Trips and Tales (Part 77)
This feels like a real milestone. We are just a stone’s throw (Siberian-scale) from the Mongolian border and buffered by the republic of Buryatia as it caresses Lake Baikal‘s southerly shore, overflowing into Siberia at each extremity.
The sheer magnitude of Lake Baikal’s lazy crescent is belied by its location next to the vast open canvas that is Siberia, proper. A drop of water in an ocean of land. But don’t be fooled: England could just about contain Baikal’s length of 636 km although the lake is “only” 79 km wide. The word “lake” doesn’t appear adequate to cover this vast inland freshwater sea with its own tidal ebb and flow, numerous islands and unique wildlife.
Baikal’s perimeter is ringed by a panorama of mile-high mountains, capped with snow. Scattered across its interior are 27 (mostly uninhabited) islands; the largest, Olkhon, is 72 km long and an amalgam of settled Buryat territory (villages, etc.) forest, steppe, craggy capes and other dramatic coastal vistas. It is the third largest lake-based island in the world and an alternative tourist must-do for those seeking to stay a little closer to reality than most.
The lake is an estimated 25-30 million years old, formed from an ancient rift valley and fed by 330 river tributaries resulting in an expanse that contains 23,000 cubic km, or 20% of the world’s unfrozen surface water, a statistic that is remarkable upon reflection (like many others connected with the lake). The only outlet is the Angara river. It’s worth pointing out the renowned clarity and purity of the water, especially as a Brit, used to our proliferation of murky ponds! Good day visibility through its depths is quoted at 40 metres!
The rift itself is a broadening split that will, on a glacial time-frame, bisect Asia and create a a new ocean. Lake Baikal is an embryonic ocean! Amazing. It is 1.637 km straight down to the bottom at its deepest point, but that “bottom” is only the start of another 6.5 km of sediment!
The temperature differential across a year is only around 23° C, ranging from roughly -19° C in winter to 14° C in summer. This is positively temperate compared to the worst excesses of Siberia’s +/- 40° C (or worse) and illustrates in part why the region was historically such a good place to settle. Yes, Baikal creates its own micro-climate. Incredible.
In spite of the relatively “friendly” (again, by Siberian standards) conditions; the low reach is still ample to freeze the lake into a surface traversable by snow mobiles for five months of the year.
During the winter of 1904-05 the ice was so deep that Russia was able to build a supply railway across it to maintain its forces during the Russo-Japanese war.
People have crossed on foot, but it is particularly dangerous due to the risk of frostbite and hypothermia, both assisted by a brutal, unchecked wind-chill. Not recommended.
This is just a taster; more on the astounding Lake Baikal next time. Hopefully by then I will have found some more superlatives; right now stocks are low. What a place.
[Photo by stealthtractor]