Our first glimpse of the world’s oldest and deepest lake came after we had left the city of Irkutsk 70km behind us; bumping over the brow of a hill this ‘Pearl of Siberia’ twinkled in the valley below stretching endlessly towards the horizon. If you look at a world map and trail your eyes East across Russia, the scale of this enormous water body is evident. Geographically, it is extremely impressive; a maximum length of 395 miles, maximum depth of 1,642 metres and over 25 million years old. In the winter it freezes over and you can drive a car across. Its Ecology is equally extraordinary; of the 1,085 species of plants and 1,550 species of animals, more than 80% are endemic- found here and nowhere else in the world. However, even in the knowledge of these facts and statistics, it is still the sight of Lake Baikal that is the most striking and notable. The expanse of pine forested shorelines, pebbled beaches and water, which stretches as far as the eye can see, is simply stunning.
After 6 weeks in Russia without seeing another fellow ‘camper’ we were met on the Southern shore of Baikal by what resembled a Russian lakeside Glastonbury. During the summer months, this area of the lakes perimeter is a playground for urban-weary Russians who descend en-masse and construct huge temporary canvas settlements along its shoreline. Tired after travelling, we were lucky to find a small spot to camp, only to be woken a couple of hours later by new neighbours 2metres to the right who started their fire and tunes around midnight. This in addition to the railway line only several hundred metres behind us, with cargo trains of over 60 containers taking over a minute to thunder past what felt like inches from our heads.
We left the Southern shoreline hurriedly in search of calmer waters and didn’t need to travel far; within hours we found a stretch of shoreline with only a few families dotted amongst the woodland. We spent several days in this idyllic spot; the water is crystal clear and perfect for swimming (if a tad refreshing!). The weather in this region is much more changeable and a foggy morning would be followed by blazing sunshine, then a torrential downpour with thunder, only for the clouds to clear and the sun to burn through again. From our hammock swung between the trees, you can watch chipmunks jumping from the branches and waterfowl bobbing past on the lake surface.
A local fisherman dropped by each morning on his motorbike with fresh Omul caught from the lake. A relative of Salmon, this native fish species tastes amazing smoked, with delicious soft, white flesh that just falls off the bone. We befriended the Russian family camped in the next clearing and despite language barriers, shared our evening meal and a few beers, using a ‘point it’ book to communicate and showing photographs of home.
Venturing even further north along the east coast, the area becomes quite uninhabited; here we had an entire stretch of sand and pebble beach to ourselves, the roar of the railway had long gone as the tracks snaked away south towards Mongolia and China. Watching the sunset, the whole landscape turns a warm orange and the only sounds are the cries of gulls and the gentle waves lapping at the shore. This was a perfect end to our time in Russia, possibly the most beautiful place we had visited and a time to relax, reflect and prepare for the next stage in our journey.