Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Lake Baikal

Executive summary by darmansjah

Mile after mile of flat, empty earth, punctuated by towns of small wooden houses, clustered around smoking, belching factories. It was a landscape seemingly coated in ash, the Siberia that Maxim Gorky called "a land of frozen chains and ice". "Wait, wait," Alex said. For here was Lake Baikal; mystical, revered, sacred Baikal.

At 360 miles long and 25 miles wide, Baikal is more a sea than a lake, with ferocious storms that can whip up 15ft waves and swallow ships whole. "The lake gets colder and colder," Alex explained, "and then, usually in February, it freezes overnight. It was as if a wicked ice queen had cast a spell.

We met our first Baikal transport: five teams of Siberian huskies and sleds. "To Russia!"

"To friends," Mischa said. "To friends," we replied. Another bottle was retrieved from the snow. We stopped for the night in log cabins, about 20 miles further up the lake. I walked with Alex on to the ice, the lake like silver cloth under a brilliant moon. I asked him about Baikal and its special place in Russian hearts. At over a mile, it is the deepest lake in the world. It contains more water than the five US great lakes combined.

The next day we took a Hivus, a hovercraft adapted for ice and named after one of the many Baikal winds. An environmentalist, he describes how the lake's ability to purify itself is down to one creature, an endemic microscopic shrimp called epischura baikalensis. It is, as Thomson says, "the nasty irony in Baikal's stupendous self-cleansing act: extraordinary pure water; extraordinary contaminated animals". Put bluntly, if the epischura dies, Baikal dies.

The Hivus landed at the town of Khuzhir, on Olkhon, an island halfway up Baikal's western shore that's of sacred significance for Buryat shamans and Buddhists. In the harbour, rusting fishing boats and hulks, like the exposed carcasses of dinosaurs, lay trapped in the ice. We walked up the main street passing incurious Siberians and stopped off at a house to buy some olmu, the lake's staple food fish, from a babushka. We slid down the icy slope to the rock and scrambled up the sheer face, into the sacred cave, home of Baikal's spirits.

"To the Baikal spirits," said one of the guys.

Back in the Hivus, we headed further up the lake's Maloe More, or shallow sea, passing fishermen dragging huge nets through immense holes cut by chainsaws. Then we stopped to watch some locals fishing in more traditional fashion, with line and hook through a corkscrewed hole in the ice.

The ice became rough, contorted into fantastical shapes, like tank traps on a Normandy beach. Had we angered the Baikal spirits? The two Russian drivers got out, scratched their heads, and smoked furiously. Then scratched their heads some more. There was the familiar sound of Baikal shifting, creaking, cracking, groaning. Mischa produced the bottle from his bag and poured.

"To Baikal! "To Baikal! Some days later, we were back at the southern end of Baikal, where the Angara flows out of the lake. Across the water sat the paper mill. Some 50 miles upwind to the west, the smoking chimneys of Irkutsk.

Baikal lost his daughter. Whether we lose sacred, beautiful Baikal, only time will tell.

Mike Carter travelled with KE Adventure (01768 773966; keadventure.com), whose new nine-night Lake Baikal in Winter package costs £1,895, including all activities – dog sledding, hovercraft trips, snowmobiling and trekking – guides, full-board accommodation and transfers.

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