Lake Baikal, Irkustk Siberia –
Siberia has always conjured up visions of frigid winters, fierce snow storms, thick-coated animals, a tough breed of people able to survive the isolation and cruel whims of nature, and indubitably – the Gulag.
Our Lake Baikal Photo Gallery
Our Irkutsk Photo Gallery
Our Siberian Wooden House Photos
The size of Russia hits-home when after crossing five time zones from St. Petersburg to Irkutsk Siberia, we had still only reached the middle of the largest nation in the world. If we had traveled from the east coast to the west coast the time zones crossed would have been eleven and the kilometres chalked up would be 10,000 (1/4 of the equator)!
Having spent years north of the 55th parallel in Canada, we now joke about being allergic to snow and bitter cold, hence our choice of early autumn to visit Siberia with bright sunny days still in the plus 20-25 C range. “It just dawned on me”, Rick says a few days after we arrive, “the swarms of pesky mosquitoes we were expecting…there are none!” Our hotel clerk tells us, “Come between June and August and they will carry you away. It is our cool nights now that have eliminated them.”
Although there are vast distances between Siberian cities, we certainly do not have anywhere near the size of communities in the Canadian north. Irkutsk, at 591,000 is the closest large city to Lake Baikal, which is one of the main reasons for our visit to Siberia. It was a feel good experience from our first trot down Irkutsks’ two main streets, Lenin and Karl Marx.
Daily we enjoy sitting in the squares and sidewalk cafes watching the world go by. The mix of citizens is Russian and a smaller number of the indigenous Buryat, descendants of a Mongolian tribe. The Buryat live in greater numbers in Ulan Ude, their capital closer to the border of Mongolia and east of Lake Baikal. They have adopted Buddhism, but their ancient shamanistic traditions and beliefs are alive and well. Besides the visible world the shaman interacts with the spirits in many other worlds or universes, for their strength, healing powers and wisdom in earthly matters.
Around the city the architecture is eclectic: the Neo-Gothic Polish Church, the New Renaissance of the old Grand Hotel, and framing Kirov, the main city square, is the Classical City Hall and Administration Building and the big Soviet-style Angara Hotel. In the smaller Truda Square one of the buildings, now the Regional Library, was formerly “Feinberg’s House” – just one of the many houses once owned by rich merchants who ran the city. Although Irkutsk was founded by the Cossacks in 1651 as a garrison to control the Buryat peoples, by the 1700’s onward it flourished as the centre of trade with Mongolia, China and Tibet.
A disastrous fire in 1879 destroyed most of the city centre, but was quickly rebuilt by the wealthy business owners being that at the time it was the main supply city for the 1880’s Lenin basin gold rush, and a popular stop along the Trans-Siberian railway route; the latter is still true today.
We pass through the sizable arch known as the Moscow Gate, leading to promenades along the Angara River filled with local families and tourists whiling away the day. Down from the Moscow Gate we find Church Square. The Church of the Savior dating back to 1706 is the oldest intact building, not only in Irkutsk, but also in eastern Siberia; the beautiful frescos on the façade were added much later. Epiphany Cathedral, founded in 1718, is such a mix of architecture as to be called “Siberian Baroque”. Historically it was the main gathering place for celebrations and during calamities.
Along the seedier side-streets are a profusion of historic Siberian Wooden Houses (see photos). Although they have undergone changes in construction over the centuries, the most characteristic feature from even the earliest times is a basement to store provisions. The houses in Irkutsk are mainly from the latter 19th century with facades decorated with carvings and fancy lacework. Pine and cedar are the most common woods used. There are usually 5 or 6 large windows facing the street, many with shutters painted in bright colors. The wide window frames in particular have carvings and scrolls, which as well as decorative are symbolic, such as a sun for happiness in the home.
We check the weather forecast for Lake Baikal, knowing it has its own microclimate, and it seems like a good time to venture out. Our approach to the lake is to be from the shores of Listvyanka, a town that stretches along the south west shore of Baikal.
We find the tours expensive and could only find one in English, which didn’t include a boat excursion on the lake, so we decide to wing it on our own. A thirty-minute walk gets us to where mini-buses are supposed to leave for Lisvyanka. Silly us – we expect a bus station, but after checking with several people in my fractured Russia, all point to where the mini’s just pull up to the curb along a side-street. Hooray! We get good seats near the front, and after another fifteen-minute wait until the bus is full, the driver takes off full-throttle for the 70km ride.
Whizzing by a few villages between forested areas of small-girth trees, we arrive in Listvyanka. Getting out of the vehicle, I am practically lifted off my feet with the strong gusts of wind off the lake, and it is considerably chillier than in Irkutsk – but the sun is shining brightly.
In the nearby Information Centre it is Olef to the rescue – his English is impeccable and we find out important things: the best place to eat, main market, museums, and such. I am sceptical about boat rides today, having noted the small docked vessels gyrating to and fro in a mad dance, but Olef assures, “Not a problem for a boat ride.”
Rick and I along with four Russian speaking folk climb into one of the boats with Valentine, our guide who promises to relate some facts in English. She passes out much appreciated woolly blankets as the boat heads out. We pass many buildings on the shore-side backed by taiga (boreal forest) morphing into mountains fading phantom-like on the horizon….and on the other side is the seemingly endless vast steel blue wind-swirled Baikal.
It is exhilarating to know we are on the oldest lake in the world, believed to be 25-30 million years old: its crescent shape measures 636 km long and 80 km wide, a surface area the size of Belgium or Holland. BUT its claim to fame is its astounding depth, the deepest point being 1642 metres! It contains 20% of the world’s fresh water! This computes into more volume than the five Great Lakes of North America combined (albeit less surface area). The number of rivers and streams flowing into Baikal is 333; one river flows out – the Angara.
Shaman Kamen (rock) located in the rapids where the Angara begins is a source of many Buryat legends. Valentine regales us with a few: “Before a wedding the bride-to-be is put onto the rock to spend the night. If she survives until the next morning, the river spirits have declared she will make a good wife and the wedding will take place. If she succumbs to the cold, or is swept off the rock by the wind or stormy waves, it is best – as she would not have made a good wife anyway.” Valentine says Shaman rock is also a judgment for men accused of a crime. If they lived they were not guilty; if they did not survive this was just punishment for their crime.
“Deep sea divers claim the water is so clear that it causes vertigo,” says Valentine. “In 1999 the Japanese tested the lake for purity,” Valentine continues, “concluding it can be drunk without further treatment. Microorganisms found no where else on earth purify the water. If you put these organisms into a polluted glass of water – water clears in about an hour.”
It behooves me to find out more about this phenomenon. Investigation reveals the most numerous inhabitant of the lake’s water is a crustacean (copepodae crustocean) known as the Baikal epischura. About the size of a wheat kernel, it is this crustacean that accounts for 96% of the major filtering of Baikal. This crustacean lives only in cold clean water with a constant chemical composition and high saturation of oxygen making Baikal a perfect environ.
Baikal’s ability to remain pure is not without concerns. A pulp and paper mill opened near its shores in the 1960’s, later closed down, and now in operation again. Another is the oil pipeline that is being constructed crossing northern rivers that flow into the lake, which has potential for disaster – given that the Baikal is on a rift valley with seismic activity and notable earthquakes every few years.
The lakes eco-system is the focus of much study. Biologists have found that Lake Baikal and area is home to 1700 species of plants and animals – of which 80% are found no where else on earth – for which UNESCO in 1996 recognized it as a world heritage site.
The most unique animal in Baikal is the endemic freshwater earless seal Phoca siberica, locally called “nerpa”, which is also the only mammal which inhabits the lake (unless the monster some say lives in the lake really exists). The seals are estimated to have inhabited Lake Baikal for some two million years. It remains a mystery how these seals originally got to be here, considering it is hundreds of kilometres from any ocean. Some scientists speculate this occurred when sea-passage linked the lake with the Artic Ocean.
Valentine went on to say, “The lake freezes over in winter with the extreme temperatures, which may dip down to -45Censius in January”. She answered my ready question in her next breath, “But the ice forms with crevasses that open and close, so a pocket of air is constant between the water and ice, while also saturating the water with oxygen.”
Since there is little chance of seeing the seals in the southern part of the lake, we make our way to the Baikal Museum. We find them swimming back and forth between two tanks with a round opening in between – too small a space for these amazing creatures. Their shape is like a dirigible of fur covered blubber, with large bright eyes and whiskers around their mouths at one end and their flipper tail at the other end. Their main food source are the golomyankas (literally “naked”, as they have translucent bodies with no scales) a fish native to Lake Baikal. The total seal population is estimated to be over 60,000, and hunting of the seals, once widespread, is now restricted
The museum also has info on Baikal’s unique ecosystem (but only in Russian) and some stuffed fauna. I stick my head into what looks like a mock mini-sub. A dozen others are seated, waiting for something, so figure I may as well wait too. The door shuts, the lights go out and a commentator relays information (in Russian, of course) while through the portholes film footage plays of the different levels of the lake, from the surface to a depth of 1642 metres (I know this cause the depth flashes on a board). Great visuals at least.
“Well, you came to the museum with me,” I say to Rick, “so now I’m going to treat you to some smoked Omul.” This distant relative of the salmon is yet another species unique to Baikal. Lining up at the food stalls at the main market I purchase a good sized one. Rick is waiting with the cold beer at the small café. Yum! It is so delicious, salted and smoked to perfection, yet moist and tender. We strip the bones and skin clean in no time, and the suds disappear as well.
As well as food stalls, this main market with a roof but otherwise open, has all sorts of locally made jewellery. I am after a pendant in Charoite, a gemstone named for the Char River that feeds into Lake Baikal, the only place on earth where it is found. It comes in various shades of purple, from pale mauve to vivid violet in swirls, interspersed with patterns of white and sometimes black. Oh…there are so many to choose from…I convince Rick that I also want to check out the vendors selling this gem on tables beside the boat docks. It is here that I find THE ONE – rich lavender with lots of white flecks and a dash of black on one side.
Picnic enthusiasts line the stony shores. All have on winter jackets or sweaters, except for one burly (or should I say brrrrrrly) fellow who sits cross legged facing the lake with nothing on but a minuscule black swimsuit. “Now that’s tough,” I say as I video the sight for posterity.
The Omul does not hold us for long, so back we trek to the café for a warming coffee and a rice mix that the “French Chef” (really, hat and all) heaps onto our paper plates from a giant iron vat on an open fire located outside the café. The mystery ingredients (of which I recognize carrots and a dark meat) taste mighty fine. As we munch away a young man walks by wearing a T-shirt with a picture of a big brown bear with a conniving smile wearing sunglasses and a touristy looking hat. The caption reads, “I’ve been to Siberia, and there are no bears.” “Ya, right,” Rick says, as we both almost roll off the café bench with laughter.
Time to hale a mini-bus back to Irkutsk, and just in time as ominous black clouds are rolling in. No sooner than our bus pulls out, the sky opens with a heavy rain (that the weatherman did not predict).
As the bus enters the outskirts of Irkutsk, we recognize NOTHING! The driver makes a few stops, then the terminus; the remaining passengers leave the bus. Why did we even think the bus would return to the departure spot? I hand the driver a map and attempt to gesture “where are we?” He shrugs his shoulders. Off we get – lost as all get-out, but being a shop-a-holic I note this is a huge local shopping area. We manage to find out from a lady how to get back to Karl Marx Street. We head off, with me still eyeing the shopping stalls and saying in my best Arnold Schwarzenegger drawl, “I’ll be back.”
Our Russian travels are drawing to a close, and our minds reflect on all we have seen from our start in Moscow, to St. Petersburg, and here in Siberia; the challenge of the language barrier always superseded by friendliness and helpfulness.
Leaving is bitter-sweet – sad to leave but at the same time excited about our next adventure. Our Air Mongolia flight is an hour late, but we finally board a Fokker 50. It has been many years since we have flown in a prop-plane with the lulling drone of the engine drowning out all other sound. Shortly after take-off the handsome young male attendant comes down the isle manually shutting off all reading lights. I peer out from the darkness and my breath catches. Rick leans towards the window and also looks out at a magical spectacle. A crystal clear night under a full moon and below the silvery ripples of Lake Baikal shimmering in an eerie dance; a beguiling farewell from the ancient spirits that inhabit the lake.
Also Published in Europe Up Close.com
For a great home-away-from-home we suggest:
Empire Hotel in Irkutsk.
Modern, clean and comfortable, delightful ambiance & great location –close to historic area and Angara River. Friendly, helpful staff go the extra mile to ensure a great stay, and the fine breakfast included is a perfect start to each day.