Baikal is the world's deepest freshwater lake, and, at 25 million years, the oldest. It's also supposed to be the largest in volume, holding about a quarter of the earth's freshwater supply and more than the Great Lakes combined.
And yet the factoid that stunned me on a trip there yesterday was this: There are now more foreign tourists in winter (temperatures around -25) than in summer. And an overwhelming majority of these tourists (99% of his trade, said Jack, our guide) come from Thailand (there's a direct flight from Bangkok), to experience snow.
So it seems the time to visit Baikal is winter. Once again, I'm in the right place at the wrong time.
But there's probably no bad time to visit Lake Baikal; beyond all the facts and figures, Baikal is a place of mystery and mystique. It's held in awe by Russians for its powers of healing and energizing, a favourite of scientists for its flora, fauna and other properties and facets, and familiar to all of us from our school geography classes. But most fascinating is the relationship with the Buryat, an indigenous group of this area, for whom the lake is sacred.
As we approach Baikal, it's easy to see why. Here, in the middle of a large land mass, with no sea for thousands of miles around, is this vast body of water, shimmering blue, parts of it swathed in mist. The water stretches to the horizon; it really is like a sea. The water is clear -- in winter, visibility in the non-frozen parts can be up to 40 metres; on this hot summer's day it's probably around 8 metres but it's freezing. I dip my foot in for a minute; 10 minutes later, my foot is still tingling from the cold.
There are two very different sides to Baikal. You enter through one: It's the village of Listvyanka, all cookie-cutter wooden buildings by the lakeshore, almost all either restaurants or hotels or souvenir shops. It reminded me a bit of Port Baltra in the Galapagos for being so inorganic, so out of step with the natural environment, so obviously constructed for tourism. Those who once lived here have long sold their houses and moved out; the locals now live away from the lake, in the forest where there is peace and quiet.
Get away from the main road, though, and you see the beauty of Baikal. You can walk to the top of the Chersky viewpoint, about a kilometre uphill, for stunning views. As we walk to the top, and later as we hike through part (a very small part) of the Great Baikal Trail, our guide Jack tells us some of the Buryat legends. See that rock in the water? It's at the part where the Angara river, which runs by Irkutsk, leaves the lake. From up here it's a tiny piece of rock but it has a big story. Baikal, the Buryat believe, is a man, the 330 rivers that flow out of the lake are his daughters. Angara is his favourite and Baikal wanted her to marry the river Irkut (from which the town gets its name); she wanted to marry the river Yenisei. So he threw this massive rock to try and stop her leaving, but to no avail. The Angara still flows out of Baikal and still meets the Yenisei, the river of her choice.
At the peak, once you're done with the views, you notice the ribbons of various colours tied to branches, to twigs, to poles -- they've been put there by the Buryat to appease the spirits. It's very reminiscent of scenes in Sikkim and Nepal/Tibet, where they also tie ribbons for similar reasons, and it backs the theory that the Buryat, the Lepcha and other tribes from Tibet to Mongolia are essentially the same.
The Buryat suffered terribly in the days of the Soviet Union; Nellie, a Buryat lady whom we'd met the previous day, said many were killed or forced to intermarry, many of their traditions and customs destroyed. "We are now trying to rebuild our culture from the ruins," she said.
Today, many still live near the lake -- though not too close, because it's sacred. Why the ribbons to appease the spirits? Over to Jack. The Buryat are a shamanistic society -- they believe in and worship the forces of nature; the shaman are godmen, the most powerful of whom can assume different shapes and forms, often appearing as spirits.
We ask him for more. "Well, the spirits can be very mischievous, playful; if they like human company they will be good but if not they can put you in trouble. You experience three kinds of phenomena. One is, going round and round in the same place. I once met a lady who told me the story of herself as a young girl, maybe 10 or 11. She'd gone to the woods to play with her friends and they went in deeper than they ought to. So they took what they thought was the way back, only to eventually return to the same spot. Then one friend, whose mother was a shaman, realized what had happened and said, 'We need to shout abuses, use bad language, that will get us out.' No luck. The third time, they turned their clothes inside out; that confused the spirits and they eventually made their way back."
The second, he said, was the kind who would draw you deeper into the woods -- or, if it was a kindly spirit, lead you out; and the third was taking human form, often the shape of someone known to you. He told us the story of the women he'd met who'd been led deep into the forest by someone she thought was her father-in-law, who was with the family gathering she'd left behind. It was only when she called out and got a response that she realized it couldn't be him: her father-in-law was almost totally deaf. Eventually, three days later, she was rescued not too far from there.
Or about the shaman who was drowned when the car in which she was crossing the frozen lake fell through. When the car was recovered, her body was inside, but it disappeared with a poof and that night -- Jack remembers this bit first-hand -- there was a terrific thunderstorm and rain.
The sun was high in the sky but there was a tingle down our spines as Jack told us these stories.
You need a week, maybe more, to explore Baikal. To go beyond the tourist traps and see the island, maybe walk the trail, hopefully see the seals and bears. I barely have half a day.
I tell Jack I have to come back. "Come back in winter," he says. Maybe it's not as crazy an idea as it sounds. When the Thai government was pushing winter tourism, its official in Moscow used this line: "Imagine flying from +30C to -30C, right into sparkling white snow and deep blue skies." Just don't forget to pack the vodka -- that's guaranteed not to freeze.