Anyone who has heard anything about Lake Baikal knows that there is an unusual rock on the Island of Olkhon that, from time immemorial, the indigenous people have esteemed, and that, notwithstanding the formidable word «Russia» nor the frankly terrifying «Siberia», people come from all over the world to see. This wonderful creation of Baikal has many names: Cape Pesherny, Cape Shamanskiy, Shamanka rock, Cape Burkhan. Historically, the first name was Cape Shamanskiy, Shamanka. When shamanism had been ousted by Buddhism a new name for the sacred place of the Buruat was adopted — Burkhan (in Buryat — «Oikhon–ekhe–babai»). Today the cape has the status of a state natural–historical monument.
Burkhan is situated in the central part of the western coast of Olkhon, in the Pribaikalskiy National Park, near the settlement of Khuzhir. A pathway from the edge of Khuzhir imperceptibly leads one to a long cape ending in a steep slope leading straight to the rock of Burkhan.
The two white marble rocks of Burkhan, linked by a depression, are covered by bright red lichen underlining the whiteness of the marble cliffs. The tops of the cliffs are slightly bent towards the Primorskiy mountain range, as if ready to withstand «gorny» — the worst of Baikal's winds. Over many centuries, water and wind cut out an open–ended cave through the Burkhan rock closer to the shore, also called Shamanskii.
There is another promontory, to the east of Burkhan rock, made of the same white marble, but without the exceptional form of Burkhan and therefore less conspicuous. There is an observation point on this promontory from which one gets an excellent view of Burkhan itself and the impressive surrounding landscape. Between the two promontories there is a beautiful small bay. A few larch trees, able to withstand the fierce Baikal winds, give the landscape a fabulous colouring. To the west of Burkhan, the stone helmet of Bogatyr (hercules) rock rises out of Baikal's waters.
In ancient times, religious sacrifices were made on Burkhan to the lord of Olkhon, Ugute–noion, who was believed to dwell in the cape's cave. The Lord of Olkhon was the fiercest and most esteemed god of Baikal. Here is how the attitude of the local people towards Burkhan and Shamanskii cave was described in 1890 by Vladimir Obruchev: «The superstitious fear that the Olkhon Buryat have towards the cave is most remarkable; it is impermissible to ride past Shamanskii rock on wheels, but only on horseback or on a sledge; if there is a deceased person in one of the clans, a member of that clan is forbidden to ride past the cave over a particular period of time».
The cave itself is a small chamber some 3–4 metres high on the western side of Burkhan. A narrow rising passage leads out of it to the eastern side of the rock. The cave, like Burkhan itself, was considered sacred by the early inhabitants of the island. Later, lamas used it as a Buddhist sanctuary. Even the Russian Orthodox church did not remain indifferent — for a time an icon of Nikolai the miracle–worker hung in the cave.
Legend has it that a shaman passing through the cave caused holy fear amongst believers who did not know about the existence of a through cave. There is probably little more truth in this legend than in the one that says that somewhere not far from Burkhan, or even in the Shamanskii cave itself, is the grave of Chingis Khan.
The rich history of Burkhan attracted the attention not only of Russian, but also foreign, archaeologists. In 1975 a joint Soviet–American expedition was undertaken. One of the results of which was the hypothesis on the Asian origins of the indigenous peoples of North America.
A number of archaeological discoveries have been made on Burkhan itself and close by. The Shamanskii cave was first examined and described by Yan Cherskii in 1879. Later, 18th century coins were found there, and in 1989 extensive excavations were made and items relating to both the recent past (17th–19th centuries), and to Neolithic times (5–3 thousand years B.C.). Some of the finds are in the Khurzhir museum.
Even more archaeological finds were made during excavations of the isthmus joining Burkhan to the island. A prehistoric camp, more than ten graves going back to Neolithic times and the bronze age (5–2 thousand years B.C.), and numerous items: a knife and axe made of nephrite, arrow heads, fragments of pottery, stone objects, bones, iron, bronze, gold and others.
Prehistoric people valued nature's beauty. When they left signs of themselves on the rocks of Burkhan, they did not do it in the brash way of some of our contemporaries who have become degraded by comparison with those cavemen. According the accounts of Yan Cherskii in 1879 and Pavel Khoroshikh in 1924, there were 18 and 19th century Tibetan inscriptions on the rocks of Burkhan facing Khurzhir, traces of which it was still possible to discern in the '50s and '60s of the last century. These inscriptions have not survived to our day.
To the east of the entrance to the cave, Pavel Khoroshikh discovered a rock painting that he thought to represent a diamond. The painting forms an elongated oval inside which a horizontal line was drawn, also two sloping lines are depicted to the left and right outside the oval. It has not been possible to determine when the image was made.
Yet another drawing was discovered by Aleksander Tivanenko in the early 1980s. The drawing of a shaman with a diamond in his right hand and clapper in his left is executed in red ochre and is situated 5 metres to the left of the entrance to Shamanskii cave. This drawing has also been impossible to date.