I have to admit that the first time I saw Lake Baikal, I wasn’t as overwhelmed as I expected. We got off the bus after a few days traveling through steppe and walked down from the road to a rocky shore. I was very happy to be there, but my first thought was surprise at the lake’s resemblance to familiar Lake Superior. It was beautiful, but it didn’t seem much different from home.
However, the awe came on more gradually. The more time I spent with Baikal, the more I realized how unique it is. That night, I went down to the shore near Ust-Barguzin, the village we were staying in. There I saw real, snow-capped mountains for the first time in my life. The lines of the snow branched down in continuous whiteness from the low-hanging clouds.
The piece of shoreline where I stood was almost deserted, and it took my breath away. If I didn’t make any sound, all I could hear was the sound of the cold wind and the waves lapping. I was sick, so I didn’t wade in that day, but the water was mesmerizingly clear.
The views just got more amazing, as we saw Baikal from different perspectives. This photo was taken from a boat ride we took near Irkutsk.
I did get to wade and even drink from Baikal once, when it was sunny and we went to a sandy beach. The water tastes like nothing, (as far as I could tell being congested). It is so clear that at this beach I could wade up to my knee and see the sand ripples on the bottom perfectly, even as I disturbed them. And the water is pure, so safe that we filled our water bottles there.
I had around a dozen encounters with Baikal in all, and I saw some of its many moods. Baikal can be a sunny beach for swimming, a clear shore where it’s easy to find rocks under the water. It can be frigid, or it can be inviting (though I doubt the water is ever warm!) Some of its little bays belie the immensity of the lake, but when you can see distant mountains and the only thing separating you is water, you know how mighty Baikal is. It is a magical place.
My experience of Baikal was enriched by the tour we were given at the Baikal museum in Listvyanka. Its name is incredibly long (abbreviated БМ ИНЦ СО РАН), but essentially it’s a museum of the Russian Academy of Sciences. They have an aquarium where it’s possible to see typical fish from the lake as well as Baikal seals up close. Our guide at this museum, Tatiana Serafimovna, knew the place backwards and forwards, and she radiated enthusiasm for the natural and human history of the lake. I appreciated the chance to see some of the animals that I wouldn’t be able to see in the wild, and the reminder that Baikal isn’t only water and rock. There is life hidden throughout the lake, even at great depths and in such pure water–just another of the wonders of Baikal.