cyberian dispatch

Cyberian Dispatch 14: The Nature of Faith in Ulan-Ude

Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

At a time of polarization and division around the world, the Republic of Buryatia stands out as a place where people of diverse backgrounds live in harmony. Ulan-Ude, the tranquil and welcoming capital nestled among a ring of mountains, is not only the leading center of Buddhism in Russia, but a haven for those practicing Shamanism, the Russian Orthodox faith, and for Old Believers, who maintain the ancient rituals of the Orthodox church before reforms were implemented centuries ago. And each of these faiths places a high value on the land, air, and water.

The first thing almost everyone learns about Ulan-Ude is that it’s the home of a monumental sculpture of Lenin’s head, towering above the city’s main square. But there’s another colossal figure that has more significance these days -- the largest Buddha in Russia, perched blissfully above the devotees at Rinpoche Datsan in the hills on the outskirts of the city. Worshippers attend daily services that are alive with drums and chanting and afterwards ask for the blessing of its aging Lama. They can also follow a kilometer-long “Walk of Life” that pays tribute to all the animals of the Buddhist zodiac. (Gabriela is a tiger, and Mark is a bull.) On the morning of our visit, a snowstorm with savage winds cut right through our overly optimistic outerwear and obscured the view of the mountains around us. But a single purple crocus reminded us that Siberia’s next season will arrive eventually.

Back in the center of the city, at the only women’s monastery for Buddhists in Russia, a grinning Lama emphasized the interconnected nature of everything, including the natural world, and the cause and effect nature of our actions. If we throw garbage at Lake Baikal, it will be harmed. In her view, a growing number of birth defects can be traced to the damage people are doing to the environment.

At the Ivolginsky Buddhist Monastery, about 40 kilometers outside of Ulan-Ude, the Rector of the Buddhist University, Dimbril Bagsha Dashibaldanov, also stressed the importance of reverence for all living things -- and traced ecological problems to the human ego. The emotions that arise in the body as a result of egoism, such as anger and dislike and jealousy, are the root causes of environmental degradation, and to the extent we can eliminate these feelings and focus more on other people, such as our neighbors, we can better safeguard the natural world.

When asked about the urgency of responding to critical issues like climate change, Dashibaldanov favored “raising awareness” over anything prescriptive, emphasizing that people need to work on changing themselves instead of being told what to do. Can people change quickly enough? It’s not clear. But he raised the possibility that we need a “фишка” (pronounced “fishka”) -- Russian slang for a transformational idea -- to help improve ecological conditions. He pointed out that it took only a few years for smartphones to conquer the world, and something similar for the environment has the potential to jump-start real progress.

After meeting with the Rector, we strolled the grounds of the Monastery, which was opened in 1945 as the spiritual center of Buddhism in the Soviet Union. Among the many ornate and exceptional buildings on the grounds, one can enter a shrine that contains the body of Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov, a Buryat monk who died and was buried in the lotus position in 1927. According to his own instructions, his body was exhumed 30 years later, and shocked adherents were amazed to see that it was entirely intact with no signs of decomposition. Worried about how the Soviet Union would react, they reburied the Lama, and exhumed him again in 2002, when his body was once again found to be extraordinarily well-preserved. But more than that, many of his followers claim that he is actually alive, in a transcendent state of meditation or nirvana. A jovial monk near the door insisted that Itigilov’s body is warm, that he sweats under his armpits and needs to have his clothes changed, and that his face shows fatigue after long rituals. Visitors were invited to ask the monk for assistance, but cautioned to remember others before thinking of ourselves. We were careful to include Lake Baikal in our prayers.

Many Buryats in Russia are Buddhists, many embrace the ancient practice of Shamanism, and still others practice both. But all Buryat traditions are extremely close to the natural world. Marina Danginova, a practicing female Shaman, explained that nature is alive in the Buryat tradition. For example, Baikal is a living organism, and in winter, it goes to sleep rather than freezing. Marina worries a lot about damaging changes in the Baikal region in recent years, including extensive fires, the strong push to create businesses along the Lake’s shores, and the fluctuating level of water in the Lake. “We will not remain silent,” she insisted. But her most important worry is that, as Buryats slowly lose their language, they also lose their connection to nature.  

The next day, Marina met us at our Airbnb to conduct a ritual in support of our project. She started by lighting ceremonial Siberian herbs and letting the smoke and the scent permeate the entire apartment. She passed vodka, milk, cookies and candies above the burning herbs. Then she spilled vodka and milk at the window as she chanted in the Buryat language, and mixed these ingredients in a bowl. A cup of black tea made its way into the concoction. The sequence was repeated several times, each time with an empty cup thrown over her shoulder. At the end of the ritual, we were asked to carry the bowl of vodka, milk and tea outside, walk around a tree, and sprinkle the contents at the base. Similar Buryat rituals can also be used to ask for what is needed in the natural world, such as the rain needed by farmers.

It’s not surprising that Buryats commune closely with nature. They are the “original ecologists” who insist on taking only what they need from around them. But we were taken aback when we learned that Metropolitan Sergey Popkov, the youthful leader of Old Believers in Siberia, is an unabashed environmentalist.

Old Believers resisted reforms that were instituted by the Eastern Orthodox Church in the mid-1600’s, adhering closely to the ancient liturgy and rituals. As a result, they lost their civil rights and were persecuted and even executed. Some fled Russia, and small pockets exist in many places around the world, including the United States. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Old Believers can freely open churches in Russia, such as the one where Metropolitan Popkov leads his parishioners.

In good English and with no hesitation, the Metropolitan recited a litany of negative environmental changes he has witnessed in recent years, including climate change, an increase in forest fires, reduced groundwater, shallow rivers and streams, diminished fish populations in the Selenge and Ude Rivers, thick smog in the city, expanding problems with garbage, and the spread of non-native species, among others. He acknowledged that many problems, such as the practice of setting fire to woods so that it is then legal to log the wood, stem from a lack of good jobs, so he favors policies that will provide people with more economic security. In his view, climate change is accelerating environmental degradation, in part by driving people to cities, where the link to nature is more tenuous. Much like the Buddhists, he suggested that individuals start by improving their own practices as an important first step. Luckily, humankind’s connection to nature and to God is essentially the same, so it’s possible to enhance both simultaneously.

Following the Buryat ritual in our apartment, we quickly learned that the spirits favored us. There were two auspicious signs. First, liquid spilled on the window traveled straight down. Second, the cup landed face up each time it was thrown. Not only did the spirits welcome us, they had been waiting for us.

Playfully, it seems. After the ceremony, important items disappeared four times, then reappeared in places that had already been searched. The exact meaning of this mischief remains unclear.

But if the spirits were waiting for us, we were also waiting for them. In Ulan-Ude, almost everything felt spot-on. The team of women from Buryat State University who hosted us were among the kindest and most accomplished people we’ve met in Russia. Their students, who welcomed us in their classrooms and helped us navigate the city, were exceptional guides with outstanding English skills. The Director of the Fulbright Program in Russia, Joel Ericson, arrived in Ulan-Ude complete with a can-do spirit and a concrete vision of how to expand Fulbright’s focus on Baikal and safeguard its future.

Most of all, representatives of every faith greeted us with open arms in successive meetings, embracing diversity and focusing on a better future -- a future in which the health and well-being of the people is never separate from the health and well-being of all living things. The spirits don’t care if you are Orthodox, an Old Believer, a Buddhist, a follower of Shamanic traditions, or an atheist. In Buryatia, it is the nature of faith to safeguard the Earth. The spirits only want us to do the right thing.

In Ulan-Ude, monumental socialist realism meets pop cuisine in this inimitable Lenin head gingerbread.

In Ulan-Ude, monumental socialist realism meets pop cuisine in this inimitable Lenin head gingerbread.



Cyberian Dispatch 12: A Note on Temperature

Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

We made it through the Siberian winter.

It snowed today and it’s not exactly lovely yet outside. But with the vernal equinox upon us, we can look forward to temperatures that are much warmer than before.

We’ve resisted a post about how cold it is in Siberia, since that’s the biggest cliche about the Far East. But Siberia is cold -- even here in the South, not too far from the Mongolian border. And if you have any aspirations of visiting here, or another place that’s as frigid, we have some insights to offer.

The first thing that locals will tell you is that Siberians are not people who are used to the cold. Instead, they are people who know how to dress well. You don’t necessarily need the highest tech gear, or the most expensive. You need many thermal layers. You need heavy coats that cover as much of your legs as possible. Kidneys are a sensitive spot -- keep them as snuggly as possible. You need very warm boots and several layers of socks. The locals swear by “unti,” boots made from reindeer fur that are allegedly the warmest around. We couldn’t bear the thought of harming a reindeer, so we bought very expensive European boots that were still somewhat problematic on long hikes.

You need mittens -- they’re much warmer than gloves. Unless you need to operate a camera, in which case you are really in a quandary. Bare hands last only moments in serious “moroz” (literally, frost, but Russians use this word to denote temperatures of -20 Celsius or lower). Thin gloves allow some mobility but are little better than bare hands. Thick gloves remove most ability to reach camera controls, and mittens eliminate it completely. There’s no good solution, and often we found ourselves pulling off most hand coverings, shooting briefly, and then balling our aching hands inside our mittens to restore circulation and slowly ease the pain.

You need to cover your face during moroz. The first time Mark walked around in -25 Celsius without covering his face, a woman said, “You need to touch your nose.” He thought his nose was dripping. But that’s not what she meant. She could see, by its white color, that his nose was starting to get frostbite. Russians avoid this literally by putting their mittens or gloves on their nose to warm them. A better way is to cover your face with a scarf, a ski mask, or a balaclava. The problem is that the balaclava is soon moist and then frozen from your breath. This is how we got the icicles on our eyes that we featured in our popular holiday card.

Everything that is exposed during the worst cold will hurt, especially eyes. They may drip like a faucet, a way of expressing severe distress. But it is not only what is exposed that may suffer from the cold. Along with many locals, we experienced a form of “winter psoriasis,” or red, dry and peeling skin that results from the extreme temperatures, even in places that were covered. Our friend even developed hives on her face. While there’s some winter cream for babies you can spread on your suffering skin, it’s more of a placebo than anything else. True relief comes only from warmer weather.

The worst cold we experienced all winter was in December in Buguldeyka, a village near the Lake. Not only did temperatures drop to -40 Celsius at night, but a stiff wind was blowing the whole time we were there. During the day, the gale threatened to topple us from the hills right into the water, and a two to three hour hike proved to be the outside limit of what we could endure. At night, we huddled near a very toasty Russian pechka, or wood-burning stove, so we kept quite warm. But even a quick visit to the outhouse was an ordeal and forthrightly dangerous for sensitive skin. Beware.

We realize that, so far as Siberian winters go, we were spared the worst. There was very little snow compared to last year, when plows couldn’t keep up with it. And while we did experience serious moroz, temperatures were among the warmest in memory in February. This is consistent with the growing body of evidence suggesting that Siberia is warming much more rapidly than most places on the planet.

Lake Baikal is home to one of the longest running environmental monitoring programs in the world. A leading scientist, Mikhail Khozhov, began the program in 1945. He was first assisted by his daughter, Olga Khozhova, and then his granddaughter, Lyubov Izmest’eva. Now the Biology Institute of Irkutsk State University maintains the program, routinely logging temperatures and other critical statistics.

These data show incontrovertibly that temperatures are changing over time. As far back as 2008, a major paper by Russian and international scientists, using the Khozhov’s data, concluded that water temperatures in Lake Baikal had increased 1.2 degrees Celsius since 1945, with corresponding changes in the Lake’s plant and animal life -- dramatic increases in chlorophyll and “cladocerans,” or miniscule crustaceans commonly called “water fleas.”

In 2009, scientists predicted that Baikal will become “warmer and wetter” by the end of the century, significantly affecting the amount of ice cover. In turn, the changes in ice cover will likely affect the entire ecosystem, from small diatoms (single-celled algae) that feed the Lake to the world’s only true freshwater seal, the nerpa. As we noted in our last post, nerpas rely on ice cover to safely raise their pups. And the entire food chain relies on ice -- and the transparency of that ice -- that is diminishing now in response to climate change. Melting permafrost in surrounding mountains is likely to worsen existing problems with industrial pollution and eutrophication (the increase in nutrients from detergents, fertilizers, and sewage from tourism sites).

A major 2016 study confirmed the trend. Scientists found that surface water temperatures have increase a full 2 degrees Celsius Lake-wide between 1977 and 2003. As a result, populations of non-native, warm-water organisms increased dramatically. Luckily, the study showed that populations of native, cold-water organisms remain stable, and dangerous nutrient loading is restricted to coastal waters. In 2018, another major study reinforced some of the positives. By analyzing the remains of diatoms in the sediment on the Lake’s floor, scientists found that damaging effects of warming over the past 20 years are thus far restricted to the South basin, despite significantly reduced ice cover throughout the Lake.

The title of this post, “A Note on Temperature,” embodies the inspiration for one of our ongoing projects: we’re plotting compelling scientific data as musical notes to create compositions that musically express the Lake’s ecological status. In recent years, a team of scientists led by Maxim Timofeyev at Irkutsk State University has focused extensively on the impact of temperature changes on the Lake’s native and non-native amphipods, or crustaceans, which are absolutely critical to the Lake’s health. This latest composition draws on data from one of their recent studies, showing that amphipods undergo severe stress when subjected to changing temperatures.  

In this work-in-progress, “Izmir Ambience” represents the stress response of native amphipod Eulimnogammarus verrucosus, “Reflective Strings” represents the stress response of endemic amphipod Ommatogammarus flavus, and “Nylon Shimmer” represents the reaction to changing temperatures of non-native amphipod Gammarus lacustris. Higher notes for each electronic “instrument” in the composition represent increased stress response among the delicate and beautiful crustaceans.

The upshot of all these studies? Baikal faces real danger, but unlike many other bodies of water around the world, it is not too late. There is still time to reduce nutrient inputs and pollution, and to prevent the worst effects of climate change.

Our own data show that two American artists and researchers can survive the Siberian winter (and capture some photos and videos without too much frost nip). But the reality is that we cheated a bit. Rapid warming in Siberia likely made the ordeal more tolerable. And our small victory hints at a major defeat unless rapid action is taken.

There is a prominent bright spot. Russian and international scientists and ecologists are fighting to be heard -- and fighting for change. Russia has the unique opportunity to stand out -- as the place where the worst damage to one of the world’s most precious bodies of water was avoided.

We can all drink to that -- voda, not vodka -- a clear, fresh glass of pristine Baikal water. That’s still possible to find, at least in most places on the Lake.

Images in this blog post were captured at Lake Baikal, frozen in ice, and then rephotographed.

Images in this blog post were captured at Lake Baikal, frozen in ice, and then rephotographed.




Cyberian Dispatch 10: Baikal Speaks in Music

Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac


The oldest, deepest and largest lake by volume cannot be fathomed easily, but one way to plumb its remote depths is to listen. And if you listen to Baikal, it quickly becomes obvious that the Lake is speaking. It is not speaking in words. Instead, the Lake expresses itself in music.

We have written before about its sloshing waters, its merciless winds, its frolicsome crows, and other inimitable Baikal sounds. But the most formidable -- and also terrifying -- sound of Baikal is the sound of its ice cracking.

It starts as a sort of science fiction-y pinging, a bit like the sounds you associate with old movies about submarines. These pings and bwowops vibrate and stretch across vast expanses, often followed by a sharp crack or two or more. Then, if you are lucky (or unlucky, if you are as fearful as us), you may hear tremendous thunder as the ice actually sunders apart somewhere nearby.

The first time we heard a large crack while walking on Baikal’s ice, it registered in our brains as an earthquake (small ones are not uncommon here), and we leapt to our feet and ran immediately toward the distant shore (as fast as one can on a spectacularly slick surface). Then we noticed the locals, who went on skating and cavorting on the ice without pause. And we stayed for more of Baikal’s pinging, gurgling and cracking -- its unsurpassable music.

Music is unquestionably among the most treasured arts in Russia. Since the moment we arrived, we have been meeting musicians, sound artists, and people who simply love to sing or dance or play. To them, Baikal is always calling, as an inspiration and a unique location to summon their artistic best. As one of them recently put it, “Baikal is a mystery, and music is a way to understand it.”

At every holiday or gathering, Russians with beaming smiles will inevitably sing favorite songs that they pass on from generation to generation. Thus we found ourselves on Olkhon Island, listening to the songs of a ceremony called “maslenitsa” that welcomes Spring. The celebrants danced energetically in a circle around a bonfire built directly on the ice, singing for a thaw and new life in the coming season.

Two days later, all ages were represented at a maslenitsa celebration at the open air architectural museum at Taltsi, between Irkutsk and Lake Baikal.

A small number of musicians, like Evgeny Masloboev, literally play Baikal’s ice and water. In several recent concerts in Listvyanaka, he and his fellow Irkutsk-based musicians played instruments crafted from Baikal’s ice, and dipped other instruments into Baikal’s water to create fresh sounds. An exceptionally talented and innovative artist who views every single sound in the world as potential music, Evgeny knows from experience that Baikal’s ice and water have a unique sound that can’t be found anyplace else.

Others run with Baikal’s inspirations in many different directions. At the Blue Ice Festival on Olkhon Island, a French acapella group called Soli Tutti interpreted a traditional Buryat song and the local band Etno Beat created cosmopolitan rhythms. Moscow-based composer Marina Shmotova debuted an entire contemporary work based on the story of the Baikal icebreaker Angara that played an outsized role in local history and is still on display in Irkutsk. The Moscow-based artist Olessia Rostovskaya made church bells resonate across the Island in the morning, and that same evening debuted a nine-part contemporary classical composition based in part on recorded sounds of Baikal’s ice. Among many other talents, she is an expert on the theremin, an instrument invented in Russia that is played without touch, instead relying on manipulation of the electromagnetic field surrounding its antennas.

The Festival’s organizer, Natalya Bencharova, also hosted a discussion about the creation of a Baikal sound bank that will allow visitors near and far to access the sounds of the Lake. It is quite telling that she proposes a sound bank instead of a trove of videos or photographs. The sounds of the Lake are powerful and meaningful to locals...and to visitors. One of the first contributors to the sound bank is French sound artist Andre Fevre, who recently spent time camping on the ice around Olkhon Island in order to best capture the sounds of the ice talking. His efforts suggest the Lake is most vocal in mid-morning and late at night, when undergoing significant temperature changes.

As photographers and video artists, we are not immune to the call of Baikal’s sounds. We came to Siberia with a strong focus on the visual, but we immediately found our lensed devices limiting. There is no way to properly convey the enormity of Baikal, its constantly changing textures and moods, and its eternal inscrutability, with cameras alone. As a result, our project has moved emphatically in the direction of including sound and music.

From early on, we gathered local sounds to share with Baltimore-based composer and musician Maria Shesiuk, an extremely sensitive and versatile artist. Although she has never been to Siberia and we have never met her in person, she nonetheless uses her magical powers to conjure an authentic feel of Baikal in her original compositions that have debuted in this space. If you have not already, please listen to her songs titled Fog and A Walk Through Sleeping Land.

We also found that the data points in key scientific studies about the Lake’s ecological health can be plotted as musical notes, and we started to create compositions that directly reflect data on temperature changes and the impact of those changes on Lake organisms, such as the amphipods (small crustaceans) that are critical to the Lake’s cleanliness and its complex food chain. Although these electronic compositions are somewhat mechanical, we think of them as a starting point and as an innovative way to convey important scientific findings about the Lake. We are now in the process of sharing them with Maria and local musicians to see if they can help us interpret them.

For example, the following work in progress draws directly on findings from compelling new studies by scientists at the Biological Institute at Irkutsk State University (ISU), led by Director Maxim Timofeyev. In the composition, a “shimmering flute” represents data about temperature at four different depths in Baikal in Summer 2016 (Physiological and Biochemical Markers of Stress Response of Endemic Amphipods from Lake Baikal: Current State and Perspectives).

Separately, Russian scientists gathered evidence showing that the average summer surface water temperature at Lake Baikal has increased by 2 degrees Celsius since 1977, among the sharpest rises in the world. As temperatures continue to rise, scientists in Timofeyev’s department are researching what those changes will mean for amphipods. “Reflective strings,” “deep round synth bass,” and “grand piano” represent crustaceans that live at different depths in the Lake. The scientists’ work shows that amphipods unique to Baikal are comfortable at specific depths and temperatures, and may face danger or death if forced into different zones (Preference Ranges Correlate with Stable Signals of Universal Stress Markers in Lake Baikal Endemic and Holarctic Amphipods). In this composition, higher notes represent increased stress response among these exceptionally beautiful creatures, which are critical to the Lake’s future.  

You can see what some of Lake Baikal’s spectacular amphipods (also known as “gammarids”) look like here, in a video created by Russian diver Kiril Ivanov.

We also continue to gather local sounds. The unique voices of the people, whether Russian or Buryat or Evenk. Their own compositions, from folk songs to classical music to church bells to throat singing to popular music. But most of all, the sounds of the Lake itself...the ice that speaks so emphatically...the many voices of the Lake and the more than 300 rivers that feed it...the multitude of bird calls...the harsh and implacable winds...the murmuring sighs of moody spirits from high and low.

Baikal is a mystery that is endlessly intriguing and incomprehensible. We continue to capture its pixels, but when we wave our cameras at the Sacred Sea, sound waves back.

Cyberian Dispatch 4: A Glimpse of Moscow

by Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

No city can be grasped in a few days, so our quick fling with Moscow is already a haze of veiled impressions on the fly. Gabriela had been once before -- but long ago, and the city has changed dramatically in the interim. Mark never.

The outstanding Fulbright office gathered us for a check-in with other scholars and students, many scattered across this immense nation, so there is no other opportunity to connect in person. They also arranged a bonus meeting with the US Ambassador, Jon Huntsman, a former Republican governor, who spoke quite reasonably about how to bring the Russian and American people together -- and about his efforts to engage with the Orthodox Church.

Then the city unfolded as a sumptuous, impromptu walking tour. The wide avenues and their grandiose buildings, often a misleading facade for comfortable neighborhoods with pedestrian walkways and community ponds. Zaryadye Park, Moscow’s answer to the High Line, replete with undulating rooftop gardens, delicate birch groves, and an overlook perched far above the Moskva River.

Red Square, a chaos of architectural styles. The fanciful church with precious relics. The looming walls of the Kremlin. The Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Prada stores directly facing Lenin’s tomb. The mausoleum, in maroon and black, guarded by stern-faced police who enforce silence and hats off. Lenin, glowing supernaturally in the darkness, with perfect facial hair. Outside, the graves of Stalin, Brezhnev, Andropov, all bedecked with red flowers. Also John Reed, the American who witnessed the revolution.

The exquisite art, from all eras. Ancient Egyptian death mask (Fayum) portraits, spectacularly rich icon paintings from rural Russia, modern art from around the world, official and unofficial Soviet-era art, contemporary gems. A survey exhibit of contemporary photography that would have been at home in the Whitney or MoMA. A sculpture garden in Gorky Park, abutting preserved statues of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin, also in close proximity with a memorial to the victims of totalitarian regimes.

The world class veggie bistro. The restaurants that are innovating successfully, with prices to match the West. The metro, a tour de force of architecture, convenience, value and service (trains consistently arrive moments after the last one departs), sharply contrasting with our own capital city. The warm service, the embrace of America and Americans. The sense of safety, even in crowds.

Then rapidly back in the airplane for the same overnight flight that first brought us to Irkutsk. The dawn is accelerated as five time zones melt away, and the bracing Siberian air, blowing out of an endless forest, is a potent reminder that Moscow is more than 5000 kilometers away.

Cyberian Dispatch 3: A Sacred Island Reveals Itself

by Gabriela Bulisova and Mark Isaac

Olkhon Island, situated about midway in Lake Baikal’s long crescent, is more than 70 kilometers long and 15 kilometers wide. It has about 1500 permanent residents, most of them indigenous Buryat people, and the bulk of these live in the one small town, Khuzir. During the warmer months, a ferry transports cars and people back and forth to the mainland. When the lake is freezing or melting, the island is accessible only by air, but when it’s totally frozen, you can drive there across the meter-thick ice.

There are five Rules of Conduct for visitors. The first, in keeping with the ecological sensitivity of the indigenous Buryat people, reads, “Live in harmony with Mother Nature, protect her, because this is the Great Power, which allows existence of you and your descendants.”  

There is an abundance of Mother Nature to protect. Created by tectonic forces, the Island contains extremely disparate landscapes: taiga, steppe and desert. It has exceptional sand beaches that would be at home in the Caribbean if you replaced its pines with palms. Its dunes are constantly reshaped by emphatic winds, stripping tree roots into naked sculptures. Its perilous cliffs of limestone and marble are crowned with wooden totems adorned with thousands of ritualistic ribbons in the rainbow colors favored by Buryat shamans.

Black ravens, reputed to be spirits, called out to us in voices that could only be understood as human emotions. At the top of a cliff lay a small snake in waiting, somehow conveying the significance of the location. Not far away, at a picnic spot where hungry tourists ate fish soup and cheese sandwiches, a dazzlingly beauteous fox crept out of the woods, intensely locking its eyes on ours, then darted to the side and sunk its teeth into two sausages left by local guides. In the capes and bays surrounding the Island are the fish that provide sustenance for the local people -- and the unique species of sponges and amphipods that make Lake Baikal a precious Galapagos of the East.

Not all of the fauna are wild. “Beware of domesticated animals,” read the signs along many of the main roads, a reference to the many cows and horses that don’t hesitate to wander in front of moving vehicles. And for one day-long hike, we were adopted by a midnight-black dog with a delightful disposition who bounded ahead, leading us on the proper paths.

The roads are all of dirt, rutted, often filled with mud, and otherwise kicking up sensational amounts of dust with each passing vehicle. But the roads north of Khuzir are not roads at all but a series of deep crevices that are traversed exclusively by “Uaziki,” plural for a brand of military vehicle created under Stalin that continues to produce today. Each Uazik, the size of a very large minivan, is tightly packed with tourists -- mainly from China, Western Europe, and less so, Russia -- before shaking them up and down thousands of times and depositing them in the far reaches of the Island for a series of landscapes and selfies. They are then fed a quick lunch on the run and deposited back at their guest houses.

We resisted this type of excursion for several days, but finally relented since the Uaziki are the only means of encountering most of the island. Then, on the day of our tourist trip, a clammy fog permeated the entire island, obscuring almost all sights, and forcing visitors to snap photos of an obfuscated “nothing,” as one Chinese tourist put it.

Of course, the fog was ethereal, abstract and suggestive as well. Standing at the top of one of the northernmost cliffs, tourists cried out boorishly to each other in the emptiness, stripping the moment of its eloquence. But despite these violations of propriety, we could easily imagine the monumental boulders hangings over the cliffs, and we could hear the waves repetitively attacking the shore dozens of meters below. Then, in a mirage-like instant, the fog lifted, permitting a glimpse into the expanse of the Lake, the sublime mountain peaks on its far shores, and the twinkling sunlight on its surface, before filling again with an opaque gray-white.

Away from its most populated sites, the overwhelming allure of Olkhon Island is inescapable. Along the Western coast, we wandered for hours in contemplation before black ravens and a black dog led us to a stone labyrinth that pays homage to the ancestral people of the Island, whose rules for Proper Conduct can be read as a guide for life itself. “Just try to radiate love, joy, and gratitude, or be peaceful,” reads rule number four. “Remember -- in places of great natural forces everything that a person carries becomes stronger.” As we walked the labyrinth, trying to bring our thoughts into this very moment, Lake Baikal’s splendor and gravity was revealed.

Sacred? Undeniably. Endangered? Increasingly. In need of protection? Unquestionably.  

Cyberian Dispatch 2: Russia's Vast Galapagos

By Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

How to comprehend -- and then convey -- the enormity of Siberia and the incalculable volume of the world’s deepest and oldest lake? These are early problems for our project on Lake Baikal.

Russia is the world’s largest nation in terms of area, with more than 17 million square kilometers. But more than 77 percent of Russia is Siberia, still larger than any other nation on earth. In fact, Siberia alone is larger than all of the United States and Europe combined.

Lake Baikal is the deepest, and by volume of water, the largest lake in the world. All of the Great Lakes could be drained into Lake Baikal, and it contains more than 20 percent of all the freshwater in the world. It is also the oldest lake in the world, formed 25-30 million years ago.

Standing on the Western shore on the Great Baikal Trail, we can easily spot the sprays of snow on the peaks of the storybook mountain range on the Eastern side, in the Republic of Buryatia. Our eyes are rewarded by the endless dancing reflections of light on the Lake’s surface. But we cannot see 1,642 meters into its depths, to its murky bottom carved by a geological trauma. And we cannot see to the northern reaches of its crescent shape, beyond the villages that draw most of its tourists.

Around us are thousands of aspens and birch trees, decorated in gold, shivering in the emphatic wind, shedding leaves rapidly. But we cannot count the thousands of species of plants and animals that live in and around Lake Baikal, 60 percent of which are unique, causing it to be labelled “Russia’s Galapagos.”

On the shores, we can easily locate small sponges that have washed up on the pebbles and bleached white. But we cannot see the vast colonies of living sponges beneath the waves or the 350 different species of indigenous amphipods, crustaceans essential to the Lake’s health that find their home under rocks on its bottom.

Indeed, one of our most compelling findings thus far is that our lensed devices fail to do justice to the physical vastness of Siberia or Lake Baikal. Over and over, we remarked on and lamented this failure and worried about what it might mean for our project. But now we are mapping an alternate voyage. Instead of capsizing on the Lake’s biggest waves, we are drifting on its tender swells. We hope these modest crests will aptly communicate, not the enormity of Baikal’s size, but its immeasurable importance.

Cyberian Dispatch 1: Exile Begins

by Gabriela Bulisova and Mark Isaac

"You're going there willingly?"

That's been one of the most common responses when we tell people we're headed to Siberia. Yes, we chose to spend the next nine months in this place that is known primarily as a punishment and a place of exile.

The practice of sending people to the Far East began under the Tsars and continued under Communism. Somehow the authorities thought they could accomplish two things at once: punish people and use their labor to develop this vast and forbidding region. Common criminals, intellectuals and political insubordinates rubbed shoulders on the long trip East and after they arrived. And the political prisoners, some as notable as Dostoevsky, brought many elements of culture with them, causing Irkutsk, the city where we're now located, to eventually be nicknamed "the Paris of the East."

Stepping off the overnight flight from Moscow, we were hit by a brisk breeze and a certain something different about the air. Was it thicker, did it smell of the deep woods, did it have healing properties? Our new friend from the International Office of Irkutsk National Research Technological University, Assia, scoffed at this notion. "It's just the airport," she said, laughing. But we were convinced it was true.

Assia tried to reassure us that it was colder than a normal September. "It snowed yesterday," she reported, "but that's not normal for this time of year." We know that temperatures of minus 20 Fahrenheit are not too far in the future. But in the meantime, t-shirt weather is restored, with the first brilliant yellows rapidly emerging on the plentiful birch trees.

And the inviting weather made possible our first trip to Lake Baikal, the crescent-shaped "sacred jewel," the deepest lake in the world, containing one-fifth of earth's fresh water. We traveled on a boat from Irkutsk with Mikhail, who seems to know everything and everybody -- and has natural amphetamines coursing through his veins. As the boat made its way up the Angara River, the only river that drains from Lake Baikal, we caught sight of the mountains on the other side of the Lake, in Buryatia, the semi-autonomous land of the indigenous Buryat people. They appeared like a mystical wall, with ample snow already ladled onto the peaks, and no sign of human interference: not a ship, not a town, not a house.

The boat turned and chugged to Bolshoe Koty, or Large Cats, a miniscule village that is accessible only by water during the summer months (and by car once the Lake freezes solid in January). After disembarking, Mikhail sprinted at an inhuman pace up a hill to an overlook where the Lake spread out in front of us and the view of Buryatia was even more surreal, the peaks appearing blue and white through an other-worldly haze. The entire village was visible at our feet, including a laboratory in a miniature wooden house that pursues research on the impact of pollutants and warming temperatures on marine life. After descending again, we met the biologists who are methodically trying to understand how best to protect the lake's ecosystem. Their beakers and petri dishes contained samples of Lake water and small sponges gathered from the bottom, and they showed us photographs of indigenous organisms, essential food for the Lake's fish, that are increasingly threatened by chemical spills and unusually high temperatures.

According to Buryat legend, a great earthquake caused fire to spew from the earth. The people gathered and cried, "Bai, gal!," or "Fire, stop!" in the Buryat language. And when their prayers were answered and the fire ended, the chasm filled with water, creating Lake Baikal. The Buryat tradition is extremely respectful of nature and its balance. But now, a second fire, that of climate change, threatens this equilibrium. In fact, the region around Lake Baikal is one of the places on Earth most threatened by global warming. Our project will explore the connection between these ancient and contemporary "fires," and call attention to the importance of preserving the Lake's pristine waters.

On the way back to Irkutsk, a generous sunset was unveiled on the left banks of the Angara, glinting through the spray from the boat. Undoubtedly, exiles suffered and died in this region in ways we can never fully comprehend. But those who were able to set eyes upon Lake Baikal must have had some small consolation. Baikal is still a sacred jewel, one of the most unique and precious spots on the planet. Having seen it only once, we count ourselves among the lucky.