Lake Baikal Mysteries

LAKE BAIKAL, JUNE 2002 - It’s early in the morning when our train arrives in Irkutsk station, the first city of importance in East-Siberia we approach after two nights.  But before we visit this beautiful city we go straight onto the bus that takes us to Lake Baikal (Ozero Bajkal), known as the deepest lake of the world, and holding one fifth of the fresh water of the entire planet.  But it is a lake also covered in mysteries… – no, not a cousin or niece of Nessy over here – but a lot of strange natural specimen to be found and some still to be discovered.  

The road from Irkutsk towards Listvyanka – a small place on the shores of Lake Baikal – is surprisingly good, thanks to the former US president Eisenhower, who sponsored the building of this road for an upcoming top-meeting between the US and the former USSR -  a meeting that never took place, due to the U2-incident…  Anyway, the road was here to stay, and this road stays open all year, also in the midst of winter, when temperatures reach – 40 C.

Homestay in Listvyanka

Day one in Listvyanka. We check in at the local homestay and meet the host family.  The Siberian people make a very friendly impression on us, and the houses are basic but clean and cosy…  This is going to be a nice and quiet couple of days over here.  The appartments we stay in are the former houses of the scientists who used to work here in times when the Lake Baikal museum was still the reseach centre for studies of the lake.  Now they work at Irkutsk, associated to the university.  Behind the houses a lot of walking paths and things to discover.  On one of my walks I noticed an old factory nearby, including a lot of pipelines in the forest, a (almost empty ?) facility that looked like a military base,  and large hydrogen or oxygen tanks in the woods.  These woods are great to walk in, and the little hills that can be climed offer a great view of Lake Baikal.

Lake Baikal, the museum and houses
Part One of the mystery

The Baikal Museum

The visit to the museum is quite an eye opener.  The mystery of the lake begins… Next to maquettes of the lake (a tectonic crack of over than a mile deep really, filled with glacial water) and steamboats of the past, stuffed animals and birds, and a lot of black-and-wite photographs, the real exitement is the displays of the species that live in the lake and are not to be found elsewhere in the world !  Next to fresh water seals, Omul fish (often on the menu over here and delicious !), also little transparent fish that live in the deepest regions of the lake.  An iron bar that has been lowered into the same depth and thus totally deformed by the water pressure, is lying next to these species on formol.  What an exciting place this is !

Mystery boat trip

But the mystery was not over yet ! On day two we go onto the lake with a small boat. It is raining but the it feels good to be on deck and feel the cooling effect of this huge lake.  The temperature of the water is 4 degrees C.  The captain jokes about the lack of lifevests on board - “you survive only a few minutes anyway in there ” – and yes this water is very cold as I could experience when I went feet bathing the other day – going in with feet only is said to extend your life by two years, swimming in the lake will either extend your life with 25 years or kill you immediately. So we are on the boat and after some time (playing cards, having indoor picknick etc…) the mist rolls in… and within a few minutes we are covered in a thick mist and visibility is reduced to zero metres.  At this stage our captain climbs on the roof of his cabin … to set up the radar.  Luckily this device seems to be working fine, but some of us are a bit stressed anyway when he comes in a little while later, to claim his binoculars that he had lended to some of us for sightseeing…  And some time later, we arrive on the dock again, almost without knowing we were that close to the shore. Another surprising day at lake Baikal !

Mist covering lake Baikal Baikal at sunset

The soul of Lake Baikal 

But for me the real mystery atmosphere is to be found at sunset, when the sun is gradually hiding behind the mountains, still leaving a trace of its light on the lake, and the mist is covering the lake once again and mixes in with the clouds and the yellow and the red.  These moments when Lake Baikal stole my heart.  It was hard to leave this place the following morning…

I am still here but I can already feel the desire to come back again – to be continued.

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