✍️: Erin 📸: Jan & Erin
We detoured to Olkhon Island, the largest island in Lake Baikal, on the recommendations of a several locals who raved about its beauty and remoteness.
Sadly, the latter wasn’t our experience. Maybe we didn’t see what they did, or maybe they haven’t been in recent years. Much of what we saw looked like unregulated building and classic over-tourism.
Olkhon Island’s beauty
The coast is stunning, and I see why people are drawn to this island in eastern Russia. Lakeside cliffs span much of the coast, offering unhindered views of the world’s deepest lake. The clear air allows a deep horizon of the dark blue water, punctuated by rolling white waves. Long sand beaches bridge the shoreline between rocky, grass-topped cliffs.
We found a few hours of quiet after walking far up a sandy beach past other tourists. A brief interlude of rain dampened the nearly white sand around us. We also biked to the top of a lookout, a gazebo perched at the highest point, that offered unhindered, quiet views of the lake and rolling clouds of an approaching thunderstorm.
Tourism Without Infrastructure
But in many places we saw classic over-tourism. Lines of soviet-era military vans ferry tourists to each scenic site. Visitors hurriedly jump out of the vans, snap photos, and then speed off to the next place. Broken glass and plastic bottles are strewn about if you look down, and graffiti is prominent on some of the most scenic rocks.
Pit toilets are the norm, with no indication the waste is being properly contained — just steps from the lake. I saw nary a sign of waste-water treatment, let alone municipal sewage management.
We rented mountain bikes for a day, and it was hard not to see shards of broken glass and hard plastic embedded all over the ground in an otherwise forested area south of the main town. It seems like glass bottles and plastic bins have been dumped here for years. It was so bad along some sections of beach that I wore hiking shoes, fearful that glass or hard plastic would slip into my sandals and under my feet.
Tourism to Blame?
With a hint of frustration, a friendly Russian we met on the bus and ferry to the island said the landscape had changed dramatically in recent years. He says it seems like a new guesthouse pops up every day in areas that just five years ago were bare.
According to a study and news articles I found after researching the island’s tourism history, to see what was maybe going on, it seems that his and my observations weren’t too far off.
The island, home to only about 1,500 residents, saw 50,000 tourists in 2000. That number has spiked in the years since — topping 1.4 million visitors in 2014. Among the biggest concerns is proper networks to supply water and handle sewage and other waste, according to research by the School of Russian and Asian Studies, a California-based team of consultants and researchers focused on the region.
And it’s not just tourists. Most towns around Lake Baikal lack such infrastructure, according to the Russian Academy of Sciences.
The main town on Olkhon Island, where most of the permanent residents live, is unpleasant. It’s divided by a wide dirt road scattered with cattle dung. The air is dusty from minibuses and Soviet-era military vans carrying tourists, often wizzing by at dangerous speeds. We avoided the town, going only to buy food to cook at our minimalist guesthouse, which seemed to be built of plywood not yet treated for the harsh weather — with a nail sticking out of a beam at head level.
One pleasant surprise by avoiding the town was walking by a ship graveyard, where the wrecked boats had been painted with essentially street art. The colors were especially bright on the cloud-covered day we happened across them.
Part of the Problem
I confess we didn’t help. The guesthouse where we stayed seemed to drain wastewater into a pit in the ground. We took one of the tours to the northwestern tip of the island, where we were treated to beautiful views and fresh soup by our incredibly friendly guide. But we’d stop briefly at one area, along with a dozen other vans, then speed off to the next place.
I hate to say it, mostly because the region relies on tourism, but I’d suggest skipping Olkhon Island if you only have a few days in the region. The island is a popular weekend away from Irkutsk, a city along the Trans-Siberian Railway and just west of Lake Baikal.
But if you go to the island, figure out a way to camp on your own (sustainably) or find an ecotourism agency to help plan your trip — and let us know what you find! We didn’t have the gear or planning time to do either; we just found a bus and went without doing much research. Lesson learned.