Lake Baikal is located in south-eastern Siberia, not far from the Russia/Mongolia border. It is surrounded by disparate landscapes, varying from the famous Siberian tundra and jagged granite mountains to steppe, alpine meadows, and even picturesque sandy beaches reminiscent of the tropics. It is the deepest lake in the world with a maximum depth of 1637 meters, or 5,369 feet and holds 20% of the world’s fresh water supply. For comparison, the deepest lake in the United States, Crater Lake, is 592 meters deep or 1,942 feet. Lake Baikal is 636 kilometers, or 395 miles long, and 80 kilometers, or 50 miles across at its widest point. Lake Tahoe, by comparison, is 22 miles long, 12 miles across, and one-third of a mile deep.
Satellite photo of Lake Baikal
The extent of biodiversity present in Lake Baikal is equaled by few other lakes. The lake is host to 1,085 species of plants and 1,550 species and varieties of animals. Over 60% of animals and 27 of 52 species of fish are endemic. The Nerpa, or fresh-water seal is the only mammal living in the lake, and can be found throughout the whole area of the lake.
Of note is an endemic subspecies of the Omul fish. It is fished, smoked, and sold on all markets around the lake. For many travelers on the Trans-Siberian railway, purchasing smoked Omul is one of the highlights on the long journey.
Local people refer to Baikal not as “the lake”, but respectfully as “the sea” or simply “Dedushka”, which means grandfather. The name “grandfather” is appropriate for Lake Baikal as it is the oldest lake in the world. Lakes usually live only several thousand to a hundred thousand years, but Lake Baikal is estimated to be over 25 million years old. Lake Baikal is revered by many Russians. The comparison is often made to one of America's national treasures, such as the Grand Canyon.
In the winter, the lake freezes by more than three feet deep, thick enough for cars to drive on the surface or even, in 1904, for train tracks to be laid across the lake during the Russo-Japanese War. Locals flock to the lake in winter to ski, ride bicycles, and hike on the ice reaching areas of the lake that are accessible only by boat in the summer.
Protecting Lake Baikal is important to Russians, especially to those who live in the roughly 40 lakefront towns. In a time when free speech was unheard of, locals fought to keep a pulp and paper plant from being built on the south end of the lake. While the protest was unsuccessful, in 1987 the Soviet government banned logging anywhere close to the shore and over 60% of the area surrounding Lake Baikal is protected, having since been designated as a National Park, or Nature Reserve. Just this year President Putin, perhaps being influenced by numerous protests and organized remonstrances in Russia and abroad, announced that a long-standing proposal by major Russian oil company TransNeft to build an oil pipeline across Siberia would have to be relocated further from Lake Baikal to avoid the risk of an oil spill near the lake. This is a major setback for TransNeft, and a significant stance taken by Putin, as the terrain in this area of Siberia is not conducive to construction.
The water in Lake Baikal is said to be the cleanest in the world, thanks to a small microorganism that lives in the lake. The clarity level of the water is very high. It is possible to see 100 feet down and tourists that come to the lake in summer often get vertigo from the clarity of the water. Forty years ago, the clarity level at Lake Tahoe was about the same, but since then it has been reduced to less than 70 feet.
Lake Baikal is a World Heritage Site and one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Compared to the United States and Europe, this area of Russia is still very wild. The entire northern shoreline of the lake is undeveloped and reachable only by boat in the summer or on the ice in the winter. The inhabitants of the villages in these areas are completely isolated for nearly 4 months a year as the ice forms and thaws. The people who live on the shores of Lake Baikal are predominantly Buryat, the native population of south-eastern Siberia, and Russian. There are centers of Buryat culture and heritage on the lake such as Olkhon Island, which is largely regarded as the spiritual center of Lake Baikal and the home of Buryat Shamanism. The last of the Buryat Shamans still live and practice on Olkhon Island. Buddhism is also dominant in this area, with many areas of the lake being regarded with special spiritual significance and are often adorned with prayer flags similar to those found in Nepal and offerings in the form of money, vodka bottles, or other personal items.