Lake Baikal is the biggest sweet water lake in the world.
The amount of water it contains is more than 4 times the quantity of the
5 Great Lakes altogether. The reason for this is not in its surface,
as in this respect it is only the 8th in the world, but in its depth.
Baikal is also the deepest lake in the world. At its deepest point,
near the eastern shores of Olkhon island, it measures 1637 meters. The
surface of Lake Baikal amounts to 31.471 square kilometers.
There are many small islands in the lake. Many of them
are mere rocks, serving birds as a breeding place, or seals as a resting
place. Many of them disappear in the course of time, others emerge. The
most important of these rocky islands are the Ushkanin Islands near the
"Holy Nose" peninsula.
The name "Baikal" comes from the language of
the Buryats, the autoctonous people living around the Lake. It means "the
rich lake". The Buryats also refer to it as the "Holy Sea".
When the Transsiberian Railroad was constructed between 1891 and 1907, it had no connection on the shores of the lake. Lake Baikal had to be crossed with icebraking ships. When the ice was too thick, between january and march, people and freight were transported in sleds across the lake. Later rails were laid across the ice.
From 1904 on the construction teams started to build the Circumbaikal trayectory that was initially planned to go all around the lake. This plan had to be given up as the obstacles proved too big. What remained were the line between Sludyanka in the South and Babushkin in the Southeast that still form part of the Transsiberian Railroad and a small gauge line between Sludyanka and port Baikal where the Angara leaves the lake that is some kind of tourist attraction and serves recreational purposes.
Nowadays transport across the Baikal in summer times is effectuated by "raketas", wing boats. Youre lucky if you catch them as they dont go on schedule for lack of fuel, as perhaps can be guessed already.
The most important fish for food purposes is the omul. Many people live more or less on fishing this fine Baikal speciality. Its preferedly eaten raw, but also smoked or cooked. Fishery also is down in comparison with former times, as the cultivation and breeding of the fish is neglected, because the authorities dont care for it the way they did, if at all. And the ordinary fishermen live up to the credo "catch as catch can". So the waters close to the settlements are pretty fish-depleted and the fishers have got to go to more remote areas which rises the cost of fuel.
When I was there in 1997 I noticed a sharp deterioration
in living standards. In the village of Khuzhir, situated on the island
of Olkhon, there was no electricity any more. The habitants of Khuzhir
couldnt afford the fuel that ran the generator which in Soviet times
supplied the village with electricity.
The desperate situation of the region, as common in most
rural areas of former Soviet Union no money, no fuel, no jobs,
bad supply, and no future lead to a sharp rise in criminality and
alcoholism. People get drunk as much as they can on "sprit",
pure alcohol, and then sometimes commit the most atrocious crimes. When
locked up in prision, awaiting trial, they often get very little food
and the family has to provide them in order to keep them from starvation.
As a result of all this among other things traditions are
There is little industry on the shores of Lake Baikal, but the ones that have been established still in Soviet times contribute their fair share to the pollution of the lake and endanger the unique plants and animals of the lake. The worst factory in this aspect is the wood pulp plant in Baikalsk, in the Southeast. Originally built for military purposes it today continues to produce, polluting not only the water of Baikal, but also the air, the town itself and its surroundings. It faces little resistance, though, from the locals, as at least it provides employment for many of them, a scarce good in postcommunist Russia.
Many of those concerned hope that the
gigantic amount of water will counterbalance the harmful substances that
are being dumped into the lake by the factories and by one of its
main tributaries, the Selenga which also comes loaded with the waste of
various settlements situated along it. These "optimists" hope
that the "Holy Sea" will kind of swallow and digest the pollution
it is exposed to and thus serve as a kind of gigantic filter.
(Photographs from 1997. Report written in 2003)