Skimming Siberia's sacred sea.
My first sight of Russia's Lake Baikal came on a snowy afternoon in January, as the Trans-Siberian train from Vladivostok inched its way along the southern shore of that fabled body of water. As I peered through the dim gray light, straining for a glimpse of Baikal's gelid surface, my husband, Tom, joked that we were looking at "the world's largest landlocked ice cube."
In late June of the year --not far from where we had first spotted the lake--we boarded a boat that would take us on a trip we had dreamed about during five months of winter snows and Siberia's springtime "mud season." When all the ice had melted on Lake Baikal, Tom and I booked passage on the hydrofoil that plies the route between tiny Port Baikal, on the southwest shore, and Severobaikalsk, the only sizable town at the northern end of the lake--a round-trip journey of almost eight hundred miles.
We left on a sunny-bright morning from the raketa (rocket boat) landing in Irkutsk, the capital of eastern Siberia, forty miles from Lake Baikal. A small hydrofoil took us up the Angara River to Port Baikal. During the 1 3/4-hour trip, we passed the village of Bolshaya Rechka, site of a large mink farm and home of a well-known Siberian craftsman who makes traditional, intricately constructed birch-bark boxes. Another resident carves modern totem poles, some with controversial political themes.
When we reached Port Baikal on the lake itself, we changed to a larger boat, a hydrofoil named Kometa (Comet) that would take us on to Severobaikalsk--a cruise of at least ten hours, depending on the weather. Modern and sleek, the European-made hydrofoil had an interior like a wide-bodied jet, with rows of airplane seats for 105 passengers. Since the seats weren't reserved, the 40 or so passengers put themselves and their luggage wherever they wanted. Soon we were pulling out of port, heading past the old wooden houses in the village of Listvyanka to our left and onto the open lake, surrounded by high mountains still streaked with snow. Experience had taught us to carry extra food whenever we traveled in Russia, so we were well supplied with the standard picnic fare: hard-boiled eggs, pickled green tomatoes, chunks of cheese and sausage, and plenty of bread.
This part of Russia is a place of unspoiled natural beauty, defying popular notions of Siberia as a fiat and frozen wasteland. National parks and nature preserves line the east and west shores of the lake, encompassing a landscape of dense forests, rocky islands, dramatic cliffs, hot springs, and snowcapped mountains with peaks of more than nine thousand feet. Although the area is sparsely populated and has few tourist facilities, there are many reasons why Lake Baikal is the third most popular travel destination in Russia (after Moscow and St. Petersburg).
By most measures, Baikal stands as a giant among the world's lakes. The oldest, deepest, and largest lake on earth, Baikal was formed at least twenty-five million years ago. Today it reaches a depth of more than one mile and contains one-fifth of all the fresh water on the planet. Long and narrow, its crescent shape extends from fifty miles at its widest point to almost four hundred miles in length. Three hundred and thirty-six rivers and streams flow into Baikal, but only one river, the Angara, runs out of it, ultimately joining the Yenesei River to carry Baikal's waters thousands of miles north past the Arctic Circle and into the Kara Sea.
The lake's crystal-clear waters support more than 2,500 species of plants and animals, approximately 80 percent of them found nowhere else, including the Baikal nerpa, the world's only freshwater seal. Its shores are home to a wide variety of animals--including bears, wolves, foxes, sables, and minks--as well as the Buriat Mongolian people, the largest non-Russian ethnic group in Siberia.
Revered by the ancient and modern people who have lived on or near its shores, Lake Baikal has acquired a number of honorary names indicative of its hold on the human imagination: "The Blue Eye of Siberia," "Siberia's Sacred Sea," and "The Blue Pearl of Siberia." Legends tell of Baikal's creation, of the spirits and gods who inhabit its waters, of lovelorn maidens and wicked winds, of the lake's connection with the Mongol warrior Genghis Khan. The Buriats still venerate sacred sites on its islands and shores. And Russian writers celebrate the great lake in poetry, fiction, and song.
My own first close encounter with Baikal had occurred earlier that year, in February, when the entire 12,000-square-mile surface of the lake was still frozen, in some places to a depth of several feet. A group of university colleagues from Irkutsk had organized an excursion to the southwestern end of the lake. We rode out onto the snow-covered surface in a large van, stopped a fair distance from the shore, stepped carefully onto the ice, and slithered around in our snow boots. But the slipperiness couldn't compare with the sensation of standing on the ice and hearing it crack beneath our feet, like gunshots, as deep fissures rent the lake's seemingly solid surface.
Nearby, a group of men cheered an ice hockey game in progress, while an iceboat slowly glided past in the distance. Two cars raced each other from shore to shore, and an off-road vehicle spun around in crazy circles. An old motorcycle roared past, with a sidecar carrying three drunken, disheveled characters straight out of a Dostoyevsky novel. Brilliant sunlight, reflected through millions of ice crystals, shimmered over the Felliniesque scene.
From my Russian colleagues 1 learned that Lake Baikal has been an important transportation route since ancient times. Today it serves as an "ice road" for cars and trucks in winter, as well as a waterway for beats in summer. Due to the dearth of roads near the lake, people living in some of the settlements on its shores rely on Baikal as their primary route for transportation and communication. Many of these small communities are virtually isolated in the spring, when the melting ice makes driving on the lake dangerous and boat mutes are still unnavigable. I tried to make arrangements to visit one of these villages at the beginning of April, but a Russian friend warned me, "You will go by car on ice. That's why think twice before going. If car goes across lake, it could drown."
Tom and I had no such fears as we left Port Baikal by boat that sunny morning in June. Traveling by ourselves, not with a tour group, we were the only Americans on board. All the other passengers were Russians, mostly locals who were using the boat as the quickest means to traverse a distance that would have taken them considerably longer on Siberia's sparse and mostly unpaved roads. As the hydrofoil skimmed the surface of Baikal, we watched the scenery change from blue-tinged mountains to dense green forests to almost barren drylands. But we also discovered that some of the boat's passengers were as interesting as the sights outside.
One was a man traveling alone, carrying a woman's straw hat festooned with colorful ribbons and silk flowers, like a Dickensian Dolly Varden or a froufrou chapeau in a French impressionist painting. I had never seen a hat like that for sale in Russia (much less on anyone's head), and I wondered how far, and for whom, he was toting this obvious treasure. Was it a gift for his wife--and if so, where would she wear such a hat in Siberia?
Several of the Russians were traveling with their pets, a common sight on all forms of public transportation in that country. Two giggly teenage girls had brought along their tabby cat, Dima. Another passenger played with Elipa, a spunky, part-German shepherd puppy. A friendly young man in a punkish outfit of black jeans and heavy metal jewelry had a large white rat named Syena, which crawled around in the man's black leather jacket, sat contentedly in his shirt pocket, and slept with him when he stretched out on the seats across the aisle from us.
No stops were scheduled on the route to Severobaikalsk, so I was surprised when, several hours into the trip, the hydrofoil's engines slowed to a halt. The boat was a considerable distance from the shore, with no pert in sight. Then I heard the sound of outboard motors, as three small aluminum boats sped toward us from a tiny settlement on shore. When they pulled up alongside the hydrofoil, I noticed that the plastic windshield of one had previously been broken. The fragments had been neatly and laboriously stitched back together like pieces of animal hide--a necessary repair in an area where replacement parts are even rarer than roadways.
The hydrofoil crew began handing boxes of supplies and packets of marl down to the men on the smaller boats. Since this was only the hydrofoil's second trip that year, the villagers seemed especially pleased with the goods delivered--particularly a large calendar, which, in June, was only six months late. Given the expressions on their faces, it was obvious that the calendar's date was far less important than the girlie pictures illustrating each month.
When we docked at Severobaikalsk at eight o'clock that evening, all the other passengers disembarked to waiting cars and buses. Tom and I found ourselves standing on the almost-empty quay outside that remote Siberian city, wondering where we were going to spend the night. I asked the last remaining crew member where we could find a hotel, and he pointed to a modern but dilapidated-looking building nearby. Without knowing what might await us, we headed across the broken concrete pier in search of lodging.
From the outside the hotel looked dark and dreary, like most hotels in Russia. Cautiously we pushed open the dingy front door and peered into the dimly lit but clean and relatively well-finished lobby. The place seemed deserted. When we finally tracked down the desk attendant, she seemed amazed that we actually wanted a room for the night. We wondered why she was so surprised at our asking to stay there, but it was probably because she never expected to see two Americans traveling alone in so remote a spot in Siberia.
It turned out that we were the only guests in the cavernous hotel. The woman took us up to a room on the third floor, quite a distance from the lobby but with a good view over Lake Baikal. When we inquired about a place to eat, she indicated that the nearest food to be found was in the city of Severobaikalsk, about three miles away. Since the entire area around both the port and hotel was devoid of people, no transportation was available. So we walked uphill to the nearest road and flagged down some Russians in a beat-up Lada who gave us a ride into town.
Severobaikalsk (North Baikalsk) is a new city, built in the second half of this century. It is a major stop on the Baikal-Amur Main Line Railway, which runs north of the lake from Tayshet in eastern Siberia to the Pacific coast of the Russian Far East. Despite its importance as a transportation hub for that part of Siberia, the city of several thousand people seemed on that Sunday evening a sleepy, Soviet style backwater. We soon discovered that the few restaurants were already closed, as were most of the kiosks, the little street stalls that sell a jumble of items from candy to vodka to cigarettes.
Making our way by foot to the large, modem train station, we finally found a scrawny roast chicken and some stale bread at the station's sparsely stocked buffet. A nearby kiosk supplied two other essentials, beer and toilet paper. After taking a taxi back to the hotel, Tom and I wolfed down a late picnic supper in our room, with the assistance of the hotel cat, which stripped the chicken bones clean while we gazed out the window at the lingering light on Lake Baikal.
The next morning we nearly missed the return boat. Scheduled for departure at seven o'clock, it took off ten minutes early, leaving behind anyone who might have shown up on time. The weather was bright and sunny again but already much warmer than the day before. I later learned that the mercury reached 90 [degrees] F in Irkutsk that day, the warmest so far that year.
Among the passengers that morning was Sasha, an attractive teenage girl who was traveling with Dima, her black-and-white cat. During the ten-hour trip, Sasha ducked into the tiny toilet and changed clothes six times! Four of her outfits were completely different, and two were mix-and-match costumes--all very stylish except for her choice of color combinations. When she wasn't changing clothes, she played with the children and animals on board, or just walked around the middle salon in a completely unself-conscious manner, as if it were perfectly normal to wear six different outfits during one day on a boat in the outback of Siberia. The last time I saw her, she was decked out in a dark purple miniskirt and light purple leggings, with a huge, hot-pink nylon bow in her hair and Dima the cat poking his head out the front of her very fashionable stonewashed denim jacket.
Ninety minutes afar leaving Severobaikalsk, the hydrofoil suddenly stopped running. By then we were far out into Lake Baikal, with no settlements in sight on shore and no motorboats speeding out to meet us. The crew got out their tools and began tinkering with the engine, while we sat dead in the water for almost half an hour.
The unscheduled stop gave me a better chance to admire the spectacular scenery on both sides of the lake. The northern half of Baikal isn't polluted by the level of industrial and human wastes that flows into it from the Selenga River in the southeast and the towns of Baikalsk and Slyudyanka farther south. Surrounded by the stark beauty of Baikal's clear waters and mountainous shores, I could easily see why the lake had become the focus of Russia's first environmental protection movement, which began in the 1960s to protest pollution of Baikal by the large cellulose plant built at its southern end. Increased awareness of such threats to the unique ecology of Lake Baikal has prompted a number of international organizations--including the Sierra Club and Baikal Watch in the United States--to join the Russians in their efforts to protect this natural wonder of the world.
The sound of the hydrofoil's motor interrupted my reverie, as the beat slowly started moving. We were under way only five minutes, however, when I smelled something burning and saw smoke pouring from the engine, I ran to tell the crew, who quickly stopped the boat and began working on the motor again. The other passengers seemed unconcerned about the problem, stoically accepting the situation as flit were an everyday occurrence. No one complained about the delay or seemed worried about missing connections at the other end. For many of the men, the extra time was just an opportunity to consume more vodka and beer, as the still air around us heated up under the relentless summer sun.
While the crew was trying to repair the engine, I sat on deck and fantasized about being stranded in the middle of Lake Baikal, with rescue boats eventually taking us to the nearest little settlement and our overnight trip stretching into several days of unplanned adventure. But the downside of such daydreams was the very real threat of sudden storms, with winds exceeding 100 MPH, that rise on. Lake Baikal without warning, capsizing boats and drowning all aboard.
Neither of my imagined hopes or fears came to pass that day. Twenty minutes after the last breakdown, we were off again, moving at a slower pace and with the engine making a different, less reassuring sound than before.
We made only one more stop in the water, north of Olkhon Island, the largest island in Lake Baikal. The same motorboats that had met us the day before drew up alongside and off-loaded several burlap bags full of fresh omul. This white-fleshed fish of the salmon family is endemic to Baikal and the main catch of the lake's fishermen. Some of the men from the motorboats then came aboard to purchase bottles of fruit juice and vodka, a jar of pickles, a can of chocolate drink mix, boxes of tea, and a handful of chewing gum. After living in Siberia myself, I could well imagine what treasures these must have seemed to the residents of that small, isolated settlement on the northwest shore of Lake Baikal.
As we neared Port Baikal that evening, the sun was already setting behind the mountains on the western shore. To get home, Tom and I still had to travel for more than an hour on another hydrofoil down the Angara River back to Irkutsk. As I stood on the deck of that boat and watched the azure waters of Lake Baikal recede into the distance, I knew that I would always remember this trip as a high point of my sojourn in Siberia. And, after finally traversing the length of this legendary, lake, I had also come to understand why Russians have one more poetic name for Baikal, "The Blue Heart of Siberia."
Sharon Hudgins is the editor of Chile Pepper magazine. Between 1993 and 1995, she spent fourteen months teaching at two universities in Siberia and the Russian Far East.