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Trekking Lake Baikal


Only half a day into my three-day solo backpacking trip through Olkhon, a picturesque island in the middle of Siberia’s Lake Baikal, I realized I had made a terrible mistake. I had thought I was ready for any emergency. I had a thoroughly-stocked first-aid kit. I had food for a week, just in case. I had water-proof boots and extra socks. I had an all-in-one compass/thermometer/match-holder/flashlight/whistle. What I did not have was water.

This was not an accidental oversight. Lake Baikal is the single largest source of fresh water in the world. Out of every 5 drops of fresh water, one of them is in the “Jewel” of Siberia. All the Great Lakes and all the rivers of North America cannot even equal it. I grew up near Lake Superior, where everyone speaks of its colossal depth. Well, Baikal is four times deeper. This is not just mucky lake water, either. Baikal’s water is known especially for its purity. It is said that on a clear day, you can see a hundred feet down.

So when I was packing for the expedition, I left my extra water bottles at home. The pack was heavy, and I planned to hike some 30 miles or more. I brought a 2-liter Nalgene and left it at that.

The path less travelled (the wrong one)

I should have sensed the danger when my hired van dropped me off at Khoboi cape, which towers over the water below. If Baikal’s mile-high sea of water were to be drained, you could see easily that 40-mile-long Olkhon Island is an extension of one of the many mountain ranges that ring the lake. Though the center of the island sports a few sandy beaches, nearly everywhere else the water meets sheer cliff rather than shore. Many places, they cannot be scaled without mountaineering equipment. I could see the water, but it was hopelessly out of reach.

I did not, however, sense danger. I was in love, and not yet very thirsty. The scenery was spectacular. Standing on the sheer bluffs over the water, the jagged mountains were misty across the lake. Behind me, the grasslands rolled. I may not have brought water, but I had my guitar and repertoire of folk songs about Baikal. I sat down to play.

Playing a guitar on this cliff was cold.

Images of musicians serenading nature atop cliffs are romantic. A navigator on Siberia’s Lena River told me the story of an old man who once upon a time manned the signals in a particularly treacherous canyon that the Lena flows through. To pass his solitary time, he played the accordion on the cliffs.

The actual experience was less romantic. The cold wind blowing up the bluffs carried the sound from my ears and the cold to my fingers. I didn’t play long. In any case, it was already afternoon and time for me to start thinking about water.

My original plan had been to camp at Khoboi and spend two days hiking back to Khuzhir, the only real town on the island. This, I could see immediately, would not work. I only had water for half a day. Worse, the only food I had packed was of the add-boiling-water variety. There were no restaurants around. There were no people for miles in any direction.

I needed to a find a way down to the lake. I trudged south, hugging the eastern coast. There are no true roads on the northern half of the island – there’s not much of anything, in fact – but the grass was short and the hills low. The going was easy.

There were many false hopes for beach access. To paraphrase an old saw, it wasn’t so much the slope that was the problem, but the sudden drop at the end. After the second failed descent, I became more careful. Climbing back up the sheer slope was thirsty work.

The summer day dragged on, but even in Siberia the sun cannot stay in the sky forever. Once the lights went out, I would have to wait for morning. The tranquility slowly became more ominous. Like many hikers, I once ran low on water in the Grand Canyon. There had been no problem bumming some from one of the canyon’s other millions of yearly tourists. Here, I was alone.

Just as I was about to give up and pitch my tent, I spotted a foot-warn path running down a relatively mild slope. I followed it to a narrow, rocky beach. There, sandwiched between the cliffs and water, I made my camp. The fallen boulders strewn about the beach made me not particularly comfortable. Neither did the fact I would be sleeping only a few feet the waves of a lake infamous for its vicious storms. At least I had water.

How not to make dinner

Having dinner was another story. Baikal is safe to drink, but I needed boiling water to prepare my instant meals. It had been far too long since I’d used fire for anything but marshmallows. Though I tried for 2 hours, I never brought my pot of icy water up to even shower temperature.

I rose at daybreak the next morning. All night, the wind off the lake had battered my tent like something from The Blair Witch Project. I filled my small water bottle to the brim – my stomach as well. I set off for the South again, and promptly managed to lose myself in the middle of the island taiga. Leading from the steppes into the taiga forest that covers the middle of the island, there were two dirt roads. I chose the wrong one.

It wasn’t that I misread the map; my map didn’t show either road. It was also not a failure to ask directions. I would have. Pleschanaya, a village of a half-dozen decaying houses on the edge of the forest, was empty of humans, although it was home to a very unfriendly pack of dogs. Otherwise, I saw only cows, and I was a little nervous around the cows.

Cows always seemed very friendly and docile when seen from the interior a car on the highway. It was different on Olkhon. My path led through more than one herd of the heavily-horned beasts. Their inscrutable eyes, which never left me, made me very much aware of how incredibly massive they are and how small I am.

By mid-day, I was following the same set of tire ruts that had brought me to Khoboi. They led inland, away from the lake. Before long, I was out of water again. Luckily, it wasn’t long before I reached an inhabited village. An old Buryat couple (Buryats are native to the area), who were weaving freshly-shorn wool at the edge of town, were the first humans I had seen in more than 24 hours. They helped me track down the owner of the only town store – which was closed for lunch – so that I could buy some watery Russian soda (they had no water, and although there was plenty of beer and vodka, I didn’t think that would help).

I covered between 20 and 30 miles that day and reached Khuzhir just before nightfall at 10 p.m. I had had enough of camping and wanted the luxury of Khuzhir’s excellent tourist resort. It had soft beds, stove-heated cabins, a banya and a restaurant – all for less than the cost of a typical motel.

The next day I spent at the resort. I went to the banya twice. I visited the magnificent Shaman’s Rock. It was all of half a mile from the cabins, but I took plenty of water.

Shaman Rock, a holy site

My trip may not have been the smoothest, but it was anything but miserable. I have never loved a place so totally, so quickly. I would have happily spent the rest of my life there (despite worrying that this in fact could happen!). Olkhon has it all: sand dunes, beaches, mountains, grasslands, forest, and the lake. One moment you are in the buffalo ranges of Wyoming; the next, you are in the alpine country of Switzerland. Walk a few miles, and you find yourself on a sandy beach.

But if you go, bring your own water.
 
How to get there:
Unless you speak fluent Russian and understand the Russian visa system, use a travel agency. Baikal Complex (http://www.baikalcomplex.irk.ru/) is a friendly, ecologically-minded business. Baikal Explorer (http://www.baikalex.com/) runs a comprehensive website. Do-it-yourselfers with excellent Russian are free to email me at joshuahartshorne@netscape.net for details, and should also read my article in Escape Artist on obtaining a visa (www.escapeartist.com/efam/61/Living_In_Russia.html).

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