips from Khuzhir are organised in summer and winter. Usually the tours take the whole day, include a lunch and stops at many places along the way. I did a winter tour so we drove on frozen Baikal in a UAZ van the whole day, stopping to see ice caves and the insanely blue piles of ice. (Expect to pay around 2000₽/person) In the summer time boat tours can be organised all the way to Cape Khoboy too.

Locals say from the sea the cape looks like a woman’s face and according to the legend she got punished and turned into stones for her sins.
If you’re lucky you can see seals. Khoboy means “fangs” in Buryat.

Cape Khoboy and Deva rock

Shara – Nur lake

Shara-Nur lake is located almost in the center of Olkhon and is kind of hidden around mountains and forests. Its name means “yellow lake” in Buryat language.

The lake’s mud is popular for its healing properties because of the sulfure it contains, but back in the days bubbles coming from the ground thought to be made by an evil snake and locals used to avoid the place.

A visit to Shara-Nur can be included in tours to Cape Khoboy. Best to visit in the summer

Shara Nur lake

Cape Tutyrkhey

Rocky cape Tutyrkhey is located in the southern part of the west coast of Olkhon. Tutyrkhey is one of the capes of the Kobylya Golova peninsula

It’s a steep 60 meters cliff facing the Maloye More Strait, the “Small Sea” strait separting Olkhon to the mainland.

Plenty of archaeological finds were discovered there including a semi circle balcony facing Baikal and ruins of several buildings dating from around the 10th century.

Cape Tutyrkhey

Cape Sagan-Khushun or the Three Brothers’ Rock

Cape Sagan-Khushin is a one kilometer long cape looking white from the sea, hence is name in Buryat meaning “white cape”. Its second name the “3 bothers rock” refers to the 3 pyramid shape rocks on the cape.

The local legend says that a shaman refused to let his daughter marry so she fled with her lover. The father asked his 3 sons to find their sister, which they did but she begged them not to tell. They returned home saying they didn’t find her but the father knew they lied as he was a shaman. He turned them into stone.

Cap Sagan Khushun or the Three Brothers Rock

Cape Khorgoy & the Kurykan wall

The cape Khorgoy is located in the south of Olkhon. Parts of an ancient wall called the Kurykan wall stand on the cape and is believed to be from around the 6th century but is prupose is unclear. Some believe that the wall is a defensive purpose, others say it was part of a building used for sacrifices.

The Kurykan wall owes its name to the Kurykan people who inhabited the area, and are believed to have built it.

Cape Khorgoy the Kurykan wall

The dream cave Metchta

The cave Metchta meaning “dream cave” was discovered in the 1960’s. According to speleologists it’s more than 800 meters long and about 25 million years old. Covered with varied formations, pretty looking stalactites and stalagmites that gave the name of “dream cave”

The dream cave

Uzury village & Mount Rab

Uzury is a small village located next to mounts Talgoi et Rab in the North of Olkhon. A location where the island’s first meteorlogical station was founded (the Barguzin freezing wind blows there, similar to the Bora wind). One can climb up mount Rab in a couple of hours for awesome views.

Pad Uzury Mont Rab

Ogoy island & the white stupa

Not on Olkhon itself but definitely part of this list is the island of Ogoy where a white stupa was built in 2005. The island is nearby Olkhon and a popular place of pilgrammage for buddhist Buryats. Located in the Maloye More between Olkhon and the mainland.

The location of the stupa was not chosen randomly but from the predictions of some lamas, even though locals shamans were tottaly against it. Inside the stupa were placed various Buddhist relics and a bronze figurine of the Troma Nagmo, the Black Wrathful Mother, important in Tibetan Buddhism.

Ogoy island white stupa

More places to visit

If you want even more places to visit, check out : the Peschany sand dunes, the Cape Khorin-Irgi, Tashkiney Pad, the Zagli Bay, Cape Shunte-Levy and the Rock of love, Cape Khalte, Mount Zhima, the Gate of Olkhone (Ольхонские Ворота) the strait separating the island to the mainland.

All the locations on a map

FAQ

How long should you spend on Olkhon ?

3 days / 2 nights is the minimum. On the first day you will arrive in the afternoon if leaving Irkutsk in the morning, you will have time to explore around Khuzhir, on the second day you can go for a tour of the island, and on the third day you go back to Irkutsk. I spent a week on Olkhon island early march, I did not get bored at all.

Is Lake Baikal worth visiting?

Absolutely. Baikal is the largest fresh water lake on our planet, full of legends & superpowers for locals, and you might feel it too ! A once in a lifetime experience in my opinion.

Is it expensive to visit Baikal lake & Olkhon island ?

No it’s not. It’s cheaper to visit Olkhon for a few days than Moscow for sure. If you travel on the Transsiberian then it’s just a side trip from the railway and if you travel to Siberia just for Baikal you can get a return flight Moscow – Irkutsk for 350€ in the middle of summer (prices as of May 2024).

Olkhon island Baikal 1
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