Lake Baikal is the oldest and deepest (5387 feet) freshwater lake in the world. Located in south-eastern Siberia and north of the Mongolian border, Lake Baikal lies in a cleft where the world is literally splitting apart. Expert geologists say that today's Baikal shows what the seaboards of North America, Europe, and Africa looked like when they separated millions of years ago. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.
Baikal is more than 5000 feet deep, with a four mile thick layer of sediment below. Yet the cold and oxygen rich waters supports some rather bizarre life forms. One of them is the fresh water seals favorite food, golomyanka, a pink, transparent fish that gives birth to live young. More than half of the species found here can only be found here. The lake is somewhere between 20 to 25 million years old, during the Mesozoic.
Speaking of species, how about 1200 animal species, and 600 plant species here? And the world's only fresh water seals. Scientist are unsure how the seals got here, though perhaps via rivers form the Arctic during prehistoric times. And 75% of these plants and animals can only be
found here. Some of the lake's fish can survive to a depth of a mile. Maybe they explode when they come up to the surface? Yes, they do!
The Baikal seal
Other interesting facts are Baikal's claim as the largest volume of fresh water in the world, at 23,000 cubic km, or one-fifth of all the fresh water in the world. Now that is a frightening thought, since Russia also has so much oil.
The water is clean and pure, with clear vision to a depth of 40 feet. The Lake is 636 km (305 miles) long, and 79 km (49 miles) wide. The coastline runs about 1300 miles. It is the seventh largest lake by surface area (12,248 square miles). More than 300 streams and rivers flow into Lake Baikal, yet only one flows out, the Angara River.
More than half of the water flows in via the Selenga River in the southeast. The only outflow, the Angara, flows from the southwest. The Buryat tribes reside on the eastern side of the lake, raising goats, camels, cattle, and sheep.
Yet Lake Baikal is surrounded by beauty, with mile high snow
capped mountains, still filled with wild animals. And the beautiful, but small villages offer tranquility and self reliance in the remote Siberian taiga. Taiga is the name of the Russian and Canadian forest, the world's largest terrestrial biome. The biome is characterized by coniferous forests consisting of spruces, pines, and larches. The valuable sable thrives in the taiga.
No small wonder that Lake Baikal is visited by few tourists. Maybe that is what has drawn me here. The most popular destination for tourists is Listvyanka, about two hours form my TSR stop in Irkutsk. The northern shore is home to another town, Severobaikalsk. The lake has many islands (27), the most popular and largest is Olkhon (270 square miles), with several villages. Olkhon has deer, brown bear, and birds.
As you might expect, the locals live on a diet primarily of fish, the famous Omul. I have heard many stories of Omul, both fresh, but mostly dried. I look forward to trying it, as I have heard it is tasty. Turns out the roads around the region are filled with women selling warm, freshly smoked fish. It is the main food supply of this area.
During my visit in May, it will be hard to imagine the lake covered with meters of ice for 5 months a year. The freeze begins in November, when the ships head to the safety of the Irkutsk harbor. Back in the winter of 1904-1905, during the Russo-Japanese War, the lake's ice was so thick that the Russians laid rails straight across it to transport supplies to the battlefront in the winter.
A large body of water holds heat much longer than land. This creates a milder climate than the rest of southern Siberia. But the Lake does freeze over between January to May or even June. The water contains very few mineral salts. Oxygen is plentiful even in deeper waters. It would take all of the rivers of the world an entire year to fill Lake Baikal.
For me, I look forward to sights that might not come into one's normal view of Russia. Deep blue waters, fishing villages, tall mountains, and friendly people. The construction of the TSR around the southern end of the lake required 200 bridges, and 33 tunnels.
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