ecology

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 13: Can Peace Trails and Strawberries Save the Amphipods?

Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

The expedition to collect amphipods at Bolshie Koty was led by Ksenia Vereshchagina and Anton Gurkov, scientists from the Biology Institute of Irkutsk State University.

What do peace trails, a strawberry festival and the future of Lake Baikal’s amphipods have in common? More than we thought, it turns out.

Several days ago, we embedded with scientists from the Biology Institute of Irkutsk State University on a one-day expedition to Bolshie Koty, where the Institute has a lab and monitoring station. The main goal of the trip was to capture much-needed amphipods for the Institute’s critical research on the health of the Lake.

In late March, the ice on Baikal was still thick and strong in most places, but driving a car in locations that aren’t regularly monitored is no longer guaranteed to be safe. So, after the one-hour marshrutka ride to Listvyanka, we hopped into one of the many hovercrafts now operating on the Lake. These crafts move easily between ice and water, offering safety that Uaziks (the Russian military vehicle favored on Baikal’s ice) simply can’t offer at this time of year.

A half hour of twisty-turny skimming over the surface later, we arrived in Bolshie Koty, which is accessible only by boat during the summer and ice during the winter. We were picked up at the shores and chauffeured deep into a nearby canyon, along a mountain stream tucked under a rapidly melting ice blanket. Here the scientists had earlier carved a deep rectangular hole in the meter-thick ice, revealing the rushing waters below. This stream is one of more than 330 that feed Baikal, but it is not the pure, virginal water that the scientists coveted. Instead, they were on a mission to find the tiny amphipod (crustacean) named “Gammarus lacustris” hiding below. G. lacustris is not native to Baikal, and experts fear that, as temperatures warm, G. lacustris may move from the rivers, ponds, and wetlands surrounding the Lake directly into its shallow waters, crowding out precious endemic organisms and causing dangerous shifts in its ecosystem.

First, a spear wielded by a young biologist shattered the delicate coating of ice that had formed since their most recent visit. Down went a net, capturing a generous helping of riverbed muck. The muck was deposited on the nearby ice, and several scientists knelt over it, spreading it and poking it with yellow plastic spoons. Several minutes later, a cry went up. A tiny amphipod was found and ceremoniously delivered to a ceramic bowl. Then, several pairs who were locked together in preparation for mating. The scientists found that perplexing since mating usually occurs in May. The process continued, with more and more goo lifted to the surface and meticulously inspected. When 20 amphipods were identified, they were cleaned, wrapped in labeled packets, and lowered into a cylindrical sample case filled with liquid nitrogen designed to keep them alive on their trip to downtown Irkutsk.

After a potluck lunch, we all rushed back to the Lake, this time to gather samples of the amphipods that inhabit the coastal zone. The scientists had arranged with a diver to plunge under the ice and scoop samples of amphipods from the bottom of the Lake. His formidable white mane and moustache revealed him to be in his sixties. Despite the sub-freezing temperatures, he gamely donned aging gear that left part of his face uncovered and disappeared with a sudden splatter unseen below the ice.

A half hour later, he emerged in an explosion of bubbles, bearing a cornucopia of wriggling Lake life. Dozens of organisms were immediately identifiable, from tiny darting crustaceans no bigger than a fingertip, to large, bright orange amphipods with lengthy tentacles and menacing armaments that stretch more than 4 inches long. These were also meticulously sorted, cleaned, labeled and deposited into the sample case in a process that took several chilly dives and multiple hours.

In a flash, the scientists were on the move again, thanking their diving companions, packing equipment and beginning their journey back to Irkutsk, where the amphipods will inform critical research about the impact of temperature changes on aquatic life. Research at Irkutsk State University confirms that most amphipods evolved to live at a specific depth and within a specific temperature range. The Central Siberian Plateau is one of the three areas experiencing the most rapid climate change, and summer surface water temperatures on Lake Baikal have increased by over 2 degrees Celsius over the past 60 years. As temperatures continue to rise, amphipods will be forced to migrate to unfamiliar depths. The result will be competition with other species, loss of population, and disruption of the entire food cycle.

Two days later, we were up early again and on the road to Baikalsk, a city that is best known as the site of a notorious paper mill that was the biggest industrial polluter of the Lake. The paper mill shut down in 2013, more for economic reasons than as a result of ongoing protests. Environmentalists were thankful when it shuttered, but its closure did not end the threat. More than 6 million tons of toxic sludge are stored in unsealed tanks that continue to leach into the groundwater, and they could be propelled directly into the Lake in the event of a mudslide or an earthquake.

The plant’s closure also created an economic crisis, since most residents relied on the mill for their livelihood. Importantly, environmentalists didn’t forget about these families. They established training programs and incentive grants for former workers to reinvent the economy based on sustainable ecotourism. For example, a program created by Elena Tvorogova challenged local residents to devise plans for profitable businesses that leave the Siberian taiga and Lake Baikal pristine and untouched. The School for Environmental Entrepreneurship has already held 14 session, with more than 600 participants, and it has led to the creation of 28 new startups and assistance for 22 ongoing businesses. Successful -- and sustainable -- new businesses include cycling services, yoga, teas from local herbs, handmade chocolates, wood ornaments derived from logging waste, and oils and butters from local plants.  

But the new economy in Baikalsk is wider than these innovative products and services. On the slopes overlooking the Lake, a sprawling resort has opened for skiing and snowboarding. And the city has initiated a well-known festival that celebrates the uniquely delicious strawberries that grow in the Baikalsk area. While many were skeptical it would succeed, the festival now draws significant numbers of hungry tourists each Spring.

And idealistic activists like Evgeny Rakityansky are busy building new tourist trails and bridges in the region with the help of Russian and international volunteers. Rakityansky speaks with glowing pride of the increased safety and improved respect for nature that new trails have created in nearby Sludyanka and Kultuk. But he is most animated when he describes his vision for overcoming differences between nations through shared, loving work in the taiga. His summer camps for trail construction have already drawn participants from more than 10 foreign nations including the United States. With two trails already close to completion, he is now planning a trail in Baikalsk, and he is initiating a reality show on YouTube that will unlock the “inner spiritual code” of the landscape.

Throughout the Baikal region, environmentalists have a vision of creating a future of ecotourism that brings more visitors to support local residents and minimizes their ecological impact. But an economy that goes beyond slogans to build genuine ecotourism is difficult to forge. One activist, Roman Mikhailov, defines authentic ecotourism as a low-impact form of tourism in which participants enter wild nature, leave no trace, learn from local people, and provide concrete benefits for the local community. However, the number of visitors is expanding much more rapidly than strategies for minimizing their impact. As many as two million visitors arrive at Baikal each year, and the New York Times named Olkhon Island to its list of the 52 most important places to visit in 2019. Tourists arrive in a region where most businesses haven’t ever heard about ecotourism, let alone implemented its principles.

Baikalsk, with its many initiatives around sustainable development, is in the forefront of efforts to jump-start ecotourism in the local economy. Elsewhere, in places as far-flung as Listvyanka, Buguldeyka, Bolshoe Goloustnoe, and other locations around the Lake, a new style of guest house offers home stays or lodgings for only a few tourists at a time, a welcome alternative to the large hotels that have proliferated in recent years.

These promising initiatives represent real progress. But to implement full-fledged ecotourism, attractions around the Lake need to do even more. Research shows that waste leaching from guest houses and homes is the main source of nutrients that create widespread blooms of algae around the Lake and choke endemic coastal organisms. It’s essential for tourist enterprises -- and the government -- to embrace rapid advances in sewage treatment, septic systems, composting toilets, and strict limits on discharges into the Lake. It will also be important to offer tourists some form of an ecological rating system, so they know which claims about ecotourism match actual practices.

Right now, peace trails and strawberries are leading the way toward a more sustainable future, but these valuable initiatives can’t keep pace with the increased burden on the Lake. If we hope to save Baikal’s precious amphipods -- and its singular ecosystem -- we must wriggle free of our current thinking and make a rapid leap forward on eco-tourism.

Baikalsk, the site of a shuttered paper mill that once was the largest source of industrial pollution in Lake Baikal, is trying to reinvent itself as a center of sustainable development and ecotourism. Environmentalists are in the forefront of efforts to train a new generation of socially conscious entrepreneurs.



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 11: Expedition to the Rookery

Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

In the middle of Lake Baikal is a remote archipelago called the Ushkanii Islands, including Big Ushkan Island, and three smaller islands, Tiny, Round and Long. These secluded and rugged isles are primarily known as the site of a rookery.

Can’t remember what a “rookery” is? Neither could we. Dictionary.com defines it as “a breeding place or colony of gregarious birds or animals, as penguins and seals.” The Ushkanii Islands are the mating spot of the world’s only entirely freshwater seal, or nerpa, the exceptionally cute mammal that is at the top of Baikal’s food chain.

A few days ago, we had the unique opportunity to embed with a group of scientists from the Baikal Museum. The Museum operates a number of live cameras that let you peer into Baikal’s depths, scan its shoreline, and most impressive of all, view the summer rookery of the nerpas. But one of their cameras on the Ushkanii Islands was disabled, and they planned an expedition to repair it.

Outfitted with ample warm clothes, sturdy boots, flashlights, sleeping bags, dry food, and high hopes, we climbed into a truck called “Bongo” at 7:00 am. After stopping for more provisions, our driver Alexander, the Deputy Director of the Museum, stayed in touch by walkie-talkie with another group of scientists, including Director Alexander Kupchinsky, driving a truck called “Patriot.” Gradually we made our way from Irkutsk to the southern end of the Lake and started up the eastern side, entering Buryatia. By nightfall, we had reached a very modest national park hostel in Ust-Barguzin. There, amidst celebrations and libations, we attempted to sleep in a common room, some on cots and some on the floor.

The next morning, we entered Zabaikalsky National Park on the territory of a peninsula known as the “Holy Nose.” Winding our way on dirt roads through the park, we eventually reached a set of signs with a variety of prominent warnings in Russian. Here the expedition would enter the open ice of Baikal and travel to the Ushkanii Islands.

It was only one week earlier when we first rode in a marshrutka (or minibus) on Baikal’s ice, on our way to Olkhon Island. It was quite fantastical at first because the mind can’t fully comprehend how ice safely supports an entire bus. But at Olkhon, the frozen road is marked and monitored by authorities. This time, we were sneezed out of the Holy Nose to navigate on our own.

Sometimes Google can find your car on Lake Baikal.

Sometimes Google can find your car on Lake Baikal.

Sometimes it can’t.

Sometimes it can’t.

And the ice is not without perils. This year, there are a startling number of large cracks, many stretching kilometers in erratic patterns. Some have refrozen and can be crossed easily with four wheel drive. But others are “live,” meaning they are still actively piling massive, bright blue ice boulders in front of passenger vehicles, or exposing dangerous open water into which truck wheels -- or an entire truck -- could plunge.

In fact, we quickly met several obstacles of piled ice that were insurmountable, and we were forced to drive many kilometers searching for a suitable location to pass. And then we came upon open water that emphatically blocked our way forward. We waited uncertainly, wondering if the mission might need to be abandoned. But the resourceful scientists were ready. They lay long wooden boards across the lapping waters and navigated the vehicles across an improvised bridge to the other side.

This maneuver enabled our arrival by evening to living quarters on Big Ushkan Island, hosted by Tatiana, a kind-hearted Russian women who lives year-round in this location. We warmed ourselves next to a traditional pechka (Russian stove) and feasted on simple but satisfying dishes.

In the morning, we left camp, driving a short distance in Bongo and Patriot to the base of a hill. We darted up the steep slopes, across the snow and through the forest to the peak, where the broken video camera was situated. Here, reticent Volodya quickly diagnosed the problem, and Anka, a spirited guide from the museum, descended to the trucks to retrieve a critical part.

In the meantime, we savored the delicate, precious quiet that is so rare in today’s world, with only a woodpecker and the gentle wind punctuating the silence. And we stood in awe, gazing from the heights at miraculous vistas. The unending expanse of ice, interrupted only by massive cracks. The majestic mountains of the Holy Nose, rising in perfect triangles that betray the story of their cataclysmic, seismic origins. The smaller Ushkanii Islands, their thick larch forests blurred by a nebulous fog. They are all incomparable to any other place we know.

Repairs were accomplished quickly, and after one more night at the camp, we found ourselves departing this Shangri-la -- and again searching for ways across Baikal’s serpentine crystal blockades. Tatiana attributed the large number of cracks to the sudden temperature change in February. In the beginning of the month, the Baikal region was still experiencing “moroz,” or the severe frost of -20 to -40 Celsius. But by the end of the month, temperatures had soared to between +5 and -15 Celsius.

Of course, no one event can be attributed specifically to climate change. Instead, it is the trends over time that establish scientific validity. But back in Irkutsk, Daria Bedulina, a scientist at Irkutsk State University’s Institute of Biology, wrote a telling post on Instagram. “The planet heats unevenly,” she wrote. “On average, since the beginning of the 20th century, the temperature on the Earth’s surface has increased by 1 degree, but in polar regions and in Siberia, this is happening two to three times faster.

“Ice is very important for our lake, and it is gradually going away,” she continued. In 50 years, the duration of the ice has reduced by 14 days. And this did not happen without any impact for cold-loving native species. Their numbers began to decline sharply, and they were replaced by heat-loving non-native species that are plentiful in other lakes.”

Sadly, we did not see any nerpas at the Ushkanii Islands. At this time of year, they are still hiding under the ice, and will emerge later in the season. You, too, will be able to view them on the newly repaired live web cam, located on the Baikal’s Museum’s website. (See especially the top two web cams on the left side of the screen.)

But nerpas, like other native species, rely heavily on the ice for their survival. It is under the ice that new pups are raised, and if pups don’t completely molt while the ice is still standing, they will become ill or suffer attacks from birds. Also, the nerpas eat fish that, in turn, feed on smaller native species that are negatively impacted by rapidly rising temperatures. It is an unfortunate fact that the entire ecosystem of Baikal is at risk if there are drastic changes in the ice cover.

Daria Bedulina’s post was immediately disputed by climate skeptics claiming that warming is cyclical and not a serious issue for the Lake. But she defended the findings of Russian and international scientists, and she called attention to simple steps we can all take to reduce negative outcomes.

As we crossed huge cracks in Lake Baikal’s ice, we worried about our own safety. But it is the safety of Lake Baikal that should be foremost in our minds. We must not let fissures in society turn us away from incontrovertible evidence. Nor can we let Baikal’s ecosystem be irreparably fractured.

A Buryat legend suggests that Lake Baikal was created after an epic earthquake when fire sprang out of the earth and local people chanted, “Bai, gal!,” or “Fire, stop!” in the Buryat language. Now, the Lake is threatened by a new type of fire -- temperatures that are rising more rapidly than scientists expected.

This time, an inferno did not erupt from the earth in a sudden convulsion. Instead, accumulating heat creeps and glides and insinuates itself under Baikal’s precious ice. But a cry of “Fire, stop!” is just as apt today as it was at the moment Baikal was born.

Blog__20.jpg












Shark Conservation

Jessica Zychowicz

“Shark Conservation,” Jessica Zychowicz. Oil-pastel crayon and charcoal. Berlin. 2019.

“Shark Conservation,” Jessica Zychowicz. Oil-pastel crayon and charcoal. Berlin. 2019.

There are no sharks in Berlin. There are no sharks in Poland, either, not in any of the 2,000 lakes of Masuria. You would think that they might be thrashing around somewhere in Russia’s unfathomably deep Lake Baikal, but no, they are not. Maybe it is too icy and cold for them there? What about Israel, you say? There are even two seas there, and they are warm and bright greenish and muddy---the perfect habitat for many different kinds of sharks. But there are no sharks in those places, either: not in the Red---or in the Dead!

There are no sharks at all, in fact, wherever we might expect to find them: not in my neighbors’ swimming pool (I looked there first!), or in the sink where I like to rinse my coffee cup in the morning, or in the dark spooky space under the garden hose, next to the stairs in the backyard, where the spiders live.

There are no sharks in the wide ocean where they used to be—I looked for them with my special goggles in San Juan, but found none.

There are no sharks at all anymore. I have given up.  

Or so I thought!

One day in February, on a rainy and grey Wednesday afternoon (sharks like Wednesdays!)—I found exactly what I had been searching for. I did not expect to find so many sharks smiling at me from every single corner of this magic place that I discovered! There were funny sharks and mean sharks, big sharks and small sharks, polka-dotted ones and striped-ones, and even a very colorful lady shark with glasses and a funny hairdo who sang and danced the tango and salsa! There was a poet-shark wearing a yellow plaid scarf, and a shark with a camera who could swim really fast and talk about very important things to all of the other sharks. I even met a tiger shark with a bicycle who likes to eat French fries as much as I do.

Their teeth were so terrifying, and their fins so powerful, that I almost imagined that I would never want to meet a shark again! After all, I was just as surprised as you are to find them all swimming around inside of Lindenstraße 9-14, 10969, in Berlin, of all places. I was sure that I had checked everywhere: high and low, near and far. Had they been hiding all of these sharks? Did someone put them here? Why didn’t I see them before? Why were they here, and not in the other places that I thought they would be?

But I changed my mind. It doesn’t matter why they were here or there, instead of in the deep lakes, or in the greenish muddy seas, or the wide ocean, or in the sink where I like to rinse my coffee cup, or under the garden hose next to the stairs in the backyard. I love sharks wherever they are! Maybe someday I will even visit them again and invite them to my next birthday party. I wonder if spiders like birthday cake, too?

Berlin, February 2019

in “A Curious Guide to Ecology”

by Jessica Zychowicz

“Voided Void,” Daniel Liebeskind. Shoah Memorial Space, Jewish Museum, Berlin. Photos by the Author. February 27, 2019.

Cyberian Dispatch 9: Playing Hide and Seek with the Angara

Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

There are more than 330 rivers that flow into Lake Baikal, filling the cavernous Lake with one-fifth of the world’s fresh water. But there is only one mighty river that flows out: the Angara.

In Irkutsk, the largest city on the Angara, the River is half a block from our apartment, so we have almost daily encounters with its intensely different moods, striking range of colors, and its habit of hiding from local residents.

There is a longtime legend in Siberia that Angara was the exceptionally beautiful daughter of Old Man Baikal, and he was filled with love and admiration for her. But one day, while Baikal was sleeping, Angara slipped away to try and meet the young Yenisei. Grandfather Baikal was furious, and ripping a cliff from a nearby mountain, flung it at Angara, who was pinned at her throat. Angara begged her father to give her water, since she was parched, but her father refused, saying she was condemned to nothing but her own tears. And since that time, it is her tears that flow from Baikal to the Yenisei River, far to the north and west. Today, the cliff that Grandfather Baikal threw at Angara, called Shaman Rock, is visible at the Angara’s outlet from the Lake.

But the Angara itself is not always visible. Especially in winter, the warmer water flowing from Lake Baikal meets a shockingly cold Siberian air mass, and the result is tuman (туман), the Russian word for fog. In Irkutsk, it might start with a little steam rising off the river. A few hours later, the fishermen in the middle of the River are visible one minute and lost the next. Soon, the three main bridges fade away. The sun is faint, then fainter, then slips completely from view. And finally, there is nothing, only a wall of light gray that obscures everything but the wonderland of icy frosting deliciously decorating the trees along the banks. It is a fog to end all fogs, an ethereal display that lends the entire city an unearthly glamour.

It is also rich with human activity and sound. Near the statue of Tsar Alexander III at the foot of Karl Marx Street, Russian radio is broadcast from loudspeakers, often featuring English language pop songs or Christmas music. On Ostrov Konnyy (literally, Coney Island), near a towering ferris wheel, children gleefully exclaim as they sled from ice sculptures, ice skate, or play hockey. On the frozen shores, fisherman cut holes in the ice with enormous drill bits and wait for hours in the numbing cold to extract a meal. Listen carefully and you will hear lapping waves against the ice, the murmur of ducks foraging, and the sound of a muskrat surfacing and then diving. And most prominent of all, the reverberating announcements of departures from the main railway station, which echo across the invisible water, coupled with the rattling of invisible trains en route to remote destinations.

The alluring tuman is a signature feature of Irkutsk and the Angara, but unfortunately, beneath this exquisite veil some disturbing secrets are hiding. Each major city along the Angara, including Irkutsk, is a site where significant amounts of pollution enter the river, including industrial wastes that seriously threaten the river’s health. Also, the Angara has been dammed four times since the 1950s. The dams chop the river into pieces, blocking any navigation and impeding the transit of fish and other native species. And the creation of numerous reservoirs has radically altered the ecology of the waterway, harming endemic species and increasing the amounts of algae that deprive the River of oxygen.

One of the most important historical voices against dam-building and the diversion of rivers is the late Russian author Valentin Rasputin, who was born in Irkutsk Oblast. Rasputin’s views on this subject were heavily influenced by the fact that his own childhood village along the Angara was destroyed to create a massive hydroelectric plant. His 1979 novel Farewell to Matyora is focused on a fictional village that suffers a similar fate, and a later non-fiction work, Siberia, Siberia also dwells on this theme. Although some consider his work “anti-modern,” and his conservative politics were controversial, his influence on environmentalism in this region -- including the fight to save Lake Baikal -- looms large. (Those who are interested in a film treatment of his work can search for the 2008 Russian film, Live and Remember, in which the Angara plays a starring role.)

Dam-building continues to be an issue that is central to the future of the entire region. Among the threats to Lake Baikal’s health are proposals to build several dams on the Selenga River and its tributaries that flow from Mongolia to Lake Baikal. The plans threaten to disrupt the ecology of the Selenga River delta, the largest source of Baikal’s water and a major habitat for Baikal’s endemic species. They will also affect the water level, water quality, and ecosystem throughout the Lake. In 2017, activists achieved a small victory when the World Bank froze its support for the planned projects, but efforts by Mongolia to become energy independent, together with lavish Chinese financing, mean the fight is by no means over.

Here in Irkutsk, we play hide and seek with the Angara and its veil of tuman almost every day. We hide ourselves in its blanket of white, embracing the ghostly nothingness for as long as our arctic mittens and winter boots will permit. We take endless photos of its spare visual delights. But we also seek the truth about the environmental health of the Angara and of Lake Baikal. Irkutsk’s homegrown environmental leader, Valentin Rasputin, was one of the first to understand that there is “damming” evidence of harm. All those concerned about the future of our waterways must join together to respond.


Cyberian Dispatch 7: Spirits of Buryatia

Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

Outside of Sukhaya, a village in Buryatia so small and remote that it doesn’t appear on Google Maps yet, we paused at a roadside monument for Khaim, the spirit that holds sway in four local villages. A posted sign warned foreigners who don’t understand local traditions against participating in rituals. But our Russian guide Georgii firmly disagreed, insisting that anyone can and should honor Khaim. We searched our pockets for small coins, often favored in this situation, but found none. Alcohol is suitable, but was unavailable. So a small measure of hot Earl Grey tea was poured from a thermos in Khaim’s honor, also appropriate. Khaim’s sacred location also overflowed with the colorful ribbons that locals tie to trees as a symbol of respect.

During our first trip to Buryatia, several weeks ago, we were enthralled by the virgin ice that had just crystallized. (See our blog post, here.) We were also captivated by the spirit of the place, or should we say, spirits. Each set of small villages has a native spirit who plays an important role there. “We don’t necessarily believe in these spirits,” Georgii clarified, “but we definitely respect them.”

More than 60 percent of Lake Baikal’s shoreline is in the Republic of Buryatia, on the east side of the Lake. Buryatia is sparsely populated, harder to reach, free of the most intensive tourism, environmentally more pristine, and in theory, a homeland for the indigenous people of the region, although many Buryats live in Irkutsk Oblast and elsewhere. It also is a spiritual center, home to a unique mixture of Russian Orthodox, Old Believers (who maintain an ancient version of Orthodox tradition), Buddhists, and people who embrace Shamanic traditions.

As we traveled the coast of Buryatia, the remoteness and the serenity were undeniable, but we also tried to measure the spirit(s) of the landscape. At Vydrino, the border town with Irkutsk Oblast, we crossed the Snezhnaya River on a pedestrian bridge unlikely to pass a safety inspection and marched into the snow-filled woods with Georgii leading the way. We stopped briefly at small lakes created from former quarries, including one renamed Fairy Tale Lake instead of Dead Lake to better attract tourists. Here a sign improbably warned against spearfishing in the ice-covered water. Then we entered a valley in the Khadar-Daban mountain range that dominates the eastern part of the Lake. A long, peaceful hike in the fresh, deep snow brought us to an unexpected obstacle: a mountain stream that could not be safely forded. Instead, we fought through thick brush and ample snow to ascend a small peak with dramatic views of the mountains in all directions.

In Tankhoy, a small village adjacent to a nature preserve in the mountains, our goal was also to hike into the mountains, but the preserve has a higher level of protection than a national park, and advance arrangements are required. Instead, we hiked the first and only wooden trail for disabled people in this region, through a special grove created for the protection of Siberian Cedars, which are not really cedars but a hardy species of pine endemic to the region. Except for one woman who crossed our path in the evening, we were satisfyingly alone in meditative contemplation and image capture for an entire day.

In Babushkin, a tiny coastal town, we encountered Marina, the animated and knowledgeable docent at the local museum, who shared artifacts of the town’s relationship to the Lake, including photographs of the oversized ferry that transported people and rail cars across the Lake before the Trans-Siberian Railroad was completed. When asked about the environmental health of Baikal, Marina insisted that the Lake is strong and will withstand any pressures that humans place on it. Then she hosted us on a whirlwind tour of the Babushkin waterfront, where a defunct, graffiti-covered lighthouse can be accessed by climbing a rope 3 meters to its lowest staircase. From the top of the lighthouse, the Lake spread out in three directions, with a scruffy railyard and desolate beach anchoring the scene.

In Posolsk, one of the most ancient Russian settlements in the region, we visited a male monastery of the Russian Orthodox church. In 1651, a Russian ambassador to Mongolia and members of his party who came ashore from their boat were slain here, and there is a prominent monument to their memory. Like many religious sites in Russia, the monastery was commandeered during Communism and has only recently been restored to its original purpose. The young monks continued their daily chores, oblivious to our small group of visitors, and we strolled to the expansive shoreline, bleak, endless and alluring.

Along the main road at Proval Bay is a large wooden monument to Usan-Lopson, the spirit who is reputed to live underneath the Lake with his wife and to rule its waters. Near a caravan still prominently marked with Soviet symbols, workers repaired modest tourist facilities that overlook the spot where, in 1861, a catastrophic earthquake dumped several Buryat villages into the Lake. While most locals escaped, some drowned, and Russian families welcomed homeless Buryats into their homes for the remainder of the winter.

Further north, we visited Enhaluk, a thriving tourist mecca in summer, now frozen and ghostly. Nearby is a hot spring with healing properties discovered when Russians drilled for oil decades ago, and a Buddhist temple that hosts large outdoor meditation retreats in the summer months. Also in close proximity is a monument to the Evenk indigenous people, now dwindling rapidly in numbers. A gate to the monument has tumbled to the ground, and banners with information on Evenk traditions have torn in the wind, but in spite of this, or perhaps because of it, the ground feels weighty and significant.

Finally, we ascended rapidly to the peak of Biele Kamen, or White Rock, where a pale calcium derivative in the stone was used to paint the walls of houses. A local tradition suggests that if you pick up a stone at the bottom of the hill and place it at the top, you will be forgiven one of your sins. On the summit, anthropomorphic towers of rounded stones register as a gathering of tiny penitents lamenting their improper deeds.

Back in Sukhaya, we took note of the uneven pace of development that brought a smooth highway and a blinding array of streetlights, but stopped short of funding wastewater treatment that will protect the Lake from the coming increase in tourism. At the Tengeri Guest House, run by a Buryat matriarch, we settle into a quiet sleep on a hillside near the Lake.

In the night, Mark dreamt that he was on a bus and someone tried to sit next to him. He shooed the newcomer away, thinking he was undesirable, but moments later realized it was Khaim, the spirit of the Sukhaya region. Khaim accepted this affront without taking umbrage. He urged Mark to hold Gabriela tightly and vanished.

In the morning, we awoke to an unending procession of lumber trucks that noisily rumbled past the guest house and faded into a translucent curtain of newly falling snow. We knew without any conscious thought that these trucks, rapidly denuding Siberian forests, do not pay tribute to the local spirits.