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A Really, Really Big Lake

May 28, 2010 at 6:08 am
By Denis Griffis

Lake Baikal is about as holy as it gets. Containing about a fifth of the world’s fresh water supplies, and covering over 12,000 square miles, the world’s largest lake is impressive enough on the surface, but some interesting evolutions and a several hundred years of local shamanism have made it really quite an interesting place to be.

We arrived on the lake in the afternoon of the 19th, after spending a good portion of the day driving through the massive plains and forests characteristic of the area around Irkutsk. We’d seen the water a bit from a distance, going around to a few museums and such the day before, but hadn’t paid much attention to the lake itself. That afternoon, though, we got to see it well for the first time, and were surprised to see that almost all of the area between the shore we stood on and the shore of Olkhon, our island destination, was still covered with floating ice. As it turned out, that was nothing compared to the rest of the lake: driving up the western shore of Olkhon to Khuzhir, where we would be staying, what we saw was much more an ice field than a body of water—and this was late May. Seems when they said we were in Siberia, they weren’t kidding.

That cold, we discovered, is actually one of the keys to Lake Baikal’s magic. Thanks in great part to the fact that most of the lake’s water stays at a warm 39 degrees Fahrenheit year-round (and the stuff on the surface isn’t much warmer—Baikal definitely isn’t a place for a swimming competition!), the lake has played home to an ecosystem unlike anything else. The defining characteristic of Lake Baikal is and always has been the purity of its water: a drink from Baikal is said to be able to heal any number of ailments, and we also heard about a belief that a dip taken into the lake will add a year to one’s life. This cleanliness is maintained by a type of Epischura zooplankton living only in the waters of Baikal—they’ll eat just about anything, and there are uncountable numbers of them all throughout the lake. It’s clean enough that you can see something like 20 meters down, when the lake isn’t frozen.

Like the cold, the landscape around Baikal is not the most forgiving, and has only added to its reputation throughout the years. A vast majority of the shoreline is nothing more than cliffs and mountains switching abruptly to deep water, and even where there is shore, more often than not it’s covered by thick forest. Where there isn’t forest, for example along most of Olkhon’s shores, the landscape is visibly shaped by the hugely powerful winds that sweep across the lake. We got to see a lot of the territory around Baikal on Thursday, when we took a day trip up to Mys Khoboy, the northernmost point on Olkhon. Even on the island itself, the only real “shore” we saw during the entire day was one small stretch not far from where we started, where a fish-canning factory had been built years and years ago—it’s since burned down, but you can still see where the walls of the refrigeration building stood. When we got to Khoboy itself, we understood a lot more about why Baikal is so remarkable: the island of Olkhon is much closer to the western shore of the lake than the eastern (something like 24km vs. 75), and our village was on the western part of the island. As such, all that we had really seen so far was the so-called “small sea” (enormous by itself) portion of the lake, but once we got all the way up north, we saw Baikal proper.

The verdict? Baikal is huge. Beyond huge. We could barely see the eastern shore, and that only because it was a pretty clear day. Looking up north, it was just like being at the end of the world: ice, stretching as far as the eye could see, and nothing beyond it. The view is probably much of the reason Mys Khoboy is considered the most sacred point on Olkhon (itself already the most sacred island on the lake)—even now, shamans still come here to perform rituals, and the place is covered with small cairns of stones (brought to and left at Khoboy to represent one’s griefs and sins, our guide told us) and kopecks left at the base of a prayer pillar. It also helps that Khoboy is pretty much right next to the deepest point in the lake—some 1,637m (totals vary, and due to tectonic shift, the maximum depth is actually always changing, but this is what we were told), with life all the way down to the very bottom (Baikal is the only freshwater location on Earth where serious life forms are supported at this depth). In fact, there’s a particularly curious fish living in the lake that can live at any depth, including at the bottom—pressure seems to have no effect on it. Just another of the curiosities of Baikal, I guess.

Baikal is a very powerful place. Standing at Mys Khoboy, particularly if you’re lucky enough to be there when the lake is still frozen, feels like standing at the end of everything, and there’s a distinct feeling that never again will you see a place this awe-inspiring. Probably the most striking memory of our few days on the lake comes from one evening when I decided to go and do a little exploring around our camp base: the sun had set, it was freezing, the wind was blowing like crazy, and I ended up standing on a cliff overlooking the water for about half an hour, just trying to absorb what I was experiencing. I didn’t really manage it, but I’ll probably remember that for the rest of my life.