Lake Baikal, Russia: Mourning the Lost Towns
By Katerina Golovina
Baikal the Healer: Many nights after my journey around Baikal I saw in my dreams its creeky shores, islands and rocks, cozy loughs, mountain ranges. That’s power of striking beauty of the deepest lake in the world, wonder of Russian nature.
The lake is nimbed with hundreds of legends and mysteries. My father thoroughly explored them more than 20 years ago. In summer 2011 we dared to repeat his journey, stories of which long time have become a part of family folklore. It took us two weeks and 1.500 euros to arrange the journey around Baikal.
Robinsons of 21st century
Our journey around Baikal starts in one of the most picturesque places of the lake – in Chivyrkuiskii bay. Exotic name came from language of local folk Evenkis. “Chivyr” means “to cranckle”. That’s quite accurate description of this place: on our way we pass through many creeks and outfalls of narrow streams.
The bay is shallow, and in summer the sun quickly warms it up. Looking to transparent water we see hundreds of fish whisking. Famous explorer of the lake Baikal Oleg Gusev called this bay “a fairy tale” in one of his books.
Actually whimsical forms of capes and rocks, small islands remind us of mythological creatures and leave much space for work of imagination.
We have spent three days on the island Baklanii in Chivyrkuiskii bay. Its silhouette looks like a head of a dragon. Or a flying gull. Locals tell that hundred years ago this small piece of earth was covered with nests of giant black birds – cormorants (“baklan” in Russian). On this deserted island we could spent a long time and guests wouldn’t bother us. Like Robinson Crusoe we would create own household in collaboration with nature. But that’s a plan for future.
Through ice and flamen
We’re rushing to another prominent place of Baikal shores – Zmeinaya bay or The bay of snakes. Thermal sulfurated wells attract many tourists to this lough. Wildlife-lovers are also attracted here by hundreds of water snakes. But we don’t meet any reptiles: they are afraid of people even more than people of them.
The Spring of Snakes is one among plenty of healing springs of this region. The most powerful one starts its run in the bay Khakusy under the mountain base. After long hiking we couldn’t miss the chance to enjoy hot bath and at the same time wash our clothes.
I feel fantastic soaking down slowly in burning water. It heals and relaxes. Local water plants take amazing effect on human’s body: they are used in medicine to heal wounds. I breath deeply and clearly feel fetid smell. On the shore I saw a tablet that said it’s prohibited to camp here. Breathing fetid damps, healthful for guests at a short term, becomes dangerous for those who stay longer.
So we do not wear out the Zmeinaya bay’s welcome and head to the place that Evenkis gave the name which means “the most beautiful”. The bay Ayaya is a five-kilometers long fjord that pushes out into the shore and ends near the massifs of Barguzinskii mountain range. We feel like fairy tale heroes walking carefully on a terry carpet of extremely fragile white-snow reindeer lichen. The path leads us to the lake Frolikha that has glacial origins.
Water in this huge lake is ice-cold all year round. The sun never warms it up even in hottest months of summer. In order to make a photo we soak knee-high for a minute. But that’s enough to lose connection with our feet so we jump full tear out of the water.
Who colonized Hare’s islands?
On that side of the lake Baikal that belongs to the republic Buryatia we visit the archipelago Ushkanii. The word “Ushkan” means “a hare” on Evenkis’ language. But we are not searching for forest jumpers.
We’re going to watch a huge rookery of Baikal seals. Getting closer to the islands Tonkii (the Slim), Dolgy (the Long), Krugly (the Round) and Big Ushkanii we notice hundreds of these animals sunbathing on stones. Heads of seals swimming in the water make us laugh: they look like black smooth balls that somehow plumped into the open Baikal.
We are getting out in the bay Pescherka (Cave) of Big Uskanii island. The first thing that catches my eye is a weird tree – a rare kind of larch with a bottle-shaped trunk. Its “neighbor” is worth attention too: it’s a birch with black bark and sawtooth leaves.
We stop for a while near the elephant-shaped rock. Several minutes are enough to find out that our things are teeming with ants. That reminds us that Big Ushkanii is famous for its ant colonies. They cover the whole island. Some of ant hills reach the height of 170 cm and have more than 3 meters in diameter. Indeed, ant civilization!
Going along the island Olhon – the biggest one in Baikal – we notice a fancy cape that reminds us a horse head. Our skipper tells us the legend of this place. In times of Great Yoke Genghis Khan with his army camped on the island Olhon.
Later locals found there a huge trivet with a boiler where Mongols left a horse’s skull. This is where the cape got its name from.
Nowadays some people believe that Genghis Khan’s boiler is still there. Our search was unsuccessful so we head to another mysterious place of Baikal..
Mourning of lost towns
Legend speaks about the cape Turali. We recognize it from a distance – it looks like a spear. On numerous beaches of the cape sand makes sounds that are similar to creak of new shoes or a slight move of a bow over violin strings.
Listening to sounds of rolling sand grains, we remember ominous story about towns, which were whelmed by sand here. Some travelers believe: if to stay quite and listen carefully, we could hear toll of church bells…
Note for a traveler:
Baikal is not a place for chilled rest and not a cheap destination. During our month’s trip we filled our provision in villages, plenty of them appeared on our way. In any of them locals sell omul (specific fish of Baikal) and perch (from the lake it’s amazingly big and tasty!). Setting fire, it won’t take much time to prepare fish. In villages we also bought milk and bread and cereals. No need to take huge backpacks with food from the city.
Katerina Golovina writes from Saint Petersburg, Russia.
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