The majestic tranquillity almost knocks me flat as I emerge from the tent’s flapping entrance. Birds sail down to the water from a sky filled with colossal white clouds, dipping their dark plumage into the imperturbable blue. They break the sky’s mirrored image with ripples as they land. The profile of crags shimmer sin the early morning light, such a divine backdrop for this portrait of otherworldly stillness.
“Good day,” say Yun, my travel mate. His voice can’t break the lake’s spell, but he manages to bring me back to Earth. He had slept under the stars, battling Siberia’s early summer chills with only a down sleeping bag and a waterproof coat. He looks beat, but satisfied.
“You should have seen it,” he says with palp able excitement as he takes a seat on a twisted log that rises from the sand. “The sky was a pincushion of blazing stars. I’ve rarely seen so many. They kept the darkness at bay like a million shining light-bulbs.”
There’s no reason I shouldn’t believe him: the morning light is still bending the shapes of things in shades of blazing pink. A few metres above us, the outline of a tree perched at the top of the iconic Shaman’s Rock quivers in the dancing light as coloured stripes tied to its branches float in the breeze. Seen from the shore, the lake is so vast it’s hard to believe we are not on an atoll in a northern sea.
I came to Baikal Lake and Olkhon Island in the way most do: as a stop along the Trans-Siberian route from East to West. Wedged between Ulan Ude and Irkutsk, Baikal is an ever vigilant, permanently open blue eye in the southern part of Siberian Asia. Its story is as long as half the world’s, its depths a fathomless source of life. During the winter, nature slings a lens of ice over it, but locals still scratch away at it with their wheels, ski blades, and boots. The early May thaw marks the re-opening of the bluest gaze on the planet, one that extends six hundred kilometres and contains the biggest body of freshwater in the world — one that has quenched the thirst of nomadic Buryat Mongols and other steppe drifters for centuries.
“I’ve read that this is the crack from which the Asian continent will split,” I tell Yun, parking myself next to him so that we can share the crackers and cheese that make up our simple breakfast. We are on Olkhon Island, a crumb floating in Baikal’s western shore. This rugged landscape, reached by flimsy ferries, is a collection of bumps and rocky crests covered with brambles and colourful plants.
The standard tourist experience on Olkhon means staying at Nikita homestead, a famous guesthouse decorated as a wooden village of elves behind Shaman’s Rock. We, however, preferred to shave off some expenses and accepted Baikal’s invitation to rest beside its shores. Camping around the lake is free of charge, although the lack of cost does not occlude the cold that still bites at night.
A popular way to drink in Baikal’s beauty is by taking a private jeep tour and shuttling to Olkhon’s four corners, bumping over arteries of sand and rocks. We thought it best to sample the island’s diversity of life by keeping our feet on the ground. The previous night we had walked over the plateau that starts from Shaman’s Rock and gives a full view of Olkhon’s western coast. It snaked for miles into the blue, a long border separating a few human settlements from the fresh lake. The sun loitered until well past 11pm, tinting the scene with bursts of purple light while pasting oblong shadows to the soles of our feet.
The next day, wandering in the woods along the coast, the coloured stripes tattooed with mantras and the wooden poles carved in the shape of long, gaunt faces convince me that shamanism is real at Baikal, as the centuries of folklore proclaim. The wind buffets us, forcing us to bow as we walk, as if we were to pay homage to ancestral gods. Against the relentless gusts, it strikes me that there’s no way we will reach the bend we saw from the top of the plateau by foot. It doesn’t matter. We enjoy the walk, passing several groups of Russian families and school children who are camped out or preparing for a blustery picnic.
“Let’s get some fish for lunch,” says Yun, who’s still waxing poetic about the smoked Omul — a kind of Siberian trout only found in these waters — he ate in Irkutsk’s market a couple of days ago. The task, however, seems harder than the amount of fresh water around us would suggest. We ask a local man where we might pick up some Omul. “Ask the fishermen up there,” he replies, pointing to a wooden shack near which shiny fish are hanging out to dry in the blistering sun.
It turns out that a fisherman finds us before we can reach the encampment. The old salt has certainly had a drink too many, but his movements still bear some dignity. He starts talking to us in his lingo as his tongue battles the clutch of the spirits. Telling him we don’t understand doesn’t help. He keeps talking, anyway.
Yun manages to buy two fish at a bargain price, and although lost in translation, we receive a third free of charge. Omul it isn’t, but it tastes as raw and real as the brine of Baikal’s water. After a few bites, I feel I’ve had enough; my friend, however, enjoys the local delicacy much more than I do. While trying to have a postmodern Crusoe lunch, one of the younger fishermen approaches from the shack, shooting rapid-fire questions at us in Russian. His front teeth are stained and chipped, the fiery aroma of vodka erupting from his breath. He goes on talking nonsense until the old trawler who sold us the fish jerky returns, grabbing the young man by the shoulders and shaking his head with a look of consternation. “Go,” he says in a language we understand, as he leads the lost mariner back to the shack, helping him to sit on a plastic apron among twisted nets. The well-oiled young man waves goodbye as we leave.
As we depart, I know that I won’t be able to go much farther on those few bites of fish alone. I have yet to find my perfect bite of Omul, but I know it’s swimming next to us in the lake. I run to the shore, clamber on top of a rock, scoop up a handful of Baikal, and drink down the crystalline liquid. It tastes as fresh as the air.