The Shaman Capital of Siberia: Animism and Excess on Lake Baikal

Lake Baikal is the biggest fresh water lake on the planet. It is over one mile deep, holds a fifth of the earth’s fresh water and the sediment of decomposed organisms descends another one and a half miles. 1200 of its 2000 species are unique to the lake. I have no doubt these statistics just blew your mind and this was the intention.

The indigenous Buryat population adhere to a form of shamanism. They believe the material world is alive with spirits and the boundary between the living and the dead is fluid. During Stalin’s purges in the 1930s, the authorities tied weights to the shamans’ feet and dropped them underneath the ice, although since Communism collapsed shamanism has been resurgent.  Siberian shamans use the psychedelic Amanita muscaria mushrooms in their rituals. The raw mushrooms can be toxic so the shaman eats them, acting as a human filter before feeding his urine to the faithful like a psychedelic cow. Incidentally, although psilocybin mushrooms were classified as a Class A drug in 2005 in the UK, Amanita muscaria are still legal.

Olkhon Island is the Shaman capital of Siberia, a spiritual leviathan in the middle of Baikal. Although I can’t say for certain that the place is magical, I can certainly attest to the strangeness of my stay there. NB: Don’t get your hopes up- I didn’t manage to sniff out any shaman urine.

I spent a few days in the regional capital Irkutsk, a town built by successive waves of exiled criminals and dangerous lunatics. The city was founded by bellicose Cossacks who subjugated the local peoples in the 17th century. The population was swelled by violent criminals exiled in the 18th century and by revolutionaries in the 19th century. The town’s unsavoury genealogy and its harsh environment have conspired to produce a particularly robust population.

The hostel messed up my booking so I was billeted with a local old lady. She was very short but very powerful, with forearms the size of my thighs. Half of her face had been paralysed by a stroke, but the other half compensated for this by being twice as vigorous as any face I have ever seen. It was constantly snarling at trifles or laughing at nothing, and juxtaposed with the immobile half, the effect was truly remarkable. She was the kind of wild, red-blooded devil I have always dreamed of and I only wish she was three years younger.

I went to the shop with her and I have never felt more empowered. I have never seen anything so brutal. She walked with her arms rather than her legs, leading with her elbows, utilising them like battering rams to smash through the ranks of oncoming pedestrians. Her legs were not really discernible as separate limbs, but instead resembled one incredibly powerful limb like that of a mollusc. In crowds she moved one step left, one step right, one step forward, inflicting maximum pain on the people around her. Right, left, forward. She sent alpha males scattering. Right, left, forward. I followed proudly in her wake.

Irkutsk is full of rotten wooden houses cheerfully falling in on themselves. This was a most welcome contrast to the oceans of grey skyscrapers that make up Siberia’s other cities. I took a bus across land and lake from Irkutsk to Olkhon Island in the middle of Baikal. Olkhon is covered in forests, cliffs and pristine beaches. Although the island is 730km2, it has a population of only 1500. Plagued by potholes and roaming cows, the roads are stimulating to say the least. Some trees are blessed with particular shamanic powers. People tie a garment to them and make a wish. They stand alone on cliff tops like itinerant necromancers, vibrant, ragged and bound up in dreams .

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I camped on the beach beside the “shamanka” rock, the most sacred shaman site in Siberia. The rock thrusts forth from the depths of the lake like a double-headed spiritual juggernaut. The great God of Olkhon, Ugute-noion lives in the cave in the rock. In bygone times the locals made sacrifices to him on the shamanka. If you put your mind to it, you can feel the spiritual energy rolling off it in waves. I put my mind to it and lost control of my arms and legs. By the time night fell I found them carrying me up and down the beach at great speed in a frenzied euphoria. The power of the island is irresistible.

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In the morning I crawled out of the tent straight into the lake. The water is so clean you can drink it. I swam around with my mouth open consuming everything in my path like a mighty whale shark.

I was camping with a German friend who turned out to be remarkably multifunctional. In the morning she was a chef and she gutted some apples with ruthless efficiency, slicing them into segments, an unnecessary but not altogether unpleasant preparation. She placed the seedy entrails on a large rock that she called “a table”. We sat and ate and drank and bathed in the spiritual sunshine.

Suddenly the German chef shrieked and pointed to “the table”. One of the apple seeds had sprouted, sending forth a shoot like an adventurous maggot. It had sprouted incredibly quickly and courageously on the hard grey table. This was not normal. This was magical. In this pale shoot I saw the preternatural power of the island and I saw the wonder of nature and I saw that my life will be long and prosperous and pregnant with joy and I saw that yours will be too and for five whole minutes my little legs trembled with the excitement of well-reasoned optimism.

The German chef went for a swim and returned proudly clutching a dead dragonfly. She laid it on “the table” next to the still sprouting seed. Its wings were latticed and translucent like stained glass windows and the death of this creature was a tragic occasion. Then the chef became a forager and we talked and walked through the forest collecting wood for a fire. When we returned, the forager looked sadly at the dragonfly. Buffeted by the wind, it looked almost alive. Suddenly, she let out a shriek of fear and jubilation. The beast’s head was twitching and this was not just the wind. Its wings began to beat faster and faster, picking up speed and power until the once deceased beast soared into the sky. It swooped low to the water before gaining height and disappearing into the distance. The surge of happiness almost whisked my head off my shoulders. Resurrections, shoots sprouting- Olkhon Island is truly enchanted. For the rest of the day I watched the dried fish on “the table”, expecting that at any moment it might rehydrate, regrow its eyes and swim into the air and back to the water.

These strange events astounded and alarmed me but what do you expect when you camp in the shadow of the most spiritual rock in Siberia?

One night our camp fire attracted a local Buryat man who sternly warned us to keep the girls away from the shamanka, explaining that the rock is holy and women aren’t. For a moment I scorned this primitive, regressive religion, before recalling that almost every religion treats women as unholy, second rate humans. Women must be kept off the sacred shaman rock, they must be kept out of the Orthodox iconostasis, they must be kept out of positions of higher responsibility in the Church of England, the Catholic Church, the Mormon Church, Buddhism, Islam and almost every religion that has ever existed. In twenty three years I have been fortunate enough to meet a diverse selection of females, and blasphemous as this may sound, I will say it in the privacy of the internet- I am yet to meet a female who is less holy than me, more sinful than me, or one who is less deserving of a place on the shamanka rock. Although far from exhaustive, my research is “extensive” and I conclude with some certainty that females are holier, purer and undoubtedly more angelic than their male counterparts, who are often filthier in mind and almost always in body.

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Somewhere (who knows where?) on this island, I met a friendly French anarchist and we sat on a hilltop and discussed returning the means of production to the proletariat. Although I didn’t say so at the time, I realised I have no idea what the means of production even look like these days. The last thing I produced was a crippled juggling equipment stand for GCSE DT. The means of production I used were dilapidated and frustrating and I fail to see how they could provide the inspiration for a revolution.  But this is beside the point. What matters is that that the proles have not only been robbed of the tools of production, but they have also been robbed of their dignity. I’m going to get it back for them. When I said this to the anarchist he was excited and delighted.

One evening I was in a kind of café-cum-tavern putting bread and borsht in me when I was accosted by a red faced Russian. Arms real big, legs real big, head real big. Everything real big. I, feeling real small, was invited to his table along with my German friend. He was sitting with his wife, his best friend and his best friend’s wife. The women were beautiful. The men were beastly. They were all battered.

They were delighted to have us with them. We were patted on the back, the arms, the head, we were shown pictures of their sons, dogs and daughters, we were pumped with vodka and treated to physical contact and the joy of friendship. I have never felt so wanted, so part of it all. The big one (named Vova) kept spearing huge hunks of meat on his fork and feeding them to us like an overgrown, grotesque mother bird. As the meat went into the mouth, his eyes lit up with the most tremendous delight. More vodka was poured, more meat was spoon fed, the hugs became firmer and more passionate and soon the word “friendship” no longer did justice to proceedings.

When the tavern closed, we spilled out into the road and they offered us a lift home. We tried to explain we were camping on a beach which a car couldn’t reach, but spurred by the vodka, they insisted impossible is nothing, if not contemptible. Big red Vova’s car was correspondingly huge and red. He stumbled over to it and bounced off the door a few times before he got it open. I was bundled into the back with the wives and the German. Cigars were handed round and I felt quite the G. “Somebody that I used to know” by that greasy fellow “Gotye” was playing.

I was overwhelmed by that unique euphoria that comes from drinking a lot very quickly with complete strangers. My eyes were malfunctioning and my empathy was sky high. We zigzagged through the village, dodging cows, dogs and potholes and catering to the whims of Vova’s half-open eyes. If he saw a house he liked he would drive straight at it and turn away at the last moment.

At the end of the village he lurched off the road, squeezed between two trees and sped off into the darkness. I tried to call time on the journey shouting, “Stop! Thank you! Stop!”, but Vova refused to hear. Sacred shaman trees wrapped in rags came flying towards us out of the darkness. I don’t know whether the trees dodged Vova or Vova dodged the trees, but somehow there were no collisions. If he was sober I’m sure we would have died, but we were all enveloped in that miraculous force field enjoyed by drunk people and drunk people alone.

The red juggernaut ploughed joyfully through the sand, the dirt and the darkness along the top of the cliff. There was a dense cloud of dust surrounding the car, a thick cloud of cigar smoke inside it and nobody could see a thing, least of all the driver who was screaming “You didn’t have to cut me off!!” with his eyes closed. A moment later, the stereo and Vova screeched “You said you felt so happy you could die!” This felt ominous.

Eventually an impenetrable copse of trees brought the jeep to a screeching halt. Clara and I fell out of the car, into Vova’s kisses and embraces and then into the darkness and down to the beach.  My continued existence is testament to the shamanic powers of the island.

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