Trip to Lake Baikal: Oldest, Biggest, Deepest Lake in the World
Why I Chose to Make the Trip to Lake Baikal
““In ancient times all life was considered sacred. Now those times are gone, nobody thinks about it any more.” https://sacred-sites.org/lake-baikal-siberia/
Well, I do. So, I decided to see for myself and took the trip to Lake Baikal.
Lake Baikal held fascination for me because of its uniqueness. It is 25 million years old, making it by far the oldest lake in the world. It also is by far, the deepest lake, 1.2 miles, with more fresh water than any other lake in the world.
“Lake Baikal, which holds more fresh water than any other lake on Earth, is responsible for a whopping 22% of it: over 23,000 cubic kilometers (5,600 cubic miles) worth. It contains double the amount of water found in Lake Superior, five times the amount found in Lake Michigan, and more than all of the North American great lakes combined.
“The bottom of the lake is more than a full kilometer below sea level, but the rift valley that created it goes far deeper. According to research at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, there are approximately an additional 7,000 meters (23,000 feet) of sediment that have fallen into the rift valley over time, placing the rift floor an incredible 8-to-11 kilometers (5-to-7 miles) beneath the surface. This makes the geological rift that’s home to Lake Baikal the deepest continental rift on planet Earth.
It is not the biggest lake by surface area, but it’s so deep that it makes it the largest lake by volume. Only the Caspian Sea, which is partly saline, is larger.
So, it was partly just to visit Lake Baikal as such a unique geographical place that motivated me to go there. But I had two other reasons.
More Reasons to Visit Lake Baikal and Irkutsk
Because of Lake Baikal’s uniqueness, it holds spiritual significance for the whole planet, since it is the deepest place on the surface of the Earth. Perhaps that is why Shamans, mystics, yogis are attracted to it.
Another reason was because I had visited, by chance as it were, the major “Hero Cities”—Moscow, Volgograd, Sevastopol. These are cities with a history of resistance in the horrific wars that Russia has experienced, especially WWII, or as the Russians call it, The Great Patriotic War. But what about other places in Russia, that were not the scene of terrible fighting. What is life like for Russians living in those areas? And who actually lives in those places?
Booking a Tour
I knew that with my limited knowledge of the Russian language, getting around by myself would be difficult. So I decided to book a tour, which I very rarely do. In all my travels around Thailand, I have booked one day tours, but a multiday tour is more complicated in Russia because it is hard to pay for things in Russia due to sanctions.
I am not sure if Western leaders have thought through the usefulness of sanctions. By cutting Russia off from many Western products, especially food, this resulted in ramping up production within Russia, negating the effect of sanctions as far as feeding Russia’s population.
Also, sanctions made travel to Russia by foreigners like myself, much more difficult. As a result, I am one of very VERY few foreigners who have travelled to Russia. This hurts Russia’s travel industry. In previous years, a decent amount of Western travelers and tourists visited. But seems like I am the only Westerner most hotels and travel agencies have seen in recent years.
We used to hear of ‘The Iron Curtain’, which those nasty Soviets created around the USSR. Now, it is obvious that the West—the US/UK/EU have constructed a new Iron Curtain themselves. It acts to prevent Westerners from visiting Russia, to see for ourselves what is going on.
Our leaders are afraid that their own citizens might get information that debunks what we are told.
That Russia is a dangerous police state where the economy is a mess, people are starving, and so on. Which in my experience is totally untrue. I was never harassed by police and walked freely whereever I wanted. The stores are full and people seem to be pretty contented.
Anyway, I went online, and with some difficulty found a couple of tours. One, the Russian National tourist agency, active since Soviet times offered a tour of Lake Baikal for $1700. A serious stretch for my budget. And they demanded I pay in advance, which is impossible since sanctions prevented me from paying by a non Russian bank card.
Fortunately, I found a private travel agency, and with some back and forth emails and then a phone call, the agent found a tour with a bilingual—Russian and English tour guide. I missed a lot of the tour guide’s explanation, but Sasha did give me the basics of what we were visiting. And helped me out if I got lost wondering around the local village. The agent told me I could wait to pay until I arrived in Russia. Cost, about $750 for 6 days. It included transportation from the airport in the city of Irkutsk to the hotel, an 8 hour minibus ride, including ferry, on Olkhon Island. Plus 5 nights in a 3 star hotel, with breakfast, dinner and most lunches. And the guided tour to several sites on historic Olkhon Island.
Few people speak English outside the big cities, which can be a challenge. However, modern phone apps make basic translation possible.
The Trip to Olkhon
The only flight I could find on August 6th, following my stay in Moscow, left at 9:00 PM Moscow time, which is 4 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time, and about 8 hours ahead of Eastern US time. However, the flight itself is 6 hours. Which is longer than most US crosscountry flights. Russia is a HUGE country, and Irkutsk is only about half way across.
I arrived in Irkutsk at about 8 AM, but Iruktsk is 6 hours ahead of Russia. So I got little sleep, maybe an hour or two. Then waited at the airport. I had to ask a few people where to meet the tour. Fortunately, the airport is fairly small, and at 9:30 AM, the tour guide, Sasha, a pleasant blond lady showed up. Our group of about 10 people went to get onto a couple of minivans, and off we went.
It took about an hour to get to the Lake, and the ferry terminal. We then took a 30 minute ride to Olkhon Island. And it was another few hours until we arrived at the village where our hotel was.
A Snapshot History of Olkhon Island
Olkhon Island has an interesting history. It was first inhabited by Mongol and ethnic Buryiat and Yakhut people. Its religion was based on shamanism, which is common among indigenous peoples worldwide. Tibetan Buddhism came in through Mongol people and to some degree mixed with the Buryiat culture. So, next to Irkutsk Oblast (Oblast=Region) is Buryiat where Buddhism predominates.
It later attracted fishermen, and later, during Soviet times, a prison, which was disbanded. Now, you can see herds of cattle, a few horses and in the main village where I stayed, Khuzhir, a fair number of hotels. About 1700 people live on this island, with 150,000 visitors coming every year.
View of the village Khuzhir from My Hotel
After arriving at about 5 PM, we took a rest, and then before dinner, Sasha took us on a 30 minute walk to the beach, a nice typical sandy beach. I didn’t understand it at the time, but the beach is near one of the famous landmarks of the Island, and of Lake Baikal, Shaman Rock. The grey sky wasn’t optimal for pictures. This one is on the internet.
Shaman Rock Olkhon Island (courtesy, Flickr, creator, Rita Willaert)
The rock connects to Olkhon Island, though depending on perspective, can appear an island.
The rock is considered one of the “Nine Holy Sites of Asia”.
Shaman Rock is one of the most mysterious of the Baikal sites. It is on Cape Burkhan, earlier called the “Stone Temple.” It is comprised of white marble, granite and quartz. The first explorers to reach Lake Baikal – including the Russian scientist Vladimir Obruchev – noted that Baikal Buryats traditionally feared this site. Only shamans had the right to approach this forbidden place. If it couldn’t be avoided, horses’ hoofs were wrapped in felt and leather so they did not disturb the lord of Baikal.
Buryats believed that Azhin (Buryat for deity), the lord of Lake Baikal, lived in the cave at Shaman Rock. According to the testimony of villagers who lived at Khunzhir, located near Cape Burkhan, the cave was visited by shamans that settled in ancient Siberia. Pagan priests still perform rituals in the cave associated with cleansing ancestral karma and removing curses.
Nearby was a set of Poles, that remind me of Totem Poles, however, much simpler. Shamanist tradition is to tie colorful cloth around them, to honor the spirits.
A Surprise in the Dining Room
It was a long day, I must have been running on nervous energy, because I actually felt pretty good, not exhausted as I expected. After the visit to Shaman Rock, our group went to the dining hall. I was a bit disappointed that no one except for my guide spoke much English. A high school boy spoke a few words but otherwise, I was really the only person who spoke English.
Meals were preprepared, no choice on the menu, pretty typical Russian food. Dinner was Potatoes, Buckwheat groats (very common in Russia), some salad, some chicken or other animal food.
But here’s the thing: Most of the time, they were piping in a Russian radio station playing US country western easy listening music. Occasional Russian music, but tunes they played in the dining hall throughout the stay were the same country western music. In English. Which nobody understands, but that didn’t seem to bother anyone.
This appearance of American or English language music seems to be a feature in Russia. As I was told later, more than once.
August 7, 2023 A Boat Trip to a Small Island
The next day, we took another boat ride around Lake Baikal. The weather was a bit windy and rainy, so the boat was quite rocky, but manageable. You did have to be careful get to and from, and using the toilet! On the island, there is a small Buddhist Stupa.
It’s Traditional to Walk Around the Stupa 3 Times Out of Respect, or Simply for Good Luck
Shamanistic Influences are seen all over the island. Pictured below is a very primitive rock ‘sculpture’, and a mound made with sticks and covered with colorful ribbons.
We then continued on our boat trip to the mainland. Our tour suggested that we could walk to a spring and get real Lake Baikal water. So I took a walk along a dirt road, looking for the spring. Instead, as I found out later, I would have had to take a bus ride to reach the spring.
Instead, I happened up on a yurt, a round, canvas type Mongolian style home to an older lady. She uses it to get away from town where she usually lived. Somehow, I got it across that I needed some water, and she poured water from a pitcher into my water bottle. She was a bit shy, so I posed for a picture myself outside her yurt.
Spectacular Cliffs and Views, Beckoning Me to Jump
Former Fishing Village Remains
Next stop was the remains of a former fishing village. Here is the inside of a wooden teepee type structure, a typical fisherman home. Fortunately, someone posted three signs in English for tourists.
In the center is a stone fireplace marked ‘Fireplace for Your Dreams’.
‘The God of New Mothers and Fertility’
Lake Baikal and Olkhon Island are national nature preserves. I didn’t see any seal (or dragons, which are said to lurk deep In the lake), but here are some Cormorants drying their wings, presumably after fishing for dinner.
There is a government regulation that the National Park should restrict the number of paved roads. As a result, many of the road we traveled on were seriously rutted, which results in a very bumpy ride, and lots of repair bills for the owners of these ancient Soviet era Buhanka minivans.
There were no changing rooms around but a few low bushes, so I got into my bathing suit and took a short dip in the cold water. Time was up, I rejoined the group and we all went back for dinner.
The Sign for the Hotel. “Olkhon Island, Hotel Baikal Terra—Welcome”
An Old Sturdy Soviet Era Minivan, with Our Group, Enjoying the Deep Blue Lake Under Clear Siberian Sky
Meditation at Cape Khoboy, the Northern tip of Olkhon Island
One minute of Zen meditation overlooking Lake Baikal
I noticed at least where I was deep in the Russian interior, that there is more nostalgia for the Soviet Union. One of the favorite vans that the tour drivers use is the Buhanka, aka, bread loaf (based on its shape) minivan. A very basic but very tough vehicle.
Speaking of nostalgia and worship of ancestors, a shamanistic practice, here is a ‘shrine’, a rock that is dedicated to the two great leaders of the USSR. See if you can spot the profile of Josef Stalin on the lower left, and the profile of Vladimir Lenin, on the upper right of this rock.
Returning from our day trip, I took a walk from the hotel to the beach, about a 20 minute hike.
If you didn’t know any better, it looks like an ocean beach.
And while at the beach, I found two main groups of tourists:
Russians, obviously…but can you guess what other country likes Russia and many tourists go there?
Yup, lot’s of Chinese, and many Chinese tour groups were at Lake Baikal. After my trip, I contacted some of my friends in China and told them about my trip. And not surprisingly, they know about Lake Baikal and want to go there, too.
When I talk about Soviet nostalgia, I’m not kidding. In an earlier post, I mentioned going into a shop in Volgograd, (formerly Stalingrad) and saw Soviet brand ice cream. Well, sure enough, look what I found in the village:
“Plombir is a type of Soviet ice cream made with vanilla, cream, eggs, and sugar. It was subject to national Soviet standards, which required that it be made with natural ingredients and meet specifications for consistency and fat and sugar content. “
Editorial Comment: Given the level of Soviet nostalgia among a large part of Russian society, if they were happy, do we really know what we are talking about when we complain about Soviet Russia?….Ask most African Americans or Native Americans what their opinion is of their country….or for that matter, many working class ‘regular Americans’.
Well, it was the last evening on Olkhon Island, and our group had two extra treats. The first was a trip to a traditional, I guess you could call it, demonstration village to see how local people lived there. A local young woman greeted us and spoke about life there (in Russian).
It seems to me that these people have a lot in common with Mongol people. Also, they incorporate characteristics of tribal people, such as appreciation of the spiritual aspect of Nature. Many of their artifacts are very basic, made from skins, wood, stone.
Local Young Woman with a Sacred Pole on the Left, and a God on the Right.
Because of harsh conditions, and lots of wild animals, people made use of skins for some clothing, but the influence of Chinese culture, as seen with Chinese silk clothing for special occasions is present as well.
Image of another female goddess.
Various artifacts made from bone and wood, along with a traditional string instrument
The local Matriarch gave a talk while we ate typical food, such as fermented milk and bread. I think some of the more traditional foods, especially wild caught meat were not served. But you can find canned moose, bear, dear and so on in Russian food shops.
The evening reached its climax with traditional Buryiat group dance.
When we returned to our hotel, we arrived in the middle of a concert by a local guy and his daughter. What was so remarkable was his wide range of music. I missed the first half hour, but arrived in time for his rendition of Yellow Submarine, the Beatles favorite song, All You Need is Love, a John Lennon favorite.
Another long time Spanish language favorite, Guantanamera, lyrics by famous Cuban freedom activist
“Guantanamera, guajira, Guantanamera
Guntanamera, guajira, Guantanamera
I am a truthful man from the land of the palm trees
Before dying I want to share these poems of my soul
My verses are a clear green, and they are a flaming crimson
I grow the white rose in June as in January
For the sincere friend who gives me his hand
And for the cruel one who would tear out my heart with which I live
I do not cultivate thistles nor nettles I cultivate a white rose”
This was a wonderful way to end my trip to Lake Baikal.
After the singing ended, I approached the musician, whose name is Dmitri. He is a trained bilingual tour guide, and used to give tours to many English speaking foreigners. Unfortunately, the Covid issue dramatically cut the ability to travel. And then sanctions were imposed on Russia, making travel to Russia quite difficult.
As a result, I was probably the only English speaker he has had contact with. Interestingly, also he and I both practice Buddhism. Too bad, I didn’t get contact information from him, so I lost contact.
The following morning, our group boarded our trusty Bohanka minivans, and took the long trip back to Irkutsk city.