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"The Pole Of Baikal Enchanted In Ice"

 

Introduction

Imagine a glistening, utterly smooth vein of milky quartz 395 miles long and 50 miles wide, set amid dense, mountainous forests: Baikal in winter. “A primordial deep lake of diamantine clarity,” as Peter Matthiessen wrote in Baikal: Sacred Lake of Siberia, it is, among other things, the world’s oldest lake and the deepest, at 5750 feet at its lowest, with an additional four miles of sediment above the bedrock. The great Baikal Rift—by far the deepest depression on the planet—is seven times as deep as the Grand Canyon. It is also the most voluminous, holding an astounding 20 percent of the world’s fresh water—if all the world’s rivers were to drain into an empty Baikal, it would take a year to fill. And, to cap off the superlatives, it’s unquestionably the most interesting, with its crystal clear water and 100,000 freshwater seals, called nerpa, that inhabit its northern waters, in the middle of a vast continent! Baikal is surely the most hugely beautiful lake in the solar system.

“Baikal,” writes Yevgeny Yevtushenko, “is the blue heart of Siberia, pulsing amidst the green ocean of the taiga.” On this journey we’ll explore the lake in its bracingly cold solitude, visiting tiny wooden hamlets set by the shore, staying in boutique hotels and private homes, ice fishing, troika riding and perhaps even some dog-sledding, and of course walking joyously on the frozen surface of the world’s deepest and perhaps most ardently loved lake. As Baikal’s laureate, Valentin Rasputin, has written, “Baikal itself, alive, majestic . . . not comparable to anything and not repeated anywhere, is aware of its own primordial place and its own life force.”

This tour is offered by world famous Geographic Expeditions, US ( (a pioneer of travel to remote and challenging destinations since 1982 – www.geoex.com) ,that’s why accompanying you will be a life force of his own, the great environmentalist and practical visionary Huey Johnson, a great, zesty companion, perhaps the leading American proponent of green plans, a guy who founded the Resource Renewal Institute, the Trust for Public Land, the Grand Canyon Trust, the Environmental Liaison Center in Nairobi, Defense of Place, and the Aldo Leopold Society and who is the recipient of the President’s Award for Sustainable Development and the UN’s top environmental honor, the Sasakawa Prize. Despite all those laurels, Huey is a simpatico guy, a great fellow to wander with at the world’s greatest lake.

The Itinerary Description

Days 1 & 2 - Wednesday & Thursday, March 16 & 17
USA TO MOSCOW

 Depart from your hometown, arriving in Moscow in the evening of Day 2 where you will be met by our leaders and transferred as a group to the hotel. (Geographic Expeditions can make your airline reservations for you—please call Air Department of Geographocal Expeditions for a quote).

Now is a fascinating time to visit Russia. Change has been flooding the country and Moscow is as dynamic as any modern city. The nerve center of this massive land is the Kremlin, sitting “like the sovereign crown on the brow of a stern ruler,” as Lermontov wrote in 1834. Just walking in Red Square is a riveting experience—vast, crowded, and almost mountainous in its grandeur. On one side are the cliffs of the Kremlin with Lenin’s ominous Mausoleum at the foot, on the other side the cavernous G.U.M. department store, the former USSR’s largest, and on the eastern entrance to the square, the iconic St. Basil’s Cathedral. “In looking at this impossible church,” wrote Theophile Gautier, “one is tempted to ask if it is not a whimsical will-o’-the wisp, an edifice formed of clouds fantastically colored by the sun, which the movement of the air will presently cause to change in form, or vanish into nothingness.” St. Basil’s was deemed so ethereal that, according to legend, Ivan the Terrible had its architects blinded so they could never again build anything so wondrous.

Standard Rooms, Hotel Metropol (no meals)

Day 3 - Friday, March 18
MOSCOW TO IRKUTSK

After a late breakfast, we check out of our hotel and take a guided tour of the city’s highlight, the Kremlin, walking through 600 years of Russian and Soviet history. We visit its three cathedrals: the exquisite 15th century Assumption Cathedral, completed in 1479 by the Bolognese architect Aristotle Fioravanti, the Annunciation Cathedral built only a decade earlier, and Archangel Cathedral, coronation site of the Tsars and burial site for several of them. These cathedrals serve as a vivid and rich reminder of old Russia’s mystic devotion. The Assumption Cathedral is a synthesis of traditional Russian architectural styles, though its classical proportions mark it as a work of the Italian Renaissance; it was the first instance of foreign architecture in the country. The Kremlin complex also contains gardens, bell towers, palaces and churches, as well as the Palace of Congresses, built in 1961. We also visit the extraordinary Armory and the Diamond Exhibition where the jewels owned and worn by Russian royalty over the years are on display.  In the late afternoon we drive to the airport for our overnight flight to Irkutsk.

Overnight in flight (B,L,in-flight snack)

Day 4 - Saturday, March 19
IRKUTSK

We arrive early in the morning in Irkutsk, the capital of Irkutsk Oblast (territory) and one of the most important cities of Siberia. After breakfast and a morning rest at our hotel, we spend the afternoon touring this halfway point between Moscow and the easternmost point of Siberia. Although the Irkutsk Oblast is but a small segment of Siberia, it is as large as Switzerland, France, Holland, Belgium, Austria, and Denmark combined. Siberia alone boasts six million square miles and fantastically varied topography including mountains, endless steppes, Arctic tundra, great stands of virgin forests, volcanoes, high plateaus, vast rivers, and lakes filled with game fish. Four large rivers—the Lena, Kitoy, Irkut, and Angara—keep most of the Irkutsk Oblast lush with forests and link many villages and cities. 

Founded in 1651, Irkutsk started as a small settlement on the banks of the Angara and Irkut rivers and by the end of the 17th century it had become the capital of East Siberia. In the early years, Irkutsk was home to a variety of peoples: Cossacks, tradesman, artisans, deportees, Buryats and peasants, all of whom have left a lasting imprint on the flavor of modern-day Irkutsk. Along the famous Tea Road from Kalgan, China to Europe, Irkutsk was a resting stop for the numerous caravans. As commerce grew, Irkutsk bustled from the tea, silk, timber, gold, salt and fur trades. Yet in 1879 a massive three-day fire razed the city, destroying homes, schools, libraries, churches, orphanages and archives. The city was quickly rebuilt and by the end of the 19th century again claimed itself as a hub for the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Today, the Paris of Siberia is a cosmopolitan city and the trading and administrative center of Eastern Siberia.

Our first excursion is to the old part of town, which still has a collection of tumbledown wooden houses, and to Znamenskaya monastery where many 19th century exiles from Moscow and St. Petersburg lie buried in the churchyard. Znamenskaya is also noted for its historical grave of the so-called “Russian Columbus,” Grigory Shelekhov, who was an early Russian explorer of Alaska, and the graves of the Decembrists revolutionaries who were named to Siberia after an ill-fated attempt in 1825 to overthrow the Russian tsar.

After lunch, we have a special opportunity to visit the Baikal Environmental Wave Center and have a private meeting with its co-chair Marina Rikhvanova, the 2008 Goldman Environmental prize winner for Asia. Marina Rikhvanova and the organization she helped found have successfully fought against industrial pollution at Lake Baikal, halting construction of a petroleum pipeline along the shores of the lake. The organization is currently trying to prevent the storage of radioactive nuclear material at a nearby facility. Learn from Marina about current environmental threats to Baikal and discuss the Wave’s efforts to combat them. Marina Rekhvanova will join us for our welcome dinner tonight is at a Russian restaurant specializing in local fare, followed by a Russian folklore performance.

Victoria Hotel (B,L,D)

Day 5 - Sunday, March 20
IRKUTSK TO LISTVYANKA

After breakfast, we check out of the hotel for departure by coach to the Listvyanka settlement, located on Lake Baikal at the mouth of the Angara River (the lake’s only outlet). Our drive takes us along the Irkutsk-Baikal road, which was constructed almost 50 years ago in preparation for President Eisenhower’s visit. The President was invited to visit the lake because of his Siberian gold merchant ancestry. After the shooting of an American U-2 spy plane, however, the President’s visit was canceled.

En route we stop to explore the Museum of Wooden Architecture, located half-way between Listvyanka and Irkutsk. Illustrating the lifestyles of 16th to 19th century Russians, this museum displays various aspects of village life, the interiors of a Russian fort and 15th century watchtower, information about the Buryat and Evenk people, and a Shaman yurt.

Our first glimpse of Lake Baikal occurs near Shaman Rock before we reach Listvyanka. We’ll stop here to listen to the legend of “Father Baikal and his disobedient daughter Angara” recounted by our guide before continuing on to the charming little village of Listvyanka, an old-style Siberian village famous for its trade history. In the 18th century its ferry took merchants across the lake on the journey to Mongolia, China, and the Russian Far East.

A cozy Russian hotel awaits us in Listvyanka; after check-in we enjoy the first of many excellently prepared Russian country feasts. Lunch is followed by a visit to the Baikal Limnological Museum, which features one-of-a-kind exhibits on the flora and fauna of Lake Baikal and an aquarium where several Baikal freshwater seals live. Let’s also visit the old wooden church of St. Nicholas, where you can burn a candle as a blessing for your safe and successful journey. If time allows, the next stop is the Baikal Solar Station, where we meet local scientists and discuss their conservation efforts.

Baikal Terema Hotel or similar (B,L,D)

Day 6 - Monday, March 21
LISTVYANKA

Baikal lies along a tectonic break surrounded by mountains and rocky, tree-covered cliffs. Its banks rise to 1600 feet above sea level, and the mountains surrounding it boast over 9000 feet. Lake Baikal’s water is crystal clear—a white sheet thrown into it can be clearly seen at a depth of 120 feet. Scientists still disagree on how the omul, a white fish of the salmon family, as well as the sea cows and seals (all typically salt water sea life), reached Baikal from the sea.
The origins of the name Baikal are unknown. Some say the water’s living radiance contrasted the immense taiga’s trees, giving rise to the name “rich fire,” a combination of the Mongolian words Bai and gal. The Buryat baigal-dalai means “natural sea.” In Yakut, bai kel is “Rich lake.” To the Chinese Baikal was pe hai, “Northern Ocean.”

We spend the day enjoying the exceptional natural setting of the region and partaking in some of Russia’s traditional outdoor pastimes including dog-sledding and a troika ride. A traditional Russian banya, or sauna, serves as the perfect end to this active day, once we’ve sampled a variety of traditional Siberian cuisine including smoked and salted omul.
 

Baikal Terema Hotel or similar (B,L,D)

Day 7 - Tuesday, March 22
LISTVYANKA TO BUGULDEIKA VIA BOLSHIE KOTY

This morning we board the “Khivus”, our air cushioned amphibious vessel (ACV), to begin sightseeing on Baikal. We travel across the thick frozen lake ice to our first stop, Bolshie Koty, and visit the local biological research station of Irkutsk University. A local Baikal specialist named Lyubov Izmestyeva, whose family of scientists has done research on Baikal for three generations, teaches us about life in and around the lake. The data this single family has collected may be the world’s most extensive historical record of the area. 

From Boshie Koty we carry on to Peschanaya (“Sandy”) Bay, oft-referred to as the Siberian Riviera due to its extended periods of sunshine. Upon arrival in Peschanaya Bay we enjoy a guided walk to take in the panoramic views of the taiga forest and one of the lake’s natural wonders, the so-called “wandering trees.” The trees’ roots are exposed by winds which blow away the sand so that the trees stand high above the beach—in some cases almost 6 feet above. Their position shifts slightly each year as a result of the blowing winds and sandy soil, allowing the nickname Wandering Trees. We will also have lunch on the ice and if weather conditions are optimal we may stop here for some ice fishing lessons.

After lunch we board our Khivus to reach the final stop of the day, the village of Buguldeika, where we overnight in our cozy, rustic riverside “lodge”. Accommodations here are simple, but the fresh, home-cooked Russian meals, spectacular setting, and hot Russian banya all make it worthwhile.

Riverside Estate Lodge (B,L,D)

Day 8 - Wednesday, March 23
BUGULDEIKA TO OLKHON ISLAND

After breakfast we have a leisurely morning to enjoy our surroundings and the opportunity to ice skate on the river if we wish. After lunch, it’s on to the Khuzhir settlement on Olkhon Island, the largest and only permanently inhabited island on the lake. En route we stop to see the famous Tsagan Zaba White Marble Cliffs and observe the petroglyphs that date back more than 2500 years with scenes from the lives of shamanistic believers. The famous Russian anthropologist Okladnikov called these petroglyphs “the Pearls of ancient art.” There’s plenty of time for an up-close inspection.

World renowned academician A.P. Okladnikov strongly impressed by ancient rock drawings of the Tsagaan Zaba white marble cliffs once he first saw them had said:” Rock Art in Tsagaan – Zaba Bay is a unique phenomenon among the others incised drawings of Siberia. Petroglyphs in Sagaan – Zaba are genuine pearls of ancient art and that of Siberian peoples. There is nothing matching them anywhere else from the Urals to the Pacific ocean”. Unfortunately, the future of this historical evidence is endangered. First, the monks of Posolsky monastery bewitching the demon power of Tsagaan Zaba inscribed two crosses on the ancient drawings. Then a number of rock drawings were damaged by later signs (1898, 1913, 1943). And only by some chance fluke was the rock saved from destruction when in its immediate vicinity marble was mined by detonation. And later the sign “A.V. Pervushin, 1966” destroyed several valuable drawings. That A.V. Pervushin, perhaps, was unable to realize what he really had done, but there’s no excuse for him - by his own hand he added his name into the history of vulgarity and vandalism…

Our next destination is Olkhon Island. Divided lengthways, one half of this narrow island is covered in forest and the other in steppe, a landscape that defines much of Siberia. En route we wind through the “Small Sea”, part of Lake Baikal sandwiched between the mainland shore and the island’s eastern shore. Time permitting, we may be able to visit the small island of Ogoy—site of the lake’s only Buddhist stupa. At more than 32 feet high, the stupa holds 2.5 tons of Buddhist mantras and 1,543 pounds of holy Buddhist books that were brought from Nepal. The Ogoy stupa recently became a site for Buddhist pilgrimages. 

Upon arrival in Khuzhir, we check in to the guesthouse, our home for the next 3 days. After dinner, our local guides—passionate ice-fisherman—introduce some ice-fishing secrets on how to catch Baikal’s famed fish: grayling, perch and the endemic omul.

Nikita Bencharov homestead (B,L,D)

Day 9 - Thursday, March 24
OLKHON ISLAND  - The Baikal Kamchantka Ice Fishing Prize!

Breakfast is followed by a morning of ice fishing , during which we set up near our “kamchatka”, or traditional omul group fishing area, where tents and huts perch on the ice over long-established fishing spots. We learn about the local methods of attracting fish by the use of shrimp bait called “burmash”. Fishermen drop large amounts of the burmash in order to entice the omul to feed under their ice-holes. Watch—and participate if you choose—in the ice-hole drilling with promises of local rewards for the fastest driller. Our fishing ground will be not far from the shore and a bit less accessible to the less-dedicated fishermen. The entire fishing shall be a kind of “Cool Fisherman” competition (the more fish you have caught regardless of its size and weight the better). Before lunch the fishing shall be stopped and the result of the competition summed up, and winners will be rewarded..
After warming up over lunch, our explorations of Olkhon take us to a holy place of Lake Baikal—the Shamanka craig rock, or Shaman rocks, which is reached by an easy walk through Khuzhir village. Afterwards we enjoy a traditional Siberian banya (steam sauna).

Nikita Bencharov homestead (B,L,D)

 “Kamchatka Ice Fishing on Lake Baikal”
Lake Baikal ice fishing is a distinctive art, and instruction and some practice are needed to hook and land a fish. Omul-fish cruise about halfway between bottom and ice in 25-meter deep waters, travel in small (or large) schools, and will bite a small hooked shrimp lure when it is bounced and bobbed appropriately from above. Each ice-fishing rig is a foot-long wooden stick with a V- shaped notch at each end and wound end to end with 25-30 meters of nylon line. Four or five lures are attached to the line near its end which is completed with a moderate sinker and a lower lure, for insurance. The line is lowered into the ice hole approximately 12 meters - that is, to the depth at which the omul are biting, and jigged up and down constantly while trying to adjust the depth to find the fish. Barbless hooks are used to keep the line from fouling on itself during the two-handed retrieving which results in the classic windmill motion of the successful Baikal ice fisherman. In the lucky instance when an omul tugs at a lure, the fisherman begins a sharp and rapid retrieval of line and fish from the depths. This is done by alternately dipping the free hand and the stick under the line near the hole with arms spread to effect a wide loop and rapidly wrapping the line around both hands. The string of small lures comes last and is wrapped over the line already retrieved, and finally the omul is pulled through the ice to the admiring comments of the team. The fish is flipped away from the hole, the sinker is returned to the water, and the line is unreeled into the hole by alternately dipping hand or stick towards the hole while maintaining tension between the arms so that the loops of line stay neatly on each hand. Freeing the dangling hooks from the skein of line as this is done takes a bit of practice - as does taking in the line properly. When done by an expert in the kamchatka this is a rapid, effective, and graceful procedure. From shore, those resting and eating can tell right away when the heavy biting is in progress as five, ten or more men begin waving arms violently in the air simultaneously and the addictive rush of omul adrenaline sets in, canceling the effects of hours of standing in the chilling wind on the frozen lake. – John Forster,1999
As for the Harius ( grayling) fishing, it is done in more shallow water (6-8 meters) and involves dangling a burmash lure 15 cm above the bottom and hoping for results.

Day 10 - Friday, March 25
OLKHON ISLAND

Today we set out for an excursion around the island, first driving to the northernmost point, the Cape of Khoboy (translation: “fang”). The Cape is located at the widest point of Lake Baikal and offers the best views of the Eastern and Western shores. For the local shamanist believers, the site is a sacred spot. 

Afterwards we board our ACVs to go back on the ice, this time in search of the famed freshwater seals of Baikal, the nerpa, the only freshwater seals in the world. With luck, we can find them in their natural habitat. How the freshwater seal came to be in Lake Baikal is still a mystery; the lake is hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean.

Now for the day’s highlight: a visit on the ice to the “Baikal Polar Spot” or to the Great Pole of Baikal located above the deepest point of the lake (at 5435 feet). Here we are met by Bashiila, the President of the Oriel Shamanistic Fund and a local hereditary shaman. Known locally as “Uncle Vasya”, Bashiila demonstrates a traditional ritualistic ceremony devoted to the deities of Lake Baikal and honoring the health of the earth.
We return to the guesthouse for our farewell to Baikal dinner.

Nikita Bencharov homestead (B,L,D)

“Once when we went to Khoboi, the northernmost point of Olkhon Island…I was offered to visit the Virgin Cave. I followed their advice and was awarded with a unique sight. The entrance was adorned with an ornament of ice crystals and icicles, inside there were “crystal chandeliers”, fantastically congealing in the blue twilight. Pristine silence reigned in the mysterious cave. It was a bit harder to get into smaller caves. Ice outgrowth entirely covering all the cliffs hid a number of grottoes. To get inside one should lie down on the ice and crawl under the hanging icicles and hemlocks. If succeeding in doing so, you will find yourself in the other world filled with ghostly blue light and crystal pearls. It is an enchanting sight, indeed! Sitting with our back to the rock (it was not always possible to be to our full height) we enjoyed light tinges on the ice crystals being perfectly aware that no film could convey it....”– Alexander Aristarkhov.

Day 11 - Saturday, March 26
OLKHON ISLAND TO IRKUTSK VIA UST-ORDA

This morning we say goodbye to the island and set out for Ust-Ordat. Several sightseeing stops en route include a visit to an “ovoo” (or “obo”), another sacred site of worship for local shamanist believers.

In Ust-Orda, activities include a visit to the Buryat Ethnography Museum followed by a Buryat folklore performance. Buryats are a native Siberian people whose history and culture closely relate to that of their southern Mongolian neighbors. We also explore a Buryat shamanistic center—the traditional wooden yurt home of the shaman¬—and sample some of the Buryat national cuisine including salamt, arza, and tarasun moonshine. Bashiila will speak to us about the philosophy, religion and culture of the local Buryat people and their traditional conservation practices, describe the shaman practice and altar, and perform a short ritual in honor of travelers and local spirits. We continue back to Irkutsk to check in to our hotel and enjoy our toast-filled farewell dinner.
 

 

Victoria Hotel (B,L,D)

Day 12 - Sunday, March 27
IRKUTSK TO MOSCOW

The morning’s breakfast is followed by transfer to the airport and a flight back to the capital. Upon arrival in Moscow, we drive directly to lunch for our final Russian meal before checking in to the hotel and enjoying the rest of the day at our leisure for some last-minute gift shopping, explorations or rest before tomorrow’s early morning departure.

Standard Rooms, Hotel Metropol (B,L)

Day 13 - Monday, March 28
DEPART MOSCOW

Early this morning transfer as a group to the airport for the return flight to the USA. Geographic Expeditions’ land arrangements conclude here.

(B)

“Khivus” Hovercraft is state of the art Air Cushioned Vehicle (ACV) designed for year round use, suitable to most terrains and diverse weather conditions, the ideal amphibian for passenger transportation, search and rescue including on thin ice operations, ecologic survey, geologic exploration and expeditions, marine law enforcement. Controllability features of Khivus ACV such as reliable air cushion design ensure safety of operations and increase the vehicle’s maneuvering.
Other Specifications:
- The ACV can go over shallow waters, marches, ice, deep snow and broken ice, uneven surfaces.
- original provides high level of safety thanks to increased and stability;
- noise-reduced propeller;
Displacement – 1670 kg, Seating capacity – 10 pax, Cruising speed by water – 50 kph (max. 70kph);over snow – 70 kph (max. 100 kph);Hill climbing ability – 6 degree; Riding distance -400 km;

A Note on the Trip Grade, Fitness Level & Accommodations

This trip is graded rigorous touring with limited facilities. This itinerary takes us to one of the most remote parts of Siberia in Russia. We feel part of the joy of travel in this area is its special quality of seclusion; however, participants should be aware that amenities outside of Moscow are rustic or sparse at best. Please take note of the following limitations:
• Hotels used are the best available and range from 5-star in Moscow to 3-star accommodations in Irkutsk and unrated basic guesthouses on Lake Baikal.
• The air cushioned amphibious vessels (ACVs) traveling on Lake Baikal will accommodate our group but it will be close quarters.
• The Buguldeika Riverside Estate Lodge does not have private showers or toilet facilities. There is one toilet and a Russian banya (spa) to be shared by the entire group for this night.
• We cannot guarantee single accommodations outside of Moscow on this program. If you are a single traveler you may need to share a room with another traveler from our group at Lake Baikal.
• The Nikita Bencharov homestead offers in-room bio-toilets. Bathing facilities consist of a Russian banya (spa) but there are no showers operating in the winter time. There is a separate lounge/dining room.
• Roads may be rough and bumpy at times.
• Hikes are short to moderate in length, ranging in lengths up to 2 hours, at low elevations, occasionally traversing uneven terrain and up steep hillsides. Anyone who is reasonably fit and active should be able to handle these hikes without difficulty.
• Some site visits will require traversing uneven snow- or ice-covered terrain such as gravel or cobblestone streets as well as walking up and down often narrow stairways, or up hillsides.
• Mid-March in Siberia is still winter and average temperatures range from 5 to 35 degrees Fahrenheit. Much of our activities are outdoors in the open elements. Those considering taking this tour should weigh these conditions in light of their own physical fitness before joining this trip. 

Be prepared to encounter odd plumbing, mediocre meals, a lack of hot water, an occasional power outage, lack of public toilets, and varying—though pleasant—service in the Irkutsk/Baikal region. An adventurous spirit, open mind and sense of humor will more than compensate for the potential inconveniences of traveling in rewarding but challenging regions such as this.

NOTE 2: During the dates of March,27-28,2013, there’s Siberia’s only Ice Golf Tournament “Baikal Prize Open” held on Lake Baikal. Those tour participants who want to see it or even take part Geographic Expeditions can offer an 3 days extension trip.


 

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