The Baikal Circle or from Irkutsk to Irkutsk
route prepared by Edvinas Kudrevičius
I offer to visit Baikal this upcoming summer. It is still full of undiscovered secrets. Russian legend tells that when God was flying above the Siberia, his hands became frozen and he dropped all the treasures. The most precious of those treasures was Baikal.
Baikal is the lake located in Eastern Siberia. It is the largest body of fresh water, which includes 1/5 of the Earth’s fresh water (23km³) supplies. Baikal is also the deepest. Its depth reaches over 1,5km (1637m). Although Baikal does not have the largest area, it has the size of Belgium (around 31.500km²). Its length – 636km, width – up to 80km. The Locals say that the old father Baikal becomes angry, whenever it is called “the lake”. Its anger appears as sarma, kultus or barguzine – hurricane winds that rough up the waves up to the 4-6m in height. In 1996 Baikal was included into UNESCO World Heritage List.
The Chinese used to call the lake Tengis in their ancient chronicles. In Turkish (as well as in Yakut bai kel) Baikal means “Rich Lake”. There is an opinion that its name originated from Mongol (bai gaal) which means “Rich Fire”. The Locals also call it “Holy Sea”, “Sacred Lake” and “Spiritual Waters”. In Buryat baigal-dalai means “the true sea”. Most likely, the name originated from the Kurykans who lived here in 6-8 centuries. In Kurykan Baikal meant “Much Water”. The first Russian travellers were using Evenks’ name Lamu. Later they decided to use the Buryat one, and preferred to use -k- instead of -g- in a word.
Baikal is 20-25 million years old. The sediments are of an incredible thickness and reach 5km in some spots. There are 1550 animal species and 1085 plants that grow in Baikal. Over 1200 of those species (60% of fauna and 15% of flora) do not exist anywhere else in the world. Noteworthy:
a) nerpa, Baikal seals that have a steely-grey coat. They are populated 1000km across the nearest salty body of water (how do they came here?);
b) in the Northern part of Baikal, 400m deep, communities beside the hydrothermal sources were found: sponge-derived fungi, unicellular organisms, crystal crustaceans and fish.
The outlet, which forms alongside the headwaters of Angara and is around 10km long, does not freeze in winter – even if the temperature falls -50ºC. There are ten thousands of ducks that spend winter here. They set up shelters in the snowdrifts. In other places of Baikal, ice might be up to 2m thick. During the Russo-Japanese War in 1904, Russian soldiers even drove a railroad over it.
The best way to start the knowledge with Baikal is to visit Baikal museum in Irkutsk, which belongs to Irkutsk Scientific Centre of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Science since 1993. There are only three museums in world that are dedicated to the lakes.
As we are leaving Irkutsk, we will see a small town Listvianka beside the headwaters of Angara (earlier name Listvenicnoje). The town was given such name because there are many deciduous trees around that area. Angara has extensive headwaters – around 1km in width. As it flows down, it looks like Angara falls into the hole which is 3,5m long. It is a kind of a rapid which controls the amount of the flowing water. Since this area does not freeze, it has become a place where birds spend winter. It was noticed yet in 1772.
There are 30 islands in Baikal. The largest and the only living island of Baikal is Olkhon with steep mountains on the Eastern shore. The island is 72km long and 15km wide with a population of 1500 people. The major occupations are fishing and cattle berding. The island’s aboriginal people are Buryats. Scientists still debate whether “Olkhon” translates as “little forest” or “dry” as both names fit well. Olkhon has a great combination of landscapes and is rich with archaeological landmarks. It was the first place on Baikal where Russian explorers visited during the 17th century). Olkhon is the geographical, historical and sacred centre of Baikal, the heart of many legends and fairy tales and is believed to be the home of many Baikal spirits. The island is full of archaeological memorials – the number exceeds 140. The most presentable is considered to be the defensive wall built by the Kurikans which opened Horgojo cape.
We will also visit Burkhan Cape (Shaman Rock). It is known as one of the palaces of Heaven’s gods, tendril, and one of Asia’s most sacred places. This is the most famous of Olkhon’s capes. Burkhan is situated in the central part of the western coast of Olkhon, in the Pribaikalskiy National Park, near the settlement of Khuzhir. A pathway from the edge of Khuzhir imperceptibly leads one to a long cape ending in a steep slope leading straight to the rock of Burkhan. The two white marble rocks of Burkhan, linked by a depression, are covered by bright red lichen underlining the whiteness of the marble cliffs. The cave itself is a small chamber some 3-4m high on the western side of Burkhan. A narrow rising passage leads out of it to the eastern side of the rock. The cave, like Burkhan itself, was considered sacred by the early inhabitants of the island. Later, lamas used it as a Buddhist sanctuary.
There will also be a visit to the Cape Choboy. The cape is the northest point of Olkhon Island and looks like a “tusk”. However, it is better known for its echo effects, caused by a huge stoned slab. Seen from the water, the relief of the cape looks like a profile of a woman. Good weather assumed you have a fantastic view over the mountain ranges on the other shore of Maloe Morie as well as over Svetui Nos and Uskani Islands. If you are lucky you will even see the rare Baikal seals. In summer, lots of rare plants grow at this impressive place. Time, Baikal’s winds, cruel frosts and burning sunshine have left their indelible mark on Choboy’s fang – in places it is pierced by holes. There is a large opening through the ridge of the cliff itself linking the island with the platform. The opening is big enough for a person to stand up in with ease. The uniqueness and severe beauty of Choboy was fittingly valued by the ancient islanders – Choboy was considered sacred and served as a place where religious rights were acted out. On enormous boulders, jutting out of the waters near the cape, seal set up their haul out. Today, the cape is officially recognised as a natural landscape-monument.
We will spend a few days alongside the Chivyrkuisky Bay. Myagkaya Karga separates Barguzine Bay from Chivyrkuisky Bay. The bay got its present name from the name of the river Bolshoi Chivyrkui that flows into it at its northern end. There are no other such deep and sheltered bays at Baikal as those in Chivyrkuisky Bay. The shores of the Chivyrkuisky bays are covered in taiga, and their bottoms covered in carpets of algae; on a quiet day each blade is visible on the bottom, as are the shoals of fish feeding amongst them. Thanks to its inconsiderable depth and large number of sunny days, in summer the water in the Chivyrkuisky bays can heat up to 20-22 ºC, while in the shallow southern part of the bay it can get even warmer. In combination with the excellent beaches, some sandy, this makes Chivyrkuisky a very attractive place for summer holidays. Despite the human impact growing from year to year, the taiga on the shores of Chivyrkui serves as a safe home for wild animals. In the 19th century the researcher Gustav Radde declined to climb to the Alpine tundra tops of the Svyatoi Nos because of the large number of bears. Today there are fewer bears and they try not to catch the human eye.
We will stay at the capital of Buryatia. Ulan Ude was founded in 1666, and due to its location on trade routes between Russia, China and Mongolia it developed into a prosperous trading town. Ulan Ude is an important commercial and industrial centre of Eastern Siberia, located on the 5640th km of the Trans-Siberian railway. It is the capital of Buryatia republic that is a home for Buryat, Evenk and Russian people. The city itself has a distinct Asian-like feel, perhaps because of the cultural mix and proximity to Mongolia. There are about 400 000 inhabitants, but it seems to be very calm and local people are friendly to visitors.
All the flights from Europe are through Moscow, for example the flight Riga – Irkutsk costs 2500 Lt (720 EUR).
Ferry from the Olkhon island to Ust Barguzine costs 44 EUR.