Sacred Sea: the Trip to Lake Baikal

It is early August of 2021 and my brother Vladimir (who lives in Russia) invited me to join a private boat trip with a group of friends on the lake Baikal. Situated in Russia’s Southern Siberia, Baikal is a natural marvel and also a sacred place.

With 23,600 km3 (5,700 cu mi) of water, Baikal is the world’s largest freshwater lake by volume. It contains 23% of the world’s fresh surface water and it has more water than all North American Lakes combined. If you don’t like numbers picture this: all the world’s rivers combined with every little stream and creek – all of them together – would take a year to fill up Baikal. It is also the world’s deepest lake, with a maximum depth of 1,642 m (5,387 ft). If you emptied it out, you’d have a chasm to rival the Grand Canyon. Baikal is also the world’s oldest lake: it is at least 25 million years old. It covers 31,722 km2/12,248 sq mi – slightly more than Belgium – and it is the world’s seventh-largest lake by surface area. However, Baikal has great “aspirations” for the future growth. Initially, it started with a shudder in earth’s crust: a crack opened in the ground and filled with water. And with that first shudder the earth around Baikal began to tear itself apart. Today, the lake is 70 km wide and more than 600 km long – roughly the distance from San Francisco to Los Angeles. And it continues to grow and open up. Some scientists believe that Baikal is a rift zone opening Eurasian continent like a zipper which will split Asia and become an ocean.

Baikal has amazingly clean water and it is home to many plants and animals which are endemic to the region. A time frame of 25 million years, a large variety of conditions, and the high mountain ranges cutting the lake off from the surrounding regions resulted – in the words of Grigory Galazy – in “a gigantic natural laboratory and center of origin of species.” Some people even argue that if the Beagle had brought Darwin here rather than to Galapagos Islands in South America, he would have found a better place to develop his theory of evolution by natural selection and write his work On the Origin of Species.

Baikal is also a cultural and racial divide. Its Western, more developed side, is populated by Caucasian, mostly Russian, population, with Orthodox Christianity being a major religion. Differently, the Eastern side of the lake is home to Mongoloid people – the Buryats. Initially, their religious practices Buryats were based on the deification of nature, beliefs in spirits and the possibility of their magic influence on the surroundings. From the second half of the 17th century, these shamanic beliefs were displaced by Buddhism. Today, a synthesis of Buddhism and traditional beliefs is major feature of Buryat religious culture. Regardless these religious differences, both ethnic groups – Russians and Buryats – regard Baikal as a sacred lake. Many places on its shores are associated with various legends.

Needless to say that I jumped on my brother’s invitation right away. We flew from Moscow to Irkutsk, the Siberian city nearest to Baikal. To give you idea about the distances: it is a 6 hours flight from Moscow with Irkutsk being 5 hours ahead of Russian capital in terms of the local time. Founded in 1652, Irkutsk evolved into major cultural center in Siberia. In the early 19th century, many Russian officers, and aristocrats were sent into exile here for their part in the Decembrist revolt against Emperor Nicholas I. At that time, Irkutsk had earned the nickname “The Paris of Siberia.” We had one full day in Irkutsk and I liked it a lot: the historic wooden houses, the pleasant embankment along Angara river, abundance of good and inexpensive restaurants, some interesting museums. Here are a few suggestions on “what to do in Irkutsk if you have just one day.” Take a leisurely loooooong walk along Angara river and enjoy the views and some historic monuments.

Monument to Russian Emperor Alexander III

Visit historic and architecturally very appealing churches. My personal favorite was Krestovozdvizhenskaja Tserkov / the Church of the Elevation of the Holy Cross. Founded in 1747, it is famous for colorful and elaborate outside decorations (the style called “Siberian Barocco”). And it is also the only church in Siberia with fully preserved original interior decorations from the 17th century.

Irkutsk has a few interesting museums, but, perhaps, the most peculiar is the so-called “Museum of the Retro Motorbikes and the Items from the Epoch of the USSR.” This is a private museum with dozens of cars and motorbikes plus an extremely eclectic collection of various artifacts from the everyday life in former USSR. In addition a few reconstructed rooms represent the life style of various social groups in Russia in 18-19th centuries. In short, it is a fun place to visit.

And here is a surprise about Irkutsk: it is a good place for cheese connoisseurs. A company called Cheesemaker of Irkutsk developed production of a wide variety of cheeses, mostly of Italian “styles and flavors.” Their store also has a restaurant with menu featuring cheese-based dishes. I tried a few of the cheeses and the favorite was the goat-milk caciotta.

Next day we took a taxi to Irkutsk marina and boarded our vessel called Olymp. While not a luxury yacht, the boat was definitely not bad in terms of the comfort. It had 8 sleeping compartments, several showers, sauna, spacious saloon, big open observation deck. Further, besides crew members, a highly qualified cook Tatyana (she is a chef in one of Irkutsk restaurants) was in our full disposal.

In addition to being excited with a journey around Baikal, I was also quite curious about my travel companions. The thing was that my brother Vladimir and everyone else in our team – except me – were part of a group of people in Russia and other countries who follow spiritual leader named Swami Dharma Sumiran or simply Sumiran (the fellow is actually quite casual and informal). Sumiran is the Master of the Advaita Vedanta spiritual tradition which is both a school of Hindu philosophy and, at the same time, personal spiritual experience. To make things even more complicated, Advaita Vedanta also experienced strong influence of certain Buddhist teachings and beliefs. For those who is interested, here is more information about Advaita Vedanta . Sumiran was with us on this trip, although it was made clear that we are simply going on vacations – not for some spiritual retreat or seminar. Here is the picture of Sumiran on the Baikal shores.

Swami Dharma Sumiran

Irkutsk lies on the Angara river, 72 kilometers (45 miles) below its outflow from Baikal. It has taken our boat about four hours to get to the lake, but the time flew by in an instant. First, we were served an outstanding lunch prepared by our indispensable chef, Tatiana. Look at the picture: all following meals were equally exquisite.

And then we gathered on the upper deck, because the weather was excellent. Here is the male part of our team.

Finally, Angara “opened up” and we saw Baikal.

looking back at angara
entering baikal

Our first stop was literally “around the corner.” The boat was anchored at Mys (Cape) “Tolsty” and we went to see the so-called “Circum-Baikal Railway.”  It is a historical railway which runs along the Northern shore of the lake between towns of Slyudyanka and Baikal (yes, the name is the same as the lake’s). Its total length is 89 km / 60 mi. From the time of its construction in 1905 and until the middle of the 20th century the Circum-Baikal railway was an essential part of Trans-Siberian Railway which connects Russia’s capital Moscow with the city of Vladivostok on Pacific seaboard. In fact, only after its construction, the portions of Trans-Siberian railway on both sides of Baikal were fully linked, and began to transport goods and passengers. To emphasize its importance the Circum-Baikal railway was once referred as “golden buckle on the steel belt of Russia”. Later on, however, for a number of reasons, a duplicate section of the Trans-Siberian railway was built and the original line lost its importance. A unique achievement in engineering (the original plan required building of 33 tunnels and every kilometer of the line required the expenditure of about one wagon of explosives), the Circum-Baikal is one of the picturesque sights of the area. Today, it can be visited either by infrequent tourist trains or – as we did – by boat. We landed and walked along the tracks and through one of the tunnels.

Tracks of Circum-Baikal Railroad

And then we found a good spot on the shore to relax and get a first “feel” of Baikal and surrounding nature. Coming from California, I was quite pleased to see in the mid-August such “spring-like” flowers.

Another few hours on the boat and we arrived to the Bukhta Peschanaja (Sandy Bay) and anchored there for the night. It was dark by then, but when I woke up early next morning, great views and perfect weather greeted me.

Besides natural scenery, Bukhta Peschanaja is also known for walking trees. Strong and frequent Baikal winds blow the sand out from the roots of the trees and even “shift” them up the slope. As the time goes by, the roots are more and more exposed forming “legs” up to 3 meters (10 feet) above the ground.

Walking tree in Bukhta Peschanaja

We tried to not disturb the trees (they are actually quite fragile), but took a good group picture sitting “under the roof” of one of them.

From Bukhta Peschanaja, I and my brother, hiked about 40 min. along the coast to another bay called Bukhta Vnuchka (Granddaughter’s Bay). And again – because of abundance of flowers – all along the trail it felt like a spring time.

When we reached Bukhta Vnuchka, I thought that this would be one of the most memorable spots from the entire journey: look at this calm waters and pristine nature.

It was an excellent place to spend a couple of quiet hours with my brother and simply talk about what is going on in our lives.

When we were about to leave, a strange and beautiful thing happened. The sparkling lights began to come out of the lake’s surface. The picture cannot reflect how shining they were, but, at least, it will give you some idea. And it lasted for about half an hour.

And then it was time to head back to our boat.

And it was also time to say “good bye” to Bukhta Peschanaja

Leaving Bukhta Peschanaja

We had a long boat ride this day, but this was totally Okay, because weather was good, and we spent most time hanging outside, on the upper deck. Doing what? A lot of things: chatting and laughing, napping, playing “jiu-jitsu” and much more.

Some folks preferred to stay in the comfort of boat’s saloon and have hours’ long conversations over tea with endless snacks and fruits served by our chef, Tatiana.

And then, of course, was the time to gather all together for another delicious meal. I guess, you got the picture of our typical day onboard.

By the end of the second day, we reached island Olkhon. Being 71.5 km (44.4 mi) long and 20.8 km (12.9 mi) wide, Olkhon is the third-largest lake island in the world (after Manitoulin and Rene-Levasseur in Canada). There are two versions regarding the origin of its name. Both derive from the language of the Buryats, the indigenous people of Olkhon. The first is that the name comes from the word oyhon – “woody”, and the second is that it comes from olhan – “dry”. Regardless of which version is correct, both words describe the island perfectly. Much of the island is covered by forests and the amount of precipitation is extremely low – about 240 mm (9.4 in) per year. Olkhon has an interesting terrain and is rich in archaeological landmarks. Steep mountains line its Eastern shores. Mount Zhima is the highest point on the island, peaking at 818 m (2,684 ft) above Baikal. The island is large enough to have its own lakes, and features a combination of landscapes: taiga, steppe, and even a small desert can be found here. A deep but narrow strait separates Olkhon from the mainland. There are five villages on the island: Yalga, Malomorets, Khuzhir, Kharantsy, and Ulan-Khushin. The boat was anchored for the night at the Pier Olkhon at the Southwestern tip of the island. A few houses were there, but they appeared to be entirely uninhabited.

our boat at pier olkhon
a few houses near pier olkhon

Next morning, some of us hiked up the slope to enjoy perfect weather and get better view of surroundings.

Then we took off and in couple of hours arrived to the village of Khuzhir – the administrative center of Olkhon and the main hub of the fast-growing tourist industry. You would be surprised, but today one can travel to Khuzhir by the regular mini-bus from Irkutsk and it takes only about 4.5 hours to get there (including time on ferry from the mainland to Olkhon). Baikal attracts increasing number of visitors from all over the world. Given Khuzhir’s “easy to reach location”, many of its residents offer accommodations and other services. Honestly, I had somewhat mixed feelings about Khuzhir. On the one hand, it has picturesque spots and interesting cultural and historic sites. On the other hand, however, the village is definitely overrun by the tourists and felt much less authentic than the other places which we visited on our trip. Here are a few more details. Hands down, the sand beach in Khuzhir is gorgeous. And if you are brave enough to jump into always icy waters of Baikal, there is no better place for doing this.

beach in khuzhir

Originally, population of Olkhon consisted mostly of  Buryats. As I wrote already, their religious beliefs include elements of both Shamanism and Buddhism. Many places on Olkhon are evidence to this. After climbing from the boat landing into the village, the first thing to see are numerous colorful “serges.” A “serge” is a ritual pole or tree which indicates that the place in question has an owner. The serge is also connected to the horse cult, as both the host and the guests tied their horses to it. It is also a symbol of the world tree that unites the three worlds. Therefore, tree horizontal grooves are cut on the pole. The upper one is intended to bind the horses of the heavenly inhabitants of the upper world. The middle one is for the horses of living men. And the lower one is for the horses of the underworld. Anyway, we found that the “serges” on Olkhon offer perfect background for the pictures.

Another interesting place related to Buryats’ religious practices is Shaman’s Rock. Some natives believe that Burkhan, a religious cult figure, lives in the cave in this rock. The other version suggests that Shaman’s Rock is a sacred place used for sacrificial offerings. Approaching Shaman’s Rock, there is a plate attached to the stone which says “The borders of especially revered zone. The territory is not recommended for visitations.”

Sounds confusing? It does. What this means is a warning to keep a respectful distance from the rock and to not climb it so as not to anger the gods and spirits. But temptation is always great and sure enough many tourists (not me, though) disregard this warning and hang out on and around the rock.

Shaman’s Rock

Instead of disturbing local gods and spirits, I opted for hiking down and sunbathing at a beautiful lagoon. It looked like a tropical paradise except that instead of palms, it was surrounded by some sort of pine trees.

After climbing back, I found our nearly entire group ready for another perfect picture.

In Khuzhir, I also highly recommend to visit the Local History Museum of Revyakin. Named after its founder, the school geography teacher, it has great historical collections linked to the culture of the people of Olkhon from Neolithic times to the present day. It also offers expositions of unique flora and fauna that can only be found on Olkhon. A surprising fact learned at the museum was that after the collapse of Communist economic system in the late 1980s, the island and its inhabitants were cut of electricity supply for over a decade. Only in 2005, after laying an underwater cable, the island was wired again for electricity. Since then, Olkhon was really discovered by tourists who gave locals opportunity to make money by renting rooms and bicycles, selling foods and local crafts. Today, the streets of Khuzhir are filled with visitors: both Russians and foreigners. Inevitably, the village lost its authencity, but…it is what it is. A typical street and a house offering accommodations may look like this.

Wooden palisades are covered with advertisements offering various types of “spiritual activities:” yoga, meditation, breathing therapies, etc.

I enjoyed the day out in Khuzhir, but was also glad to head back to our boat when it was time to leave. And other people in our group seemed to have the same feeling: “Let’s go!”

Elena and Svetlana saying “Good bye Khuzhir!”

We parted with Khuzhir, but not Olkhon. Our spot for overnight anchoring was at the Northwestern tip of the island at Mys (Cape) Sagan-Khushun. As I learned later, this area is especially good for hiking. We did not have much time the next morning, but I climbed the nearby hill and took the picture of the cove where we spent the previous night.

Cape Khushun is an attractive area to explore from the land, but it is also quite picturesque from the water.

Cape Khushun from the water

A long ride awaited us this day. We needed to cross the lake (so far we were sailing along its Western shore). And this is not as easy as one may think. Besides significant distances (Baikal is about 80km/50mi wide), the lake is infamous for unpredictable weather changes and dangerous storms. But today we were lucky and in a few hours arrived to a small archipelago called “Malye Ushkanie Ostrova” (“Small Ushkan Islands”). Our destination was “Ostrov Tonkij” (“Thin Island”) which is home to the national preserve “Nerpa Center.” Nerpa is an animal which is endemic to Baikal: that is, there are no other places in the world to see Nerpa. There are ranger station and information center at the entrance to preserve and even possibility to take a picture in a company of Nerpas, Well, not exactly, but nevertheless.

 Essentially, Nerpa is a seal, but it is the ONLY seal living exclusively in the freshwater. It is something of a mystery how Baikal seals came to live here. They may have swum thousands of miles up rivers and streams from the Arctic Ocean and than got “stuck” in the lake never returning back. Or, possibly Lake Baikal was linked to the ocean at some point through a large body of water, such as the West Siberian Glacial Lake, formed in a previous ice age. One way or the other, the scientists estimate that Nerpas inhabite Lake Baikal for some two million years. We went to an observation point and looked at Nerpas splashing and playing with one another.

baikal nerpa

And then, after four more hours on the boat, we arrived to our final destination for this day: Bukhta Zmeyevaya/Snake Bay.

snake bay: thermal springs resort
snake bay: thermal springs resort

The main reason to come here were the natural thermal springs. There are two of them – both right next to the boat landing. Converted into wooden-bathtubs (with water coming from the sandy bottom), the springs have different temperature. But both are hot enough so that after a few minutes of sitting in them you would be naturally tempted to go for a quick dip in the cold lake. We spent about one hour migrating between two springs and the lake.

thermal springs at snake bay

A word of cautioning. There is a reason for the name “Snake Bay.” Two species of snakes are frequently seen in the lush vegetation surrounding the bay: “uzh” (natrix natrix) and “shitomordnik” (ancistrodon haylis). The former is harmless, while the latter – poisonous. But don’t worry too much: simply stay on the trails and wear good leather boots. After bathing in hot springs, I went on a hike to look at the bay from the hill.

The waters of thermal springs in Snake Bay are believed to be healing for various types of ailments and, especially, those related to the muscle-skeletal system. I am not an expert, but after bathing in the springs, the evening felt especially pleasant and relaxed.

The next morning began from a small adventure. Before boat’s departure, I decided to quickly visit the hot springs again. My “meditative” bathing (I was just by myself) was interrupted by a loud siren from our vessel. I turned around and saw a small bear wandering on the slope right above me. Poor fellow appeared to be much more scared than I was.

Then we headed back to the other side of the lake. The main destination for this day was Buddhist Stupa of Enlightment on the tiny island of Ogoy. For those unfamiliar with Buddhist terminology, “stupa” is essentially a mound-like or hemispherical structure containing some sacred relics. Stupas are used as places of meditation or for some religious ceremonies. Before arriving to Ogoy we sailed couple hours in the narrow straight separating Olkhon island from the mainland. A number of rocky outcrops went by along the way.

When we anchored the boat at Ogoy, the rain began pouring and clouds gathered. But strangely this made the appearance of the island even more special and appealing.

island ogoy

Unlike many ancient stupas, the Stupa of Enlightment on Ogoy was built only recently: in 2004. That year an international group of Buddhists traveled around Baikal visiting various sacred places and performing religious ceremonies. Their last stop was on Ogoy, and everyone was impressed with pristine nature and positive energy of the island. To commemorate this visit they carved in the stone the so-called Mantra (sacred text chanted repeatedly) of the Buddha of Compassion. This Mantra consists of six syllables – “Om mani padme hum” – and it symbolizes liberation from all kinds of sufferings. Later, with the blessing and under supervision of renown Buddhist teachers, the Stupa of Enlightenment has been constructed. Buddhist communities from around the globe donated various sacred relics which were placed inside of the stupa.

stupa of enlightment on ogoy island

Some people in our group walked around the stupa in a kind of meditation, while the others (like me) simply observed and enjoyed scenery.

Walking around the island I found an interesting engraving, but – despite significant research later online – was unable to discern its meaning. Here it is.

A small “Buddhist-style” light house sits on the Ogoy’s highest point.

Before leaving, we took a group picture at the stupa.

I am not sure if this was related to our visit of the sacred place, but this day ended with the most impressive sunset of all that we have seen during the entire trip.

The good luck of having excellent weather all the time has left us next day. Strong wind, grey skies and constant rain kept everyone inside the boat. Some of us were ostensibly bored and depressed: like me, my brother, and our leader Sumiran

But some simply “cozied up” and enjoyed each other company.

As it turned out, one person in our group was quite skilled masseur and she offered an ad-hoc massage-therapy classes. Some benefited by being the students and learned new skills, while some simply enjoyed being the “objects” of works.

Nevertheless, by the end of the day we were desperate too stretch the legs and go for some walk regardless of continuing rain. The boat was anchored at a secluded cove near Skala (Rock) Skiper. Interestingly, rain and dark skies made the colors of surrounding nature even more intense.

There was a trail along the coast and I hiked for a few kilometers. The moss along the trail attracted my attention: it was unusually colorful and even had some small flowers.

A few more people from our group caught up with me and we took a very “rainy” picture.

And then we headed back to the boat anticipating the warmth of its saloon and another abundant meal.

We spent this night at the pier of the village Bolshie Koty (Big Cats). Next morning was as rainy as the previous day, but I walked around the village before we left. This place felt much more “lost in time” than touristy Khuzhir.

I stopped at the local (apparently the only one) store which also doubled as a WiFi connection point, and a cafe. The portrait of Russian president, Mr. Putin, overlooking the store reminded me of the past Soviet epoch when it was customary to display the portraits of the Communist party leaders in all public places.

When I returned to the boat, some major news were announced by the crew. The initial plan was to go – again – to the other side of Baikal to the town of Tankhoi. Most people in the group should disembark there and continue overland journey in Buryatia. But Baikal’s unpredictable behavior changed everything. Captain told us that a storm is coming and it would be unsafe to sale across the lake. The only option was to return to Irkutsk and find some transportation from there into Buryatia. The change in plans did not affect me as I was not going to Buryatia. But most people were not happy. Before arrival to Irkutsk we had one more lunch all together and here…some pleasant surprise awaited us. Our famous chef Tatiana decided to cheer us up: she made an excellent cake layered with honey-and-condensed-milk cream.

OUR LAST MEAL ONN THE BOAT

We returned to the same marina where our journey began a week ago. Next day I flew back to Moscow and then to Armenia, one of the fifteen republics of former USSR and currently an independent country. But this will be another story. To conclude, if you are interested to get more in-depth inside in Baikal, its nature, history, culture, etc., here is the book which I highly recommend. Called “Sacred Sea. A Journey to Lake Baikal,” it was written by Peter Thomson, who used to run environmental programs for NPR. The book was published in 2005, but most of its contents are still 100% accurate and relevant. Plus, it is also a very engaging book. Enjoy it, or, better, plan your own trip to Baikal.

One thought on “Sacred Sea: the Trip to Lake Baikal

  1. A captivating journey, with seafaring adventure, wild animals (!), and a great view of a magical place. Thank you for sharing this, Alexei!

    Like

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