Lake Baikal, the blue heart of Siberia

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A virgin nature in all its might, Lake Baikal is a destination packed with jaw-dropping scenery, ancient mysteries, and natural wonders. Located in a remote corner of southeastern Siberia near the Mongolian border, this huge lake in the shape of a crescent stretching from southwest to northeast for 620 km spans a total area of 31,722km.

Lake Baikal is unique natural sight protected by UNESCO and it considers being the most in many ways. First, Lake Baikal is the world’s oldest lake. The lake’s geological formation started around 20-25 million years ago. The first mention of its name appeared in Chinese writings in 110 year B.C. as “Beihai” (Northern Sea). Indigenous communities have lived around the lake since at least the sixth century B.C., though they visited long before that. Lake Baikal was also known as the site of a battle in the Han-Xiongu War (133 B.C. to A.D. 89). The first European to visit Lake Baikal was the Russian Kurbat Ivanov in 1643.

Secondly, Lake Baikal is the deepest lake in the world. Its maximum depth is 1642 meters, while the average is about 742 meters. Located in a tectonic fault, Lake Baikal is in a rift valley and up to 2,000 earthquake tremors are detected each year. The earthquakes deepen the lake and increase its size. In 1991, the deepest point on the lake’s bottom was declared near Olkhon Island, and since then slightly deeper points have superseded the original. According to the Baikal Center, some geophysicists think that Lake Baikal is an ocean being born. The shores drift farther apart by 2 cm (0.78 inches) a year, the same rate at which Africa and South America drift apart. 

The nerpa is the world’s only exclusively freshwater seal – It is only found in Lake Baikal -(Image credit- Andrei Gilbert Shutterstock)

Third, it contains about 20% of the world’s fresh water and considers being the largest freshwater lake (by volume) on Earth it often mistaken for a sea. More than 300 streams and rivers feed into Lake Baikal, but the Angara River near Listvyanka is the only outlet. It carries out about 60 cubic km (15.8 trillion gallons) of water per year into the Yenisei River. Eventually the water makes its way to the Arctic Ocean. The water in Lake Baikal is one of the cleanest, clearest, and oxygen-richest in the world. The visibility in the water can reach up to 40 meters in fine weather. Legend has it that Baikal’s waters have miraculous properties, a swim in which gives you five extra years of life. The best places to take a dip include the golden sandy beaches along the northern shore of Olkhon Island, where the water of Maloye Morye (Little Sea) is shallowest and warmest, and the long pebble beach in Severobaikalsk. Listvyanka is one of the most popular spots for year-round exploration of the lake’s depths.

Lastly, Lake Baikal has exceptional biodiversity and importance to evolutionary science. The age, isolation and deep oxygenated water of the lake have resulted in one of the world’s richest freshwater ecosystems. About 80 percent of the more than 3,700 species found at Lake Baikal are endemic, meaning they are found nowhere else on Earth. Hundreds of species of small invertebrates, six species of unique freshwater sponge and probably the most famous of these highly endemic species is the nerpa, the only species of seal in the world that lives exclusively in freshwater. Scientists are unsure how the nerpa came to Lake Baikal and evolved, but they suspect the seals might have swum down a prehistoric river from the Arctic.

Lake Baikal is the highlight of Eastern Siberia sometimes referred to as the Sacred Sea. The lake represents the unspoiled beauty of Russia and attracts more than 2 million tourists from all over the world annually, but the vast land of thousands square kilometers is very rare visited by the majority of tourists and remains totally uninhabited by people. The lake is beautiful all year round thus the favorite season for visit depends on what one would like to see. In the summer (July – August), the water near the shores heats through well. It is the best time to travel about the lake on a small rental boat, being able to change the route at one’s discretion, enter the picturesque harbors and straits, fish, and sunbathe. Cruises in November and December are also available until the lake is freezing in January, though the weather is very stormy. In winter (January – May), the lake freezes over creating an area perfect for winter sports and activities such as snowmobiling, dog-sledding, and ice skating.

Cape Burkhan In Olkhon Island, Lake Baikal

Lake Baikal Highlights:

The Olkhon Island

It is called the Heart of Lake Baikal; even its shape is reminiscent of the outline of the lake. It is the largest island on Baikal where the natural–historical monument Burkhan Cape is situated. Locals believe that the grave of Genghis Khan is located in the cave of the Burkhan marble cliff.

The Circum-Baikal Railway

This historic railroad in Irkutsk Oblast, once a part of the Trans-Siberian Railway, 94 km long, was formerly known as the gold buckle of the steel belt of Russia. These days, it is a museum of railroad culture of a kind, comprising 806 cultural historic objects, 582 engineering monuments, including 38 tunnels, and over 200 bridges.

Great Baikal Trail

The Great Baikal Trail is essentially a circular trail designed for hikers surrounding Lake Baikal. The trail originally began as project to develop a system of trails that help preserve the Lake’s ecosystem, while attracting tourism and business to the area in the form of micro-hostels and home-stays as rest-stops. The trail attracts a wide range of tourists every year due to the spectacular scenery on the route along with the unique fauna and wildlife of the region.

Lake Baikal near Olkhon island via Wikimedia Commons

Listvyanka

A popular village located on the Western edge of Lake Baikal, Listvyanka is considered to be the gateway to Baikal due to its easy connection to Irkutsk. The village itself has a lot to offer with quaint architecture and a well-known market selling Omul fish native to Baikal, considered a delicacy in Russia. The Baikal Museum which exhibits regional flora and fauna from the region as well as an observatory to the South of the village is also found here.

Water-sports

Most tourists go to Lake Baikal for the water-sports. Scuba-diving is particularly popular since the lake is known to be one of the clearest in the world and therefore fruitful for scuba-divers. There is a wide range of sailing, speed-boating, and water-skiing opportunities in the most tourist-friendly areas.

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