Legend has it that swimming in the Baikal add five years to your life. But how long can anyone tolerate the cold water, even in the height of summer, when the lake is still a cool 9 degrees C (48 F). Needless to say, I did not partake.
By most accounts, Lake Baikal runs 5371 feet (1637 meters) deep, and holds more than 20,000 cubic kilometers of water, or roughly 20% of the world’s fresh water. If we run out of water in this current drought, Lake Baikal could supply every person on the planet with drinking water for the next forty years!
It also claims to be the world’s oldest lake, formed about 50 million years ago. It also claims to be one of the largest at about 400 miles long, and ranging from 20 to 40 miles wide. The characteristic clear water, except near Baikalsk and the Selenga delta, are completely safe to drink. The filtering action of various types of sponges living in the depths, keep the water clear and safe.
Conversely, Lake Baikal, often called the “Holy Sea’, contains many local myths and legends. The Buryats believed that the evil spirit Begdozi lived on Olkhon Island in the middle of the lake. Evenki shamans believe the island was the home of the sea god, Dianda. Not surprisingly, most primitive tribes were captured by the unique power of the lake. When sudden and violent storms hit the lake, waves more than two meters high would splash the coastline.
Add to that, winters whereby the lake can freeze to a depth of three meters for four months a year, from December to April. The Angara River is the only river than flows out. With the dam and hydroelectric power station built back in 1959, the lake has been slowly rising.
Wildlife is plentiful and unique here. Over 80% of the species here cannot be found anywhere else in the world.
These include over 1085 types of algae, 250 mosses, 450 lichens, 1500 vascular plants, 255 small crustaceans, 83 gastropods, 86 worms, and 52 fish. The high oxygen levels in the water make an ideal environment for many creatures that have become extinct elsewhere.
Among the most interesting are the fresh water seals. They were recently threatened with extinction by the Buryats who turned the seals into overcoats. They are protected now, having increased their number to about 60,000. And the most unique fish here is the golomyanka, which live at a depth of 1.5 km, and made up of 35% fat. Strangely enough, it gives birth to its young alive and fully formed.
I took a 4 hour boat ride on Baikal, over to an area where the once famous Circumbakal Railway once operated. I was with a nice Spanish couple and four crazy Russian old ladies. One had purple hair! They turned out be quite kind in their own way. Jana, our guide, struggled at times with her English, but overall, she was fine. I have read so much on Lake Baikal, that I really did not need her commentary.
The nicest part was on the way back. They served coffee, tea, and cookies. And let me tell you, the Russian ladies just took over. After at least three helpings of everything, they finally offered me some tea cookies.
Prior to that, we landed on shore, had to climb up a rocky hill about 50 feet, to get to the rail bed. I was shocked those old ladies could do it. I was first up, and waited about 15 minutes for them to climb up! We walked through a tunnel made by convicts, then another kilometer or so to our waiting boat.
As I was killing time for the excursion, I browsed at the daily flea market, and also sampled some of Baikal’s best skewered meat. I also bought some fresh fruit for the first time. Three pieces cost me almost 100 rubles! It also cost me 20 rubles to use the water closet.
I found out there is a Chinese restaurant in town. But I decided to hoof it back to the hotel, as I was getting cold and tired after a rough day on the high seas.
I leave tomorrow for a day in Irkutsk. I have an early morning train on Thursday back on the TSR. This will give me a chance to see a real Russian city before hitting Moscow and St. Petersburg.