Steppes Away: A Lawrentian’s Siberia

Adam Berey

Ask most Russians to name their most famous natural landmark and they’ll struggle to give you a single answer.
There are many beautiful sights throughout this enormous country – the Ural and Caucasus Mountains, the volcanoes on the Kamchatka Peninsula, and the waters of the Volga. But most Siberians will tell you that it’s Lake Baikal.
After a month in the area, I finally made it to Baikal last weekend. It’s a wonder I didn’t go sooner, as the lake is only an hour by bus from Irkutsk, my home city this fall.
The spot easiest to reach is Listvyanka, a little village where most of the fishermen moor their boats. At the market there, leather-skinned vendors sell omul and kharius, fish found only in Baikal and like no whitefish you’ve ever tasted, smoky and salty and finger-picked straight off the bone.
Nearby at the Baikal Limnological Institute – now a museum – they recite the statistics that make Baikal a natural wonder.
More than one mile deep – the deepest in the world – and covering an area larger than Belgium, Baikal’s six trillion gallons are more than one-fifth of all the freshwater on the earth.
On top of that, more than half of the plant and animal species in Baikal don’t live anywhere else, having developed uniquely during the lake’s 20 million year history – it’s also the oldest lake on the planet. Add that it’s clean enough to drink out of and you have one impressive puddle.
Outside of Russia, the “Blue Eye of Siberia” is famous mostly because of these little did-you-knows. But what makes Baikal worth visiting for the many Russian and occasional European visitors here isn’t numbers. They’re here for the view, and for the immensity of the place.
And it’s not just the water that amazes them. Sure, for a frozen, mostly landlocked country, that much water is rare. But don’t think that this is anything like an afternoon on Lake Michigan.
For one thing, the opposite shore is always visible, with mountains rising into the crisp air. On nearby peaks, one spots poles of prayer flags and stone piles built by Buryat shamans, the native people of this part of Siberia.
Saturday took me to Olkhon, the largest island on the lake. The village there, Khuzhir, looks like nothing has changed in the last 50 years. The harbor’s only two boats wear a few decades of rust, and the villagers live in the old frontier-style houses that I’ve seen even in cities here, like Lincoln Log cabins with a few ornamental carvings around the windows.
A couple of families on Olkhon run hostels, offering a room and meals for about $10 a day. There’s electricity, but no plumbing. For a bath you’ll have to go to a banya, a traditional bathhouse where Russians shower themselves with pail after pail of fire-heated water and, occasionally, hit each other with heavy birch sticks for a little deep tissue massage.
You won’t find much for groceries out there, either, but Baikal has its own specialties. Olkhonians use bonfires to smoke omul or cook it in a cauldron of ukha soup. They also have their own blend of herbal tea from leaves and twigs gathered around the island.
But the most amazing thing there is the view. Minibuses take tourists along Olkhon’s coast, where the island’s grassy steppe falls off into the lake in massive cliffs. Rising hundreds of feet out of the water and red with lichen, there’s some resemblance to the Oregon coast, except that instead of being thrilled by the chaos of crashing waves, there is a rush from the silent rocks beneath you and resilient mountains stretching seemingly endlessly in both directions on the opposite shore.
This lake and the land around it have endured, barely settled by humans, for millions of years, through empires, wars and revolutions. Like an old Siberian grandfather, Baikal gives calm reassurance of the earth’s eternity, a standing relic of the planet’s endless past.