Six days on Olkhon Island; Siberia, Russia

I didn't know what to expect upon arriving on Olkhon Island, but I knew that only five years ago they did not have electricity, and that indoor plumbing is still a thing of the future.

It took about five hours to reach the island, and the final leg of the journey was the most exciting. We switched from a regular minibus to a Russian-made off-road minivan, and drove the rest of the way across frozen ice.

Olkhon Island is nearly deserted during the winter: roughly four times the size of San Francisco with only 1,500 or so residents, and almost no tourists.

It was the best food I've had in Russia, by far: fresh eggs from the chickens in the backyard; fresh chicken from the chickens in the backyard; fresh beef from the cows wandering the streets; Siberian omul and other local fish from the lake, and all of it cooked with love at Olga's house, where I stayed for the week.

Day one: Walking a few hundred feet to the outhouse in the middle of the night with subzero temperatures wasn't so bad considering I saw more stars than I'd ever seen in my life. The rural Siberian sky in total darkness is a thing to be seen. When I returned there in the morning was when I first spotted the chicken coop that would serve as our grocery store for the next week or so.

Also on my first day I spotted one of the many illegal dumps on the island. There is no system in place for waste disposal, so these illegal dumps present a huge ecological challenge. Strangely, in one of them, I spotted what clearly was food aid from the United States. It must have come from Mongolia or China or elsewhere, because I can't imagine a time where the USA would send food aid to Russia, or a time where Russia would accept it. It was an empty five-liter can of cooking oil, branded USA in huge blue letters.

I ended the evening with my first Russian banya. There is no running water on Olkhon Island, and therefore no showers. Instead you light a wood fire, let it burn for a few hours to heat up the water, and sit in a nice hot sauna until you sweat, sweat, SWEAT. Then you lather up and douse yourself in icy water.

Day two: Along with two Australians, one Dutch girl and her English boyfriend, we rented a driver with one of those awesome Russian-made minivans and we traveled a few hours north, driving on the lake the whole time, all the way to the northernmost cape of the island, which I think may have been called Khoboy cape, although I'm not sure. The van had no seatbelts, which was fine because the driver made it a point to install safety icons, front and center above the windshield.

While at the northernmost point of the island, we spotted some Russian ice divers: not extreme tourism but instead just some crazy Russians killing time on a Saturday. I later learned that, underwater, there at that spot, there is a cave where a family of freshwater Baikal seals lives. We could see the ice divers beneath our feet: at spots the ice is easy to see through, and at other spots not so much, but all around you could see the oxygen bubbles, and at one point one of the divers broke his head up through the ice at the aboveground rift that I am about to describe.

Aboveground there was a rift in the ice, spots where it was so thin you could crack through to frozen water with no more effort than a pinky finger. Most likely this was caused by a bad storm the night before, or seismic activity. Within days it will freeze again to more than a meter, unless perhaps it was a rift caused by hot underwater gases, in which case it might simply be a known danger zone. Either way, my driver grabbed my arm, feigned like he was going to push me in, and laughed. Finally I have found something less funny than Jack Black.

It was crazy to see a couple of huge SUVs comfortably parked on the ice, and only maybe 50 feet away ice so thin that not even a small bird could walk on it safely. Fortunately our guide, a tried and true old Russian man, seemed to know what he was doing. One time during our return journey, he stopped at what he thought might be a weak point in the ice (or so we guessed, considering we spoke no Russian and he spoke no English) and tested it with a swift kick of the boot. These boots must be new Russian technology: footwear that can mimic thousands and thousands of pounds of pressure. But we drove on, and safely.

Day three: The harbor on the island is frozen solid, boats and all; it was similar to Vladivostok but with many more boats, and much more falling-apart beauty. Some of the boats are working boats and will be used in the spring and summer, some have been abandoned, but all of them look as though you'd maybe want to think twice before taking them on a three-hour tour.

Close to shore but out past all the boats was what we at first took to be an icy grave, or memorial or some sort: It was a cross made of ice blocks, with a nearby hole carved into the ice, and water shallow enough to see the coins at the bottom. It turns out it is a Siberian tradition, something to do with the Russian Orthodox calendar, and something to do with celebrating the conception of Christ or his birth or that time he told all of his followers to strip naked and jump in the frozen Siberian lake.

Tradition says that if you jump into the lake on that one specific day, you won't get sick. The man who runs the hostel here in Irkutsk said he did it once, and that by the time he took the towel to his upper body, the water on his legs and lower body had already frozen; he had to crack the ice of his body. Good times. We should have known it was a holy spot when we spotted all of the cigarette butts and empty bottles of vodka and beer.

This was also the day I first spotted the cows wandering aimlessly around town. It turns out there are plenty of them. I saw one loitering in front of a restaurant, another in front of the pharmacy, and dozens more in front of houses on nearly every street. They wandered in and out of gates (smart, for cows) and I saw one get chased by a pack of wild dogs. I swear the cow leaped up off the ground, if only for an instant.

Day four: I met a lonely street puppy who I later named Bear, because I am original and he was brown. I sat with him for maybe an hour, after I realized he wasn't going to take no for an answer. He followed me, albeit slowly, everywhere I went, and I didn't have it in me to leave him behind. He disappeared, I think under a fence, and it made me feel sad and lazy, so I went back to Olga's house for lunch. That evening Bear found me again and we hiked together for nearly three hours. He lumbered behind slowly, and when I stopped to take photos he started whimpering because being still made him too cold, I think. When we encountered packs of feral dogs, I picked him up and carried him. Eventually two young girls spotted him and carried him away. I saw one of the girls with Bear the next day, and I got the impression Bear belonged to her, which was great news for me because then I could stop questioning myself as to how I could possibly take the little guy with me.

Day five: Today included a few repeats, such as the frozen harbor and one of the many town dumps, which I find fascinating; it also made me more aware to not create so much waste when I am on the island, because there is nowhere really for it to go. There was a light snow, which is the third or maybe fourth time I've seen a snowfall in Russia, although the snow exists everywhere (mostly falls in December and January, I'm told).

Day six: I took the bus back to Irkutsk because I started to feel lonely and anxious: lonely because I wanted to email my girlfriend, and anxious because I want to get to Moscow. Unfortunately there were no seatbelts in our bus back to Irkutsk, which would have been fine had the driver made the effort to install some Russian safety icons, but unfortunately there were none of those either. Miraculously I managed to survive, and tomorrow night I'll travel 82 hours straight, on the train, upper bunk, third class, all the way from Irkutsk to Moscow.