Sacred Baikal, roll the wave

by Olivia Kroth

Sacred Baikal is a glorious lake.

An omul barrel is a glorious ship.

Hey, barguzin, roll the wave.

It is not too far to sail for a daring fellow.

Lake Baikal in Siberia has always been sacred to the local population, especially the Buryats, a northern Mongolian tribe living along the eastern shore of the lake, in a region which is part of the Republic of Buryatia today, a federal subject of the Russian Federation. 

The Buryats, who traditionally practised shamanism, believed in guardian-spirits associated to specific localities like mountains, rivers and lakes. The guardian-spirits of Lake Baikal must be very strong and mighty, because they succeeded in protecting the water to this very day, in spite of all kinds of dangers and threats, including pollution by industry and tourism.

The Barguzin River in Buryatia flows into the Barguzin Bay of Lake Baikal, its largest and deepest bay. The river can be navigated for 204 kilometers upwards from its estuary and gave its name to a steady wind. "Hey, barguzin, roll the wave," the daring fellow in the old Russian folk song is singing, while travelling across Sacred Baikal on an omul barrel, "an omul barrel is a glorious ship."

Omul (Coregonus autumnalis migratorious) is the most important species of fish in the lake, a small endemic kind of salmonid. Russians like to eat smoked omul, a well-known delicacy, but the locals around Lake Baikal prefer to eat it salted. A popular Siberian salad called "Stroganina" consists of uncooked frozen omul, cut into fine pieces and served with salt, pepper and onion. 

Omul is in high demand all over Russian territory, therefore the object of commercial fishery in Lake Baikal, although it was listed as an endangered species in 2004.

Another endangered species is the Baikal seal (Phoca sibirica), a small earless seal, endemic to Lake Baikal. A few years ago, the total population was estimated to be only 60.000 animals left. Despite the hunting restrictions, poachers are still active and hardly ever caught. 

The Baikal seal has inhabited Lake Baikal for about two million years. It is a solitary animal for the majority of the year, except in the mating season. The females usually give birth to only one pup during winter time and raise it on their own. 

The single mother digs a large den under the ice for her offspring, who will further expand it by digging a maze of tunnels around the den, mainly for exercise and to keep warm under the ice. The mum feeds her pup for two to three months, until the ice will melt and the den will collapse in spring.  From now on, the young seal is left to fend for itself, swimming away for new adventures. 

Lake Baikal is the world's oldest lake, about 25 million years of age. At 1.650 meters, it is also the world's deepest lake. Baikal was formed as an ancient rift valley, with the typical long crescent shape. Its surface area measures almost 32.000 square kilometers. 

Besides omul and Baikal seals, it is home to more than 1.700 species of animals and plants. The lake is divided into three basins - North, Central, South - and completely surrounded by mountains, which are protected as a National Park.  

The lake contains 27 islands. Its most famous is Olkhon Island, the third-largest lake-bound island worldwide, covering an area of 730 square kilometers. Olkhon Island is rich in biodiversity, with steep mountains on the eastern shore, the inland features taiga and steppe.

According to an old legend, Genghis Khan (1162-1227) was born on Olkhon Island, where he received his singular determination and fighting powers from the guardian-spirits of the island. They surely imbued him with miraculous cunning, intelligence, stamina and strength.

It is said that Genghis Khan kept practising black shamanism throughout his lifetime. He must have kept in excellent contact with the guardian-spirits, to be able to conquer large parts of Asia and found the huge Mongolian Empire.

Even in our modern times, the indigenous Buryats adhere to shamanism and believe Olkhon Island to be a spiritual place, home to the mythical Thirteen Lords of Olkhon. On the western coast of the island, Shamanka (Shaman's Rock) is to be found. The natives think that the holy spirit of Burkhan lives in the cave of this rock. Probably Burkhan is exercising his supranatural powers continously to keep Lake Baikal clear and clean. 

This borders on a miracle when regarding the factories along its shores, from small fish product industries to the large and notorious Baykalsk Pulp and Paper Mill, constructed in 1966 and still operating these days, despite many ecologists and environmentalists, who denounce its polluting activities regularly.       

The plant is located directly on the shore, bleaching paper with chlorine and discharging waste into the lake. It was closed in 2008, but re-opened in 2010. 

Thankfully, the Russian oil pipelines state company, Transneft, was forbidden to build a trunk pipeline within 800 meters of the shore, as they had originally planned. 

After vehement protests from environmental activists and local citizens, who feared accidental oil spills due to seismic activity in the lake zone, President Vladimir Putin decreed that Transneft must alter its plans. So they moved the pipeline away from the lake, using an alternative route 40 kilometers further north, to avoid grave ecological risks.

In recent years, Lake Baikal has turned into a research center for scientists. Several governmental organizations are carrying out natural research, such as the Baikal Research Center with its program of environmental and educational projects.

Since 1993, neutrino research has been conducted at the Baikal Deep Underwater Neutrino Telescope (BDUNT). The Baikal Neutrino Telescope NT-200 is deployed in the lake, 3.6 kilometers offshore at a depth of 1.1 kilometers. The telescope consists of 192 optical modules (OM).

Lake Baikal does not only attract ecologists, scientists and tourists, but also writers and artists. During Soviet times, Valentin Rasputin, who was born near the lake in 1937, already warned against big industrial projects destroying precious nature. 

Rural lifestyle and traditions are prevalent in his literary work, for which he received many prizes, among them the USSR State Prize in 1977, the Order of Lenin in 1984, and the Order of Merit for the Fatherland, bestowed on the writer by President Vladimir Putin in 2002.

Vladimir Rasputin, a prominent Russian author and public figure, is an environmentalist too, a tireless defender of Lake Baikal and Siberian nature. Here is what he has to say:

"Nature has its favorite creations, into which it puts greater effort, polishes them more thoroughly and endows them with special power. Baikal is doubtlessly one of them. It is rightfully called the pearl of Siberia. Leaving its riches aside, Baikal is revered for its miraculous life-giving force, its spirit that defies change and time, its primordial splendor and wildlife potency. Baikal was not meant for industrial exploitation, but to let people drink its water to their hearts' content, feast their eyes on its beauty and breathe its pure air. Baikal has never refused to help humanity, but only if its water remains clean, its beauty untouched, its air unpolluted, life in and around it unspoilt. And we are the ones who need it most." 

A gifted artist and sculptor of Buryat origin, born on the shores of Baikal, is Dashi Namdakov. His family belongs to the honored caste of darkhan-blacksmiths, as Buryats consider this craft to be a gift of God. 

His father made carpets and furniture, painted and carved wood. He passed his talent on to Dashi, who uses ornamental casting, forging and mixed techniques to create ancestral art in bronze, copper, gold, silver, gem stones and ivory. He also uses horsehair and wood for his art, inspired by Buryat folk tales, the taiga and steppe, rivers and mountains, but above all, by Lake Baikal.

Dashi Namdakov has shown his works in many Russian exhibitions and abroad. His sculptures can be found in the Hermitage of Saint Petersburg, the Museum of Oriental Art in Moscow, and in the Museum of Irkutsk, Siberia. The figures represent Buryat horsemen, nomads, shamans and totem animals.

The artist dreams of opening an international arts center near Lake Baikal, a sort of ecovillage with workshops for artists. May the guardian-spirits help him to make this dream come true.

May they also assist the young people who come to Baikal as volunteers from all over Russia to clear the territory of garbage. Their aim is to draw people's attention to the necessity of environmental protection for the pearl of Siberia.    

The Russian Government under President Vladimir Putin decided to spend 58 billion roubles on the cleansing of the area. Half of the sum will be used to clean the lake, the other half to reduce waste.   

Sacred Baikal might even get its own ombudsman soon, as the Director of the Limnology Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Mikhail Grachov, suggested. 

Surely, the Russian Federation will take the necessary steps to preserve the lake as a sparkling jewel in Siberia for future generations.

May they all be able to enjoy the waters of this magic place with the blessings of the Thirteen Lords of Olkhon for another 25 million years to come.  

Prepared for publication by:

Lisa Karpova


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Author`s name Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey