The wooden boat gently rocks on the waves. Overhead is a perfect azure sky broken only by the sculpted wings of swallows. Peering over the side of the boat, I can see through 120ft of crystal-clear water, which then runs into a darkness teeming with fish and rare plants. You could be forgiven for thinking you were out at sea – if it were not for the conspicuous lack of a salty tang in the air.

James Cameron, director of Avatar

"Baikal is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. Maybe in some future Avatar sequel you will see places reminiscent of Baikal. The underwater world of Pandora that you will see in Avatar 2 will be represented by the gigantic magnified barnacles and shellfish I saw when I dived to the bottom of Baikal."

Siberians believe that Lake Baikal’s water has curative properties, and habitually call it “the freshwater sea”. It is rich in oxygen, and as pure as distilled water. But in winter, its surface becomes like heavy-duty safety glass.

So thick is the ice when the lake freezes that during the Russo-Japanese war of 1904, railway lines were laid over it which successfully supported 65 steam engines and 2,300 loaded wagons. The ice takes on a turquoise hue in spring as it breaks and disperses to reveal the shimmering water once again.

Lake Baikal is at the very heart of Asia, on roughly the same latitude as Moscow and London. It is located 445 metres (1,460 feet) above sea level, while the lake bottom descends to almost 1,200 metres (3,937 feet) below sea level. Locked within the massif of the Baikal Mountains, from north to south the lake runs for 636 kilometres (395 miles) – the distance between Moscow and St Petersburg.

The lake is so big – its surface area is as large as Belgium – that it would take around four months, at normal walking speed, to walk all the way around it.

Baikal is a world of its own, like nothing else on Earth, populated by an estimated 2,600 species of plants, animals, and microorganisms – two thirds of which cannot be found in any other body of water on the planet.

Baikal’s weather is rather unpredictable. It can change within an hour.

The Verkhovik (the local name for the north wind) blows across the lake from the River Angara valley, a sign that warmer weather is on its way to the northern bank. But, while the north shore is bathed in sunshine, when the Verkhovik is blowing, there will be storms in the south of the lake. When this happens, the cliffs are lashed by 12 feet waves, and brown bears abandon the shore to take refuge in the pinewood forests.

Yet the Baikal region is one of the sunniest in the whole of Russia. The lakeside village of Bolshoe Goloustnoe, for example, clocks up 2,583 hours of sunshine a year.

Our helmsman looks towards the green mountain ridges and says: “Baikal’s got many faces. You can’t see all of it on one trip. Some people remember it as peaceful and calm, while others think of the granite cliffs and waves the size of walls. It’s a matter of luck. But locals say that you’re lucky even if you only see Baikal once.”

Geophysicists estimate that Baikal was formed approximately 25-30 million years ago, making it the world’s oldest lake. But scientists have found no signs that the lake is deteriorating with age, which leads them to hypothesise that Baikal is a nascent ocean.

It is located in a vast crustal fault basin that continues to grow around 2 centimeters (1 inch) every year, like similar lakes on the African or South American continents. If all the rivers on Earth were to flow into Baikal, it would take a year to fill it.

The extraordinary size and unique features of this sea-lake have inspired many Russian writers, artists, filmmakers and poets. Writer Valentin Rasputin wrote in his monograph on Baikal: “It seems that Baikal should overwhelm people with its gigantic size and scope. Everything about it is on a gigantic scale, expansive and mysterious.

“But it is quite the opposite; Baikal uplifts people. Nowhere else will you find a sensation of such complete striving for unity with nature, and an immersion into it.”

Other creative minds inspired by Lake Baikal include playwright Anton Chekhov, artist Nicholas Roerich and Hollywood producer-director James Cameron. Cameron came to Baikal not only in search of inspiration, but also to help form the scientific detail for Titanic and Avatar. On his most recent trip, Cameron went to the lake bed in the Mir-1 bathyscaphe (a deep submergence vehicle), with a team of scientific researchers.

Indeed, with its unique flora, fauna and ecosystems, the lake is a haven for scientific research. In 2000, a unique deep-water neutrino telescope was installed on the lake to study life on the lake’s bed, and scientists are also preparing to launch a deep-water science station in March 2013. The station’s readings could help predict earthquakes more than two days in advance.

Researchers call the region the Baikal Rift Zone, specifically because of the high seismic activity. In Irkutsk and Buryatia – which are located adjacent to the Baikal region – severe earthquakes are a frequent occurrence, with their epicentres fixed upon the Baikal area.

So special is Lake Baikal that, in 1996, it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and in 2008, it was voted by Russians as one of the Seven Wonders of Russia. It is an area of outstanding beauty of which Russia is understandably proud.

However, the spectre of environmental pollution, caused by local businesses – most notoriously the Baikalsk pulp and paper mill – flouting strict rules on waste disposal, now  hangs over the so-called Pearl of Siberia.

New water treatment plant to cut pollution

A new water treatment plant will be built in the town of Khilok in the Baikal territory. The plant will help maintain water quality and prevent pollution from industrial plants in the Lake Baikal catchment area. In doing so, it will help to protect the environment and Baikal’s unique ecosystem, which has been described “as the most diverse in the world”; and by UNESCO  as “the most outstanding example of a freshwater ecosystem”.

Regional subsidies are available to organisations that carry out work to improve the ecology of the lake and the surrounding area.

Sergei Donskoi, minister of natural resources, concedes that the lake and its surrounding area has become more polluted over the last decade, but points to the government’s commitment to protect this most precious natural resource through pollution prevention and cleanup measures.

As such, a report has been commissioned to look into the operation of the Baikalsk pulp and paper mill, and a new federal programme, the Protection of Lake Baikal and the Social and Economic Development of the Baikal Natural Territory for 2012-20, has been established.

“The government is waiting for a draft action plan on the future of the [Baikalsk] plant, which is being prepared by VEB Engineering, a subsidiary of the Bank for Development and Foreign Economic Affairs (Vnesheconombank)," Donskoi said.

“The federal program has several objectives,” he added. “First, it aims to rectify the environmental damage which has already been caused by waste from industries in the area. Second, it aims to reduce the environmental impact of local business operations. Third, it must improve the existing environmental monitoring system used in the Baikal natural territory, since the current monitoring system is failing to keep tabs on the entire area."

“Furthermore, the program was designed to address natural risks. It has set a requirement to establish 24 so-called fire and chemical stations which will improve significantly fire safety in the area, as well as a total of 170 kilometers (106 miles) of bank stabilisation lines and engineering structures to protect the area against floods and mudslides.”

Arkady Dvorkovich, Deputy Prime Minister:

"The Baikal pulp and paper mill will most likely be closed. There has been much talk recently, and there’s a group studying various possible scenarios… But despite the fact that many such pulp and paper mills are up and running around the world, this one will most probably have to be shut down."

As Baikal’s tourism industry increases, the minister is keen to point out that further building and development, such as the opening of new visitor centres and a new network of nature trails (see below), will be carried out in a responsible fashion.

Our boat is approaching the rocky shore. We have to jump into the icy water to get out and help the guide to drag the boat up onto a rocky escarpment.

Somewhere deep in the woods around the shores are musk deer – one of the world’s smallest deer species. Then again, it’s difficult to imagine what in Baikal is not “the smallest”, “the biggest”, “the rarest” or the “oldest”. There is so much about the area that is special and must be and is being, protected.

The cloudless azure sky remains blissful over our heads while a storm brews in the south. But on the northern banks of Baikal, no one will be aware of the waves lashing against the southern cliffs."

Page 1 of 2
  1. Beauty of the lake
  2. Pollution problems