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The Endless & Steel Blue Waters of Siberia's Lake Baikal

© by Irene Butler

Some Of The World's Largest Lakes
Courtesy of sky.scnu.edu.cn

Our boat jostles against strong biting winds. We leave Listvyanka , the small shoreline town that is wrapped in taiga (boreal forest). A backdrop of mountains appears phantom-like on the horizon. Snuggled in wool blankets, my husband Rick and I look out at the seemingly endless steel blue waters of Lake Baikal . We are awed knowing we are on the oldest and deepest freshwater lake in the world, formed as an ancient rift valley 25 million years ago. Its crescent shape is about the size of Belgium or Holland BUT Baikal's claim to fame is its astounding depth -1,642 metres! It contains 20% of the world's fresh water. This computes into more volume than the five Great Lakes of North America combined!
     Our guide, Valentine, speaks in her native tongue to the four Russian tourists on board, and then she aptly switches to English. "There are 333 rivers and streams flowing into the lake; only one river flows out - the Angara ." Long before scientists discovered Baikal's unique ecosystem, the indigenous Buryat people (descendants of Mongolian tribes) attributed its extraordinary characteristics to powerful lake spirits who gathered at Shaman Rock, located in the rapids where the Angara begins its outward flow.
     "According to legend," says Valentine, "before a wedding, the bride-to-be was taken to Shaman Rock to spend the night. Her survival meant the spirits concurred she would make a good wife, and the wedding would go ahead. If she died of exposure or was swept off the gigantic rock by rogue waves, it was for the best - as she would not have made a good wife anyway." (I'm thinking it might be wise to have a summer wedding.) "Men were not excluded from the spirits' judgment," Valentine adds; "those accused of a crime were deemed not guilty if alive in the morning - and if not, it was a just punishment."

Chilly shoreline picnics  Listvyanka nestled in boreal forest  Nerpa seal - Baikal Museum  Nerpa seal taking a breather  Omul feast  Our boat ride begins  Shopping, of course

     Lake Baikal has caused much stir in the scientific realm. The water's purity is phenomenal due to micro-organisms not found elsewhere. The most numerous are crustaceans known as the Baikal Epischura which account for 96% of the filtering of Baikal. Divers claim the water is so clear it causes unexpected vertigo from seeing so far below their feet.
     Biologists have dubbed the lake and surrounding area the Russian Galapagos for it's over 1,300 species of flora and fauna - of which 80% are found nowhere else on the planet! This biodiversity was given World Heritage status by UNESCO in 1996. The only mammal to inhabit the lake is the endemic freshwater earless seal Pusa sibirica , locally called "nerpa"; estimated to have made Baikal their home for two million years. It remains a mystery how these seals originally got to be here, considering the lake is hundreds of kilometres from any ocean; some surmise a sea-passage once linked the lake with the Arctic Ocean.
     "When the lake freezes over in winter," says Valentine, "we see yet another of Baikal's marvels as the ice forms with crevasses that open and close providing breathing holes for the seals."
     Since the nerpa congregate mostly in the lake's northern basin, when we are back on dry land it is off to see some in Listvyanka's Baikal Museum . We delight in their dirigible shape of fur covered blubber, with large bright eyes and whiskered mouth at one end, and flipper tail at the other. The main food source of these wonderful creatures is golomyanka , a native fish with translucent bodies and no scales. The total seal population is estimated to be over 60,000, and growing since hunting them is prohibited.
     By this time, we are ravenous and head for the main market. People bundled in sweaters and jackets sit along stony shores - except one burly (or I should say brrrrrrly) fellow who sits cross-legged facing the lake with nothing more than a Speedo swimsuit! "Now that's Siberian tough," says Rick.
     Lining up at a food stall for smoked Omul , I purchase a good-sized one. This distant relative of the salmon is yet another species found only in Baikal. Yum! It is so delicious, salted and smoked to perfection, yet moist and tender. We strip the bones clean in no time.
     It is then back by mini-bus to the nearby city of Irkutsk , from where our prop plane lifts off Siberian soil at mid-night. The "science of it all" fades as my breath catches at the mystical spectacle below. Under a full moon, the silvery ripples of Lake Baikal shimmer with an eerie luminosity; a beguiling farewell from the ancient spirits.

Facts and figures:
Scientific sources differ in their estimates of depth and range of flora/fauna of Lake Baikal, but it's the deepest with the most biodiversity is universal.

Ways to get to Lake Baikal:
Listvyanka village on the lakeshore has limited accommodations. Day trips from the town of Irkutsk (population 590,000) are popular. Local buses and mini-vans run the 70km between Irkutsk and Listvyanka throughout the day. A boat from Irkutsk ferry dock is another option. Companies in Irkutsk offer tours, but more expensive and mostly in Russian. Railways crossing Russia stop at Lake Baikal.

The Listvyanka Information Centre is near the bus/mini-van drop-off and has English speaking staff for sites/directions/boat rides onto the lake.

Pusa Sibirica, locally called Nerpa

Photo Credits
Rick Butler

Irene Butler is an award winning travel writer and author of "Trekking the Globe with Mostly Gentle Footsteps" now on Kindle. Her articles have appeared in national and international publications. She and her photographer husband Rick explore the world for six months of every year.
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If you go
Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake_Baikal
Wikitravel: http://wikitravel.org/en/Lake_Baikal
Lake Baikal Tourism: http://www.irkutsk.org/baikal/
UNESCO Status for Lake Baikal: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/754
Fiction: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vladimir_Obruchev
Movies featuring: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0800241/
Places of worship: http://www.face-music.ch/bi_bid/tengerism_en.html
Trip Advisor: http://www.tripadvisor.ca/Search?q=siberia&sub-search=SEARCH&geo=&returnTo=http%253A__2F____2F__www__2E__tripadvisor__2E__ca__2F__#ssrc=n,o=0,c=global
Suggested Accommodation in Irkutsk: Empire Hotel http://www.empirehotel.ru/

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