We journeyed to Lake Baikal for photography, with each of us having some idea of the Baikal landscape. We wanted to record those vast expanses, and the unusual textures and colours of the ice, both for ourselves and those who would view our work later. It appeared, however, that many others were on a similar mission. Some three hundred young Chinese people with professional photo gear were lingering in the finest spots of Khuzir. We had to deal with this somehow. Did we?
Among others, we visited the village of Davsha in the Barguzin Nature Reserve, the oldest nature reserve in the country, established in 1917 to protect sables, recognised in the time of the tsars as Siberia’s true gem. The species had been heavily exploited for decades, with fur trade revenues going straight into the tsar’s pocket. By the time the reserve was set up, an area the size of Poland had a population of just 40 sables.
Davsha is a unique village. It is situated along the banks of Baikal, at the foot of the Barguzin Range, and has five residents: three staff members of the nature reserve and two with the weather station. The village used to be home to some 120 inhabitants, mostly staff of the nature reserve, whose only contact with the outside world was by water or air, as the village was inaccessible by land. In 2002, the authorities decided the maintenance cost was too high and depopulated the village, forcing its inhabitants to relocate elsewhere in Russia.
We knew that the Baikal ice ‘was active’ whilst driving round, as could be seen by the cracks and ice blocks we would pass every now and again. Occasionally, Igor would stop and take time to inspect a crack with his metal probe before we could safely carry on, always asking us to get out, too. Every year, the largest cracks appear in roughly the same spots and usually cross the ice between islands and peninsulas. Each new crack forms with a bang that can be heard dozens of kilometres away, as huge ice masses generate enormous power by the shrinking or expanding caused by changes in temperature. Lake Baikal is far from silent, even when no spectacular cracks are forming. Especially at dusk and early in the morning, Baikal ‘talks’ due to rapid changes in air temperature. They are often very peculiar sounds, evocative of whining or wailing.
When we first arrived to Lake Baikal, we learned that the lake had solidified calmly this year. Locals told us that “Baikal had not hummed”. There were no usual November/December storms, and as a result, there were fewer spectacular ice formations created as the waves freeze when violently crashing upon the rocks at abrupt changes in temperature . This is yet another sign of climate change and something the locals brought to our attention quite often. We learned that both winter and summer temperatures have risen in recent years, and that the Olkhon steppes, once green for long summer stints due to the Baikal microclimate, increasingly resemble the ones found closer to Mongolia. Discoloured and yellowed, they no longer provide animals with the quality nourishment they once used to. The abundant snow that covered the lake this year was not normal for the region, either. This may occur once in a decade or so, yet those living with or close to nature are very sensitive to any changes.
In our quest for interesting ice formations, we would often crawl amid the ice spalls and rocks along the Baikal shore. We sought after cracks in the rocks and hidden caves. We walked through fields of ice blocks. On our way back from Davsha to the Ushkan Islands, we could feel the Barguzin wind, which for a while unveiled the ice from under the thick layer of snow. During our journey, we were also lucky to meet people always willing to lend a helping hand under the harsh conditions. This unique adventure to Baikal Lake was followed by a trip to the Autonomous Republic of Buryatia … but that leg of our expedition makes for quite a different story, both visually and emotionally.