Olkhon (Russian: Ольхо́н, also transliterated as Olchon) is the fourth-largest lake-bound island in the world. It is by far the largest island in Lake Baikal in eastern Siberia, with an area of 730 square kilometres (280 sq mi). Structurally, it acts as the southwestern margin of Academician Ridge. The island measures 71.5 km (44.4 mi) in length and 20.8 km (12.9 mi) in width.
Olkhon has a dramatic combination of terrain and is rich in archeological landmarks. Steep mountains line its eastern shore, and at 1,276 m (4,186 ft) above sea level, Mount Zhima is the highest point on the island, peaking at 818 m (2,684 ft) above the water level of Lake Baikal. The island is large enough to have its own lakes, and features a combination of taiga, steppe and even a small desert. A deep strait separates the island from the land.
The island's appearance is a result of millions of years of tectonic movement resulting in the hollowing of the channel between the land (Small Sea Strait) and the block of stone forming the island. The steep slopes of the mountains show the vertical heave of the earth.
The population of the island is less than 1,500 and consists mostly of Buryats, the island's aboriginal people.
There are several settlements and five villages on the island: Yalga, Malomorets, Khuzhir, Kharantsi, and Ulan-Khushin. The village of Khuzhir is the administrative capital of Olkhon, designated as such in April 1987, when the Soviet government issued a comprehensive decree protecting Lake Baikal. Khuzhir is home to about 1,200 residents and boasts a museum of local nature and history.
Most residents are fishermen, farmers, or cattle-ranchers. Due to an increasing number of tourists from all over the world, many residents work in this sector as well, and tourism has become an important part of the economy in Olkhon.
The indigenous Buryats, adherents of shamanism, believe the island to be a spiritual place; one of the groups of deities adhered to in Buryati yellow shamanism is called the oikony noyod, the "thirteen lords of Olkhon. On the western coast, close to Khuzhir, is Baikal's most famous landmark, the Shamanka, or Shaman's Rock. Natives believe that Burkhan, a modern religious cult figure of the Altai peoples, lives in the cave in this rock. The rock is one of nine Asian Most Sacred Places. Olkhon is considered a centre of Kurumchinskay culture of 6th-10th centuries.
The museum at Olkhon, named after Revyakin, exposits on the nature and ethnography of the island, including pipe-smoking and a samovar collection.
The island has a long history of human habitation. The original indigenous people were the Kurykans, forefathers of two ethnic groups: the Buryats and Yakuts.
Russian explorers first visited during the 17th century.
One of the most important ecological problems of Olkhon Island is the disposal of household waste. At present, the waste is disposed of in large piles in forestry near the village of Khuzhir. The dump is unenclosed, and the tipping process is uncontrolled. Moreover, with recent increases in tourism on the island, new sources of hard rubbish have begun to appear.
Another ecological concern affecting the island is the illegal felling of timber by local inhabitants. A complicated net of forestry roads in the areas adjacent to Khuzhir lead to woodland areas on the mountain slopes. Timber is brought out of the forest at night time, and the deforestation is taking its toll on the area.