Khuzhir, Russia — It hadn't occurred to me to take sunscreen to Siberia. But as I lay baking in 85-degree sunlight, I realized that a tube of SPF 30 was as important here in the summer as a down jacket in winter.
Siberia tends to conjure images of an Arctic wasteland and unforgiving weather, a place of harsh exile for people who did not toe the Soviet line. And although there is some truth to that stereotype, Siberia is a different place in the summer, as I found out during a two-week visit here last July.
In summer, the sun remains above the horizon until 10:30 p.m., as though working overtime to make up for its pitiful performance during the long, cruel winters. The snow melts, revealing a landscape bursting with wildflowers, birch, cedar and pine trees, and countless rivers and lakes -- including Lake Baykal, one of the most remarkable lakes in the world.
The 395-mile-long, crescent-shaped lake is the oldest existing freshwater lake on Earth -- about 20 million to 25 million years old. It's also the deepest -- more than a mile at some points. It holds 20% of the world's fresh-water supply.
But the lake is much more than statistics. It is also a place steeped in myth and religion, considered one of the holiest sites in Eurasia. Its spiritual center and largest island, Olkhon, was my destination.
Baykal is relatively unknown outside Russia, though it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I knew of it only because I had passed by it 10 years earlier while traveling from Moscow to China aboard the Trans-Siberian. From the train's soot-stained windows, the lake had appeared majestic and beckoning. I vowed to return so I could explore it.
Thick pine forests
I had flown from Moscow to the East Siberian town of Irkutsk, where I joined two Frenchmen in their mid-20s, Alexandre Kotenkoff and Jean-Luc Viallet, and Leonard Simanovsky, our Russian tour guide. Leonard, a slightly stocky, good-natured local, had never traveled outside of Siberia, but he provided a wealth of information about the region and was an amicable companion besides.
Irkutsk is only 43 miles from Lake Baykal's southern shore, but Olkhon Island is about midway up the lake, and we had to drive about five hours along a road that was alternately good pavement and -- far more common -- lengths of dirt and mud.
It took less than 30 minutes in Leonard's Toyota Corona to destroy my preconceived notions of Siberia as frozen tundra.
The suburbs of Irkutsk gave way to grassy hills, which, as we gained altitude, grew thick with pine trees. The forest was a surprise. Not only was I not expecting it in Siberia but it also reminded me of driving to Lake Tahoe, which coincidently, I would find out later, is the sister lake of Baykal.
Once we started back downhill, the forest disappeared and the terrain mellowed into rolling steppes. These grassy plains -- the quintessential Siberia -- dominated the scenery for most of our drive.
When we stopped occasionally, Leonard pointed out various wild herbs among the grasses and numerous wildflowers, which, when crushed, gave off pungent odors. The locals, he told us, used the herbs for medicinal purposes.
The Buryats are the largest ethnic minority in Siberia, and they inhabit most of the area surrounding Lake Baykal. They were originally from Mongolia, just south of Baykal, and were shamanists for many years until their conversion to Buddhism and Christianity. A handful of modern shamans, however, have hung on to the beliefs of their forefathers and still practice today, performing services and healings.
Olkhon Island is the spiritual epicenter for the Buryat. Generations have held it sacred, passing down a rich heritage of legend and spirituality. Every rock on Olkhon that resembles a man or animal seems to have some ancient fairy tale behind it, every cave or soaring eagle, a spirit lurking within.
Fueling its mystical allure is the shape of the island itself: At 45 miles long and 9 miles wide, it mirrors the form of the lake.
I caught my first glimpse of Olkhon and the lake at the same time. We had just rounded a bend in the road and were heading downhill to a small, wooden ferry dock when the sparkling blue of Lake Baykal came into view. Olkhon and its grass-covered hills lay a mile offshore.
After crossing to the island, we caught a bus to Khuzhir, a small fishing village where we would stay. Khuzhir is a desolate place with a few hundred wooden homes and wide dirt roads that are used more often by dogs and cows than residents. Though it's the unofficial capital of the island, it has no phones and only three hours of electricity a day.
It also has no hotels. Instead, many residents have turned their homes into bed and breakfasts, and Leonard had arranged for us to stay at one. Olga Zvereva, our jovial, hardworking proprietor, made sure we were settled and comfortable before busying herself with chores.