Lake Baikal (Байкал)

June-July 2012

If you are going to Russia, make absolutely sure that you see Lake Baikal. When I say there is nothing at all like it in the world, I am not using hyperbole. I'm being quite serious. On statistics alone, the Siberian lake is the largest freshwater lake in the world, holding 20% of it in the world, and is the only known place to have freshwater seals. But that information just scratches the surface on how special of a place this is. I'll now try to do my best to describe my experience, but sometimes words can do it justice.

Lake Baikal has a special importance to me because it was my very first solo backpacking trip back in the summer of 2012. I was still a college student at the time, looking for some type of summer work or internship related to the outdoors when I stumbled across a volunteer program based out of Irkutsk, Russia called Большая Байкалская Тропа (Great Baikal Trail). In summary, it was an organization that had you camp out in tents on the shore of Baikal for a few weeks while you helped construct an environmentally friendly hiking trail. I already had a fascination with Russia at this point, taking several classes in the Russian Department in my university, had just received a Mellon research grant, and basically just thought this whole idea was awesome, so I decided to go all in and apply to be a volunteer.

 First arrival on shore

First arrival on shore

 Like an ocean!

Like an ocean!

I had a few ideas of what it would all be like prior to arriving, but when I ultimately got to that remote location on the shores of this gigantic Siberian lake, I was in absolute awe. I cannot think of any other way to put it, but the lake, to me, seemed like an ocean. The water was clear and blue like glass reflecting a cloudless sky and the surrounding area was full of mountains and covered in every shade of green imaginable. Aside from the nearby park ranger, Dima, who lived about five kilometers (just over three miles) away, the whole area was relatively untouched by modern civilization. There was no electricity, no running water, no wifi, no buildings and no roads. There was just the land, the lake, and our mini portable tents for sleeping. We cooked all of our food from a campfire that we made and got our drinking water from the lake (which turned out to be clean and safe enough for human consumption).

 Rural village

Rural village

 Amazing wandering weirdos

Amazing wandering weirdos

In total, I spent just over two weeks working the land with a pickaxe and shovel alongside some of the most interesting people I've ever met. Surprise surprise, apparently the lure of lake Baikal was able to collect a group of eight odd wanderers from diverse backgrounds, all looking for the next bizarre and exciting adventure. On our days off, we hiked to rural villages, inaccessible by roads, used Dima's banya (similar to a sauna but involves you hitting each other with birch branches), and even attempted to take a swim in the lake, which being only 5C degrees (38F) still haunts me to this day.

The point I am trying to make here is that this whole place is not just unique to Russia, but unique to the entire planet. There is literally nothing else like it anywhere, and nothing can mimic the experience of actually going there. As for me, I know I'll remember this experience for the rest of my life, and given the chance, I'd go back in a heartbeat.