Baikal: 10 Major Impressions
Русская версия We have just come back from a trip around Baikal Lake and Mongolia and are all ready to share our experiences on the Baikal district. We did not see the whole region – for that you would need not just months – years! Yet, we would like to tell about the major impressions from the places we visited: Irkutsk, Ulan-Ude, Listvyanka, Arshan, circum-Baikal railway, and the island of Olkhon.
1. Olkhon Island
is the most beautiful place we saw on Baikal. It is hard to believe that the length of the island which is situated inside the lake is 73.5 kilometres and the width is up to 15 kilometers, and this is still a small dot on a huge Baikal. At the same time, the landscapes of the island, if you compare the south and the north, are quite different: the diversity is guaranteed! Baikal around the island is very cold, and it is definitely not for swimming but for providing excellent views. After visiting over 50 countries, the views of Olkhon were still thrilling. And a bonus: Olkhon does not have mosquitoes!
2. The Baikal water
is first of all extremely transparent – you can see up to 40 meters deep through it! In addition, the water is extremely cold, it becomes bearable for swimming only in some bays in August. When trying to swim in July, our feet grew numb in a minute. By the way, 336 rivers fall into Baikal, and only one – Angara – falls out. There is even a legend we heard in many variants: Baikal father had several sons and one daughter, Angara. Once Angara grew up, married Yenisei River and fled with him. Baikal father sent his sons to find their sister. The brothers found the sister, but she persuaded them not to tell the father about it. Yet, Baikal learned about this conspiracy and turned all his children into stones, which one can now watch from Olkhon Island.
is a sad reality of Baikal. Not to say obvious things about untidy people, the garbage piles around the lake are quite usual. The low professionalism and bureaucracy of the forest and ecology management organizations responsible for Baikal region adds to that. The locals often complained to us that these are often the sons of the rich parents who come to rule such institutions; the bosses grow up in the cities and have no idea about the laws of nature. For instance, after the forest fires they do not care to destroy the dead trees, and their trunks become the homes for bugs, harmful for the rest of the forest. The locals try to persuade the forest management to take care of such trees on time, but the employees probably have some other businesses.
4. The Buryat culture
in many ways seemed similar to Mongolian. The Buryats are reserved, they rarely smile and may even seem rude. Even though Russians and Buryats have been living next to each other for quite a while (and intermarrying too), there are still negative rumors circulating about Buryats. For instance, we were urged that it is better to stay away from Buryats in Arshan: as if they even contributed to the death of an American tourist this year. The only kernel of truth we found in all these rumours was the drinking problem: Buryats often do not know how to drink, they become aggressive. Yet, many other people in ethnic groups do not know how to drink, including Belarusians.
Leaving stereotypes apart, we definitely liked the Buryat cuisine, which is very similar to the Mongolian: pozy (tastes like Central Asian manty), hushuury (fried pozy), tsuivan (noodles with meet), chebureki, etc.
in Baikal seemed to be a way to attract tourists before the trip; as in turned out, Shamanism is extremely popular among the locals. For instance, in Olkhon Island the locals often discuss how good their Shamanist talent is compared to other people. These discussions take place not only among the Buryats, but among Russians too. Many told to us that they practice Shamanism, and the island is full of the advertisements of different Shamanic and Shamanism-related services.
is another religion of Baikal, especially strong in Buryatia. For quite a while Buddhism was prohibited by the Soviet power, yet, then Stalin allowed to build Ivolginsky Datsan, as if to thank Buriats for helping in the WWII. Daatsan became one of the major Buddhist centers in Russia – one may not only come here to pray, but also to visit one of the multiple astrologists living in the temple territory.
7. The magic
of Baikal is the phenomenon which exists both in connection and independently from Shamanism and Buddhism. One of the strongest magic places of Baikal is the Shumak Valley. It takes several days to walk through the Valley (no roads there) and reach the Shumak wells. According to the tourist we met in Arshan, he went to the valley and saw an elderly man who reached the wells with crutches, took a bath in the wells, and did not need the crutches any more. Another story from our interlocutor was about his relative: the man was infertile and came to the valley to heal this. After he came back, this was not only his wife who got pregnant from him: three of his mistresses had to make abortions 🙂
Making a wish by putting a ribbon around the branch of the tree is a minimum must!
8. Circum-Baikal railway
is the best way to see Baikal, if you have only one day in Irkutsk. You may do this by a tourist train or by the local elektrichka (electric suburban train), and the price of the latter will be 10 times lower! The trip takes the whole day. The tourist train will bring you back to Irkutsk in the evening; after elekrichka, you may take a ferry from the final Circum-Baikal point (Port Baikal) to Listvyanka (around 15 minutes) and then the bus (around 1 hour) to Irkutsk. If you have more time, we advise to get out of the train and hike along the railway, spend a night in a tent, and take the same elektrichka the next day.
9. The fauna of Baikal.
Baikal has a lot of endemic species – plants and animals found only here. It is mostly known for omul – the fish which is salted, smoked, dried, boiled, fried, etc. Most of all, we like zagudai dish: omul is being salted for an hour with onions and spices, and the result is delicious!
Yet, another well-known inhabitant of Baikal – nerpa (or Baikal seal) – is not someone to eat: just look into these eyes! There are several aquariums keeping nerpas in the Baikal region, also presenting shows with them. Yet, the impressions are mixed, since the water in the pools seems the dirty and they do not have much space to swim.
are, however, the main inhabitants of Baikal about which you should learn more before your trip. Getting ready for our Baikal travels, we read lots of guide books, forums and reports about Baikal, but none of them urged about the ticks. Still, when we were in Arshan, two ticks bit Victor on the same day. We went to the special tick clinic in Irkutsk, took the ticks out and sent for the analysis. One of the ticks turned out to be infected with Lyme disease or borreliosis – which is little better then encephalitis. Victor started to take antibiotics immediately, but it is still unclear whether he got infected. The travelers should keep in mind that 20-25% ticks in this region are infected with Lyme disease and the ticks are plenty (also judging by getting two bites in one day). In is not occasional that Irkutsk has several hospitals dealing with ticks only. Read the information about the ticks and prophylactics of their bites carefully, have an encephalitis vaccine and the insurance against the tick bites (removing the tick and sending it for the analysis as well as seeing a doctor in case it is infected costs quite a bit). Then you impressions from Baikal will be only positive!
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