Lake Baikal, the world’s oldest and deepest freshwater lake, curves like a crooked finger for nearly 600km through south-eastern Siberia, north of the Mongolian border.
Surrounded by mile-high snowcapped mountains, Lake Baikal offers vistas of unspoilt beauty. The mountains are still a haven for wild animals, while the few small remote villages are still outposts of tranquility untouched by tourism.
Its age and isolation have produced one of the world’s richest and most unusual freshwater faunas
For us it was a must see !
It is also the most transparent lake in the world. The water is very clear and from the surface it is possible to see objects 40m below.
If you emptied it, it would take every river in the world flowing into it a year to fill. It contains more water than the five US great lakes combined.
More than 330 rivers flow into Lake Baikal, but there is just one outlet, the Angara river.
What really hits you is the sense of isolation. More than 3000 km west of the Pacific, over 5300 km east of Moscow and south of nowhere, stranded in Russia’s great empty quarter it is more a sea than a lake. With few inhabitants and even fewer roads.
To the shamans and indigenous Mongolian Buryat people, it is one of the most sacred places on earth.
With 1,500 species of flora and fauna found nowhere else, including the mysterious nerpa, the only freshwater-lake seal, it has been dubbed the “Galapagos of Russia”. The fresh water seals differ in many aspects from other seals. For example they have more blood, which makes it possible for them to swim for more than 70 minutes. They can also travel at great depths, sometimes reaching depths of 300 meters under the surface.
The lake’s cold, oxygen-rich waters teem with bizarre life-forms. One of these is the golomyanka (oil-fish). The golomyanka has no scales, a translucent body and gives birth to live young. It can swim at depths of more than 1000 metres, despite the incredible water pressure at this depth. They are so well-adapted to these pressures that they will literally explode if brought to the surface.
The lake has an ability to purify itself thanks to one creature, an endemic microscopic shrimp. This army of zooplankton vacuum cleaners have, for millions of years, sucked Baikal through their digestive tracts, filtering bacteria and decomposing plants – and tiny specks of pollution. So efficient are they that it’s said that corpses, human or animal, are never recovered from the lake – the shrimps consume any organic matter in hours.
Ringing the lake is dense, dark taiga – the classic Russian forest of silver birch, silver fir, spruce and amber-orange larch and evergreen pines.
Along the way we come across isolated settlements and lots of Omul.
The omul is the most popular fish in Lake Baikal and is the main food supply of the locals. It is smoked in birch wood and eaten as you might a banana, by peeling back the skin and biting into the flesh, followed by rasstegay (olmu pie), and ukha (fish soup). No prizes for guessing which fish. Washed down with , of course, vodka.
Our only cafe leaves us a little confused as to the menu and terms. It may have Greek origins as breaking dishes is included?
We gave the pork ears a miss…
There’s no road link to Port Baikal and we take a train to it. And more omul. The track rails scream history.
The climate around Lake Baikal is much milder than in the rest of southern Siberia. For us it is still cold, even in summer! In the middle of winter the average temperature is -21°C, compared with minimum temperatures of down to -55°C elsewhere in Siberia.
Visiting Baikal in the summer(average temp 10C), it is almost impossible to imagine that for five months of the year the lake is covered by metres of ice, but such is the purity of Baikal’s water that it is as translucent as cut glass.
It is as if a wicked ice queen has cast a spell.
The freeze begins in November and ships head for the sanctuary of Irkutsk’s harbour. During the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-05, the lake’s ice was so thick that the Russians were able to lay a railway straight across it and transport supplies to the battle front throughout the winter.
Although we were not there in winter here are 2 pictures of what it becomes. We both feel it would be an interesting place to return to in winter. An idea like this can be dangerous particularly as it continues to linger!
Even in Siberia we are reminded of Duffy. This could easily have been him.