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Sacred Spaces on the Sacred Sea

June 2, 2009 at 9:28 am
By Kevin McGrath, Megan Milligan, and Brian Kilgour

Olkhon Island was one of the two major stops on our Siberia trip. As the largest island on the lake – and probably the only steppe on an island in the world – it was a lot to take in. It seems that Shamans since time immemorial agree, since the island is dotted with holy sites. Three of the most impressive holy sites are located on the northernmost peninsula of the island.

Climbing out of our Uazkas – the all-Russian hybrid of a van and a small tank – we arrived at the Three Brothers. Climbing over a small hill, we were greeted by the site of three massive rocks jutting out of the lake in different directions.

Three Brothers 

According to shamanist lore, the Three Brothers were the sons of Father Baikal. When his daughter, Angara, vanished, he turned his sons into Eagles and sent them to search every cove, inlet, and beach on the lake for his errant daughter. When the three sons returned without her, Baikal railed at them for failing. Claiming that they had a heart of stone for not sharing his distress, he turned them to stone and threw them on Olkhon, in the place where they rest today. He soon found Angara, fleeing to her lover, the Yeseni, and attempted to block her way, throwing a rock at her that now guards the source of the Angara River, Baikal’s only outlet, as it departs Baikal to flow towards the Yeniseni, a river that winds north towards the Arctic.

Climbing Around Three Brothers 

We spent a good amount of time at the Three Brothers, climbing all down the steep cliff toward the lake and the three rock formations. The tricky climb down the gravelly cliff face rewarded us with several spectacular views across Lake Baikal to the snowcapped peaks across the Small Sea, the strait that separates Olkhon from the mainland.  Near the bottom by the water there were still fragments of the ice that encases the lake for more than half the year.  Despite the fact that it was late May, the sky was dark gray, threatening snow, and a harsh wind was howling around the cliffs.  Father Baikal definitely found an appropriate place to punish his sons.  

Cape Khoboi 

After a delicious lunch of ukha, or fish stew, which our guides made by boiling potatoes and entire fish over a fire, we walked out to Khoboi, the northernmost point on the island.  Khoboi means “tusk” in Buryat, the language of the local indigenous people and it was easy to understand the origin of the name.  The cape is almost an island of its own, a rocky point jutting sharply out of the lake.  Traditionally, nerpas, the world’s only freshwater seal and endemic to Baikal, gathered at the base of Khoboi to raise their young.  However, nerpa babies are very vulnerable when they are young and still have white fur and the seals were driven away from Khoboi after hunters, who valued the soft white fur of the nerpochki, discovered it.  Now the increasing numbers of tourists who visit the island keep the sensitive nerpas away.


The last of the holy sites we visited that day was called Lover’s Rock. Formed out of two massive rocks jutting out of the island, the Lovers represent two lovers, a man and a woman.  According to Ilya’s story regarding the Rock, it was the site of a dramatic event after WWII. The story tells of a young man who fell in love with a woman in Irkutsk before being sent off to the front lines. However, he lost his legs on the battlefield and upon his return, his love refused him. He then took her to Lover’s Rock and told her that he’d throw her off the rock into Baikal unless she married him. We never learned the outcome.


The rocks point out in different directions, the right one being the man, and the left one representing the woman. Standing on top of each rock afforded a fantastic view of the shoreline to the north and to the south. It was also an easy climb. The rocks were covered in an orange moss, which made the overall scene absolutely gorgeous.

Exploring Lovers Rock 

While we were in Ulan-Ude, we talked with a lama at the Aninsky Datsan and asked him why various holy places were “holy.” He answered that when one stands at a holy place, one is inspired and can feel the holiness within himself. The holy places on Olkhon fit this description to a tee; the views and complete isolation at these points on Olkhon were breathtaking.