‘The point of Baikal is that it is strange, alien, beautiful’
Eithne Bradley writes about her visit to lake Baikal in the heart of Siberia
The pain was intense. I couldn‘t feel my feet, my arms were burning with cold, and as I looked down, I realised with a horrible swirl of vertigo that I was hanging twenty feet above the ground. And on the gently shelving pebbles, brightly illuminated, there was a sheep‘s skull, clean and whitely grinning up at me. It was unbearable, my breathing was constricted by the burning cold, my head spinning and terrified by the weird, clear depths that stretched below me. And I‘d only been in Lake Baikal for thirty seconds.
It had been a long journey, by train all the way from Estonia, to this strange lake. Most of Russia was flat, green and dull, but on the fifth day I began to notice changes: as the train rocked over Siberia‘s plains, the light changed: the yellow cast in the sunlight cooled and opened out into a rain-washed light of strange clarity.
I was drunk again on arrival in Irkutsk. The pair of Buryat women who were in the process of kidnapping their communal grandson had opened up the moonshine, and had a bunch of wild garlic leaves they were forcing me to eat with salt in between fiery shots. I was thrown off the train at 5am into a thick fog, and completely dazed, spattered with bits of leaf garlic, could not even find my way off the station platform. But this city – lovely, timbered and fairytale though it is – was not my goal. I was going a hundred miles north. Seven hours of being bumped around over the unpaved roads, as gradually the forest gave way to soft open fields of blue-grey grass under a matching sky. Seven hours of stopping off in Soviet ghost towns to deliver post and find out if the inhabitants were still alive. Seven hours of remixed Buryat pop before we struggled over the peak of a bleak mountain pass, looked down, and saw the sea stretching right to the horizon, lost in a cold mist.
It wasn‘t the sea, of course. It was Baikal, geological oddity of Asia: over a mile deep, seven degrees Celsius, and absolutely teeming with life. Unlike similar lakes, such as Tanganyika and Victoria, it supports life because it‘s too cold for the toxins, which make its sister lakes too acid for anything to live there, to react with one another. How very Russian. Meanwhile, a curious species of microscopic crustacean filters the water, which makes it so clear that vertigo is the swimmer‘s problem, as the lake bottom is often visible up to forty feet down.
It is home to thousands of species found no-where else, ranging from seals to fish and invertebrates of extraordinary design, in order to cope with the cold. Weird species of fatty, blind-eyed fish turn up on the menu at Nikita‘s place on Olkhon Island, where we decided to spend a couple of days. Nikita‘s is a kind of pine-wood hippy commune overrun by dogs and feral children, where all the guests eat together at scrubbed board tables under traditional Russian folk sayings cut out of – yes, more pine wood – and nailed to the walls. Porridge, especially with local berries, turns up with depressing regularity, even at dinner. There is nowhere else to eat in this tiny village on Olkhon Island, unless you count Bounty bars from the post office. There is also very little to do of an organised variety, unless you really enjoy more bumping about on paved roads to go and see a sacred rock three hours away. But that is not the point of Baikal.
The point of Baikal is that it is alien, strange, beautiful. The light is indescribable: bluish, greyish, clear to the point of hurting human eyes. The high mountains rise up on the opposite side of the lake, utterly inhospitable, a wilderness. There is a mesmerising quality to the water and its reflections; I could have sat on the tall cliff beside Nikita‘s and watched the strangely still lake until only the moon lit it. When the moon sets, we are so far from the lights of a city that the galaxy above looks faintly pink, and there are so many stars that the sky seems frosted.
There is a sense here of being at the very edge, not only of the modern world, but of the human world, where the scope for the weird and dare I say it, the magical, is wider and clearer, like the sky. At every fork in the path, on every tree by the wayside, people have tied bright ribbons, the outward traces of the shamanist religion that the Soviets tried to repress, but failed. While sending head shamans to the Gulag worked in the Thirties, later the government found the nomadic Buryats resistant to collectivization and modernisation, so they gave up and left them mostly alone. Finding a shrine like this may be a sudden reminder of human beings, but I found it more unsettling: it is difficult, in a place so remote – so other – not to feel on the very edge of human knowledge – half in, half out of the wilderness, the spirit world.
Speaking of spirits, on the last evening, we went down and sat on the shore with a bot-tle of vodka and a guitar. Russians and tourists of every nationality set about the only Beatles songs they knew. The moon rose, huge and bright, reflected on the black water. Gradually, people left until there were only four of us sitting round the embers of a fire, which was when a Buryat man, a stranger, joined us and without introduction, began to tell us a story about the Old Man who allegedly lives in the depths of the lake, con-trolling its moods. ‗The Old Man didn‘t like the Russians,‘ he said, ‗all wanting to find out everything. How can they think they can know everything? They all came from Moscow with depth-charges and plumb lines and nets. Well, I was on a scientific boat once when I was young. It was twilight and they were hauling up the nets, when we saw – what do you think it was? – a golden sphere, rushing about in the water. The Russians dropped the nets and shouted. I was happy, because the net fell back in, and all the fish escaped, and the Old Man was happy, be-cause the Russians left. And when we came back to Olkhon, we found there were holes in the hull of the boat.‘ He stopped for a moment, and smiled. ‗Old Man wouldn‘t let the Russians look. And now look at the Russians, eh?’
The moon looked faintly golden as we made our way back over the cliff path. It was a fitting end to our time at Baikal, whose unruffled wilderness stretched out into the night, beautiful and inhuman, right to those hills, frozen and dreaming in the Siberian darkness.
Article & Photograph: Eithne Bradley