The one place you should never go: Olkhon Island, Russia

I’m going to let you in on a secret.

There’s an island where you should never, ever go.

It doesn’t have paved roads. There’s faulty electricity. Nothing is open when you want it to be, because stores seem to take lunch breaks for at least two days. You rarely meet another person on the streets, and rarely hear voices from the houses.

It’s so quiet during the day.
And the silence seeps into everything.

On the first night, you will leave your room just as the sun is setting. The wind will push you up to the cliffs where trees are tied with blue silk prayer scarves and tattered kerchiefs. In the dying light, the mainland hills turn an otherworldly blue that stops you in your tracks. The boats below won’t seem to notice how long you stay up there, still and transfixed.

During the day, there’s not much to do except read, write, walk, and rest. Maybe you’ll play chess with a friend, or sit in the banya for a half hour, or take your time with a long meal, or simply go outside and stare at whatever stretches before you.

At night, the stars will come out, the windows of the dark wooden houses will glow with orange light, and the moon will rise thick, massive and bright over the eastern hills.

You’ll find yourself going for walks, long ambling strolls, just because your feet pick up and go. You’ll loop around the same streets and you’ll hike up hills to get views over the water. Half-stray dogs will follow you and roll at your feet as you sit on dusty rocks and stare out to the distance.

And you will hear nothing but the wind and the birds.

Even with your friends, though you may stay up until the late hours playing card games, considering ‘Would you rather…?’ riddles, and telling ghost stories, the quiet will get you during the day. You will drink excessive cups of tea while sitting outside on the porch, watching the pets and resident artists nap in the sun.

Your heart will breathe and your body will rest.

The island will stop you and slow you like amber. You’ll lose track of time, of the day you arrived and the day you’re supposed to leave.

And you will feel so at ease, so rested by the calm and arrested by the beauty, so perplexed by this place that barely gets a mention in your guidebook, that other travellers pass over because it’s too far out of the way, that you’ll be tempted to preserve it by keeping it a secret forever.

Because the quiet, and the water, and the cliffs, and the wind, will have turned it into one of your favourite places in the world.

But, of course, some secrets are too good to really keep.

So instead, you will reach a compromise. You will tell your friends about the silence and the scenery and the peace and the calm, but put a massive asterisk at the end.

You will tell them about this place – one of the most awe-inspiring, one of the most surprising – but that it’s an island that they will never, ever want to visit.

Because, if they do, they may never, ever want to leave.

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26 Responses to The one place you should never go: Olkhon Island, Russia

  1. Dusty 21 September, 2012 at 08:39 #

    Sounds absolutely hideous, no one should go here….what the name again :)

    • na-o-mi 8 October, 2012 at 02:36 #

      Gotta keep it secret! ;)

  2. Ekua 15 October, 2012 at 07:24 #

    Sounds great… I love places like this that are such a contrast to my every day life. I actually have never felt inspired to go to Russia, but if someday inspiration strikes, you can bet I won’t follow your advice to not go here ;)

    • na-o-mi 15 October, 2012 at 16:39 #

      I know – the contrast was killer. Although it did really remind me of those grey, windswept norcal beach towns!

  3. Jessica Wray 17 October, 2012 at 15:42 #

    Haha awesome! What a unique place. I wouldn’t mind spending a few days there, just wasting time, hanging out, and doing nothing. Don’t worry though, I’m still stuck in Korea so I won’t be making it anyways.. :P

    • na-o-mi 17 October, 2012 at 16:58 #

      Ha! There is no ‘wasting time’ here…even all that time you spend doing absolutely nothing is valuable for your mental health! ;)

      • Jessica Wray 17 October, 2012 at 17:21 #

        Yes, I totally mean wasting time in a positive way! I feel the same! haha

  4. Larissa 21 October, 2012 at 02:58 #

    You may have just convinced me it’s time I make my way back to the motherland. What a special little place you found, I promise I won’t tell anyone either.

    • na-o-mi 21 October, 2012 at 15:03 #

      DO IT. I would go back in a heartbeat!

  5. Flora 22 October, 2012 at 04:15 #

    Awesome discovery. It sounds like a perfect place to get lost in. Definitely on the list for when I eventually make it to Russia!

    • na-o-mi 22 October, 2012 at 15:00 #

      Somehow, I have a feeling that you in particular would love it – it’s the perfect spot to go, disconnect and write!!

  6. John C 27 November, 2012 at 02:30 #

    I have just returned from Olkhon (in winter) and absolutely loved it! A magical place!

    • na-o-mi 27 November, 2012 at 14:08 #

      Isn’t it, though??

  7. Phyu-Sin 8 December, 2012 at 05:12 #

    Out of all the travel blogs I have read, I absolutely love your pieces – especially this particular one. They’re well written and very poetic that you don’t necessarily find in many other peoples’ writings. Thanks for sharing your experiences!

    • na-o-mi 14 December, 2012 at 20:40 #

      Wow…that’s really kind of you to say! Thank you :)

  8. Greg Prohl 10 January, 2013 at 09:54 #

    A very well written, thoughtful piece. You had me wondering with the title and then I saw the photos and about a quarter of the way down the page I said to myself, “Aha,” But don’t worry, your secret place is safe with me. Just to make sure I avoid this horrible island, where exactly is it?

    • na-o-mi 11 January, 2013 at 18:37 #

      Haha, glad you can keep a secret! ;) It’s in Lake Baikal, a worth the effort it takes to get there!!

  9. Brian Schweitzer 4 April, 2013 at 21:53 #

    This island is really an amazing place as it sits on Lake Baikal, which is the largest freshwater lake by volume, the deepest lake in the world, and the cleanest lake in the world. Lake Baikal is also one of the oldest lakes in the world at 25 million years old.

    The island has a combination of desert, steppe, and taiga. On the western coast of the island you can find Shamanka, or Shaman’s Rock. The local indigenous people, the Buryats believe in Shamanism and this is Baikal’s most famous landmark.

    However, as mentioned in the article, be ready to backpack and services are very limited. However, it is a nature lovers paradise.

  10. Colleen Brynn 8 April, 2013 at 06:56 #

    I totally have to go there on my Trans-Siberian trip this summer! What’s the best way to get to the Island?

    • na-o-mi 8 April, 2013 at 20:54 #

      There are local marshrutkas to the island from Irkutsk’s Central Market! Cheap and fast due to how badly the drivers speed ;) Have fun!! xx

  11. Dv0rsky 30 August, 2013 at 15:05 #

    gosh, next time i get to russia, i’ll try to visit it

  12. Yasminhth 4 February, 2014 at 02:59 #

    Hi,
    Doing research on Olkhon Island on Google, I get into your blog. My congratulations for well written story. I really enjoy it.

    We plan to go to lake Baikal before taking a cruise in Volga river. For a cruise, it’s an organized trip, so I do not have things to worry. But for the trip to Baikal-Olkhon, we are by ourselves. We wonder what trouble we are going into on this trip because : we don’t speak Russian, we don’t know anyone in that place.

    Did you travel to Olkhon with an organized group ? Do you speak Russian ? Have you ever felt unsecure at that place ?

    Thank you.

    • Naomi Alyssa 6 February, 2014 at 15:38 #

      I went with three friends, with had only the most basic Russian phrases and an ability to read Cyrillic. It was fine :) We stayed at Nikita’s and didn’t feel unsafe at all! It’s such a small community, that it felt very safe. Enjoy it – it was my favourite stop on the Trans-Siberian :)

  13. Thom Schwarz 26 January, 2015 at 08:52 #

    Sounds divine–just like Cliff Island, Maine. Shhh.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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    […] all of the Russian cities we hit up, Olkhon Island remains like a brand in my mind – and the one place you should never go. To have that trip, and that place, as one last hurrah with three of my best friends when we all […]

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