Our challenging journey from Irkutsk to Olkhon Island

| 5 min read

Our challenging journey from Irkutsk to Olkhon Island

Discovering the 'platskart' on our train ride from Ulan-Ude to Irkutsk

Half asleep, we sleepwalked into the train. Our brain couldn't handle the confusing numbering of the berths, so we stood there in the middle of the halfway, looking confused and obstructing the way for other passengers. Until another traveler pointed out which ones were our berths.

This train was very different from the ones we had taken earlier, we were about to find out what 'platskart' meant. There were no private compartments with a door anymore. Instead, it was just an open carriage with several small open compartments, one next to the other. Five to six people share such an open compartment, with two superposed berths facing each other. Apart from us there was not a single tourist on board.

I didn't experience much of the train ride through Irkutsk, as I slept from 5am till noon. The next hour, I tried avoiding the stare of two elder ladies sitting in front of me who kept on talking to me in Russion, even though it was clear that I didn't understand a word of what they were saying. I think they were being friendly, so I answered their questions with an awkward smile.

The confusing trip from Irkutsk to Olkhon Island

In Irkutsk, we headed straight to the tourist office. It was 1PM, which was too late for the bus to Olkhon Island. The employee from the tourist office told us we'd had to wait until tomorrow, because there were no other busses. We explained we really wanted to leave today and that we'd hitchhike if necessary. All we needed was a local bus to take us out of the city center to a place where we could start hitchhiking. Bus number 16, she said, and she marked a place on the map.

When bus 16 arrived, the driver said he wasn't going where we wanted to, and he drove away. Feeling completely confused with this contradictory information, we decided to take the bus to the airport that just drove by. The airport wasn't far from the place the girl from the tourist office had marked on our map.

On the bus, I studied the map and the itinerary to Olkhon Island. At a big intersection, we decided to try our luck and get off the bus. The driver called us back because this wasn't the airport yet, he said. When we explained we wanted to go to Olkhon Island, a familiar scene repeated itself. The driver gave us a speech in Russian, which basically meant this was not the right direction, but all the rest was unclear to us. He called a boy on the street, and drove away, leaving us in the hands of the young man.

The boy -Vladimir- talked a lot about buses, and to my understanding he said the same thing as the girl in the tourist office: that we had to wait until tomorrow. It took a lot of effort to make clear that we didn't care about the direct bus, we would hitchhike. At some point something magical happened: we understood each other. We had switched to communicating via the Google Translate app, each in turn writing down a sentence and showing it to the other. At some point, Vladimir showed us his phone screen which said: 'I will show you where you can take a bus to the slums.' The slums were not really our goal, but the general idea sounded right. Vladimir boarded a bus with us (in the opposite direction of where he was originally going) and paid for the three of us, refusing the money we offered him. On the bus he did some phone calls which sounded like information requests about buses. The bus took us back into the center, where we came from.'Let's go', Vladimir said, and he took us to a big parking lot with several minibuses. His Google Translate told us this bus would take us directly to the ferry to Olkhon Island. That was great! I told him he was an angel, to which he replied: 'Thank you for coming to Russia.'

From Irkutsk to Olkhon Island

This boy had made my day. I was getting so annoyed with Russians and their inability to speak English, feeling lost in the city of Irkutsk and loosing all hope to ever make it to Olkhon Island. Then, suddenly, this wonderful creature went out of his way to solve all our problems and showed us how helpful Russians can be if you take the time to listen.

From Irkutsk to Olkhon Island

After a long but relatively comfortable ride, our driver dropped us at the ferry to Olkhon island. Taking the ferry was easy, but once on the island, we still had to cover a few kilometers before reaching Khuzir, the main village on the island. Luckily, we soon find a friendly old man who was willing to take us there. The road was horribly bumpy and we bumped with our head against the roof of the car multiple times. The car was so old we thought it would fall apart and the doors fell open all the time. But we made it. Totally exhausted, but proud of the achievement.

From Irkutsk to Olkhon Island

How to get to Olkhon Island (if all goes well)

  • The cheapest option is to take a bus, which takes 6 to 8 hours. There are 4 buses per day departing from the Irkutsk bus station at 8:00, 10:00, 14:00 and 17:00. Seat reservations can be made on +7 902 5772020. You can also take another bus from the Central market place in Irkutsk at 10:00. Seat reservations on +7 902 1714961. The trip costs about 20 EUR one way.
  • Another option is to take a speed boat from Irkutsk to Olkhon with the local VSRP (East Siberian River Transport) company. Their ferries depart from Irkutsk, every Monday at 8.30 and arrive to Khuzhir directly at 17.15. The ferry continues to the opposite side of the lake on that same day, so you can also use it to explore the Buryatian eastern side of Baikal. The ferry goes back to Irkutsk on Tuesdays. This route is operation from July 7 to August 24 and they have an additional route on Wednesdays in the last week of July and the first week of August. For up-to-date ferry schedules between Irkutsk, Okhon and Ust-Barguzin, check out the website of VSRP Irkutsk river transport company.
  • A faster way is to get a car with a driver. This can be arranged with a local taxi company or with a hotel at Olkhon directly. The price is usually around 150 EUR per car (up to 4 passengers) and around 200 EUR per van (up to 9 passengers). So if you're traveling with a group, it makes sense to organize your own transport. Arrange local transport to pick you up after you've arrived on the island with the ferry, which should cost about 70 EUR extra.

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