Baikalsk is a town of about 12,000 people. Mainly young and old we were told. Until 3 years ago the pulp and paper mill which covered 2 square kilometres employed around 3000 workers. Good for the people as they had somewhere to work, but ultimately bad for the lake, the wildlife and the environment. This mill was dramatically polluting the lake. Lake Baikal is a UNESCO world heritage site as it’s the deepest fresh water lake in the world. It contains about 20% of the world’s fresh water, more than the water contained in all five of the great lakes in America. The pollution was grave, the town was dirty and the place smelt of sulphur. It is a good thing the mill has closed down, yet no alternative jobs were given to the workers let go. This resulted in a mass upheaval of working people.
Our couchsurfing host met us direct off the train, right at the correct carriage. A short walk to his apartment then a short taxi ride to the next station took us to the edge of Lake Baikal. This also included a short walk across the train tracks, a normal thing here yet I was still nervous, as we were told freight trains came by almost every 5 minutes.
The lake greeted us with ice hummocks, a rare event which doesn’t happen every year. We were very lucky, we were stunned. It was unbelievably impressive and beautiful. Our host started walking up the hummock, why not? We followed a little warily, the sound of the ice cracking and breaking away under foot. We couldn’t see the otherside of the lake. It’s hard to describe how immense it felt, here’s a windy video…We had picked the most beautiful time of year, neither solid ice or summer water, it was a mix of white ice (standable), black ice (half melted and most dangerous) and water pools. We saw the best of both worlds. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.
We walked alongside the lake about 6 or 7 km back to the town of Baikalsk, mostly blocks of apartments, garages and a few shops for the locals. We met no other tourists and heard no english, but the locals were friendly. The town is busier in the winter for the ski slopes and in the summer for the lake. The view from our host’s apartment was incredible, the snow capped mountains peeking out between the forest.
One morning we did an excursion (I would say ‘trip’ but that is not Russian) up the River Solzan which flows down from the mountains still topped with snow. A fierce river which broke it’s banks in the 70s and destroyed bridges and houses. Emptier than it would be after the summer rains yet to come, it was still extremely loud. There was a clearing where a smaller river joined and a good place for a sit down to take in the area.
It was peaceful, in a noisy river right next to you kind of way, and felt a million miles away from civilisation. We were only maybe one kilometre from the main Moscow to Vladivostok road.
Turns out it’s tick season in this area of Russia, and despite covering ourselves up Mischa still got bit. We’re very pleased we forked out for vaccinations, especially tick-borne encephalitis… I had the horrible job of tweezing the thing off him though as it was on his back. You had to pull really hard, the skin was almost a centimetre out before it came off, its legs still moving. For those who are squeamish do not hover over the photo of it below, but it’s included for those who can’t help but look…