The Pearl of Siberia
It’s known as The Pearl of Siberia. Really, it’s the pearl of planet Earth.
As much as I’ve traveled and as much as I’ve seen, only a handful of places have struck such a lasting chord with me. Lake Baikal, or “Ozero Baikal” as the Russians pronounce it, is one of those places. Holding 20% of the planet’s freshwater supply, Lake Baikal is the oldest, deepest, and among the clearest lakes in the world. It’s also drop dead gorgeous, and when I first saw it in 2011 I knew just one visit wouldn’t be nearly enough.
A trip of a lifetime
Dazzling though it may be, Baikal is wholly, harshly Siberia. Getting here is worthy of “trip of a lifetime” status, even for most Russians. To state the obvious, there’s quite a lot of land in Russia, and Lake Baikal is far from everything.
Besides geography, there’s also the climate. The air is crisp throughout most of the year. While the chill is moderated somewhat by the massive lake, winter weather is just as cold and isolating as Baikal’s lonely geographic positioning suggests. To the uninitiated, “cold” does not even begin to describe the experience. A Siberian winter is different. Rather than being simply cold or chilly, a Siberian winter is the utter, complete absence of heat, warmth, or comfort.
A different kind of travel experience…
Given the climate and remote location, it should be plainly obvious that this is no ordinary travel experience. In Listvyanka, Baikal’s main tourist town, the charred aroma of burning firewood continually envelops you as smoke rises from every chimney. Dogs bark repeatedly in protest of such unearthly temperatures; their sounds pierce quickly the frozen air, attenuated only slightly by the snow and ice which encases the area beginning as early as October.
A visit to beautiful Lake Baikal is visually stunning, yet physically challenging and mentally draining.
Why we travel
You can easily visit in summer and avoid all that, but you most certainly should not. An off season visit is a fascinating, welcome dislocation from everything which is comfortable and everything that is familiar. After all, do we not travel to see something different? Isn’t the whole point to place yourself in the middle of something foreign, not just in the cultural and geographical sense, but also to experience an unfamiliar climate in the height of it’s dissimilarity? And what lessons can we learn from witnessing firsthand how people not just survive, but thrive in the face of such challenges?
It’s an education through experience that can’t be taught in a classroom. My visits to Baikal have put Siberia on the map for me as an actual place, subzero weather and all, rather than some general idea of “siberia.”