Although geographically a world away from Moscow, the world’s largest fresh water lake has never ceased to beguile Russians. Now, after years of battling with polluting industry, locals are fighting to reclaim Lake Baikal with a modern-day weapon: grass roots eco-tourism.

 

 

It’s known as Russia’s natural jewel, the soul of Siberia. A patch of royal blue on Siberia’s colossal sized belly, Lake Baikal is also full of superlatives. Formed by a unique geographical rift some 25 to 30 million years ago, it is known as the world’s largest lake. At 636 kilometres long and 79 kilometres wide, the banana-shaped lake is also the world’s biggest, holding 20 per cent of the world’s fresh water. Lake Baikal is so big, in fact, if the world was to run out of fresh water tomorrow, the lake alone could sustain it for the next 40 years. It’s also the deepest, its crevices growing and the water level rising by 1 millimetre a year.

With muscular vistas of thick taiga forests, hardy ramshackle settlements, craggy horizons of snow-capped peaks and, in winter when it freezes to 1.5 metres thick, a seasonal go-anywhere open road for locals and their Ladas, Lake Baikal is both impossibly beautiful and a little intimidating. Like Siberia, a vast province covering most of Russia’s eastern land mass and which became the dumping ground for Soviet dissidents and unlucky foreigners during Stalin’s reign of terror, the lake also has a tumultuous past.

Abundantly fertile and World Heritage listed, Lake Baikal is home to about 1700 species of flora and fauna, of which 80 per cent are endemic. Believing the lake contained a self-cleaning organism, as an experiment Soviet officials built several industrial plants along the lake’s shores in the 1960’s.The consequences sparked debate for decades and inspired the Soviet Union’s first environmental movement. Ammunition was plentiful: in 1987-88 an epidemic killed thousands of freshwater Baikal seal, which has lived in isolation for hundreds of thousands of years; its closest relative lives in the Arctic Ocean. The reason remains officially unexplained but the incident is largely blamed on exceedingly high levels of toxic affluent.

Now, following the recent closure of Lake Baikal’s last big polluter, the Baikalsk Pulp and Paper Mill, residents are setting their sights on a new target: tourism.

In the vanguard is the Great Baikal Trail, a local organisation that began matching the trickle of visitors with local home-stays in 2002. The organisation is now building a series of walking tracks that will eventually almost circumnavigate the lake; about 150 kilometres of track is complete. The project is organised and orchestrated by volunteers, including train loads of Australians, Europeans and Americans who arrive throughout the year to work and revel in the lake’s vast open spaces. “Trails are the instruments of nature preservation- to keep the impact to a minimum. If we build them, hopefully more people will come and the government will see the benefit in eco-tourism,” Natasha Luzhkova, the project coordinator tells me over black Russian tea in her office in Irkutsk, the regional capital. “There are very few regulations for tourism or the environment here. We want to encourage tourism, but so that locals and the lake benefit, not big companies.”

For tourists, there is a lot to be gained. Colonised by Russia in the 17th century, Siberia brims with gingerbread-style cottages with intricately carved window shutters, with plenty of opportunities for homestays. My parents and I explore the lake as a detour from our journey on the Trans-Siberian railway from Moscow to Beijing. We opt for home-stay accommodation while in the lakeside village of Listvyanka. For 500 rubles each (AU$19) we occupy two rooms and one bathroom on the top floor of a family house- a third of the price of two hotel rooms down the road with the same level of comfort.

Patronised by Siberia’s nouveau-rich, Listvyanka is famous for its incredible smoked omul, a white salmon found in abundance in Lake Baikal and smoked to perfection by the amply padded babushkas in the market. It is perfect eaten as is- just torn from the bones with your bare hands- with bottles of Baltica beer and views across the lake to the Kamar Daban Mountains. Here the lake is so still and pristine you can see the bottom at a depth of more than 20 metres. Unfortunately the ambience of spectacular vistas and quaint cottages has been changed by a series of brash hotels, including one with pink walls and blue-mirrored windows.

For Natasha Luzhkova and Baikal’s other eco warriors, it’s this kind of unchecked development that threatens to the nascent tourism industry. The government’s post-Baikalsk recovery includes tapping into the region’s natural beauty to develop a series of resort towns around the lake, including next to an old cellulose factory. Recent reports, however, claim the government is considering reopening the Baikalsk plant, which closed in October 2008 because it was too expensive to make environmentally sound.

“The politicians’ ideas are far from ecological- they just have no idea!” emails Jennie Sutton, a Briton who heads the local lobby group Baikal Wave, and who has lived in Irkutsk for 35 years. “These tourist zones are likely to destroy Baikal’s appearance and character considerably, quite apart from the inevitable additional pollution.”

Scientists also warn that climate change is having an irrevocable effect on the lake’s ecosystem. The weather is certainly unpredictable. The day before we drove to Olkhon Island, one of 26 islands inside Lake Baikal and believed by native Buryat tribes to be one of the world’s centres of Shamanic energy, Irkutsk was a balmy 32 degrees Celsius. That night a storm raged in, dropping a foot of snow and sending the temperature plummeting to minus 10- both extremes out of character.

A barren slip of land six hours by road and ferry from Irkutsk, Olkhon Island is also embracing tourism. Little more than a cluster of gingerbread cottages and a ramshackle fish processing factory a few years ago, the only village, Khuzhir, is now filled with backpacker resorts under construction. The first was Nikitas, a cluster of stone and timber cottages owned by a former national table tennis champ, Nikita Bencharov, who moved to Olkhon Island from Irkutsk 20 years ago to open an eco-camp for children. Nikitas- still dubbed a ‘home-stay’- now caters for 80 people and is growing by the minute. Bencharov tells me there are no government regulations managing tourism on Olkhon island- nor erosion, water usage, tree felling or, alarmingly, rubbish disposal. Half a dozen boats lie rusting on the beach, which is littered with rubbish. And there’s more dumped in the patchwork forest behind the village.

“Three years ago we got electricity. Since then there has been an influx of people and an influx of rubbish,” says Bencharov through an interpreter. “Local people want tourism and they need tourism. But nobody is overseeing the development: It’s just a free for all.”

The next day we pile into the back of an old van and drive to the north of the island. It’s not for the faint-hearted. The driver fangs across the hilly terrain, barren except for tire-marks from previous vehicles, throttling down 45-degree slopes and spinning wheelies mere meters from the precipice. We hold on for dear life while the scenery passes us by: vast open spaces whipped by an arctic wind; cliffs, hundreds of metres high, plummet into the lake where ice still clings to the shadows. At Cape Khoboi, the northernmost tip of the island, the driver whips up a deliciously hearty meal of thick rye bread and omul soup. There is not another soul for miles, just cliffs, the lake, thundering steppe and an ever threatening sky; an extraordinary, terrible beauty which makes you realise how much Lake Baikal has to offer, and how much it has to lose.

A version of this article appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald and Age newspapers in October 2009.