Grass-roots tourism is triumphing over industrial polluters at the world's oldest lake, writes Leisa Tyler.
It's known as Russia's natural jewel, the soul of Siberia. Lake Baikal, the world's oldest lake, was formed after a unique geographical rift 25 million to 30 million years ago. At 636 kilometres long and 79 kilometres wide, the banana-shaped lake is also the world's biggest, holding 20 per cent of the world's fresh water. Lake Baikal is so big that if the world were to run out of fresh water tomorrow, the lake alone could sustain it for the next 40 years. It's also the deepest, its crevices growing and the water level rising by one millimetre a year.
With muscular vistas of thick taiga forests, hardy ramshackle settlements and craggy horizons of snow-capped peaks, Lake Baikal is both impossibly beautiful and a little intimidating. In winter, when it freezes to 1.5 metres thick, the lake becomes a temporary go-anywhere road for locals and their Ladas.
As with Siberia, a vast province covering most of Russia's eastern land mass and which became the dumping ground for Soviet dissidents and unlucky foreigners during Stalin's reign of terror, the lake has a tumultuous past.
Abundantly fertile and World Heritage-listed, Lake Baikal is home to about 1700 species of flora and fauna, of which 80 per cent are endemic. Believing the lake contained a self-cleaning organism, as an experiment Soviet officials built several industrial plants along the lake's shores in the 1960s. The consequences sparked debate for decades and inspired the Soviet Union's first environmental movement. Ammunition was plentiful: in 1987-88 an epidemic killed thousands of freshwater Baikal seal, which have lived in isolation for hundreds of thousands of years; its closest relative lives in the Arctic Ocean. The reason remains officially unexplained but the incident is largely blamed on exceedingly high levels of toxic effluent.
Now, following the recent closure of Lake Baikal's last big polluter, the Baikalsk Pulp and Paper Mill, residents are setting their sights on a new target – tourism.
In the vanguard is the Great Baikal Trail, a local organisation that began matching the trickle of visitors with local home-stays in 2002. The organisation is now building a series of walking tracks that will eventually almost circumnavigate the lake. About 150 kilometres of track is complete.
The project is organised and orchestrated by volunteers, including trainloads of Australians, Europeans and Americans who arrive throughout the year to work and revel in the lake's vast open spaces. “Trails are the instruments of nature preservation, to keep the impact to a minimum. If we build them, hopefully more people will come and the government will see the benefit in eco-tourism,” the project co-ordinator, Natasha Luzhkova, tells me over black Russian tea in her office in Irkutsk, the regional capital. “There are very few regulations for tourism or the environment here. We want to encourage tourism but so that locals and the lake benefit, not big companies.”
For tourists, there is a lot to be gained. Colonised by Russia in the 17th century, Siberia brims with gingerbread-style cottages featuring intricately carved window shutters, with plenty of opportunities for home-stays. My parents and I explore the lake as a detour from our journey on the Trans-Siberian railway from Moscow to Beijing. We opt for home-stay accommodation while in the lakeside village of Listvyanka. For 500 roubles ($19) each we occupy two rooms and one bathroom on the top floor of a family house – a third of the price of two hotel rooms down the road with the same level of comfort.
Patronised by Siberia's nouveau rich, Listvyanka is famous for its incredible smoked omul, a white salmon found in abundance in Lake Baikal and smoked to perfection by the babushkas in the market. It's perfect teamed with Baltika beer and views across the lake to the Khamar-Daban mountains. Here, the lake is so still and pristine, you can see the bottom at a depth of more than 20 metres.
Unfortunately, the ambience of spectacular vistas and quaint cottages has been changed by a series of brash hotels, including one with pink walls and blue-mirrored windows. For Luzhkova and Baikal's other eco-warriors, it's this kind of unchecked development that threatens the nascent tourism industry. The government's post-Baikalsk recovery includes tapping into the region's natural beauty to develop a series of resort towns around the lake, including next to an old cellulose factory. Recent reports, however, claim the government is considering reopening the Baikalsk plant, which closed last October because it was too expensive to make environmentally sound.
“The politicians' ideas are far from ecological – they just have no idea!” emails Jennie Sutton, a Briton who heads the local lobby group Baikal Wave and who has lived in Irkutsk for 35 years.
Scientists also warn that climate change is having an irrevocable effect on the lake's ecosystem. The weather is certainly unpredictable. The day before we drove to Olkhon Island, one of 26 islands in Lake Baikal and believed by native Buryat tribes to be one of the world's centres of shamanic energy, Irkutsk was a balmy 32 degrees. That night, a foot of snow was dropped in a storm, sending the temperature to minus 10 degrees – both extremes out of character.
A barren slip of land six hours by road and ferry from Irkutsk, Olkhon Island is also embracing tourism. Little more than a smattering of cottages and a ramshackle fish-processing factory a few years ago, the only village, Khuzhir, is now filled with backpacker resorts under construction. The first was Nikita's, a cluster of stone and timber cottages owned by a former national table tennis champion, Nikita Bencharov, who moved to Olkhon Island from Irkutsk 20 years ago to open an eco-camp for children. Nikita's – still dubbed a "home stay" – caters for 80 people and is expanding. Bencharov tells me there are no government regulations managing tourism on Olkhon Island – or erosion, water usage, tree felling or, alarmingly, rubbish disposal.
“Three years ago we got electricity. Since then there has been an influx of people and an influx of rubbish,” says Bencharov, through an interpreter. “Local people want tourism and they need tourism. But nobody is overseeing the development: It's just a free for all.”
The next day we pile into the back of an old van and drive to the north of the island. It's not for the faint-hearted. The driver fangs across the hilly terrain, throttling down 45-degree slopes and doing wheelies close to the precipice. We hold on for dear life while the scenery flashes past – vast open spaces whipped by an arctic wind; cliffs, hundreds of metres high, plummet into the lake where ice still clings to the shadows. At Cape Khoboi, the northernmost tip of the island, the driver whips up a deliciously hearty meal of thick rye bread and omul soup. There is not another soul for miles, just the lake, the steppe and an ever-threatening sky; an extraordinary, terrible beauty that makes you realise how much Lake Baikal has to offer and how much it has to lose.
The nearest major international airport is Beijing. Malaysia Airlines flies from Sydney and Melbourne via Kuala Lumpur for about $1284 (low-season return, including tax). Siberian Airlines and Hainan Airlines have regular flights from Beijing to Irkutsk for about $373 one way, including tax. Lake Baikal and the popular village of Listvyanka are about a 70-kilometre drive from Irkutsk. Australians require a visa to enter Russia and must be supported with an invitation from an accredited Russian tour agency.
Most people arrive in Irkutsk on the Trans-Mongolian or Trans-Manchurian trains, which run between Moscow and Beijing. The five-day journey costs $908 with Real Russia, a British-based online booking agency, starting in Moscow with a stop in Irkutsk; see realrussia.co.uk. Monkey Business has train packages from Beijing to Moscow stopping in Irkutsk with optional tours to Olkhon Island from $2140; see monkeyshrine.com. Korean Airlines has a fare that allows you to fly into Moscow and out of Beijing or Vladivostok.
The Great Baikal Trail welcomes paying volunteers during set periods throughout the year to build and maintain walking tracks, curate a museum and help with education programs. See greatbaikaltrail.org.
Jack Sheremetoff has a thorough knowledge of the lake and can arrange driving, hiking, dog sled and ice-cycling tours and home-stays. See baikaler.com.
Green Express has group itineraries for tours in summer and winter. See greenexpress.ru/eng.
On Olkhon Island most travellers gravitate towards Nikita's, where a room, all meals and banyas for washing cost $28.50 a person. See olkhon.info/en.
In Listvayanka, the kitsch Hotel Mayak has rooms with great views of the lake for $85; see www.mayak-hotel.ru. However, I'd recommend a home stay costing about $20 a person.