These are the words of Giorgio Vanni, an Italian pensioner who’s on his way to Australia from Italy on a plane-free trip.
“For the following five days, I’d booked accommodation on a farm, in a village on the shores of the lake.
“The farmstay offered a complete immersion in nature and rural Siberian life.”
Vanni organised the accommodation through a Russian man named Ilja, who lives in Bologna and whose uncle, Volodia, showed the Italian tourist around.
Like most people in the area, Volodia is Buryat.
Nowadays, Buryat people belong to the Republic of Buryatia; but they were once part of the Mongol Empire.
Following a tour of Irkutsk, Vanni and his guide set off for Lake Baikal.
“Heading out of the city, cultivated fields gave way to the taiga,” Vanni said.
“Small places of worship often popped up and Volodia, who observes Shamanic rituals, stopped every time he could to pray to the spirits by sprinkling and drinking tarasun, a homemade alcoholic Buryat drink.”
The local cuisine seems to be very tasty and includes buuz, a type of Mongolian steamed dumpling filled with meat or vegetables.
According to Vanni, you must first bite the side of the dumpling and suck out the tasty broth before eating the filling.
Around 40 kilometres from the village, Vanni and his companion began driving down a dirt road.
There were no signs of cultivation along the road that would take them to Lake Baikal, just the taiga and some land for herding sheep.
“We spent an afternoon on the banks of Lake Baikal, or the ‘Sacred Sea’ as it is called in Siberia, followed by a stroll in the taiga, dinner and a detoxifying sauna at sunset,” Vanni said.
“This would’ve been the typical routine for locals in the area.”
The next day, the pair headed to Olkhon Island, the mecca of Shamanism in Siberia.
Shaman Rock is the most sacred place on the island, believed by the Buryat people to be one of the five poles of Shamanic energy in the world.
“It’s a truly magical place with an intoxicating landscape,” Vanni said.
“The rocky cliff makes a steep descent into the deep waters and the pine forest meets with a vast sandy beach.”
In the following days, Anatoli, another relative of Volodia, drove Vanni around in his old Russian Jeep.
They went to the mouth of the Buguldeika River and to a place where you can explore the remains of old abandoned yurts.
“Looking at the ancient houses, I realised they were ahead of their time given that grass roofs are now considered an environmentally friendly solution in the Western world,” Vanni said.
“It was also interesting to visit a village of only Russian inhabitants; it was extremely remote, nestled in a narrow valley.
“The locals and the buildings reflected an isolated lifestyle reminiscent of the Soviet era.”
Finally, Vanni returned to Irkutsk and explored the city a little, visiting the House Museum of the Decembrists, which tells the story of their exile to Siberia in 1825.
Vanni was impressed by how they’d managed to recreate a refined cultural world despite having been exiled into the wilderness, thousands of kilometres from Saint Petersburg.
“The next morning I left for Ulan-Ude,” Vanni said.
“After the seven-hour journey, Volodia’s niece Olya met me at the station and took me to the apartment they’d rented for me... The family basically adopted me!”
Ulan-Ude is the capital of the Republic of Buryat and was a closed city until the 1980s due to its secret military plants (there are still mysterious blank spaces on city maps).
Vanni visited the Ethnographic Museum, a large outdoor space which houses the reconstruction of a typical Russian village from the late 19th century.
Vanni’s days on the shores of Lake Baikal will be followed by a 26-hour journey: first, he’ll take a train to Ulaanbaatar, the present capital of Mongolia, then a bus to Karakorum, the ancient capital of the Mongol Empire.