Lifestyle & Travel

Jul 1, 2015

The Pearl of Siberia

Lake Baikal, the world's oldest and deepest freshwater lake, curves for nearly 400 miles through south-eastern Siberia, north of the Mongolian border.

It lies in a cleft where Asia is literally splitting apart, the beginnings of a future ocean.

Geologists say Baikal today shows what the seaboards of North America, Africa and Europe looked like as they began to separate millions of years ago.

One of the world's oldest geographical features (formed 25 to 30 million years ago), magnificent Lake Baikal is the highlight of Eastern Siberia for many. Summer travellers enjoy gob-smacking vistas across waters of the deepest blue to soaring mountain ranges on the opposite shore; rarer winter visitors marvel at its powder-white surface, frozen steel-hard and scored with ice roads. Whether they swim in it, drink its water, skirt its southern tip by train, cycle or dog sled over it in winter or just admire it from 2000km of shoreline, most agree that Siberia doesn't get better than this.

Banana-shaped Baikal is 636km from north to south and up to 1637m deep, making it the world's deepest lake. In fact it's not a lake at all, but the world's future fifth ocean containing nearly one-fifth of the planet's unfrozen fresh water (more than North America's five Great Lakes combined). Despite some environmental concerns, it's pure enough to drink in most places but use common sense. Lake Baikal is one of the clearest and purest bodies of water. In a good day you could see 40 meters into the lake.

More than 5,000 feet deep (1637m) at its most profound, with another four-mile-thick layer of sediment further down, the lake's cold, oxygen-rich waters teem with bizarre life-forms. Lake Baikal is rich in biodiversity. It hosts more than 1,000 species of plants and 2,500 species of animals based on current knowledge, but the actual figures for both groups are believed to be significantly higher. More than 80% of the animals are endemic (found only at Lake Baikal). The Baikal seal or nerpa (Pusa sibirica) is found throughout Lake Baikal. It is one of only three entirely freshwater seal populations in the world, the other two being subspecies of ringed seal.

One of those is the seals' favourite food, the golomyanka, a pink, partly transparent fish which gives birth to live young. Geologists estimate that Lake Baikal formed somewhere 20-25 million years ago, during the Mesozoic.

Surrounded by mile-high snowcapped mountains, Lake Baikal still offers vistas of unmatched beauty. The mountains are still a haven for wild animals, and the small villages are still outposts of tranquillity and self-reliance in the remote Siberian taiga, as the forest is called. The cliff of Sagan-Zaba is one of the most beautiful places on the west coast of Lake Baikal. Situated 5 kilometres to the north-east of Cape Krestovskii in Pribaikalskiy National Park. Anyone who has travelled by kayak along the western coast of Baikal, remembers the moment when the Sagan-Zaba cliff came into sight from behind the promontory Khoboy-Khushun, 2-3 kilometres to the north-east, without fail. From a distance Sagan-Zaba looks majestically gloomy - a comb of massive leg-buttresses disappearing steeply into the water. Sagan-Zaba was given the status of Natural monument. Prehistoric rock paintings - petroglyphs on one of its faces - brought world-wide fame to the cliff. The drawings were executed in different epochs, going back to the bronze and late iron ages (two thousand years B.C. - one thousand years A.D.), that is, the oldest painting is some 4000 years old. The petroglyphs of Sagan-Zaba became known to science in 1881, thanks to the work of Nikolai Agapitov. Subsequently, they have been studied by many archaeological expeditions, some international. The rock paintings of Sagan-Zaba form a composition of figures of humans, and animals.

The lake, nicknamed "the Pearl of Siberia", drew investors from the tourist industry as energy revenues sparked an economic boom. Viktor Grigorov's Grand Baikal in Irkutsk is one of the investors, who planned to build three hotels, creating 570 jobs. In 2007, the Russian government declared the Baikal region a special economic zone. A popular resort in Listvyanka is home to the seven-story Hotel Mayak. At the northern part of the lake, Baikalplan (a German NGO) built together with Russians in 2009 the Frolikha Adventure Coastline Track, a 100-kilometer (62 mi)-long long-distance trail as example for a sustainable development of the region. Baikal was also declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996. 


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