UNESCO Spotlight: Siberia’s Legendary Lake Baikal

UNESCO Spotlight: Siberia’s Legendary Lake Baikal

Dubbed the “Pearl of Siberia,” Lake Baikal is on many travelers’ bucket lists. It’s hands-down superlative: the oldest and deepest lake in the world. It’s also considered an ancient sacred place, where the gods of Baikal live.


Into the DeepAt first glance Lake Baikal may seem an odd choice for a journey. It’s located in Siberia near the Mongolian border, a remote destination known for  Stalin’s gulags as well as for its utterly unique and diverse ecosystem. Baikal boasts more  than 1,900 species of flora and fauna – many of them endemic to the lake.

The lake itself is more than 25 million years old, and more than a mile to the bottom – deep enough to contain one-fifth of the world’s fresh water. Because of its cultural and physical significance, Lake Baikal is a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site. Recently Lake Baikal was also voted the #1 wonder of “Seven Wonders of Russia.” 

The waters of Lake Baikal are so clear you can often see more than 100 feet below the surface <br>Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

The waters of Lake Baikal are so clear you can often see more than 100 feet below the surface
Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

Northernmost point on Olkhon Island, Cape Khoboi is one of Lake Baikal's sacred places <br>Photo credit: Vladimir Kvashnin

Northernmost point on Olkhon Island, Cape Khoboi is considered one of Lake Baikal’s sacred places
Photo credit: Vladimir Kvashnin

What Lies Beneath BaikalLake Baikal has some rather quirky residents in its living laboratory. Visitors may spot playful, graceful seals called nerpa,  some of the only freshwater seals in the world. The next question inevitably is: how did these nerpa seals end up in a freshwater lake? Their nearest neighbors swim elsewhere in Arctic waters or in the Caspian Sea; thus the nerpa’s Lake Baikal origins are the stuff of many scientific theories.

Lake Baikal's freshwater <i>nerpas</i> are small for seals: about four feet long and 150 pounds <br>Photo credit: Alan Levin

Lake Baikal’s freshwater nerpas are small for seals: about four feet long and 150 pounds
Photo credit: Alan Levin

Shot from a distance, this is one of many <i>nerpa</i> seal colonies on Ushkaniye Island in Lake Baikal <br>Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

Shot from a distance, this is one of many nerpa seal resting places on Ushkaniye Island in Lake Baikal
Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

While those delightful nerpa are a puzzle, the golomyanka grabs attention. This strange, transparent, scale-free oilfish lurks at incredible mile-deep depths in its native lake, and nowhere else in the world. Golomyanka contain about 30% oil, easily melting  in the sunshine. Rich in vitamin A, this one-of-a-kind Baikal fish is used in treating rheumatism and healing wounds

The  omul whitefish is the symbol of Lake Baikal – ubiquitous, too: smoked omul is sold along the lakeshore, often by grandmotherly babushkas. Some Baikal freshwater fish are blind, while others see only in black and white. Many of the lake’s five dozen fish species can’t survive in waters warmer than 11 degrees Fahrenheit. Visitors can learn about the lake’s long history, cultures, and flora and fauna at the Baikal Limnological Museum in Listvyanka.

Think of smoked <i>omul</i> stalls as the hamburger stands of Lake Baikal! <br>Photo credit: Ben Raiklin

Fresh omul ready to hit the smoker 
Photo credit: Ben Raiklin

What's for dinner? Smoked <i>omul,</i> caught fresh from this ice hole in Siberia's Lake Baikal <br>Photo credit: Vladimir Kvashnin

What’s for dinner? Smoked omul, caught fresh from this ice hole in Siberia’s Lake Baikal
Photo credit: Vladimir Kvashnin

 What To Do at Lake Baikal?Activities on Lake Baikal are as diverse as its ecosystem. In summer there’s hiking, boating, swimming, cruising, camping and fishing. When the lake freezes over in winter try ice skating, ice fishing, dog sledding, snowmobiling, and even sailing in a hovercraft atop the lake’s six-foot deep ice. You can also do nothing: just breathe deeply, relax, and simply take in the beauty of Baikal.


Monster TalesRumors of a Lake Baikal “Loch Ness” sturgeon monster have yet to be proved, but that doesn’t stop many from telling tall tales about strange creatures of the deep over a Siberian nighttime campfire. In wintertime, locals and visitors gather to appease this Baikal monster by pouring milk – or even vodka – onto the lake’s ice and lapping it up. Why? Who knows! What is known for certain is that an ancient monster-sized sturgeon was once caught in Lake Baikal: 27 feet long, no exaggeration. Imagine the cans of caviar!

 
Siberia’s Sacred PlaceBeyond fish, flora, and fauna, local residents who live in the villages that line Baikal have a special reverence for this area. The Buryats are Siberia’s largest indigenous group, whose ancestors herded cattle, caught fish and honored this ancient lake that nourished them. A memorable highlight: an invitation to witness a Buryat shaman ceremony on sacred Olkhon Island, where Buryats believed the spirit of the lake lives.

A shaman performs a holy ritual on Lake Baikal's Olkhon Island, the heart of Shamanism in Siberia <br>Photo credit: Vladimir Kvashnin

A shaman performs a ritual on Lake Baikal’s Olkhon Island, the heart of shamanism in Siberia
Photo credit: Vladimir Kvashnin

Lake Baikal is dotted with sacred shaman sites, like this one at Cape Obo <br>Photo credit: Vladimir Kvashnin

Lake Baikal is dotted with sacred shaman sites, like this one at Cape Obo
Photo credit: Vladimir Kvashnin

It’s a spirit that’s lived on for more than 25 million years, and a spirit of place captured in these deep and ancient waters, the  legendary legacy of Lake Baikal.

For more than 25 million years, the sun sets again on Lake Baikal <br>Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

As it has for more than 25 million years, the sun sets again on Lake Baikal
Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

Travel to Lake Baikal with MIRYou can experience the wildness of Lake Baikal on MIR tours to this UNESCO-listed lake on the Trans-Siberian Railway through Russia and Siberia and the Russian Far East. You can also book a custom, private journey.

Some MIR tours that travel to Lake Baikal include:

Learn more about Siberia’s , first shown during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. 

(Top photo credit: Vladimir Kvashnin)

PUBLISHED: May 13, 2014

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One thought on “UNESCO Spotlight: Siberia’s Legendary Lake Baikal

  • RB

    Pretty killer pics, especially the one with the shaman for some reason grabs me. I went on an 18km hike around the (a tiny part of) the lake. hope you enjoy my pics and story man. Cheers! Amazing job on the bikes!