The Russians have a saying that when God was flying over Siberia He froze his hands and was forced to drop all his jewels. And the greatest gem of them all, they claim, was Lake Baikal.
It is impossible to avoid the use of superlatives when talking or writing about Lake Baikal. Over 600 kilometers long and containing one fifth of the planet's fresh water and over one mile deep in places, it is the world's deepest, purest and arguably most beautiful lake. A popular Russian song refers to “Our glorious sea, most sacred Baikal" and local inhabitants maintain that old father Baikal will get angry if called a lake. Father Baikal's anger is manifested in the sarma, kultuk or barguzin, hurricane winds that whip waves four to six meters (1218ft) high.
Over 1800 species of flora and fauna have been identified in Baikal and 1200 of these are unique to the lake. It is still a mystery how one species, the beautiful silveredfurred Siberian seal, came to be here. Mysteries surround Baikal, including the lake's very name. In Mongolian, “bai gal" means “rich fire". In Buryat, “baigaldalai" means “natural sea. " In Yakut, “bai kel" is “rich lake. " The most likely origin lies in the language of the Kurykan, an ancient people who lived in the area in the 6th8th centuries. They were a highly developed people with a written language in which “Baikal" meant “much water. "
A tiny crustacean called the Baikal epishura, which consumes both algae and bacteria, maintains the purity of Baikal. This minute crayfish is only a millimeter and a half long and scientists have measured as many as three million on one square meter of the lake's surface.
Says Siberian writer and environmentalist Valentin Rasputin of the lake: “You experience a rare sense of elevation and spirituality at Baikal as if you have come in touch with eternity and perfection, as if you have felt close by the breath of an omniscient presence and have absorbed a minute part of the magic secret of all existence. "
Visitors to Baikal will arrive via air or rail through eastern Siberia's major city of Irkutsk, 5031 km (3144 miles) east of Moscow and 4141 km (2590 miles) west of Vladivostok on the TransSiberian railway. Irkutsk, with a population of 635,000, lies 66 km (39 miles) west of Baikal on the mighty Angara, the only river to flow out of Baikal although over 300 rivers feed the lake.
There is evidence of human settlement in the area dating back to the Paleolithic era, but Russian colonization started in 1636 when the Cossacks crossed the Enisey River to conquer the Mongolian Buryats who themselves had only settled here 300 years previously.
The Buryats proved to be the toughest of the Siberian tribes to subdue and it took another 20 years of fighting before the area became officially part of the Tsar's Holy Russia. Gradually Irkutsk became the military and administrative hub of eastern Siberia. By the middle of the 18thcentury the town had become an important center of political deportation and by the 19thcentury Irkutsk was referred to as “the pearl of Siberia, " a highly esteemed cultural oasis due to the numbers of Polish and Russian intellectuals who were exiled here.
In 1825 the Decembrists, those aristocratic revolutionaries, were exiled to Irkutsk. In 1849 the survivors of the Petrashevsky group of which Dostoevsky was a member followed. Dostoevsky himself was exiled to Omsk. Irkutsk even hosted Joseph Stalin as an exile for one year in 1903. The fact that history is held in high regard in Irkutsk means that the city boasts many interesting museums, as well as retaining much of the original wooden architecture.
Visitors who approach Baikal by boat from Irkutsk will pass the massive Shamansky Rock at the mouth of the Angara. Legend has it that Angara, Baikal's daughter, once tricked her wards in the middle of the night to run away with her beloved, Yenisey. The enraged father upon waking up threw an enormous rock after his errant daughter. This became the Shamansky Rock and the local Buryats believed it had magic powers. Prayers were offered here and wrongdoers were set on the rock to spend the night. If the sinners survived the almost inevitable drowning or hypothermia they were pardoned.
A steaming 10-km (six miles) stretch at the mouth of the Angara stays ice-free all winter, even at temperatures of minus 50 degrees. Tens of thousands of ducks winter here, enjoying the moderating influence of the open water. They make cozy beds in snowdrifts. Elsewhere on Baikal the winter ice can reach depths of two meters (six feet). During the RussoJapanese war in 1904, the Russian troops even laid railway tracks across it.
The fishing in Lake Baikal is reputed to be superb and fishing trips can be arranged from the town of Listvyanka near the mouth of the Angara. The local favourite is the omul, a species of fresh water salmon unique to Lake Baikal.
The boat cruise around Baikal will take visitors passed the lake's largest island, Olkhon. In the Buryat language Olkhon means “little forest. " However, the stateprotected, towering cliffs of real marble are the island's most remarkable feature.
For travelers on the great TransSiberian railway, a twoday stopover at Irkutsk to visit “sacred Baikal" is a must.
Bruce Burnett, has won four Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) Gold awards for travel journalism. Read more of Bruce Burnett's travel writing on his websites: http://www.globalramble.com and http://www.bruceburnett.ca/travel.html