TRAVEL: by Eric Mackenzie Lamb
During the summer of 2001, I was fortunate enough to embark on one of my most memorable trips- to Siberia and Russia’s Far East. Even today, more than twenty years later, this vast area still remains relatively unknown when it comes to international tourism. And I wasn’t alone. My son Antonio, then eight years old and on his summer school break, shared the adventure with me, the first of many.
This sector of our trip started in Beijing, China, where we boarded the legendary Trans Siberian Railway. The Russian section of the railway was completed in 1906 and involved hundreds of thousands of laborers. Ordered by the Tsar, its purpose was to open the vast Siberian territories to trade, exploration, military linkage with Russia’s Far East, and scientific studies. Years later, a branch of the railway line was extended to China. We’d booked our own private compartment, which had a shower, toilet, and two bunk beds-an absolute necessity as we’d be traveling across seven time zones. Altogether, the total distance we’d cover would come to 4,735 miles in six days, not including a three day break in the Russian city of Irkutsk.
Our train departed Beijing at precisely 11 AM, and by one in the morning the next day we had reached the Mongolian border. It was here that Antonio and I, still awake, witnessed some amazing technology. As we learned later, Chinese railway gauges are different from those in Mongolia and Russia. To solve that problem, the train’s undercarriages are jacked up and their wheels replaced. In less than an hour, we were on our way.
When we woke up the next morning and peered through the window, it was almost as if we’d arrived at another planet. This, we knew, was the legendary Gobi Desert.
From time to time, we could see a yurt in the distance, a typical Mongolian tent made of wood and felt. The traditional structure, dating back thousands of years, serves as a home which can be moved from one location to another.
Image by the author.
That same evening, we crossed the Russian/Mongolian border. About four hours later, we arrived at Irkutsk, disembarked, and took a taxi to our hotel. Although the hotel itself was of a rather stark Soviet era style, it turned out to be surprisingly comfortable.
Image by the author.
The following morning, we began our tour of Lake Baikal.
Here are some facts we learned from Tamur, our highly knowledgeable guide and boat driver.
The world’s deepest freshwater body of water, Lake Baikal-a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996-has a maximum depth of 5,387 feet. It contains an astonishing 23 percent of the Earth’s fresh water. It’s also the world’s oldest lake in geological history, between 25 and 30 million years since its formation, encompassing a length of 395 miles and an average width of 79 miles. The lake is home to at least one thousand species of plants and 2,500 animals, eighty percent of which are endemic and found nowhere else, including the Baikal seal (Pusa sibirica), one of the world’s only freshwater mammals of its kind.
Image by the author.
For the area’s commercial fishermen, the most rewarding and sought after catches consist of Omul (Coregonus migratorius) and the Baikal sturgeon, a source of caviar.
When it comes to weather, violent winds are not uncommon during summer months, when waves can reach heights of 15 feet or more. But in winter, usually between January and May, the lake’s surface is frozen solid. You can even legally drive your car across it, which many locals do for the purpose of ice fishing.
Finally, to conclude this story, Lake Baikal itself isn’t the only amazing thing we learned about the area. In 1978, a party of government surveyors was making their way over the area’s impenetrable forests by helicopter when they spotted a tiny isolated village, which, as they subsequently learned, was inhabited by members of a religious sect called True Believers whose ancestors had emigrated from western Russia in the early 1920’s to escape prosecution for their anti-Orthodox beliefs. The village had no cars, no electricity, and no means of communication with the outside world. For all practical purposes, it could have been the far side of the moon. None of Its few dozen settlers, was even aware that Russia was no longer ruled by the Tsars, or that Lenin’s Communist revolution had taken place.
Just like Lake Baikal, history itself had been frozen in time.