Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Lake Baikal: Siberia’s Blue Eye

It’s easy to understand why the Russians called Lake Baikal “The Holy Sea” when they first encountered it - it’s a motherlode teeming with life, over eighty percent of which can’t be found anywhere else in the world. It’s also the world’s oldest and deepest lake at over 1600 meters. From the rare golomyanka - which gives birth to its young fully formed - to freshwater seals, Baikal is an oasis in the middle of Siberia, a “blue eye” radiating light from the surrounding hardscrabble tundra.

We arrived in the village of Listvyanka by bus from Irkutsk taking just over an hour. Our hotel - U Ozera (near the lake) - is right across from Baikal. We had a perfect view from our cabin, decorated much like a mountain chalet. I had a big dinner - the local omur - a salty white fish, BBQed and stuffed with dill and pine nuts, with potatoes and a salad.

After dinner, I watched the moon rise and the sun set over the lake and met a couple of guys from Uzbekistan who were working at the hotel, one as a cook the other as a driver. The cook was making about US $600 a month, the driver $300. They were both muslims. Lora or Lorissa, the receptionist soon joined us. She is a Buryat and a graduate in English from the university in Irkutsk. She looked Chinese and in fact the Buryats - the local indigenous people - are descended from the Mongolians. They actually have a “republic” based in the city of Ulan Ude.

Next morning I woke and ran across the street for a dip into Baikal - cold! My legs were stinging from the chill so I jumped out as quickly as I’d hopped in. Bliss!

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