The autumn of 2014 had been a wet one. I had spent of my time shuttling between Mumbai and Moscow and my base had been the bland Irkutsk. Located very close to the legendary lake Baikal, Irkutsk’s best feature had been its location and the small Siberian city had been a popular jumping off base for travelers on trans Siberian (or circum Baikal) journeys. Apart from that, Irkutsk had been forgettable (at least in my eyes) though summers are supposedly very lovely there. The warm sun makes flowers carpet Irkutsk luxuriously and people rush to the nearby Olkhon Island for some fun and frolic. Considered to be one of five global poles of shamanic energy by the Buryat people, the serenely beautiful Olkhon Island is the largest island on Lake Baikal and is a great summer destination. Winter freezes it over in white splendour and in spring brave buds push out from the soil all over the island. Autumn too is supposedly a very beautiful time because the island gets bedecked like a bride in rich red and gold.
It had been the lure of this autumnal beauty which had dragged me to Listvyanka on one autumn Saturday and I had hoped to spend the weekend at Olkhon. The month had been early October; snow had not yet dusted Siberia and the days had been usually sunny. That morning, however, I had woken up to a sheet of white outside my window and frost had covered my window pane in pretty patterns. Typical grey clouds and wet winds of autumn had greeted me in a sulky way and I had stared at the stark silhouette of the trees in dismay. The beautiful red and gold foliage had seemed to disappear overnight and bare branches had stood out like bleached bones. It had been a very gloomy scene; exactly the opposite of what I had expected (and wished) and my Olkhon weekend had seemed to be an impossible dream. The lust for Baikal, however had made me leave my warm bed and I had boarded a local bus for the tiny port village of Listvyanka.
Fondly referred to as the ‘Baikal Riviera’, Listvyanka had been the most popular spot for day trippers to Baikal and it had been an important point in the Great Baikal Trail. Summers had tended to get overcrowded there as Baikal had lapped right in front of it. On clear days gorgeous hazy views of the Khamar Daban mountains had also been visible from the shore and its aquarium had been popular among the local tourists. On that autumn day, however, Listvyanka had been empty and lonesome gulls had swooped on its pier. Pretty summer resorts had looked faded against the grey sky and the autumn forests had been snow coated. I had watched the half frozen Baikal while shivering on its shore when piercing cold wind had made me escape to the small aquarium. A box like little concrete building, Listvyanka’s aquarium had been a part of the Limnological Museum and it had been the home of a set of performing nerpas, the endemic seals of lake Baikal.
Known to be the only completely landlocked freshwater seals in the world, nerpas had been residing in the deep waters of Baikal for centuries and their appearance in the middle of vast Siberia had mystified scientists till date. They had resembled the Arctic seals in appearance and the show had been a brief entertaining one. Conducted wholly in Russian, the young trainer had been a cheerful one and the nerpas had played, swum and frolicked to the sound of music. Though nothing like my original plan, it had been an interesting way to spend a cold autumn Siberian afternoon and I had started for Irkutsk after a quick snack of salted omul fish. The return drive had been colder than in the morning and dusk had fallen fast. The 1 hour had passed painfully slow and the brooding forests of Russia’a legendary taiga had seemed to close in from both sides. The long ribbon of road had looked desolate and white empty fields had stretched into a bleak horizon. Though desolate, it had been a striking scene in monochromes and a lesser known face of autumn. There had been a haunting beauty in its loneliness and it had, as Robert Browning had aptly phrased, “Autumn wins you best by this its mute appeal to sympathy for its decay”.
TRAVEL TIP – Lake Baikal is your destination if you are on a nerpa trail. Often referred to as the “the Galapagos of Russia,” Lake Baikal has a very rich and unusual ecosystem. Of all the species thriving there, the earless silver-grey nerpas are the most interesting and the smallest of the true seals are as unique as they get. Weighing up to 150 pounds, these four and a half feet seals are related to the Arctic fur seal, though the Baikal nerpa can remain underwater for a longer period. Studies have shown the nerpas diving for fish at 900 feet. Nerpas can be usually found on the northern shore of Lake Baikal, where they spend the winter under the ice, scratching air holes. They come out of their snowy dens in late winter to give birth and feed on the oily fish golomyanka. One of the four Ushkaniye Islands in the middle of the lake, the Tonky, is regarded as the best place to find the nerpas sunning themselves on the rocks.
The magnificent Lake Baikal is one of the oldest geographical creations on earth. It is splendid in summer when soaring mountain ranges silhouette against a clear sky and deep blue water of the lake. In winter Baikal is even more spectacular with its powder-white steel hard frozen surface. With 2000 kilometers of breathtaking shoreline, the banana shaped lake Baikal is the world’s deepest lake. Though usually visited by foreign tourists from Listvyanka via Irkutsk, accessing it via Ulan-Ude (for eastern Baikal) guarantees better beach fun. Wilderness lovers however can opt for Severobaikalsk (on the BAM railway).
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE