places you only know from Risk
I write to you from Irkutsk, Siberia. Yes, it's more than just a territory on the RISK board. (Though incidentally it's considerably further south than in the game. The Trans-Siberian, like the Trans-Canadian, stays fairly close to the country's southern border all along its route.) It's famous for ... er ... not a whole lot, other than being the place of exile for many of the Decemberists aristocrat-revolutionaries, back in the day.
Krasnoyarsk is quite a cool city by Siberian standards, not least for its convenient location a mere 7km north of the Stolby Nature Reserve, a trip to which answered in part: why is the life expectancy of Russian men so low? (60 years - extremely low for a country so wealthy - compared to 74 years for Russian woman.) It's not just the rampant alcoholism, the vodka-drinking for breakfast, the continuing classification of beer as a soft drink. It has a lot to do with the fact that, so far as I can tell, Russian men disproportionately tend to be psychotic adrenalin junkies.
"Someone fall off and die here," Kostya said, and he paused to think a moment, "every week? No, no. Every two week." He waved a negligent hand at Pillar No. 1, the first colossal pile of karst granite thrusting its way 80 metres into the sky from the taiga forest below. Around us, schoolchildren on day trips shouted excitedly, climbing all over the smaller rocks, and a few beginning expeditions up the pillar. "You see those marks?" Kostya pointed at two parallel sets of vertical striations. "Last year, a boy fall off, he grab with his fingernails." He shook his head sadly.
There are about ten such huge heaps of granite protruding from Stolby - Pillars 1-2-3, Grandmother, Grandfather, Crocodile, Monkey, Wild Rocks, etc. - many of them used by the Krasnoyarsk alpine club, among Russia's finest thanks to a rather ruthless process of elimination. A sizable memorial near the entrance to the reserve pays tribute to the many local alpinists who have fallen to their deaths and in doing so presumably improved the club's average skill level. A few years ago, to celebrate their sixty-year anniversary, a few of them climbed Pillar No. 2, the highest and hardest, to celebrate. No big deal, right? Except this time this group brought a cow along.
The cow successfully summitted. No word on whether it went back down the hard way or the easy way, or if the latter, whether it has its own space in the memorial.
A hundred years ago, the local Bolsheviks huddled and conspired in Stolby's caves, plotting and waiting for their revolution still a decade away. And even today, loners and outcasts live in the nature reserves, even through the vicious Siberian winter, in hidden houses and caves, hunting to survive. Kostya - friendly, well-educated, thirtysomething - spent three weeks living in Stolby himself, some fifteen years ago, living off cat soup and pine-needle tea.
It's easy to see how you could live undetected if you want to. At ground level, the colossal pillars of the taiga's birch and pine trees seem to stretch all the way up to heaven; this forest that carpets the land all the way up to the circumpolar treeline near the Arctic Sea is vast, cool, mysterious. The air is damp, cold - we were snowed on, as we scrambled tothe top of one of the rock formations - and rich with life. The undergrowth is sparse enough to permit walking in any direction, but thick enough to obscure vision after only a hundred feet.
For a moment I thought I saw, from the corner of my eye, a strange, ornately carved, little wooden house standing on four tall bonelike stilts; but when I turned to look, it was gone. Just my mind playing tricks on me.
Every so often, when travelling, you run into a genuine oasis: remote and laid-back, cheap and comfortable, set amid stunning natural beauty, a haven for cool fellow-travellers from around the world, a genuinely magical spot somehow not yet overrun by tour buses, gap-year teenagers, crowds of hawkers or rows of souvenir stalls.
Oases I have found, over the years: Yangshuo (China). Tetebatu (Indonesia). Kokrobite (Ghana). The Vumba (Zimbabwe). Nepal (all of it). The Daintree (Australia). Dahab (Egypt). Caye Caulker (Belize). Hampi (India). Nungwi (Zanzibar). I wasn't expecting to add to that hallowed list while in Russia - but I am pleased to today append the name Olkhon Island.
It's a four-hour drive from Irkutsk to the ferry, along a wide black highway divided by a dotted line largely ignored by the teeming Russian traffic. Past smokestacks belching filth into the sky (Irkutsk, like most Russian cities, is smelled before it's seen), airfields above which light aircraft perform unlikely acrobatics, roadside produce markets, farmland, Siberian cowboys herding cattle through the rolling hills, and then back into wilderness: rippling hills of treeless, grass-covered steppe alternating with dense carpets of taiga forest, a kaleidoscopic palette of soft yellow and green. We stop at a Yukos gas station, then at a busy cafe. Half of its customers are Slavic, tall and fine-featured, descendants of settlers and exiles; half are the local Buryat, short and stocky, their Asiatic features a reminder that we're a long, long way from Europe.
Eventually there are no more trees, just sand-coloured grass that looks from a distance like raw desert. Lake Baikal's appearance is so sudden it seems like a mirage. Banana-shaped, sixty kilometres across, Baikal is smaller than any of North America's Great Lakes, but so deep - an incredible 1637 metres - that it contains more water than all of them put together, a full fifth of the planet's unfrozen fresh water. (For comparison, Superior bottoms out at 405 metres.) Baikal's water is deep blue, crystal pure, sharply cold even in summer. It is surrounded on all sides by high, folded mountains. A single promontory of these mountains extends into the lake, and is cut off from the mainland by a narrow channel. A ferry takes us efficiently across this channel, to the stark, barren, wildly beautiful steppe hills of Olkhon Island.
It isn't all steppe; half the island's soil is too salty to support anything but grass, and the other is occupied by a great forest of green and golden pine. Colossal jagged rocks and headlands jut into the lake. On both sides, but particularly the east, huge cliffs fall almost vertically into the water; the island's highest point, 1230 metres above lake level, is almost immediately next to the deepest trench in the lake, almost three vertical kilometres below. The island's shape mimics that of the lake that surrounds it, a banana 72 km by 14.
Between the shining mountains, the glittering lake, the windswept grassy hills, and the green and golden forests, all at epic scale, Olkhon is shockingly gorgeous. Well into this century it was inhabited only by Buryats, nomadic and Buddhist, who herded their cattle north and south depending on the season. Their offering-places and prayer poles wrapped with colourful fabrics still dot the landscape; they believed Olkhon to be one of the world's central power places. Particularly its northern tip, a jagged rock called "Khoboy", or "the Tooth," which incidentally is exactly where my watch stopped the day before yesterday.
The Slavs were sent here by Stalin, who established a gulag on the northwestern edge of the island, and exiled trainloads of Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians here. Those who survived the nightmarish journey then had to face Olkhon's brutal winters (though at least their summers were pretty.) Nothing is left of that gulag but ruins; the island's one real village, Khuzhir, occupied by some 1200 of its 1500 inhabitants, is further south, halfway up the coast from the ferry, inland from a harbour guarded by colossal rocks.
Khuzhir is a town of wooden fences, wooden houses, rutted, uneven dirt streets covered with dung. Cows outnumber motorized vehicles by about three to one. Its tiny industrial port area is half-collapsed, all but defunct. At first, it looks like one of the most uninviting towns unimaginable. But look a little closer, and you'll see that some of these houses are shops; some are hostels; one even provides satellite Internet access (though it wasn't available when I tried it) and a surprising number of Western tourists are wandering around. Wander around a bit, and eventually - very soon, actually, given the size of Khuzhir - you'll find the main reason for this: Nikita's Homestead.
I don't want to portray Olkhon as an undiscovered paradise. Both Western and Russian tourists come here by the boatload, particularly in high summer, when you sometimes have to wait in line overnight on the mainland side to catch the ferry. There are guesthouses and B&Bs not just in Khuzhir but in tiny (15-building) hamlets that dot the coast. In summer, up to 20 jeeps a day drive tourists around to see the island's sights. But it's fair to say that much of this is down to one man, a former Russian table-tennis champion named Nikita, who fell in love with Olkhon, built his house here, and has expanded it into a cozy, comfortable, welcoming guesthouse complex with room for maybe twenty. For room and full board at Nikita's Homestead you pay 600 rubles a day, or some US$25.
Of course it's not ultraluxury. There's power, but there is no running water; you have to make do with a banya sauna-bath and bucket toilets. If you want a beer, it's delivered in a litre jar from some local brewmeister; if you want to rent a mountain bike, you may be sent down the street to another local entrepeneur; and if you want something not found in the small local minimarkets, well, there's a minibus to Irkutsk every morning. But such desires are rare to unheard of, when you can chill, wander, tramp along the pebbly beaches and through pine forests, hop on the daily Russian Jeep tours to the wilds of the island's north, take a boat out into the lake, watch the incredible sunsets, or explore the lakes and highlands of the rugged interior. Maybe in summer the crowds will find you - but I doubt it. It's very easy to find peace, on Olkhon Island. I hope it never changes.