Looking at a map, Lake Baikal seems significant but its surface area is dwarfed by the Great Lakes. However, due to it’s depth, it is the largest lake in the world by volume. Baikal’s superlatives seem to have no end:
- It is the world’s oldest lake.
- It is the deepest at over a mile in depth in some places.
- It contains nearly 20% of all the world’s unfrozen freshwater.
- It contains more water than all of the Great Lakes combined, nearly twice the water volume of Lake Superior alone.
- If all of the world’s other freshwater were to disappear, Baikal could supply the world with drinking water for 50 years.
- It contains over 2,000 unique species of animal life, including the delicious and ubiquitous Omul fish.
I had two days in Irkutsk, the closest city to Lake Baikal and took a day trip to the lake at it’s southern tip. It was mid-November, so my tour consisted of myself, a shy Frenchman, and our informative tour guide Maxim. Maxim spoke very good English and, to my relief, was an even better driver.
The drive from Irkutsk to Listvyanka on the lake is about 90 minutes along what some locals still refer to as Eisenhower Highway. In 1960, during a short window of improved US-Soviet relations, Eisenhower had planned a visit to the Soviet Union including Irkutsk and Lake Baikal. Up until then, the road from Irkutsk to Listvyanka was nothing more than a dirt track. Upon the announcement of Eisenhower’s visit, an arrow straight, paved road was built in just 2 months. Unfortunately, Eisenhower’s trip was canceled after the downing of the U2 spy plane flown by Gary Powers. Thankfully, the well-maintained road remains.
The first stop on our tour was to a traditional Siberian village that had been recreated on a high bluff overlooking the Angara River. The Angara has been dammed at several spots and these buildings were moved before they were flooded by the reservoirs filling up. Among the buildings was an old church, a one-room school, the mayor’s office, a store, and, of course, several saunas.
Afterwards, we stopped at the headwaters of the Angara River which flows out of Lake Baikal and eventually heads all the way north to the Arctic Ocean. We then stopped at a small ski resort and hiked up to the top of a hill overlooking the lake and Angara River. Resort is perhaps generous as it was really just a small chair lift, and two or three ski runs. The scenery, however, was gorgeous and along the way, nuthatches would perch on our hands and eat the seeds that Maxim had provided.
We then drove into the small lakeside village of Listvyanka for lunch and a look around the market. The market consists mainly of two things: Omul fish prepared in several different ways and cheaply made tchotchkes.
The fish is what we came for and we weren’t disappointed. The three of us bought different preparations and shared with pieces of flat fried bread and boiled potatoes. My favorite was the raw salted and smoked preparations. Omul is similar to lake herring but with a sweeter flavor.
Full of fish, we then walked along the lake shore watching families finishing up their afternoon picnics and strolling along the shore. Listvyanka is a tiny, remote village but tourists do come as evidenced by the newly built hotels and guest houses.
The next day, I wandered around Irkutsk. A fresh foot or so of snow made walking around somewhat difficult. It seems Russians aren’t as fastidious about plowing and shoveling as I would have thought. Either that or a foot of snow just isn’t enough to bother with.
Irkutsk’s most interesting feature is it’s well-preserved Siberian style wooden houses. Dotted around the city, it’s not uncommon to see a 10 story Soviet era concrete apartment block and a small 100+ year old wooden house standing side by side.
Irkutsk was a city of exiles. After the Decembrist uprising of 1825, the instigators were sentenced to hard labor in Siberia. Irkutsk was the exile’s jumping off point to the Siberian hinterland where they worked in mines, factories, or forts. Often, these exiles’ families stayed in Irkutsk and several exiles decided to stay in or around Irkutsk after their sentences were up. There is a small Decembrist Museum in Irkutsk but it offered little more than a re-creation of the house and furniture of the more prominent and rich exiles.
In addition to the Decembrists being exiled to Siberia, Poles were sent to Irkutsk and surroundings as well. In 1863, Poles began an uprising against forced conscription into the Russian Army. The instigators were either executed or deported to Siberia. Part of the legacy of these Poles in exile is a large Polish Catholic Church in Irkutsk. All-in-all, over 20,000 Pole were sent to Siberia for punishment.