The Blue Eye of Siberia
The Chinese called it the “North Sea” in ancient times. Buryats believed Baikal had consciousness and worshipped it. Russians used to see in Baikal an old man, wise and powerful. Even nowadays no locals ever refer to Baikal as just a lake – it is always Him, like a human being, respected and worshipped.
Text by Elena Krivovyaz
Photos courtesy of RussiaDiscovery
Baikal is a must-see for many reasons. It is well known that it is the largest natural reserve of fresh water on Earth – the lake contains about one-fifth of the world’s drinking water. Covering an area the size of a small country like Belgium or the Netherlands, it contains as much water as five Great Lakes put together. It is also the clearest and deepest freshwater lake in the world – Baikal is 1,637 meters deep. Nobody knows how old Baikal is; some experts indicate that it is 20 million years old, some think it is more than 30 million. Despite its age, the lake is pretty much alive – minor earthquakes are frequent on its shores, and major earthquakes take place every 150 years or so. During a devastating earthquake in 1862 an area of 200 sq km with six Buryat settlements went down under the water, and a tremor in 1959 resulted in the deepening of another section of the lake by 10-15m. The ancient lake is still active and in the process of formation. The lake is special because it is inhabited by numerous creations in its whole depth, whereas other lakes are inhabited only in their upper strata of water. Many of the inhabited animals are endemic. There are, for instance, the Baikal seals which live in abundance on the Baikal islands. There are about 100,000 of these animals and they are protected by the Red Book. The animals are considered to be very curious and may swim up to boats. The Baikal omul is also endemic and it is a popular national delicacy. The coastline territory of Baikal houses brown bears, sables and musk deer. The legendary snow panthers lived in the Sayany Mountains near Baikal, but they became extinct many years ago.
The lake’s coastline is about 2,000 km long and it takes about three or four months to travel around it on foot. The lake is surrounded by numerous nature preserves with taiga forest, vast steppe and majestic mountain ranges, disssected by small and mighty rivers bringing their waters into the lake. The locals say that Baikal has 500 sons (500 rivers flowing into the lake) and only one daughter, Angara (the only river flowing out of Baikal). Legend has it that Old Baikal got bad-tempered in ancient times, after his daughter, the beautiful Angara, ran away from her father to her beloved Yenissei. Since then Angara has been carrying its waters to merge with the Yenissei River, while strong winds and storms have become quite frequent on Baikal.
A lot of people visit the shores of Baikal in summer, and only very few know how magical Baikal is in winter, when there are no tourists but only the locals and primeval nature. The Siberian frost is easy to bear due to its low humidity, while the snow is crispy and puffy under the feet, and the days are bright and sunny, as Baikal’s shores boast 25% more annual sunshine than the famous Russian resorts in the south of the country.
The immense body of water doesn’t get ice-stricken until late January, and at the beginning of winter one can see the legendary “boiling” of Baikal: powerful waves attack the shores leaving bizarre ice shapes on the rocks; white clouds of steam rise above the dark waters enveloping every branch of the nearby pines and firs into a fairy tale winter attire. Baikal freezes in an unusual way. When walking around Baikal in winter, you’ll see how bizarre it looks – like a frosty planet with huge incrustations of ice and weirdly-shaped hills, which are actually waves that turned into ice in motion and were dusted with snow. In some places the ice is almost as transparent as spring water, and you can see the ice patterns through a dozen meters deep down into the very heart of Baikal.
Legend has it that Old Baikal got bad-tempered in ancient times, after his only daughter, the beautiful Angara, ran away from her father to her beloved Yenissei. Since then Angara, which is the only river flowing out of Baikal, has been carrying its waters to merge with the Yenissei River, while storms have become rather frequent on Baikal.
Ice trekkers may be shocked by optical illusions of Baikal ice in winter. “Sometimes it’s really scary when you climb a high ice hill in the middle of Baikal and suddenly see a dark yawning abyss of water right ahead under your feet,” recalls Irina Baranova, a Baikal local who now works for a Moscow tour operator. “But it is actually Baikal’s thick ice, so dark blue and transparent that it looks like open water.” In fact, by February the ice is always at least 20 inches thick, which is enough to support the weight of a motor vehicle. The other striking feature of the frozen Baikal is that there are impressive cracks over the whole length. Some of the permanent cracks, which are the result of underwater streams or springs, or sudden temperature changes, are up to 2m wide and dozens of miles long. “When in winter the ice starts cracking with a deafening noise, you realize just how powerful Baikal is,” says Baranova. But experienced locals can distinguish the potentially dangerous areas of cracks by the peculiar shade of the ice. A trip to Baikal in winter can become a wonderful meditating discovery or a true adventure where every day you experience a new winter activity.
One of the most exciting is Siberian husky sledding. After learning to mush the dog team in the Listvyanka settlement, one can travel along the shore for short distances through taiga woods or on the ice of the lake. Or, you can go to Baikalsk, a town in the south east of the lake known for its mountain skiing center. Snowmobiling is breathtaking and fun, and allows you to travel for greater distances. Popular snowmobiling routes for beginners run in the Pribaikalsky National Park woods – in the vicinity of Listvyanka or to the picturesque Circum Baikal railway, famous for its numerous tunnels and bridges built in the mountain range. More challenging snowmobiling itineraries cross Baikal from east to west and lead to small villages and the snow-topped peaks of the Khamar- Daban Mountains.
A popular means of transportation at Baikal is ice-hovercraft, which is called Hivus by locals after the name of one of the Baikal winds. Hivus can take you to what is probably the most amazing destination in winter – Maloye More (The Little Sea). This is a part of Baikal that is separated by its vast fields of bare ice and Olkhon Island with its scenic rocks, caves and grottoes decorated by the incredibly transparent stalactites and stalagmites. Olkhon is the biggest island on Baikal and is located in the very heart of the lake. Incidentally, it is considered to be a sacred center among locals. According to legend, the Spirit of Baikal – Burkhan – inhabits this island. There are a lot of sites worshipped by shamanists and Buddhists alike on Olkhon, and you can distinguish these sites from the rest by the special beauty of the landscape and traditional colorful ribbons tied to the trees by the locals. These ribbons remind us of the ancient shamanist traditions and sacrifices. Shamanka Mountain is one of the most mysterious places on Olkhon Island which attracts hundreds of pilgrims from all over Siberia. The mountain has a tunnel running through it which is 12 meters long. The mountain used to be very special and nobody but the shaman could enter its tunnel and stay in it for a long time. Locals claim that Shamanka has a magic power.
On Maloye More, a part of Baikal that separates Olkhon from the mainland, ice-angling is by far the favorite activity among the locals. The national dish here is raw, freshly frozen fish, called “raskolotka” or ”stroganina” – depending on the way it is prepared – dipped into salt and pepper. This is a traditional Baikal snack that comes along with a shot of vodka. No matter what you do during your trip, take your time – Baikal’s shores are the right place to appreciate the grandeur of nature and feel its eternity.