From a forest vantage point beside the exquisite view of the lake, there are strips of cloth or ribbons tied to the tree branches. Travellers and wanderers who tie or hook them there make a lasting wish to return to Baikal someday. Indeed, the deep azure lake has a magnetic pull, and to people from far and wide (notably Russians), it is the sacred waterbody, the most prominent natural wonder of their extensive land – a mark of Russia on a par with India’s Taj Mahal or Britain’s white cliffs.
The word ‘Baikal’ means much water in the language of the Kurykan tribe, who resided in the area about 1200 years ago. It is around 5370ft (1635m) in-depth and harbours one-fifth of the world’s freshwater – 5,490 cubic miles (22998 sq km), as much as all South America’s Great Lakes combined.
An Ancient Lake
Lake Baikal is the world’s deepest lake, however in the area, it is the ninth most extensive – a sickle shape 390 miles (634km) long with a 1240 mile (1999km) lakefront, and on average 29 miles (47km) wide. Far-famed as an ancient lake, it formed 20-25 million years ago after a massive trench outstretched up along a scar in the Earth’s surface where Asia is unhurriedly pulling apart. Initially, the trench was 4.5 miles (7.2km) deeper, however, the sand and the rocks silted up the lake with time; the remains of small life forms in the muck reveal its age.
Even though 335 rivers flow into Lake Baikal, only one course out – the ‘Angara’. Communities present in the 50 or so tiny towns around the lakefront were once delighted to consume water from the lake, thanks largely to tiny algae-eating shrimps – it was unbelievably pure. Now it is polluted by industrial wastes. However, it is largely clear.
In April, just after the frost and ice have melted, you can see down some 120ft (38m) – even half that deepness would be unusual in other lakes. The surrounding Siberian terrain freezes well before Lake Baikal. From September end, winter embraces the mountain rocks in shining slabs of white, and freezes the woodlands of Siberian cedar, spruce, and larch into spangled outlines.
Not until December does most of the lake’s surface be covered with ice – more than 5ft (1.3m) thick in some places. Many anglers drive out in cars and jeeps to fish through gaps and holes in the ice. The surface resembles a pane of glass, and you can clearly witness fish swimming beneath the transparent ice.