In a huge stone vial, almost in the center of Asia, elevated 455 m above the sea level, 31,5 thousand sq. km in area, Lake Baikal spread its waters. It is 636 km long, 79 km across (at the widest place), 25 km across at the most narrow. With 1637 m deep, it is the deepest lake on Earth. Only 6 lakes on our planet are deeper than 500 meters.
The region’s borders are determined by the Baikal mountain system. The territory is characterized by a significant elevation above the sea level and mostly mountain landscape. High (up to 3500 m) snow-top mountains crown the Siberian pearl. Their ridge crests either go 10-20 km away from Baikal or come close to the shore. Steep coastal rocks go deep into the lake, often leaving no room even for a foot track. In prompt run streams and rivulets roll down to Baikal from pretty high above. In places where they run into ledges of hard rock, rivers form scenic waterfalls. Baikal is especially perfect in silent, sunny days when the surrounding high alpine tundra with snow-tops and mountain crests sparkling in the sun, are reflected in huge blue space. Baikal is unique for its antiquity. It is about 25 million years.
They count 336 big and small tributories to the lake. The largest are the Selenga, the Verkhyaya Angara, the Barguzin, the Turka, the Snezhnaya. Only one river flows out of the lake – the mighty and prompt Angara, giving her pure waters to Yenisei.
The climate in Eastern Siberia is acutely continental, but the enormous mass of water, contained in Baikal, and the surrounding mountains create an extraordinary microclimate. Baikal works as a large thermo stabilizer: in winter it is warmer on Baikal, and in summer it is a bit cooler, than, for example, in Irkutsk, which is 60 km away. The temperature difference normally makes about 10 degrees. Forests, growing almost on all the Baikal shoreline, provide a significant contribution to this effect. Baikal not only regulates the temperature condition. Due to little cold water evaporation from the lake surface, clouds above Baikal cannot be formed. Besides, the air masses bringing clouds from the inland, warm up when getting over the coastal mountains, and the clouds dissipate. As a result, most of the time the sky above Baikal is clear. Figures tell much of the story: there are 2277 hours of solar light in the area of Olkhon Island (for you to compare: at the Riga seaside this number is 1839, in Abastumani (Caucasus) – 1994). The average annual air temperature on Baikal is distributed as follows: in the southern hollow it is -0.7°C, in the middle part it is -1.6°C, in the northern corner it is -3.6°C. The warmest spot is the Peschanaya bay, where the average annual air temperature is +0.4°C.
Water temperature. In the open Baikal the temperature of the surface layer varies from +15°C (August) to 0°C (January). In coastal areas it gets warm as high as +17°C in summer, in bays and shoals the temperature goes up to +23°C. In winter bays freeze over about a month earlier than the open Baikal does. At the biggest depths the water temperature is around +3.2°C near the bottom. On average freezing on Baikal starts on December 21, and ends on January 16. However, there are reports of freezing over in early February. Ice destroying starts in April and ends May through June. The Baikal surface freezes over entirely, except for a small stretch about 15-20 km at the Angara headstream.
Wind on Baikal blows more often than not. A peculiarity of the Baikal winds is that they almost all, almost always blow along the shore and there are no as many shelters from them as you would like to have. The prevailing winds are: northwestern, often called Gornyi, northeastern (Barguzin and Verkhovik), southwestern (Kultuk), southeastern (Shelonnik). The wind maximum speed on Baikal is 40 m/s (144 km/h). Some researchers assert that in the mouth of the Sarma river the gusts of wind reach 60 m/s (216 km/h). At the western coast the wind maximum speed is observed 8 a.m. through 4 p.m., and the minimum one 6 p.m. through midnight. The most fierce wind on Baikal is northwestern, breaking away from the valleys of the Sarma, Rytaya, Solntsepad’ and Molokana rivers.
It is that very wind that caused the most severe accidents on Lake Baikal. Opposite the Sarma mouth the Arctic air, rolling over the Primorski ridge, heads for the valley narrowing toward the river mouth, which, on the way out to Baikal, forms a natural wind tunnel. The height difference is 500 m. Masses of cold air, overthrown from such a height, gain tremendous speed and destructive force.
Where there is wind, there are waves. The Baikal waves can be up to 4 meters high. The lake is the roughest in fall and in spring. In summer Baikal is rarely rough, and calm is a usual occurrence. The water level difference in various areas of the lake reaches 1 m and more. The reason is heterogeneity of barometric pressure on the vast lake waters.
Of all the Siberian charms and treasures Lake Baikal is a special rank. It is the greatest mystery Nature has given, the mystery impossible to solve till now. Disputes are still on how Baikal sprung up – as a result of imminent slow transformations or because of immense accident and a trough in the earth’s crust. Baikal holds 23.000 cub/km (22 % of world reserves) of pure, clear, fresh, low-mineralized, oxygen-rich water of unprecedented quality.
«This 169 (1661) on the sixth day of July across the Irkut river on the Verkholenski bank I am setting up a new Government ostrog (fortress) with service people … I did set up the ostrog, and the spot here is the best, fit for tillage, and the pasture, and hay meadows, and fisheries are nearby … » – wrote Yakov Pokhabov in his report to the Yenisei voevode. The place really turned up favorable for the further development of exploration and trading ways to the East and to Asia. The Baikal rivers allowed to move to the north (down the Angara and Yenisei as far as the Ledovityi Ocean), to the south (down the Selenga) and to the east (down the Verkhnyaya Angara). This way went the service, industrial and trade people, this way embassies to China set off. In the second half of the 18-th century the Irkutsk area was turned into Irkutsk Province which stretched from Yenisei to the Pacific Ocean and Alaska.
And, indeed, the administrative system, economic and cultural level of Irkutsk after 25 years had stepped practically onto the European level. No one would have risked to call this commercial and trade center the backwoods. The further the city developed, the brighter its character appeared. After one hundred years there were10 thousand residents in Irkutsk. 20 churches, a theater, a clinic, an exchange, a drugstore, banks, a few schools were in use. Beauty and expediency moved the thoughts of those who lived in this large commercial center of Eastern Siberia. Merchant capitals grew up fast because the goods from Yakutia, Zabaikalie, Mongolia and China – gold, fur, tea – were much in demand.
Commercial enterprise and luck of the Irkutians turned into the construction of the Picture Gallery and the Theater, schools, scientific and medical institutions. Houses of the well-off were designed by the best Russian architects. Due to their art the city’s appearance became respectable, romantic and graceful at the same time.
A new spur to cultural development of the city was the rebellion on the Senate Square in 1825. The Irkutsk Province became an exile site for many Decembrists. The house of one of them, Prince Volkonski, was primarily built in the village of Urik in 1838. In 1846, the Volkonskis bought a land parcel in Irkutsk across the Savior and Transfiguration Church and took their house from Urik to Irkutsk. According to memoirists, the Volkonskis’ house soon became the center of the Irkutsk public life. Balls and masquerades for youth were often held there, as well as literary, musical and theatrical assemblies.
Of 30 years, spent by the Volkonskis in Siberia, they had resided seventeen years in this house. On December, 10, 1985 after the eleven year restoration, the museum received the first visitors. The museum is the leading among the country museums, telling about the history of Decembrists in Russia.
In June, 1879 Irkutsk suffered a terrible disaster, the Great Fire. It almost destroyed all the public and state establishments, as well as educational institutions. Among the religious buildings, St. Vladimir’s and St. Tikhvin’s churches, Annunciation and St. Charalampias’ churches, Jewish synagogue with its almshouse and school were burned down. Only 3157 houses in city survived in the Fire.
The twentieth century changed the city’s appearance but a little. Neither revolutionary storms, nor the epochs of administrative and political reforms affected its deep essence. The number of residents went up, the neighboring villages turned into suburbs. Industrial colossi were launched. But the Irkutians still enjoy theater performances and art exhibitions, they eagerly fill philharmonic halls at concerts and recitals. The townspeople still appreciate the work of scientists and physicians. The students’ city of Irkutsk lives a prompt life, accepting all the new and efficient, finding harmony in everything.
Baikal highway (Baikalski Trakt)
A traditional Sunday route. 68 km of tarmac – and you are on Baikal.
The Baikal highway from Irkutsk to the village of Listvyanka goes along the Angara right bank. On the way to Baikal you can view the exhibits at The Taltsy Museum of Wooden Architecture located 47 km from Irkutsk. A tour of the museum, whose wooden buildings are scenicly stretched out on the Irkutsk reservoir shore, usually takes 1-1,5 hours. There are over 40 historical and architectural monuments, as well as 8000 exhibits of a high historical value. The rarities are the restored architectural monuments of all-Russian significance: the Savior’s Tower (1667) and the Kazan’ Chapel of the former Ilim Ostrog (1679), built up of larch logs over 300 years ago with no nail.
For the first time (1772-1773), the village of Listvyanka is mentioned in the records by I.G.Georgi, a traveler. The settlement started with an ordinary winter hut. But with time a post station was built there, and then a port where the trans-Baikal crossing began. Thus, Listvyanka became a dominant village among the nearest ones as the main Baikal wharf.
Listvyanka received the name due to listvennitsy (larches) growing on the nearest Listvenichnyi cape. After the completion of the Irkutsk Hydropower Plant the coastal area of the village got into the flooded zone, and, as a result, some of the buildings went underwater. Listvyanka is comparatively small a settlement with about 1500 residents. It stretched 5 kms along the lake. Recently, the village has been acquiring some resort features more and more. In place of wooden log huts mansions have been being erected, numerous cafes and bars have been being opened. At market places there are always a lot of fish-sellers who cook fish right on the spot.
Pleasure boats and yachts leave the main wharf on a lovely day. Hence, there starts the Grand Baikal track.
As a rule, in Listvyanka tourists visit the Baikal Museum and St. Nicholas’ church. From the “Baikal” sanatorium or from the “Baikal” hotel you can take a 20-30 minute walk up the 2 kilometer health-path to the Cherski Rock (700-m mark), from where you can have a marvelous view of the Angara headstream.
The village is connected to Irkutsk via the Baikal highway (68 km). In summer you can make a trip aboard a hydrofoil craft down the Angara River. It will take you around 1 hour.
CBRR (Circum Baikal Railroad)
The present-day route of the Circum Baikal Railroad (CBRR) was formed in the late 50-s, after the completion of the Irkutsk Hydropower Plant in 1956 and flooding the stretch along the Angara river from Irkutsk to Baikal. The 89-km branch line from the village of Kultuk to Port Baikal became a deadlock, and it is it that people name Krugobaikalka (Circum Baikal Railroad).
In the early XX-th century they built over 400 engineering structures on this stretch of the railroad from Kultuk to Port Baikal, including 39 tunnels totally 9063 m long, 15 stone galleries totally 295 m long and retaining walls totally 14 km long. The longest tunnel through the Polovinnyi cape is 777.5 ms long.
The Krugobaikalka is a unique complex museum. The road itself and its area include not only numerous monuments of engineering art (tunnels and galleries, bridges and viaducts, retaining walls), as well as monuments of architecture, but also diverse natural sanctuaries valuable for geology, mineralogy, zoology, biology to study. The CBRR is also an essential constituent of tourist resources in the Baikal region, a unique tourist object attracting both Russian and foreign tourists.
The village of Bolshiye Koty is on the Baikal shoreline 18 km north of Listvyanka. The village has no motor roads, therefore, you can get there either by foot or by sea.
There runs a small river in which they discovered gold one and a half centuries ago. The deposits were poor, and in 50 years prospectors had panned out about 160 kg (official report) in all.
According to one of the leads the village name was derived from the word “kotki”. They used the word to call wooden footwear which was once manufactured there for convicts working on mines.
In the village of Bolshiye Koty there is the Museum of Baikal Studies and the Aquarium of the Biology Institute. At the museum there are presented over 400 various exhibits, a plentiful collection of insects: beetles, butterflies, dragonflies. There is a standing research station, where Irkutsk students undergo practical training in summer. This small village has become a summer season settlement more and more, old houses have been bought by townspeople to relax in summer. Many houses have been built or altered to accommodate tourists. As a rule, facilities are very primitive.
A few kilometers away is Mount Skriper. 200 m above the sea level there is a cave in the mountain. Archeologists discovered stone and iron instruments for hunting, fragments of ornamental dishes in the cultural layer. Among the Iron Age pottery fragments there was a bottom of a vessel with Ancient Turkic signs.
In summer the village is connected to the inland by regular voyages of the “Voskhod” motor craft. It normally takes about 1,5 hours from Irkutsk.
The village name describes the area which is a steppe, treeless, seemingly “naked” delta of the river (a naked mouth – GOLOYE USTYE in Russian) which previously had the name of Idin-Gol. The name of the village, which arose here, has passed to the river: now they call it Goloustnaya. The residents are a bit over 600. There is no special sightseeing. The village is just a starting or transit point of trekking tours to Listvyanka or to the Peschanaya bay.
After a terrible fire in 2003 a large stretch of the track was turned upside down by caterpillars and was blocked up with fallen trees. However, in the following years the track was restored. The village is connected to Irkutsk via a gravel road 125 km long.
The Peschanaya bay is one of the most famous spots on the lake. And not only because the oldest Baikal camp site is there, but, first of all, due to the beauty of the place. The bay sandy beach is framed by pyramidal rocks – Bolshaya Kolokolnya (80 m above the lake level) and Malaya Kolokolnya (60 m). The neat sandy crescent beach 750 m long provides the bay with a picturesque look. They often call the bay the “Siberian Riviera”, and it was declared a natural sanctuary, its pictures frequently decorate publications about Baikal. The bay housed well-known stilted trees from under which water and wind constantly wash and blow away sandy soil. Mighty pine trees and larches with the wind-twirled branches rise above the land on their stilt looking roots taller than a human height. The most famous stilted tree, under whose roots you could walk with your hands up, did not keep on its roots in the late 80-s, and, unfortunately, fell down.
In summer you can get to the bay aboard a regular motor vessel. It normally takes 3,5 hours from Irkutsk.
There are 22 islands on Lake Baikal, Olkhon Island is the biggest. It is 71,7 km long, 15 km wide, its area is 730 km ?. The landscape of the island is mountainous. The east edge of the island drops off to Baikal with rocky cliffs up to 80 m high almost over all the extent, and the western one descends slopingly to shallow bays of the Maloye More.
The population of the island does not exceed 1500, most people reside in the only large settlement – the village of Khuzhir.
The Khuzhir’s population is 1200 people. The main activity of the islanders is fishing. However, recently tourism has been gaining more significance in the local economy, due to which a number of camp sites have been built on the island.
It is the sunniest spot in Irkutsk Oblast. Sunny days here are thrice as many as in Irkutsk, and they take 2200-2400 hours annually. For comparison: in Sochi they take 2000 of hours, in Yalta – 2250.
There is a Sacred Shaman rock with a through cave on the island. Here they used to sacrifice to spirits, and the cape itself, where the rock is, was the main destination of pilgrimage for the Buryat people from all over Pribaikalye.
The village of Kultuk and the Kultuchnaya river, running through it, take the name from Turkic language, this word literally means “an armpit”, also – a corner, a deadlock, a sea or lake bay. Kultuk is one of the first Russian settlements at Baikal. The first mentioning of it refers to 1647. From Kultuk the pass road through the Khamar-Daban (the Mongolian tract) started. Till present it has remained as a glade on alpine tundra and as separate structures (it is widely used as a tourist and ski track).
Today the village is better known as a staging post. Roads from here go away north to Irkutsk and then to Moscow, west to Tunkinskaya valley and Mongolia, and south to Ulan-Ude, Chita and Far East Russia.
The city was founded at Slyudyanka train station, with its unique white marble Station Building, the only in the world. Slyudyanka Station, and later the city of Slyudyanka, grew due to the construction of the Circum Baikal Railroad in 1902-1916. Slyudyanka is a rayon center of Irkutsk Oblast and was named after the river running through the city. All the trains stop at this Station.
It is a major center of mining industry (developing mica on the Slyudyanka river have been known since late 17th century, and processing marble as a raw material for cement industry at the “Pereval” open pit also takes place here). The Slyudyanka Mining Authority has a shop to manufacture abaculus from marble crumb, a line for cutting and processing tuff stone, marble and granite plates. There is also the South-Baikal fish factory to make canned fish. The city, which history started with a winter hut built up in 1802 when constructing the Circumbaikal tract, has many historical and natural sightseeing (natural sanctuaries and architecture monuments, including the marble Station Building). In Slyudyanka there is the Municipal Museum of Local Studies and the Mineralogical Museum (founder V.Zhigalov), a private mineralogical museum, first in Irkutsk Oblast.
“Arshan” in Mongolian means “a spring, a healing well”. The Arshan wells gave the name to the dominating Mount Arshan, the village and resort which sprang up next to the wells. The village of Arshan is 230 km away from Irkutsk at the bottom of Tunka alpine tundra 893 m above the sea level. It was founded in 1920.
The resort vicinity is very picturesque. Around the wells you will see the trunks and branches of pine trees tied with ribbons according to the Buryat tradition. In summer, along the path to the wells there are a lot of people selling medicinal herbs.
Right from the resort upwards the canyon of the Kyngarga mountain river (‘kyngarga’ means ‘a drum’), there goes a track along which you can take an exciting tour. The canyon bottom is covered with pink and yellow marble water-polished.
About 1,5 km from the track start there is a mighty waterfall 5-6 m high. The second falls is a bit farther, around 300 m up the rocks along a narrow track. In the vicinity of Arshan there are a few thrilling trekking and mountain routes leading onto the peaks and mountain passes.
The Chivyrkuisky bay (6 through 12 km across) deepens 26 km into the land between the mainland and the Svyatoi Nos peninsula. The bay flat shores are overgrown with woods and have numerous coves and scenic capes. Mostly the bay is not over 10 m deep, therefore the waters get warm easily, reaching +19…+22 Celsius in early August. In the coves of the Chivyrkuisky bay you often find sandy beaches. Favorable recreational conditions attract many tourists. The main things to do are: good fishing, bathing in hot mineral washbasins, trekking down the bays, kayaking. The Chivyrkuisky bay is included into the area of the Zabaikalsky National Park, visiting is paid and regulated by certain rules.
In the spring of 1974 on the Baikal northern shore on the Kurly cape there landed the vanguard of builders, and literally after a couple of months there appeared first tents and trailers. That’s how a new settlement, Severobaikalsk, came onto the map of Buryatiya. Due to the drastic growth in economy, construction, and social sphere, by Decision of the Buryat ASSR Supreme Soviet of November, 5, 1980 Severobaikalsk was conferred the “City of Republican Significance” status. Today it is an independent political unit of the Republic of Buryatiya, a municipal establishment “the city of Severobaikalsk”.
Leningrad became its Patron City in the construction field. Severobaikalsk owes its architecture and present-day appearance to diligence of architects and builders from “Northern Palmyra”. The Severobaikalsk economy was mainly associated with the construction of the Baikal-Amur Railroad. The construction of the BAR led to creating a powerful building industry. However, after the project had been cut down, there appeared a lot of the unemployed who lost their jobs after liquidation of the enterprises, involved in constructing the BAR.