To help me describe my recent whereabouts, I have taken an excerpt from a fictional novel. Clive and Dirk Cussler’s Treasure of Khan briefly visits the area where I recently stood.
The still waters of the world’s deepest lake radiate the deep translucent blue of a polished sapphire. Fed by cold ancient streams that are free of silt and sediments, Lake Baikal possessed remarkably crystalline clear waters. A tiny crustacean, Baikal epishura, aids the cause by devouring algae and plankton growths that degrade most freshwater lakes. The combination produces such a stunning clarity to the water that on a calm day, a silver coin can be seen from the surface at a one-hundred-foot depth.
Surrounded by craggy snowcapped peaks to the north and dense taiga forests of birch, larch, and pine to the south, the ” Blue Pearl of Siberia” stretch as a beacon of beauty across an otherwise hostile landscape. Situated in the dead center of lower Siberia, the four-hundred-mile-long crescent-shaped lake curved south to north just above the border of Mongolia. A massive body of water, Lake Baikal is nearly a mile deep in some spots and holds one-fifth of all the fresh water on the planet, more than all of North America’s Great Lakes combined. Just a few small fishing villages dot the lake’s shore, leaving the enormous lake a nearly vacant sea of tranquillity. Only at its southern end does the lake sprawl toward any significant population centres. Itkutsk , a modestly hip city to halg a million Siberian residents, sits forty -five miles west, while the ancient city of Ulan-Ude lies a short distance from the eastern shoreline.
My experience with Lake Baikal, although not quite as dramatic as the characters of Clive’s book was equally memorable. The difference being that Lake Baikal was frozen at the time and rather than set sail upon the crystal clear but frigid waters of Lake Baikal, instead I witnessed the 8th Annual Lake Baikal Ice Marathon.
This race is not for the feint of heart and having walked 11 km of the course was enough to convince me that I would probably never run the marathon. After 11km’s of walking in clunky snow boots, my hip was already protesting. Granted, if I had have trained for such an event, it may have been different. Who knows, perhaps one day I may be enticed to do the half-marathon (21km), since I walked half that distance anyhow. Hydrofoil or hover craft is a convenient means of navigating the expanse of ice which covers the surface of Lake Baikal in the winter and in the summer these crafts navigate is waters. I shall never forget the crunch of the snow beneath my feet, the sparkling snow on the thick ice of Lake Baikal and the sunshine which shone bright and clear, although low in the sky for the event. With my own eyes I saw the mountains of which Cussler speaks and the birch trees in their winter state, stripped of their leaves for a season baring beautiful spotted white bark. It was white as far as the eye could see and there was no place where you could stand where you could see from shore to shore. My admiration for the marathon runners was increased as I stood 30 kilometres along the race path and all I could see was a stretch of while snow with a path disappearing into the distance. The mental fortitude one has to have to keep going along such a route is something to be admired.
The half-marathon winner happened to be Andrew Grenfell, who I had had the pleasure of spending time with prior to the race while I was on my travels through Siberia. He not only won the half-marathon distance but went on to finish the full marathon distance too, which was 42 km. Andrew shared his knowledge of Russia and the language with me as well as many laughs. We share some vocabulary that is only shared by those of us who grew up either in Britain or in one of her colonies. In the end he was as good as an honorary Canadian, but since I have no authority to make it so, it is in friendly sentiment only.
Not only did I find international friends there, but I also found the local people to be friendly and hospitable. The grandeur of Lake Baikal really is something that the locals are proud of. The smell of smoked fish and a small salmonid called “Omul” (Coregonus autumnalis migratorius) will always remain a memory of Listvyanka on the shores of this truly great Lake.