Trips and Tales (Part 79)
Modernity arrived at Lake Baikal in 1898 when the Trans-Siberian Railway reached the region. Actually it reached Irkutsk, which is either an hour’s car drive, two by bus or a mere 45 minutes via hydrofoil depending upon whatever your finances and circumstances allow. Of course if you have Baikal included in an itinerary then all of that will have been taken care of in advance.
Whatever the method it’s just possible that the extra effort required to reach somewhere amazing helps to keep it that way. Something that the region’s often unique wildlife would no doubt be thankful for, if it had a collective voice. Well there are those who speak for it but more of that later.
The more I discover about Lake Baikal and its surroundings, the more a slight unease takes shape. It’s a nagging whisper: “Go there before it’s ruined”. Memories across a range of times and places endure: the free-party scene before the beer-heads (and much worse) turned up to throw cans into the pond or hassle for “trade”. A photograph of my mother at Stonehenge before English Heritage staff in Wellingtons began to hang around like store detectives. Before the fencing was in place yet displaying, prophetically, part of the reason why it has to be so: Radio Caroline graffiti scored into a Sarsen stone. That’s what happens when sub-base-line humanity tries to proudly out-stupid itself.
There are already hotels dotted around Baikal and on Olkhon island, the pictures don’t look too bad (they never do); summer-camp log-cabin variants that are as in-place as blatantly man-made boxes can be (short of camouflage). Is it “like in the brochure”? What of the the extra tourist-generated waste? It makes you wonder. Are there robust restrictions on over-exploitation, or mere tokenism that scatters like nine-pins under the incoming bowling-ball of short-sighted commerce?
You have to hope that the fact that it’s Buryat homeland, not to mention a UNESCO World Heritage site, will count for something (anything?), though I won’t be placing any bets. Already, there has been exploratory drilling for oil under Baikal’s surface. You can only imagine how that one would pan out.
Today (on and off since 1966 in fact), the Baykalsk Pulp and Paper Mill bleaches its product with chlorine and discharges waste into the lake. This is an enterprise that was long-opposed by protest, shut down, promised never to re-open, then re-opened and then granted legality! As I write, another wave of protest/confrontation is coming to a head with again, the prospect of closure for the embattled plant looming once more.
A Uranium Enrichment Centre is also proposed, by way of converting the Angarsk nuclear facility, 60 miles from the lake to “greater things”. When you consider that the viable product of the centre would be only 10% of the radioactive material processed, leaving the other 90% to be stored locally, then you can see why the environmentally-minded are having a collective stroke.
Then there is the complication of pollution imported via the Selenga (Baikal’s largest river tributary) as it snakes by industrialised Ulan-Ude, Selenginsk and another paper-plant (only 60 km approx up-stream). Whilst this currently utilises a cleaner closed-water cycle system, its atmospheric emissions are claimed to ultimately find their way into the river water anyway.
As if this wasn’t enough (too much?), there’s physical stress caused by the Irkutsk hydroelectric plant, responsible for variations in water level that are detrimental to the lake’s entire ecosystem, and then of course there’s the human population itself.
The waste slung into Baikal, the extra stress caused by tourism, the impromptu fly-tipping cleaned up by volunteers because the money and political mechanism isn’t there to effectively facilitate official measures: all these contribute to the current situation in which UNESCO, increasingly impatient, considered withdrawing Baikal’s World Heritage status. For now, that endures.
On a video I saw recently, a Russian stated that although Baikal is a World Heritage Site, it’s a Russian heritage site first. It came across as a desire to reserve the “right” to exploit. Even the authorities of Olkhon are debating whether to build a causeway to facilitate the influx of tourism and the double-edged benefit that brings. It’s complicated. We can’t expect the locals to live in dis-empowered poverty, just because we find it quaint.
By the way: the exploding fish thing. Baikal’s deepest denizens are under extreme physical pressure which is unfortunately appropriate considering everything above. Brought to the surface some apparently explode. Not nice.
[Photo by Marywhotravels]