Ever heard stories of legendary hosts in the Couchsurfing world? Any SUPER-hosts whose stories resonate above the rest? I’ve been lucky enough to stay with a few such couchsurfing legends.
Today, I’ll tell the tale of one such host, a man named Sergei (NOT that guy) who runs a compound of sorts on a mostly deserted island in the middle of Lake Baikal, Russia. All surfers are welcome!
How I Heard About the Legendary Sergei
One dark winter’s night in snowy Moscow, I was hanging out and exchanging stories with a surfer I was hosting. During the course of our conversation, I was treated to the remarkable tale of couch-surfing super-host Sergei Yeremeev. It marked the first time I’d heard about the man, but it certainly wouldn’t be the last.
Throughout the following year, several of my surfers (who were either planning to stay in Sergei’s famed Philoxenia compound, or had already been there) mentioned the man. Sometimes in passing, others in great detail. In the couch-surfing community, if you’re traveling across Russia and planning to pass through the Lake Baikal area, chances are you’ll stay with Sergei or at least hear his inspiring story.
Check out Sergei’s couchsurfing profile!
Fate Leads Me to Sergei’s Philoxenia Compound
As much as I enjoyed hearing about Sergei, I never thought I’d be lucky enough to meet his acquaintance. Anyway, I wasn’t planning on heading to Lake Baikal. Each time the man was mentioned, he’d soon drop from my mind as I returned to my normal busy routine. But alas, fate intervened.
Following the gruesome collapse of the rouble (and the value of most of my savings), I finally made the decision to high-tail it out of Moscow and hit the road again. I still had forty days left on my Russian visa, and planned to see as much as I could of the country. So I headed east… towards Lake Baikal. Sometime during the long trek eastward, I met several fellow backpackers on the Trans-Siberian railway. In our conversations during the lengthy train ride, they brought up the legendary Sergei and excitedly rehashed their stay with him.
“Hmmmm. I remember that guy.” I thought.
Awhile later, I was couchsurfing in Yekaterinburg. My lovely host there was simultaneously hosting a Ukrainian couple who were on a round-the-world bicycle adventure. They too mentioned their magical time at Sergei’s island compound, and we further discussed him for awhile.
I had posted an open itinerary on the couchsurfing website, and was receiving a lot of messages from prospective hosts and fellow travelers. Among them was Yolca, a Polish woman who invited me to join her in traveling to Sergei’s place.
So alas… finally, inevitably, it was settled. The man’s legend had managed to pique my interest to the point I just had to see what all the hullabaloo was about. So I found his profile on couchsurfing.com and sent him a request, which he accepted a few days later.
The Long Ride to Olkhon Island
Sergei lives in a quite remote location, but it isn’t that difficult to reach, even if you’re relying on public transport. The easiest way to get to his island is via once-daily bus from Irkutsk. The entire ride takes around 5-7 hours, depending on the weather and road conditions.
My kind host in Irkutsk helped me purchase my bus ticket, and led me to the embarkation point early the following morning. To my dismay, it was a cramped minibus. I maneuvered myself inside the best I could, balancing my day-pack on my knees. Soon, we were off, northbound, towards one of the world’s most exotic lakes.
A few affable and outdoorsy German fellows sat next to me on the bus. We got into a lively conversation during the ride. The Germans were hardcore wild-campers, planning to spend weeks in the wilderness on Olkhon Island. I told them about Sergei; to my surprise, they hadn’t yet heard his story. I mentioned they’d probably be able to stay with him, as I’d heard Sergei had a large compound and was always hosting many surfers simultaneously. A younger Chinese traveler was eavesdropping and he also wanted to tag along. Now I was going to show up with my own group; I just hoped Sergei wouldn’t mind the uninvited guests.
The road was mostly paved until the ferry crossing point, but once we finally traversed the rough strait and stepped foot off the ferry and onto the island, things got significantly more rustic. We plowed northward down what was now a bumpy dirt pathway. The minibus passed through several tiny island villages which reminded me of ghost towns in old Wild West movies.
Olkhon Island’s foliage was equally exotic. Melancholic yet inspiring, if that makes any sense. Due to the high winds around the lake, as well as its tundra-like conditions most of the year, parts of the island were almost completely devoid of trees. Looking around, it was like a windswept plateau, similar to the highlands of nearby Mongolia. Then there was the lake itself; a gigantic natural wonder.
We finally arrived in Khuzhir, a small village but the de facto “capitol” of Olkhon Island. Most of the streets were unpaved, but a lively vibe was in the air; one which hadn’t existed in the smaller villages we’d passed through.
I figured Sergei’s place may be difficult to find, as I didn’t have detailed directions (“look around for the church on the hill”), but I spotted it within seconds of disembarking the minibus. I led my new friends up the hill and towards the compound.
The Philoxenia Compound
Sergei’s hilltop property does quite resemble a “compound”, rather than a house. There’s the actual house that Sergei lives in with his wife and children (and countless animals, some of which freely roamed the surrounding landscape). Next door is a larger structure which was made for travelers. Right behind these buildings is a gorgeous little church.
It’s a Russian Orthodox-style church, surrounded by a white picket fence. Nearby is a large playground which overlooks parts of Lake Baikal and the windswept plains of the mainland beyond it. On the opposite side of all this is yet another enclosed area, with a large blue circus tent in the middle. Further down is yet another sprawling house. All of this belongs to Sergei.
We approached the family home and knocked on its door until a young woman answered. She was quiet and appeared shy, but had a friendly demeanor which put us at ease. The woman was Sergei’s wife. She explained Sergei wasn’t home at the moment, but we’d be able to meet him that evening. She also informed us the indoor structure was used mostly for females. As we were all males, we’d be more than welcome to crash in that tent over there.
Although it was summer, we were in the middle of Siberia and it wasn’t exactly warm. We walked over to inspect the tent. Its ‘walls’ were insulated by thick sheets of wool, and it was large and spacious. There was already a Frenchman crashing in there, but more than enough room for the four of us. However, the Chinese traveler clearly wasn’t comfortable with the situation. He soon bid us farewell and headed for a nearby hostel. Myself and the Germans, who unlike the Chinese guy carried our own camping gear and sleeping bags, claimed our spots and settled in.
In the middle of the tent was a cast-iron stove, the kind you’d expect to encounter in a ramshackle hunter’s cabin. Stacked in a corner was plenty of firewood. The actual floor was wooden, with a sheet of woolen carpet spread over it. Right outside the tent was a large fire pit, perfect for nighttime bonfires. We rolled our sleeping bags over the spots we’d claimed, then made for the permanent building, which Sergei’s wife had told us had a commons room.
In this building I finally met Yolca, the Polish woman who’d contacted me on couchsurfing.com to meet up with her. There were at least a half-dozen other travelers as well as a few lazy cats sleeping on a bench. The inside of the building looked exactly like a hostel. There was a small kitchenette in one corner, with stacks of ‘free food’ that previous travelers had left behind. A long wooden table surrounded by benches. The walls were covered with maps and articles detailing information about the region. Some parts had travelers’ graffiti scrawled here and there.
Among the magazines scattered about, I noticed there were several featuring articles about Sergei himself! Although they were in Russian, I flipped through them and enjoyed the wonderful photos!
We made some coffee and hung out for awhile, getting to know each other. Eventually, everyone formed a big group of nearly a dozen travelers, all guests of Sergei, and headed out to explore.
A few of the longer-tenured travelers led us around the village, pointing out notable points of interest. I was surprised at how touristy the village was. There were several hostels, both of which didn’t look like they were lacking for business. There were also a few higher-end hotels. Yolca led our group into one of the hostels, called Nikita’s, for some tea and grub. The dining hall was mostly wooden and had an outdoorsy feel, a familiar theme in the region. We met even more travelers there and our group expanded further.
Finally we continued to the Lake Baikal shores. The local inhabitants, called the Buryat, are a Buddhist people, closely related to Mongolians. They had placed lines of long poles with colorful strips of fabric tied all around them. It reminded me of a cross between Native American totem poles and Nepalese Buddhist prayer flags. I heard the fabric strips are for good luck, and also learned the locals worship a Lake Baikal God. All over the windswept hillsides were messages made by lining rocks up to form letters. I took the time to construct one myself.
Our large group had a grand time at the lake, snapping photos and exchanging lively conversation. Everyone was in a joyful and optimistic mood. I wondered if our host’s vibes had anything to do with it. We later went out for some rounds at a rustic bar, where a flirtatious local woman gave me a ‘gift’ of a kitten. I had no idea what to do with that, as she refused when I tried to return it!
Finally I Meet the Great Sergei
That night, I finally got to meet my host. Sergei was a naturally quiet yet confident man. He shared some of the ideas of the Philoxenia lifestyle that he was trying to promote. I learned that Philoxenia is a Greek phrase that roughly translates to, “Welcome to Travelers”. Sergei not only hosts couchsurfers, but basically anyone who shows up is warmly accepted, provided there’s enough space.
Sergei’s ethnically Russian, but has lived for lengthy stretches in various places around Europe. He can speak four languages (and is learning bits of others through his many house-guests) and as an avid reader, is well-studied on world affairs. He’s also a deeply religious man, hence his self-built church next door to his house. In creating his compound and hosting such a large amount of travelers at basically all times, he’s trying to foster and promote an atmosphere of world peace, generosity, understanding, and goodwill.
I wasn’t able to speak at length with Sergei, primarily because he had so many other travelers and he’s a very busy man in general. He was always running errands and scampering around maintaining his large compound. His guests are actively encouraged (but not forced) to help out. While I was there, most of us did a little yard work. Sergei’s compound has only a ramshackle outhouse, which has to be moved from time to time. A few travelers were taking part in the moving of the smelly hut, among other things.
Tales of Many Travelers
Staying at Sergei’s Philoxenia compound can be an extremely inspirational experience, more so to some than others. Among the hundreds of travelers who have passed through its gates, some have stayed for months at a time. I’ve even heard of a Thai traveler who’s set up permanent residence next door in recent years.
I believe this is due to the positive vibe which is promoted; be happy with your surroundings. Enjoy life to the fullest. Be respectful and open to others, be as generous as is possible.
The surrounding landscape also contributes; it’s not only extremely exotic, but provides the feeling of being hundreds of miles away from “the grid”. When travelers arrive in a place as isolated as Khuzhir, Olkhon Island, Lake Baikal, they truly feel like they’ve escaped the worries of the “real world”.
I have countless fond memories of my stay with Sergei. Among them are:
- The amazing fellow travelers I met there, along with Sergei’s wonderful family.
- All of the cuddly animals around his compound.
- The time he let me inside his small church and gave me a tour. I especially enjoyed the pulpit area, which was hand-painted and crafted with great care.
- Sergei actually drove a few of us clear across the island, to an incredibly remote spot on its opposite side. After he let us off, we still had to walk around five kilometers to reach the waterfront. It was an incredible hike, completely secluded. We didn’t see any other hikers the entire day. When we arrived at the ‘beach’, my two German friends quickly set up camp. They were going to wild-camp there for several days, at least. Then we all stripped down and jumped into Lake Baikal’s icy waters. Whooo! Yolca and I didn’t have time to stay with the Germans and camp, so we had to walk all the way back to Khuzhir, a walk of about a dozen kilometers. But it was spectacular, and we would never have known about that magical beach and trail, or been able to get there, if not for Sergei’s generosity.
- Hanging out inside Sergei’s commons room provided many enjoyable moments. I rarely stay in hostels anymore, but I gained a bit of nostalgia of the hostel experience while sitting around and exchanging stories with fellow travelers. I also met some great friends, some of which I still keep in touch with.
- The relaxing and positive atmosphere fully revitalized my spirits.
- Evenings inside the large tent I shared with four other travelers. It felt great being outside… that poor Chinese traveler didn’t know what he missed!
Unfortunately, due to visa issues I could only stay at Sergei’s for two nights. I left the place wishing I had more time, as the Philoxenia compound was, for me, one of those places I could have easily spent weeks. If you are headed towards Lake Baikal and you get the chance, look up or seek out this couchsurfing legend. Or, just show up at his door… Sergei will most likely have plenty of room for you.