According to some experts, there are about 30 of them, assuming islands that are relatively small stone platforms interspersed into the Baikal water (formally there are 22 islands on the Baikal). Among the largest islands, as it was already mentioned, there is Olkhon and the Archipelago of the Ushkanyi Islands: Grand Ushkani, Long, Thin, and Round. Ten land areas of the Small Sea between Olkhon and the north-western coast can be assumed to be islands. Among them are Ugungoy, Borakchin, Zumugoy, Hubyn, and Big Toynik (in the Buryat language toynik means “patella”, because it projects from the water as a round solid projection). There are large colonies of herring gull, nesting ducks, river terns on the islands. Sometimes cormorants can be found there. Among the seven islands in the Gulf Chivyrkuy the largest are Shaggy Kyltygey, Baklany, and Naked Kyltygey. In the south-west of Lake Baikal there is Baklaniy Stone, and in the north of the lake there is the small island Boguchansky.
Island Olkhon is one of the most unique places not only at Lake Baikal, but in the whole of Siberia. We can distinguish, at least, the following features of its unique character:
• the scale of the island: its length is approximately 72 km and width is 14 km;
• the legends about the origin of Olkhon and the Buryat clans living on it or near it (including the legend of Genghis Khan’s staying on the island);
• the myths about Cape Burkhan or Shaman Cape;
• the peculiar nature of the island: unique steppe areas, sand dunes, mountainous south-eastern coast; the highest point of the island is Mount Jima with its relic section of spruce forest, inhabited by rare species of birds: golden eagle, eagle repository, tailed eagle, falcon-saker;
• the climate: the least amount of rainfall per year compared with all the other territories of the Baikal.
The name of the island is believed to be derived from the Buryat word olkhan meaning “dry”. There is another version that the name originated from the Buryat word oykhon meaning “wooded”. It can be explained by the fact that the slope back from the sea considered to be beyond the reach, with dense fir and cedar trees. Obviously, this is relic vegetation having survived since the Ice Age. The fir and cedar trees survived due to a special microclimate and abundant precipitations. At the bottom of trunks springs well out, getting dry only in the heat. Cape Izhimey is situated at the bottom of the highest point of the island – Mount Zhima. In Buryat izhimey means "master", "lord". Two kilometers to the south-east of the coast, where the “Master” dominates, the deepest part of Lake Baikal (1637 m) is located.
Olkhon is the only island constantly inhabited with people. It is known for its cultural and historical monuments. In particular, it’s famous for its so-called "Mongolian buildings" – ancient structures of stone. At Cape Shibetey remnants of a mysterious wall made of stone slabs remained. Perhaps, it served as a fortification for the ancient tribes. A legend attributes the construction of the wall to Genghis Khan, but he is unlikely to have foot on the island. G.F. Miller gave an interesting testimony about it: "Genghis Khan with his nomad camp reached Lake Baikal sometimes. The proof of it must be a trivet that he had placed at the mountain on the island of Olkhon, and on the trivet there is a large cauldron with a horse head. Although I have not received confirmation of this from the Buryat people who lived in the surroundings of the lake and on Olkhon, I still think the given supposition about Genghis Khan ownership is quite true to life ... ".
At the same time the contemporary Buryat people living on Olkhon, who had settled here shortly before the arrival of Russians, or a little later, had the legend that at ancient times Olkhon was inhabited by the Mongols who left their homeland afterwards. Other versions say that the original inhabitants of Olkhon were people of Khorinsk. If we take into consideration that Khorinsk people do not associate themselves with the Buryat nation and consider themselves to be a separate tribe rather Mongolian than Buryat, and that in the name of their tribe there is the root khor, that is a well-known ethnonim applied to all Mongols then there is no contradiction in the versions represented. Khorinsk people and Mongols, who inhabited the ancient Olkhon, belonged obviously to the same tribe, and probably to the Khorinsk tribe, rather than a Mongolian one.
In the mid-seventies in the Aleutian Islands a large number of things of the late Stone Age were found, which confirms the version that some part of the North America was first settled by immigrants from Asia. Then it was decided to conduct such excavations in our country, and they chose Olkhon for this. The Soviet and American archaeologists were lead by the Academician A. Okladnikov and Professor V. Laughlin. The excavations were conducted not far from Cape Burkhan that the Buryat people consider to be sacred. And the very first skull of an ancient man that was found there, confirmed the scientists’ assumptions. It meant that the evidence of some American Indian tribes coming from the shores of the Baikal was found. Besides the American professor, anthropologist and naturalist from the University of New Mexico, John Campbell made an interesting conclusion that during the last 6 – 9 thousand years the relief, climate, flora and fauna of the island have not changed; and, therefore, now we know in what environment a man of the Stone Age lived.
But long before that the archaeological features of the island had drown the attention of V.A. Obruchev. The famous traveler and writer stayed there only for three days, he was looking for graphite used for alloy of gold gravel deposit coming in Irkutsk from mines in Eastern Siberia. He did not find graphite there, but has described the impression of his trip to the island in his books “My Trip to Siberia”, and “In the Old Siberia”. There are also letters the academician wrote to schoolchildren of Olkhon. In particular, he advised to continue exploration of the ancient island caves. “Probably, primitive people lived on Olkhon, and you'll find their stone axes and other items in the caves”.
One of the most memorable evidences of ancient life on Olkhon is Shaman Rock, or as local people call it – Cape Burkhan. Coming nearer to this natural monument, especially, by the sea from the south-west or along the high shore from the east, you are astonished by this monumental stone temple. It represents a combination of two geometrically “wrong” chopped off cones-pyramids. But this very irregularity formed by winds and Lake Baikal attaches magnificence to the rocks and encourages to admire their creator.
In some guidebooks, brochures and even on advertising panels it is written about a large cave, going through one of the rocks, but tourists either do not find it, or are thankful for small mercies. The matter is that in the “pyramid” that is nearer to the shore, there are two caves. The first is visible at the eastern edge of the cliff: part of it goes down; another part is followed by the upper fault of the rock. The "Piercing the mountain cave" is also a rock fracture. It is situated much higher and runs from the northeast to the west of the Shamanka. In the majority of places the cave is hard to get through, though in some places the fracture reaches a height of 4 – 6 meters.
As for the fauna of the island it used to be notable for its rare richness, but three centuries ago local residents exterminated, for example, the last sable. Later on the same fate befell the elk, red deer, roe deer, wolves, bustards. Today on the island there are about 150 species of birds and animals: the lynx, hare, wood grouse, black grouse, partridge, woodpecker, etc. It is interesting to notice that there are no common birds such as magpies and hazel-grouse on the island. Apparently, these birds cannot overcome the Olkhon Strait and the Small Sea.
Due to the efforts of local enthusiasts in the Olkhon taiga roebucks and Siberian roes reappeared. They were brought here from the neighboring area. It is considered that sometimes the island is visited by the bear from Sarma. One such visitor, who ventured to move on a weak ice of the Small Sea, was not lucky: he was killed. Clever shepherds accused the bear of the extermination of 150 sheep.
The island is also famous for its flora: cowberry, black and red currant, whortleberry. On the marshes and near the springs big brown currant grows. In July and August the mountain slopes are covered with dense lilac carpet of blooming mother-of-thyme that in some regions has a very beautiful name Aya-Ganga. There is also honeysuckle, juniper, lady's slipper, Siberian edelweiss, cat’s foot there.
Arctic-alpine plants grow on the island as well, though they disappeared in other places. Only on the Olkhon sands one can see a special sort of procumbent astragalus. If we don’t preserve it, the flora of the planet will become a little poorer. In the north-western part of the island the wind, like in the desert, rolls sand hills.
The climate of the island is the driest in the Baikal region. Where else can one find feather-grass steppe close to the southern taiga? It is considered to be a relic of the flora that was characteristic of the Baikal region in the past. The steppe has been preserved primarily due to the fact that the number of inhabitants of the island is small and the load on the steppe is not so heavy. In addition, the influx of new-comers to the island has been markedly low for a long time because of transport conditions. But in recent years the number of tourists and travelers has increased greatly. And the small territory of the island turns into a kind of trash dump. The islanders are afraid of ecological disaster.
To complete our little tour on Olkhon, let me provide you with one of the sonnets by N. Khuduguev on the topic "Legends of the Small Sea" as a recognition of its poetic and sacred essence:
I admire the flight of an eagle
With outstretched wings so flexible,
The Baikal King soared again
For taking a bride for Olkhon?
The bird scream is heard by the peaks,
By the blackened slab graves,
And shaman holy places ezhins,
Who in the past having power lived.
Here everything breathes eternity,
Touches deeply and elucidates,
The time sways the memory of genes.
And when starting to a sonnet flight
How do I get on with nature closer
Over the Baikal water transparency?
In their mystery and exotic character only the Ushkany Islands can compete with Olkhon. And it is quite reasonable. First, the name of archipelago in itself is mysterious, as it implies the presence of some ears of hares (Russian ushy). In fact, the name of the island originates from the word ushkan that was used by coast-dwellers to call marine seals, the main rookery of whom is the Ushkany Islands. The legends about the ushkans (“seals”) were known long ago. In the Buryat folklore there is a legend about a hundagakhan (“Man-fish”), its “front part of the body is of a fish, and the back part of it is of a human. When the fish sees a man it sticks its head out of the water and screams in a human, and then it goes back into the water ".
Second, the scientific community can’t agree on the problem whether theislands rise or lower in their geological and historical development. There are two extreme points of view. According to one of them the Ushkany Islands are the highest point of the Academic Ridge that passes under water as a mountain chain between Olkhon and Peninsula Svyatoy Nos. This viewpoint was upheld by G. Yu. Vereshchagin. V.V. Lomakin, on the contrary, believed that the Ushkany Islands slowly and steadily "grow" from the depths of Lake Baikal under the pressure of terrestrial rocks. This process began not long ago – about 500 thousand years ago, and people witnessed it. These two viewpoints have their followers, and evidences. So the mystery of the Ushkany Islands has not yet been disclosed.
Third, there is very specific flora and fauna on the islands. For instance, giant anthills, a large number of them are located on the shore. The “megalopolises” of these insects are made of needles, leaves, other plant parts, but also even of marble chips. The density of anthills in the area, scientists believe, is the largest in Russia. One more unusual fact about the islands is a huge number of voles or dark color of many representatives of local fauna: birds, grayling, butterflies, snakes, etc. Trees are also colored in black: larch, birch, aspen. Moreover, the blackness is also quite specific: "In the north of the archipelago the birches wear original black bark embracing trees as if it were a cover for the sides that were not protected from ferocious winds. The term cover is the most suitable here, because its edges bulge out from the both sides of birches. At the same time the opposite part of the tree is far from having a dense protective cover, and, on the contrary, has either white or slightly pinkish tender bark".
All the mentioned phenomena caused by permanent winds and hurricanes, as well as other mysteries, make the Ushkany Islands very attractive for researchers and tourists. The islands and particularly, Bolshoy Ushkani have other natural relics: a rock in the form of an elephant, a quite spacious cave with the remnants of ancient soot, Bay Cave that protects ships from all winds, etc.
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