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Exploring the Culture and Nature of Lake Baikal

 Introduction                                                                                                                    

Lake Baikal - "Mother Baikal" to Russia's ancient Buddhist peoples, "Pearl of Siberia" to others who live near her - is well known, both as a sacred symbol and natural gem. Four thousand times older than North America's Great Lakes, Baikal holds 22% of the world's available fresh water. If Baikal was empty and all of the planet's major rivers drained into it - the Nile, Amazon, Mississippi, Danube, and numerous others combined -- it would take over a year for the lake to be filled.

Lake Baikal is home to the world's only fresh water seal - locally called "the nerpa". Believed to have descended from the Arctic Ocean over 800,000 years ago, the nerpa has since claimed Lake Baikal as its own. With no natural predators other than humans, the seals are precious living symbols of the lake's uniqueness.

Sustainable tourism is slowly growing and is becoming an effective tool in fighting poaching and pollution of Lake Baikal. On nature viewing tours like the one below we do hire local people, enroll them as local guides, pay fees to national parks and nature preserves, pay the rangers for our visit to Ushkanyi Islands to observe fresh water seals etc. In other words, local communities start realizing that in the long run they will benefit more from keeping the wild life around them alive than by destroying it …

The Itinerary Description

Day 1, Tuesday
Depart to Moscow, Russia.

Day 2, Wednesday
Moscow
Upon arrival in Moscow, go through customs and transfer to Hotel National, located on one of the most famous squares in all of Russia, Red Square. Enjoy a late afternoon walk along Red Square and a visit St. Basil's Cathedral and the nearby GUM. You'll have an evening champagne reception and after a great Russian dinner a briefing on your upcoming trip to fascinating Lake Baikal.
D Hotel National

Day 3, Thirsday
Moscow
After a relaxing breakfast, depart for a half day city tour before you return to the airport for your flight to Irkutsk. We drive through Moscow's major streets and thoroughfares; stately Tsverskaya Street, lively New Arbat Street and the elegant Kutuzovsky Prospect. Along the way, you stop at Moscow's principle attractions: Novodeyvichsy Convent, the Bolshoi Theater, Gorky Park and at Moscow's University, perched high on Sparrow Hills, where you enjoy a panoramic view of the city. Enjoy lunch at a typical Moscow restaurant. In the afternoon you visit the Tretyakov Art Gallery which houses the biggest collection of Russian paintings. You return to the hotel for a cup of tea before you depart for the airport for your flight to Irkutsk.
B, L, snack On the Plane

Day 4, Friday
Irkutsk
You arrive early in the morning in Irkutsk and are transferred to the EMPIRE Hotel, which is located in the middle of Irkutsk. After having settled in, you will depart for an interesting tour of the city. During the tour you'll visit the city's historical center and its most visually attracted sights, including the Znamenskaya Orthodox Cathedral, noted for its historical grave of the so-called "Russian Columbus" Grigory Shelekhov who was an early Russian explorer of Alaska. You also observe the graves of the Decembrists-revolutionaries who were named to Siberia after an ill-fated attempt in 1825 to overthrow the Russian tsar. While exploring the city you have the opportunity to take many pictures of the richly carved old-style wooden houses, see the Monument to Russian Pioneers of Siberia topped by the bronze figure of Alexander-the 3rd and the White House of the Siberian province as well as the central market. Lunch will be on the way. After you return you will have dinner at a typical Russian restaurant with the fancy name "Korchma" (the Russian Tavern) featuring tasty local dishes and afterwards enjoy Russian folkloric entertainment.
L, D Hotel Empire

Day 5, Saturday
Irkutsk-Listvyanka
After an early breakfast you check out from the hotel for departure by coach from Irkutsk to the Listvyanka settlement, located on Lake Baikal in the mouth of the Angara River (the lake's only outlet). En route you stop near the Shaman Rock in the mouth of the Angara to hear the guide's story and legend about "strict father Baikal and his disobedient daughter Angara" as well as for taking pictures. Then you visit the Baikal Ecology Museum which has one-of-a-kind collection of exhibits about flora and fauna of Baikal and have an opportunity to see the recently constructed Aquarium with Baikal fresh water seals. Afterwards you drive to the boat station to board your vessel, home for the next eight days. When boarding the vessel enjoy "One for the Road" Captain's Welcome Drink and have the captain introduce the crew to you.
Around 12:30 you start out on your circumnavigation of Lake Baikal. You shall be served lunch on board while on the way to the Peschanaya ( meaning "Sandy") Bay ( 80 km, 5.5 hour boat ride) , often referred to as the Siberian Riviera due to the great number of sunshine observed here (mid annual temperature here is positive - +0.4 Celsius) . Upon arrival in Peschanaya Bay you enjoy a guided walk to the Babushka Bay, the Small Bell tower Craig to take pictures of panoramic evening views on the taiga-woods of the Cedar Pass and other natural settings ( in particular here you will observe one of the lake's natural wonders - the so-called "Wandering Trees"). Dinner will feature some of the famous Baikal specialties served back on board. Overnight on board. (B, L, D)

Day 6, Sunday
Olkhon Island
Breakfast shall be served on board while you continue further along your cruise to the Khuzhir settlement on Olkhon Island (the biggest and only permanently inhabited Island on the lake).
En route you stop to see the famous Tsagan Zaba White Marble Cliffs and observe the rock drawings/petrogliphs, more than 2500 years old which depict the scenes from the lives of shamanistic believers. These petrogliphs were called by a famous Russian anthropologist Okladnikov "the Pearls of ancient art." You shall disembark here to get close to the rock drawings and to be able to take pictures.
After lunch on board you reach Olkhon Island and enjoy its stunning scenery. Although the island is quite narrow, half of it lengthways is forest and the other half steppe. Your boat will take you to the so-called Small Sea which is the part of Lake Baikal enclosed by the mainland shore and the island's eastern shore. Before you reach the central settlement of Khuzhir on the island you will come to the small island of Ogoy - the place of the only Buddhist stupa placed on the lake. The height of the Stupa is over 10 meters and inside the stupa there are 2.5 tons of Buddhist mantras and 700 kilograms of holy Buddhist books that were specially brought from Nepal. The Ogoy stupa place recently became the holy place of Buddhist pilgrimage.
Later in the evening you shall reach by boat the Khuzhir settlement featuring another holy place of Lake Baikal - the famous Shamanka Craig Rock which you will reach by an easy walk through Khuzhir village. The Shaman Rock well-known for the so-called "Buddha Rock of Altar" is one of Holy of Hollies of shamanists and Buddhist alike.
Here you shall be met by the local hereditary shaman Oot Kha. He will perform the rite of purification for you and involve you in the ritual of offerings to the deities of Lake Baikal and the Island's major spirits. After the ceremony you'll have a discussion on the Shamanism of Siberia, its philosophy and outlook. Then - enjoy a Siberian Banya (steam sauna). Dinner shall be served on board to be followed by the Baikal Songs Lesson # 1. Overnight on board. (B, L, D)

Olkhon Island. Mid-way on the northern shore of Baikal is an area considered to be the most sacred. It is here, about eight miles from the north shore that we find Olkhon, named by the Buryats for the forests which cover the island. Olkhon is the biggest island on Baikal extending more than 70 km. (60 miles) in length and up to 20 km. (15 miles) in width. Its terrain is varied with sweeping prairies, steep rocks, dry valleys overgrown with berry bushes and small, shallow bays with sandy beaches and warm water. The island's steep sides cut into the aquamarine sea-lake and its capes are like characters out of ancient Siberian folk-tales guarding the island's peace. The most beautiful of these capes, Burchan, bears the name of the Buryats' primary god. The bank closest to Burchan has a cave which cuts through the rock. The entrance is on the eastern side and the exit on the western side. Native people considered the cave a sacred place, a dwelling of shamans. The cave is, however, now inscribed with Buddhist prayers, remnants of seventeenth century arrival of Tibetan Lamaist Buddhism. The new religion partly absorbed the native shamanistic traditions and partially replaced them. The first words of one prayer read, "Ou, Burchan, Tingiri!", invoking the Buryat-Lamaist's god and heaven.

Day 7, Monday
Olkhon- Ushkanyi
After breakfast you shall visit a small but very interesting museum in Khuzhir settlement that has some unique items on display including so-called Chinghiz plate. The museum was started by a schoolteacher who had been sent to the island by the Soviets. He took his class all over the island to learn more about all aspects of its history, flora and fauna. They discovered lots, including some previously unknown species of plants and they dug up various artifacts. Then you undertake a short walk to a local family to have lunch and chat at the "samovar". After the tour of the fishing village of Khuzhir you get back on your boat to continue further along the western shore of the Island to the mysterious cape of Rytiy associated with many shamanistic legends and which geological composition is quite unique. En route, you shall make one last stop on Olkhon Island - near the abandoned village of Peschanaya. The village was built a round a small fishery that used forced labor from the Island's only GULAG camp that was built during Stalin's purges in 1933 and closed in 1950. You will observe the remains of the gulag while taking pictures of its beautiful environment.
You shall stop for your overnight on your boat in one of the picturesque bays of Lake Baikal where you will have a fish-barbecue prepared in a special Baikal way. Before going to bed those who wish can go fishing to catch omul (the endemic Baikal fish specie) or black grayling after a brief lecture on the know-how's of local fishing techniques.

 Day 8, Tuesday
Ushkanyi Islands-Zmeinaya Bay
After breakfast you will be approaching Ushkanyi Island - the biggest rookery of Baikal fresh water seals. Here escorted by a local national park ranger you get off the boat and try to sneak to the Island's flat underwater rocks where seals like to stay most of their time while they are near here. After seeing the seals you get back on the boat to continue another 50 km to the Zmeinaya Bay of Chivyrkuisky Gulf where you have dinner and then enjoy a walk in the picturesque environment.

The Ushkaniye Archipelago consists of four islands: Tonky, Bolshoye Ushkaniye, Koltigey and Lokhnaty. It is believed by geologists that these four islands hold the key to unlocking the geological secrets behind the formation of Lake Baikal. Since the islands appeared they have risen at a rate o f 2 meters every 1,000 of years, giving scientists reasons to believe that in the future they may become one island.
The mystery of how the Nerpa – Baikal fresh water seal - came to Baikal still baffles scientists. Apart from being a freshwater reservoir, Lake Baikal is hundreds of miles from any other sea or ocean. Most believe that thousands of years ago, the salt water of the Arctic Ocean stretched into the lower reaches of the Yenisey up to the mouth of the Angara. Many scientists agree that the seal belongs to the Tertiary fauna, and most likely migrated to the region during the early stages of the period when the Baikal Depression formed. It is thought that in search for food, the seals gradually migrated deeper into the mainland.
There have been years when scientists have counted nearly one hundred thousand nerpa in and around the lake. Valued for their soft, warm pelts and fat, the seals have been hunted for thousands of years. For centuries ethnic Buryats living around the lake have hunted seals, venturing out on the treacherous ice in the spring just after the pups, known as kumutkans, were born. It is a tradition that has been passed from father to son. The meat was eaten or preserved for the long winters ahead. Skins were used to cover canoes and the fur for clothing. Nothing was wasted, and the catch was small enough that the seal population was not threatened…

Day 9, Wednesday
Holy Nose Peninsula –Barguzin Gulf
After breakfast you enjoy the warm mineral springs here and take short walks in the vicinity of this beautiful place. Upon returning to the boat you will have lunch and continue further along the Holy Nose Peninsula heading for the Barguzin Gulf where the famous Barguzin valley begins - the land from where the ancestors of great Mongolian Chinghiz Khan originated. En route you will be passing by the so-called Baikal Polar spot - the deepest point of the lake (over 1 mile) which makes Lake Baikal the world's deepest fresh water lake. Right above the deepest point you shall stop for a special procedure of "mailing our generous wishes to the lake's deities". Then you continue further and while staying on the deck one can sometimes observe brown bears roaming along the shore. By dinner time you arrive in Ust Barguzin to explore the town and its sights of interest.
Overnight on board (B, L, D)

The name Barguzin originates form an Old Mongolian tribe of Barguts, who one lived in Pribaikalya. After the fall of the Mongolian Empire, the valley was populated by Evenks, Buryats and Russian settlers. The Barguzin Valley contains several important communities. The town of Ust- Barguzin was built in 1648 by a detachment of soldiers from Yeniseysk lead by Ivan Galkin. The town became an outpost for the opening of Zabaikaliye and for many years, was the home of the exiled Decembrists brothers Wilhelm and Michael Kuhelbekker. The headquarters of the Zabaikalsky Nature Park are located in the Ust-Barguzin settlement.

Day 10, Thursday
Ust-Barguzin - Goryachinsk
Today you will be heading for Goryachinsk hot springs for walks on the shore to explore the vicinity. The town is famous for being one of the oldest in Russia balneological resorts that are used from the end of 18-th century. The number of mineral springs located here is enough to attract many visitors and there are a couple of excellent health spa's located in this area that operates here because the water here has healing properties. Overnight on board. (B, L, D)

Day 11, Friday
Proval Gulf
You proceed to the Proval Gulf (meaning "Gap") made famous for the disastrous 11-on-Richter scale earthquake of 1862 which transformed 200 square km of the former steppe area into a bay.
Before the quake, old people describe the area of Proval as the Sagan Moryan (White Steppe) with five Buryat uluses (villages) where 1,200 indigenous peoples with their 867 houses and yurts resided and more than 17,000 head of cattle. On New Year's Eve (old style) the residents heard a subterranean boom and water mixed with sand and silt began splashing out of the wells. The frightened people drove off the cattle to more elevated parts of the foothills, but the shaman Petrushka, who enjoyed great respect and indisputable authority, persuaded the people to get back to the steppe, in order to accept the penalty of Burkhan - the god of Baikal. That night when water flooded the steppe, people tried to get to the high store using everything that they could, but they all perished.
On the 29th of August 1959, during an earthquake of magnitude 9, the bottom of Lake Baikal was displace by about 12-20 meters. Later in the evening you approach the Selenga River delta and you overnight near Posolskoye village. Overnight on board (B, L, D)

 

Baikal lies in a deep structural hollow surrounded by mountains, some of which rise 6,560 feet (2,000 m) above it. The sedimentary strata on the floor of the lake may be as much as 20,000 feet (6,100 m) thick. Near the shore are remains of extinct volcanoes. The major geologic feature of the Baikal Territory is that it incorporates the borderline of the great tectonic structures - the Siberian platform and its framing and the Sayano-Baikalsky folded belt. Tectonic movements along this border never cease and are manifested by earthquakes and by fluctuations of separate parts of the shores. Annually, the ground seismic stations register up to 2,000 earthquake tremors; the most sensitive seismographs, installed at various depths of the lake, identify them more frequently.
Before the quake of 1862 , old people describe the area of Proval as the Sagan-Moryan (White Steppe) with five Buryat uluses (villages) where 1,200 aborigines with their 867 houses and yurts (tents) resided, and more than 17,000 head of cattle. On the New Year's eve (old style) the residents heard a subterranean boom, and water mixed with sand and silt began splashing out of the wells. The frightened people drove off the cattle to more elevated parts of the foothills, but the shaman Petrushka, who enjoyed great respect and indisputable authority, persuaded the people to go back to the steppe, in order to accept the penalty of Burkhan - the god of Baikal. That night when the water came flooding over the steppe, people forced their way to the high shore using either gates torn off their Tiinges, or plain logs. All property and livestock perished.
On the 29th of August 1959, during an earthquake of magnitude 9, the Baikal bottom was displaced for 12-20 metres.

Day 12, Saturday
Posolskoye Village
Posolskoye village (meaning the Ambassadorial settlement) is one of the earliest settlements of Russians on Lake Baikal founded on the order of the Russian tsar Fyodor as a monastery in 1681 by the tsar's mission to Mongolia led by Feodossiy. This was the only monastery for men behind the Ural Mountains. You will see here the old structure of the Orthodox Cathedral of Configuration of the Saviour. You'll visit the old cemetery with tombs on the graves of the participants of the Tsar's Mission killed here by mistake by the Buryats. You explore the village and the delta. Overnight on board. (B, L, D)

Day 13, Sunday
Ulan Ude
After breakfast check out from the boat for a 3,5 -hour transfer by coach to Ulan Ude. The road shall proceed through picturesque places and interesting villages where you'll have enough opportunities to stop for taking good pictures. Upon arrival in Ulan Ude check in the Gesser Hotel, have lunch and some time at leisure before going on a city sightseeing tour which will include visiting the most interesting sites of the city, the Cathedral of Odigitria, the old merchant's street featuring fancy carved wooden houses.
B, L, D Hotel Gesser

Day 14, Monday
Ulan Ude
After breakfast you'll make a trip to the Ivolginsky Buddhist Datsan - central Lamaistic temple of Russia. Your tour of the Datsan will include the main temple, library, and attending the service. Then you return back to Ulan Ude for lunch in the "Dangina" Buryat yurt restaurant and afterwards enjoy a Buryat Folklore performance. Then after a quick stop at the hotel you depart for the countryside to meet with the Old Believers or "semeiskiye" of the Nadeino village.
The Old Believers dressed in their bright folk costumes, wearing large amber necklaces shall meet us near the village and take for a short hike up to the sacred Omulevaya Mountain. On top of this mountain from which there're great vistas of the surrounding area and riverside a group of the Old Believers from Trabagatay village shall give you a brief introduction to their culture. Then you proceed to the village Cultural Center to see a great folk concert, learn about the customs of Old Believers, and take part in their "match-making and bride & groom games" in which some of you may be welcome to participate.
After the show you will follow the female leader of "semeiskiye" to her house for a Gala Dinner. The dinner besides featuring tasty home made traditional meals of the Old Believers will also be followed by a number of songs performed by the hosts. Certainly, with the help of your local guides you will have an excellent opportunity to talk to and learn much from the "semeiskiye" people.
After a fantastic time spent in Tarbagatai you return to Ulan Ude for overnight at the hotel..

Ivolginsky Datsan was the only Buddhist monastery tolerated by the Communists, and is said to have more than 1,000 Buddha statues, from small ones to the one that is 2 meters high. In its place is a gleaming three-story temple crowned with yellow eaves and guarded by stone tigers, caretaker of the heart of Buddhism in Russia. Ivolginsky Datsan opened an institute of Buddhist learning on its grounds that has expanded to accommodate 110 students. There are also a library, hotel, the philosophic faculty - Choyra, building of the Buddhistic University - Dashy Choihorlin, museum of monuments of Buryat art, sacred tumbs -suburgans, some service buildings and houses for lamas there. Nowadays The Ivolginsky Datsan is considered to be the center of Buddhism in Russia. It attracts a lot of tourists and believers.

The village of Old Believers – descendants of those Russian orthodox people who opposed in the 17-th century Nikon’s church reforms and escaped to Siberia. The cultural space and oral culture of the “Semeiskyie” –Old Belivers of this village was proclaimed by UNO Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

Day 15, Tuesday
After breakfast check out from the hotel for a transfer to the airport to board the flight to Moscow.

                                                                                         Details
To book this tour from the US,Canada, Australia please contact:Aaltje van Zoelen at info@traveleastrussia.com

Included:
• Domestic airfare Moscow/Irkutsk and Ulan Ude/Moscow;
• Accommodations in luxury hotel in Moscow, all transfers, reception, meals, and city tour;
• Hotel accommodations in Empire hotel in Irkutsk, city tour and transfer to Lake Baikal;
• One night accommodations in Geyser Hotel in Ulan Ude, all excrusi9ns as in itinerary and meals;
• All activities as described in the above itinerary while on board of the cruise vessel;
• The services of a professional bilingual guide and escort throughout;
• Eight day cruise with 3 meals daily (the charter of private boat, services of crew);
• Daily national park charges and admission fee for the boat to come to the Ushkanyi Island to observe seals etc. - fishing tackles etc. - as indicated in the itinerary.

                                                                                          Notes
We recommend that you take small presents to the people of the village, such as small toys for the children or t-shirts both for children and adults. Do not bring alcoholic beverages. This program requires flexibility and good humor. Every effort will be made to follow the itinerary; however there is always the possibility of changes. We will keep you informed as to the changes in advance.


 

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