The island offers up one of her many pleasures and the rain ceases, briefly
06.07.2011 - 06.07.2011 17 °C
Olkhon Island, Russia
Squat toilets and cold showers are considered luxuries on our island. Yet with cold rain still upon us the dawning of this new day resplendent with hangovers, tardiness and an excess of drunken stories from the night before did not bode well.
Eric with what had now become an expected misfortune had placed his North Face fleece on his electric heater the night before. Now resplendent with a unique and slightly holey jacket it proffered welcome merriment at the start of what promised to be a rain soaked day. With our scheduled jeep cancelled exciting activities seemed limited.
However, as with our chance meeting the day before, whilst the weather was against us, fortune continued to favor us today. At breakfast a German girl, fluent in both English and Russian was able to offer us the promise of a truly Russian experience. Perfect, for six weary travelers still needing to remove Trans-Siberian memories from their bodies a Russian banya or bathhouse was booked. For three houses this communal activity would provide shelter, warmth and unlimited hot water. By the end we were all grateful that the sun was not shining on us that day.
As with Japanese onsen there is a required ritual at the Russian bathhouse. Arriving at the large wooden cabin, chai or tea is first taken in the sitting area. Rested after the short work from our guesthouse we then enter the washing area. Scolding heart water, from the wood fired stove, is mixed with cold to create the perfect shower.
Large pans allowed this most welcome blend to cleanse and rejuvenate our bodies. Fully prepared one then enters the parilka or steam room for the final stage of ritualistic cleansing. Here, rocks heated by the furnace, have water poured over them using a long-handled ladle.
Along with a home blend of green tea, mint and larch (as we had seen for much of our journey across Russia) we had also the foresight to bring both beer and water to our banya experience. After the deep warmth of our bathing ritual the cold beer was idyllic even with the hangover remnants that remained with some of our Norwegian friends. Whilst this communal bathing appeared unfamiliar it soon became natural as the rotation of washing, steam room and beer continued throughout the afternoon.
After cleansing we were ready for the final stage in our banya initiation. This would involve the use of a venik (a tied bunch of birch branches). With a bather laid down in the steam room, another holding their feet up (to ensure total relaxation) and another progressively beating their back with the venik the final stage of this potentially painful but generally pleasant experience proved a perfect relaxant.
Assuming an informal role of chief beater and with towel secured around my head (to improve the experience for myself I am assured) a succession of Norwegian and American girls, English and Australian men pass through the steam room. With toxins now removed from the skin, after the post birching cold shower, the process is repeated for three hours until we are all clean and joyful of the Russian bathhouse experience.
With a renewed admiration for this island of surprises and with the rain offering a temporary sojourn we walk back towards Nikita’s but this time are able to resist her sultry temptations and explore the unmistakable Shaman Rocks.
Whilst not warranting naming, if they lay on the west coast of Scotland, the rugged coastline, beach views and prayer poles make for a pleasant diversion.
Apparently, the locals are of the same opinion. With mud flats offering wheel spinning options but also extremely muddy slides to the lake below drivers of various dilapidated eastern bloc cars demonstrate their prowess at over accelerating on wet, slippery ground. Clearly intoxicated and with frequent stops to ask us for more Vodka they fail, despite desperate attempts, to damage anything but the landscape significantly. For an island with few attractions it is vaguely understandable why this sort of activity might be considered fun. Yet, the young driver with what appeared his mother in the passenger seat (who might have been an elderly girlfriend) seemed pathetic, to our western eyes, as he tore up and nearly wrote off his prized 1980s Lada multiple times.
Whilst our merry adventures the night before caused some concerns that vaguely remembered events might be relived we still found ourselves returning to the Chinese temple, of Nikita’s, for another evening of socializing.
Resplendent with beer and Eric’s freshly smoked Omul fish (a delicacy found only in Lake Baikal) a promised evening of one beer and bed turned into a two o’clock in the morning muddy return to our guesthouse.
With promises made to meet up with many of our fellow revelers at the Naadam festival, in a few days time, the promise of fun and friends in Mongolia now also beckoned.