The Olkhon Island is probably one of the few spots on earth, which hasn’t been polluted by people. The lake is still so clean, that if you would fill a cup directly from the shore, you could drink its water straight away. The lake Baikal is not only the oldest and deepest lake in the world, but additionally covers 20% of world’s fresh water supply.
Natives of Olkhon are well aware of the treasure they inhabit. Especially the Shamans that live in close relation to nature. It’s an Island full of legends; every stone and every tree has his own story, his personality. When I arrived in this desert of ice dunes that surround the deep blue mirror of the lakes surface, I felt straight away the mysticism of the place. I wanted to discover more about life on the island. Nicolas Pernot knows Olkhon and the Baikal by heart. He told me some very interesting facts about this place and its Inhabitants.
We are now on the Olkhon Island, at the southwest shore of the lake. How is every day life here?
1.300 people live in this village and in total on the Island there are 2000 people. In soviet times the main activity was fishing. There used to be a fishing factory. They had about 80 ships with up to 100 Tons- unbelievable. In the 60s they were made out of wood and they where fishing the omul- an endemic species of fish living in Baikal. People are still fishers but now everybody is going on their own with their small boats and it’s harder to survive only with fishing. But there is something new- tourism. Tourism has completely changed the style of living here: electricity came to Olkhon only in 2005. It comes through an underwater cable, from the mainland. There used to be a generator in Soviet times in the port but in the 90s everything collapsed and there was no electricity anymore. It was very hard times- in whole Russia. Now there is better comfort of life and Tourism has totally changed the face of this Island. Especially in summer it’s very crowded compared to the winter. That’s why you will never see me here in summer. It’s too loud; people get drunk and don’t respect the nature. For someone like me that has seen this place in winter, it’s horrible but for tourists I guess it’s still paradise.
Tourism has totally changed the face of this Island
What countries do the tourists come from? How is tourism evolving?
In the 90s, when nobody would come here, I heard that mostly Germans and French visited the Island. This is why Nikita, the owner of the guesthouse speaks French. He was the first to open his doors for tourists, as he was the only one to speak a little bit of English and later on French. Nikita invented tourism; he had the idea of building a house for visitors, as he knew that they would pay for a little bit more comfort. And so people decided to stay, and there came more and more and he continued to build another house and another one and now Nikita’ s guesthouse is a village inside the village. Nikita is a very important man in this village, even though he’s not originally from here. But he has invented a whole new concept and he is considered the dusha, the soul of this place.
Then the tourism fast evolved into national backpackers, the logic is the same in every part of the world. It was like this in Thailand.
Now there come lots of Russian tourists, although mass tourism hasn’t arrived here yet. And a new phenomenon is the Chinese. They are coming here in masses, as they have cheap flight tickets, visa free access, and money –mostly educated young people from Beijing.
You told me you travelled to other places around Russia like St. Petersburg, Moscow etc. Are these Russians very different than Siberians?
Russians are not all the same. I could never live in Moscow for example. And no capitals actually represent the country. Does Rome represent Italy? Ok, maybe a little (I as Italian laugh. He’s right). But does Paris represent France? Not at all! Or does Berlin give you an idea of Germany? I don’t think so. So I would never stay in Moscow. When you come from the Olkhon Island to the city, you just want to leave. Even Irkutsk is too much for me. The traffic, the sounds, the advertisement; and nothing is tasty.
Do the people here consider themselves Russians? Or what do they think about the City-people from Moscow or St. Petersburg?
I think the people here consider themselves Siberians before they consider themselves Russians. The Inhabitants of the Island feel the distance to Moscow. They are use to make everything on their own. People don’t trust the state or anybody to come here to build roads and so one. They are satisfied with what they have and they have everything they need. And in case, the next city is located 300 km from the Island. In Russia, that is not considered a far distance. Everything is near, as long as there is a good road.
But that’s actually a question you have to ask a Russian because I’m not sure I have the answer. But there is something here in Russia that you really feel everybody is sharing, at least that’s my opinion. Of course there are some tensions between some ethnic groups like the Buriats and the Russians but you can’t really see it.
Right, the Buriats: Can you tell me a bit about those people? I heard there are Shamans living on the Island?
This Island is holy for the Shamans. The Buriats, the natives of Olkhon, are divided into the eastern Buriats from Buriatia, that are more Buddhists and the Western Buriats from Irkutsk and all the west coast, that are Shamans. There must be some Shamans on the village but I don’t want to disturb them. So many tourists come here and want to see them. And when they see these Posters on the wall with a picture of a Shaman and the number to call, they ask me is this a real Shaman? And I answer look, it’s written in English. What do you expect? So it’s actually not a Shaman, but a Showman.
But once a year during the summer, Shamans from all over Buriatia gather here in the full moon for 2 days. There is a ritual going on and everybody can attend or even ask the help of Shamans. Shamanism is a really ancient tradition, one of the oldest in the world. And it’s still alive, very alive. But it doesn’t belong to a museum.
I’m no film director, but I’m learning
What are your plans for the next year(s); do you already have a new project in mind?
I started my new project a few days ago, which is a Film-Documentary about lake Baikal. I’m no film director, but I’m learning.
Another thing, I will write my fourth book. It will come out at the end of next year and it will be about Georgia and Caucasus. My former book was about Tajikistan after having intensively travelled through that country. But my new paradise is actually Georgia. My life now is spread between France where I work, Georgia, where I drive around and take pictures and Baikal of course.
Ok, I think that was it. Thank you so much for the interview. Is there maybe some last thing you want to say?
He thinks about it. And becomes really serious) Yeah, I want to say to all the travellers and tourists around the world to slow down. Slow down, and watch.