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Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Russia's Lake Baikal & Surroundings

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The deepest lake in the world
One of the world's natural wonders, Lake Baikal is an immense, crescent-shaped chasm in the earth, nearly 640km long and up to 80km wide. Situated in Russia's great Siberian wilderness, its record-breaking size is matched only by its remoteness; the lake is roughly 3,200km west of the Pacific Ocean, 5,100km east of Moscow and 200km north of the Mongolian border.
Plunging downwards for more than a kilometre, Baikal is the deepest lake in the world, holding about 23,000 cubic kilometres of water – more than the five North American Great Lakes combined. More than 300 rivers flow into Lake Baikal, but only one – the Angara – flows out, eventually draining into the Arctic Ocean far to the north. Geological activity means the lake's floor keeps dropping a little each year, and the water is so clear in places that you can often see objects 40m below the surface. (Daniel Allen)

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Thick ice starts to form at the edges of the lake in December, and by early January the entire surface has frozen solid, remaining this way until April or early May. The surface becomes so thick that locals use it as a highway, nonchalantly driving their Lada cars and husky teams across it as though it were terra firma. In fact, a temporary railroad was once laid over the lake's icy crust during the 1904 to 1905 Russo-Japanese War. Here, a boat is hauled up on the shore in Listvyanka, the most popular tourist town on the lake.

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The city of Irkutsk, located about 70km northwest of the southern end of Lake Baikal, is the gateway to the region for most travellers. Trans-Siberian trains stop here en route to Moscow (approximately five days heading west), Vladivostok (two to three days heading east) or and Ulaan Baatar (30 hours) and Beijing (60 hours) heading south-southeast.



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Many travellers choose to spend a day or two exploring Irkutsk's onion-domed cathedrals, classical facades and storybook wooden architecture, typical of Russia's imperial era. 

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"Russian people think of Lake Baikal as the pearl of Siberia," said Jack Sheremetoff, a local guide who runs Baikaler Hostel, a popular lodging and tour agency in Irkutsk. "Most lakes are less than 20,000 years old – Baikal is at least 25 million years old. It's a unique ecosystem that contains more than 1,000 animal species found nowhere else on Earth."

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The most famous of Lake Baikal's unique animal species is the nerpa, or Baikal seal. Believed to have come from the Arctic Ocean more than 800,000 years ago, this small, earless seal has come to symbolise Baikal's precious natural heritage.
Pollution and poaching have unfortunately taken their toll on the population, and today there are an estimated 60,000 nerpa living in and around the lake, down from 100,000 just a few years ago. Nerpas in the wild can be difficult to spot, so many visitors choose to vist "nerpinariums" in either Irkutsk or Listvyanka, where the can see these curious creatures up close.

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The largest minority in Russia. While the nerpa has no natural predators, for centuries it has been hunted by Buryats, the indigenous people of the Baikal region (explorers from western Russia only arrived on the shores of Baikal in 1643). Numbering around 350,000, today the Buryats are the largest minority in Russia and are mainly concentrated in the republic of Buryatia, which extends southward from the lake. Buryats call Lake Baikal Dalai-Nor, or the "Sacred Sea".

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Vestiges of shamanism. Originally shamanists, many Buryats gradually adopted the Buddhist faith of their Mongolian neighbours. Despite the best efforts of Soviet-era anti-religious purges, many vestiges of shamanism are still evident across Buryatia. Shamanistic sites known as ovoos still attract pilgrims, who decorate the trees with ribbons and scraps of cloth as prayers and offerings to the spirits.

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Sitting close to the southern edge of Lake Baikal and 200km west of Irkutsk, Arshan is a popular summer resort, complete with sacred hot springs and a diminutive Buddhist temple, Badkhirkharma Datsan (pictured). The tourist trade drops off in the winter, but a small Buryat market close to the springs still peddles traditional medicine, felt slippers and a curious chewing gum made from larch resin.

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