siberia

Cyberian Dispatch 20: A Swift Departure

Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

Pacific swifts that spend the summer in Siberia migrated in August to their winter home in Australia and Indonesia.

Pacific swifts that spend the summer in Siberia migrated in August to their winter home in Australia and Indonesia.

The swifts lived in the roof above our apartment. They often woke us in a cacophony of sound at about 6:00 a.m. They swooped and cavorted and dive-bombed in the treetops just outside our windows. But the Siberian summer is warm, exquisite, and brief, like a sun-ripened fruit. And its time had already passed. As temperatures also swooped lower, we woke to find that the birds had vanished...already traveling an exceptional distance to winter in Australia or Indonesia. And it was time for us to take flight also, leaving behind a very unexpected and welcoming homeland in the Far East (see Cyberian Dispatch 19). 

As we left, the complications of climate change were at play around the globe. Unprecedented wildfires in Brazil and the Arctic captured headlines around the world and were a topic among heads of state. A major hurricane, rated among the most powerful in the North Atlantic of all time, decimated part of the Bahamas and raked the coastal United States and Canada. Alaska’s sea ice melted completely for the first time in history. Iceland’s Prime Minister officiated at a memorial for a lost glacier.

Unfortunately, Siberia and Lake Baikal are in the vanguard of these changes, with temperatures increasing two times faster than other parts of the globe. In our final weeks, multiple challenges punctuated the news, emphasizing Siberia’s leading role in climate change. Wildfires in Siberia, accelerated by high temperatures and extremely dry conditions, consumed an area larger than the nation of Belgium, sometimes sending thick blankets of smoke into Irkutsk and raising air quality alerts to the urgent level. Also, areas north of Irkutsk -- especially Tulun -- suffered severe floods in which dozens lost their lives, and Greenpeace Russia attributed the catastrophe to climate change. Scientists once again reported that Baikal’s precious small organisms are vulnerable to rising temperatures and will suffer, disrupting the Lake’s entire ecosystem, if water temperatures continue to rise.

Our parting weeks were filled with nostalgia for the mystery, power and enormity of Baikal, not just as a body of water, but as a living being, a space where spirits rule, a territory where the power of the natural world pervades all the human senses. We said goodbyes to the Angara River, Baikal’s only outlet and the site of exquisite encounters with winter “tuman” or fog (see Cyberian Dispatch 9). We traveled again to Olkhon Island, witnessed a very special ritual in which more than 40 shamans prayed for rain to extinguish wildfires, and paused to reflect in one of Baikal’s most sacred sites (see Cyberian Dispatch 3). 

If the spirits of Baikal had the only say, all would be well. Unfortunately, greed, folly, and indifference also hold sway. Our year in Siberia has given us ample understanding of the main threats facing the world’s most important lake: climate change and various forms of pollution that have already damaged shallow areas and now threaten the entire Lake. But the final weeks of our stay also revealed the extent of new, emerging hazards that threaten an exponential increase in harm. These new concerns have unique attributes that reinforce each other and have the potential to rapidly accelerate warming in a “feedback effect.” For example:

  • Melting Permafrost: Temperatures in Siberia are increasing twice as rapidly than other parts of the world. As a result, vast territories of previously frozen permafrost are melting, discharging enormous quantities of carbon dioxide and methane -- enough to result in “catastrophic” warming.

  • Spreading Forest Fires: According to prominent scientists, the growing number and intensity of forest fires is causing “dramatic loss of forested area,” further accelerating climate change. 

  • Excessive Logging: Widespread legal and illegal logging is also contributing to rapid deforestation that accelerates warming; and

  • Deteriorating Rivers: As temperatures increase, evaporation intensifies and the flow of the Lake’s tributaries is reduced. Dwindling water levels reduce pressure at the Lake’s bottom, releasing additional methane and harming sensitive species. 

Many of our most memorable moments at Baikal involved sound or music (see Cyberian Dispatch 10). Evgeny Masloboev, an Irkutsk-based experimental composer and musician, can elicit music out of almost anything, including coat hangars, plastic bags, or the leaves of plants. He favors improvisation, and before we left, he very memorably asked us to pull out our phones, hold them near each other, and create music from...a feedback effect. 

Scientists know that these emerging threats can quickly approach a tipping point that accelerates environmental degradation much more quickly than current climate modeling anticipates. Artists like Evgeny Masloboev sense it and intuitively find a way to express it. The natural landscape already signals distress: people choke on smoke from mega-fires and die when their homes are inundated by flash floods. But in Russia and around the world, many people are not fully aware of how serious the problem is, and policymakers are in denial, immobilized or unsure of how to act on a scale large enough to be consequential. 

The swifts departed suddenly one August day, darting into the sky because they knew the environment will soon not be hospitable. Following a small visa snafu, we also took flight to Central Europe on very short notice, uprooting ourselves from our Far Eastern homeland and finding a roost near the Danube River, another threatened body of water. 

Time is precious now. How can we speed the pace of change on ending the use of fossil fuels and embracing clean energy? How can we embrace the use of alternative energy sources -- ones that are in ample supply in Siberia and many other places around the globe? How can we turn the corner on simple changes like ending the use of phosphates in detergents or stopping the endless stream of bottles that clog our waterways? 

Our year long Fulbright experience proves that we can build alliances across cultures and among diverse stakeholders who share common values and goals. It was an exceptionally meaningful, moving and beautiful experience, and we are forever grateful to our warm, welcoming, and kind Russian hosts, who selflessly ensured the project’s success. 

But can those of good faith and good mind work together quickly enough to safeguard Baikal? Can we chart a new course as swiftly as the swifts?

 







Cyberian Dispatch 19: Why We're at Home in Siberia

Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

Frigid and forbidding. Remote and desolate. Brutal and punitive. All can traditionally be synonyms for “Siberian.” But after almost a year, we venture to call it “home.”

Why are we at home in Siberia? Well, for one, it contains the most important lake in the world -- the incomparable Baikal, which continues to change and reveal itself every season and every day. And when you find yourself in one of Baikal’s “powerful spots,” where beauty is overwhelming and spirits hold sway, you can understand that it is a sort of home for all of us -- and one that we must respect and protect.

Gabriela was originally drawn to Baikal because her grandfather had traveled here, describing the Trans-Siberian railroad and Baikal’s crystal clear ice, and bringing her presents from the far East. So her inspiration always included a familial link. But it’s time for us to mention the many ways in which Siberia revealed a multitude of connections to our ancestors, making our stay here an authentic -- if very unexpected -- homecoming.

The Czechoslovak Connection

Gabriela was born in the former Czechoslovakia. One of the historical figures in Irkutsk is Yaroslav Hasek (or in Russian, Gashek), a Czech writer who came to Siberia as part of the Czechoslovak Legion that fought on the side of the White Army during the Russian Civil War. In fact, our apartment is on the street that is named after him, and he lived in a building across the street. Hasek managed to switch sides, joining the victorious Red Army, which is why the street is named for him. He stayed in this region for four years, writing extensively and even starting the first Buryat language magazine. 

But Hasek is only part of the astonishing story of the Czechoslovak Legion in Russia. At a time before Czechoslovakia became a nation, more than 100,000 fighters came thousands of kilometers from their diminutive homeland to help demonstrate to the allies that they should support Czechoslovak statehood. They fought skillfully, and at one point in the war managed to control most of Siberia, an area larger than the United States and Europe combined. 

It was at Lake Baikal that the Czechoslovak Legion fought the only naval battle in the history of their landlocked soon-to-be nation. And they won. After seizing several warships from the Red Army, on August 15, 1918, the Legion surprised Red forces at the port of Mysovaya in a heavy fog, sinking the gigantic icebreaker “Baikal,” shelling the train station, and destroying Red Army headquarters. 

Czechoslovak soldiers are also alleged by many to have stolen a massive cache of gold that was being protected by Admiral Kolchak, leader of the White Army. When the Red Army captured Russia’s gold reserves from retreating White forces, a significant portion of it was missing. Some believe the gold was smuggled out of Siberia to Czechoslovakia, while others believe it fell from rail cars into Lake Baikal and is still laying in its depths. More than 10 years ago, scientists and historians aboard small submarines carrying none other than Vladimir Putin claim to have located some of the gold deep under the Lake’s surface, but were unable to recover any of it.

In the summer of 1919, the first international soccer matches in the history of Siberia took place in the Baikal region. The matches were contested by the Czechoslovak Legion and representatives of the small cadre of U.S. forces that also fought during the Russian Civil War. During their time in Siberia, the Americans excelled at harassing women and behaving atrociously, while the Czechs and Slovaks put more energy into the games and emerged as victors. 

The Origins of the Hungarian People

Gabriela’s mother, Olga, is Hungarian. And Hungarians migrated long ago from Western Siberia. This is one reason their language, in the Finno-Ugric language group, is so different from neighboring countries and so difficult to master. Today, scholarship is widening the understanding of links between Hungarian and Siberian culture, including common elements in their folklore. But there’s no question that the Hungarian nation was born in Siberia.

The Surprising DNA Test

Just before leaving for Siberia, for somewhat murky reasons, Mark was interested to have a DNA test conducted. The results arrived about a month into our stay in the Baikal region. Generally, they were as expected -- he’s almost entirely of Eastern European Jewish origin, and his family lived in areas of Galicia that are now in Poland and Ukraine. But there was one surprise -- a finding that 0.1 percent of his origins are “Siberian.” And by Siberian, meaning East Asian, not Russian. At first, some family members bristled at this finding or dismissed it as likely erroneous. But shortly afterwards, another relative reported the same result, confirming the existence of a small amount of Siberian blood in his family.

The Paris of the East Reemerges

When the Tsars and the Communists were busy exiling people to Siberia, they placed a heavy emphasis on those who were educated and active. As a result, Irkutsk always had an outsized share of artists and intellectuals -- so much so that it was called “the Paris of the East” for its many talented artists and its diverse cultural offerings. Over time, some of that cultural advantage became institutionalized and ossified, but now Irkutsk is staging a youthful cultural renaissance, with alternative spaces, innovative events, contemporary ethnic art, micro-concerts in intimate settings, and experimental musicians who are willing to try almost everything. This emerging cultural scene also made Irkutsk feel like home -- and inspired us to include original music, composed entirely from data in scientific studies about Lake Baikal, in our project. (For more on this subject, please read Siberian Dispatch 10.)

Our Trusted Russian Friends

And finally, we are compelled to mention the local people who went out of their way to welcome us. They didn’t have to share resources, make connections, encourage us, or help us exhibit our work. But they did, and they played a critical role in the project’s success. These generous friends -- each of whom will be remembered very personally and with utmost appreciation -- emphatically made Irkutsk our home. And this in turn, provides strong validation for the Fulbright Program, built on the idea that war can be overcome by making connections between Americans and cultures all over the world. Our experience in Russia proves emphatically that, one-on-one, Russians and Americans can bond and build a future of trust and cooperation.

Unless we live to be more than 100, each year is more than 1 percent of our lives. So we’ve done something neither of us ever expected -- spent a significant percentage of our lives in Siberia. And when we leave this home, painfully soon, we will ache longingly both for Baikal and the people who love it.



Cyberian Dispatch 17: Warming Northern Baikal

Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

At the far north of Lake Baikal, where few venture, an alliance of small tourism businesses created a slogan designed to lure more visitors: “Warm Northern Baikal.” It was a small stroke of genius, since the north is, at least in terms of temperature, noticeably colder than the south. While the ice melted long ago in the south, it’s still visible now at the northern tip of the Lake. And people are fond of joking, “We have two months of cold, and 10 months of real cold.”

The slogan works on several levels. First, it’s meant to convey that you will be welcomed warmly by the local populace, who bring a homey and personal approach to their dealings with visitors that’s different from what you will encounter in bigger cities. Second, the area is home to numerous hot springs that create oases of comfort, even when it’s -50 Celsius outside. And in July and August, the shallow edges of the Lake actually heat up, creating ideal conditions for swimming and kayaking.

But the inaction of the world to the reality of climate change is lending the slogan yet another, unintended meaning: despite its isolation and low population, northern Baikal has indisputable environmental problems associated with warming temperatures and pollution.

On the one hand, the region is eager to take the lead on turning Warm Northern Baikal into an exemplar of environmental protection, in part because they hope that will help draw more tourism. In Severobaikalsk, the largest northern city with a population of 25,000, activists hope that an emphasis on ecology will help the region stand out as a destination. They are cleaning up garbage and creating disposal stations for used plastic and batteries. The young mayor is fighting the abundant growth of spirogyra by seeking an end to the use of phosphates in detergents, a key factor in its spread in recent years.

Some innovative local residents also saved 17 hectares of land and prevented the mass development of houses by creating large plots for a small number of eco-friendly dwellings, many of which use composting toilets, water purification, solar energy, and recycled materials for insulation. The project was difficult to get approved, but the instigators hope their model will inspire others to join a new movement toward eco-friendly living.

And environmental activist Yevgeny Mariasov is leading an effort to expand the Great Baikal Trail, a network of paths that will eventually allow hikers to circumnavigate the entire Lake. The next step is creating a new, 24 kilometer section that will connect existing trails north and south of the city. His dream, along with other locals, is that the GBT will expand low-impact eco-tourism while safeguarding the Lake. The leadership of Buryatia approves of the plan and may devote funding.

At a city meeting on this subject, there were no dissenters, and work will begin this summer on the new section of the trail. But some residents complained that critical environmental topics are being overlooked. There is considerable new construction in Severobaikalsk, all connected to the city’s aging and inadequate wastewater treatment system, meaning much of the waste ends up in the Lake, contributing to the spirogyra outbreaks. One of the chief builders of Severobaikalsk vocally insisted that this is the most significant environmental threat, but it is receiving scant attention. And there was no mention of the role of the BAM, or the Baikal-Amursky Magistral Railway, in polluting the River Tyya, which flows directly into Baikal. A taxi driver told us that years ago, “only a lazy man couldn’t pull a fish out of the Tyya.” But now, he noted wistfully, there are no fish at all.

And the owner of a local guest house insisted he doesn’t need to see monitoring results to know that the water is warmer than before, contributing to the spread of spirogyra, which in recent years turned lush, sandy beaches (“We have your Thailand,” one local billboard reads) into carpets of odiferous, decaying sludge. Although scientists have warned that removal of the algae is important, there is not always enough money to do that, and it may take as much as 40 years for affected areas to recover.

Further north, in the small village of Nizhneangarsk, the local Evenk population also has warnings for the future of Baikal. Like Buryats, the native Evenk people lived nomadic lives of hunting and reindeer herding in extremely close concert with the natural world. But now, of 330 Evenks in the town, only 10 speak the native language. And with the language, the culture of respect for the natural world is also threatened. A small center for the preservation of Evenk culture struggles to teach the language to a new generation of young people, but it is a quixotic effort.

Artist Valery Kondakov, a longtime resident of Nizhneangarsk, whose father was Evenk, enumerates a long list of environmental problems facing the region: new construction of three-story apartment buildings that drain untreated wastewater into the Lake; reduced and diseased populations of omul fish in Baikal; and more frequent forest fires. But he saves his harshest words for the “barbaric cutting of trees only 100 meters from the Lake.” All around Baikal, trees are falling at an alarming rate, legally and illegally, with incalculable costs to the ecosystem. “This all happens fundamentally because of people’s indifference,” he laments.

Kondakov’s art responds to these modern problems through the lens of long-ago history. Hieroglyphs along the northern coast of Baikal prove that this region has been inhabited since at least the Stone Age, and Evenks have conducted holy rituals along its shores, on hills and in caves, for countless generations. Evoking the spirits of his ancestors, Kondakov carved a sculpture from a piece of a fallen “holy tree,” or one that was used as a sacred burial place for deceased Evenks in times gone by. He doesn’t usually paint or sculpt Baikal itself, since he’s more interested in the people who have lived and died by its shores. But one intricate sculpture, adorned with multiple time pieces, is meant to convey Baikal’s situation now, after generation upon generation of environmental equilibrium. In this piece, clocks are ticking for the Lake’s future...or worse still, have they stopped?

“Evenks have profound feelings for everything alive,” Kondakov notes. Everything has its own spirit, and everything is animate, including the fragment of a holy tree that has been transformed into an art object. As we stand with him, in the tiny village where few understand the import of his work, we recognize that the wood is not only alive, but it is speaking to us. Long-ago ancestors are speaking to us through the natural world, and the message is not comforting.

We end our trip in the far north village of Dzelinda, the location of one of the region’s hot springs. The natural spring is risky to patronize because of the prevalence of disease-carrying ticks and hungry bears, so we visit the man-made pools for a long and relaxing soak. There are three basins to choose from...lukewarm, warm, and scalding hot.

A man who drove more than 2000 kilometers from Novosibirsk bravely enters the hottest pool. He emerges smiling, but with beet red legs that were burnt by the intense heat. Then he urges his son, about 7 years old, to go in also. We cringe, hoping the small boy won’t be injured, but the father insists, “We didn’t drive all this way to avoid the hot water!”

We are reminded of the man, in the city meeting in Severobaikalsk, who insisted on enlisting young people in a patriotic effort to declare the city the cleanest around all of Baikal. It was a noble idea, but we looked around and noticed that very few young people were in attendance. We know that some, like Yevgeny Mariosov’s son Simon, have returned to the city to create innovative and eco-friendly businesses, like Simon’s coffeeshop, “Geography.” The future may indeed lie with this cadre of young people, willing to commit to the future of tiny, distant but environmentally critical locations around Baikal.

So far, Warm Northern Baikal has resisted construction of massive hotels and other outsized developments for large numbers of visitors, but it is said that the governor of this region is interested in allying with China to build a landing strip for jets, along with large hotels to accommodate a major new influx of tourists.

At the hot spring, the father pushed his son toward the scalding water, and the young boy looked at the father quizzically, as if to say, “Why would you want me to burn myself?” And he pulled away repeatedly, resisting his father’s entreaties.

In Warm Northern Baikal, environmental activists like Yevgeny Mariasov have pointed the region in the right direction, but the next generation will ultimately make the most important decisions.

At the Dzelinda hot spring, each pool represented a possible future. Who are the young people who will choose that future? And which pool will they choose?




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 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.

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Cyberian Dispatch 10: Baikal Speaks in Music

Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

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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.

Fog: New Electronic Music

by MASLO

This composition came together as a response to Mark Isaac’s and Gabriela Bulisova’s blog post about the Angara River, the only river flowing out of Lake Baikal. They are documenting the effects of climate change on the most ancient and deepest lake in the world. You can read about it here: atlantika-collective.com/blog/.


I spent some time looking at the images they took of the river and its endlessly mysterious, foggy landscape. In their blog post they mention the legend of Angara. The legend has a romantic twist to it. Angara, Baikal’s beautiful daughter, ran away from her father to meet a young man she was in love with. Father Baikal did not approve of this young man and wanted Angara to marry someone else. Baikal cried so much that his tears formed the lake. This is just one of many Buryat legends about Angara and Baikal. 


I reflected on the photographs, the legend, and Mark and Gabriela’s magnificent description of the river. I then tried to paint an audio image of it with my Moog model D synthesizer. The spacious, wobbly drones represent the vastness of the fog and the water. In addition, the spooky, birdlike sounds created with the Moog along with slightly unnatural sounds of water and wind give the music a quality of otherworldliness. My vocals (high and low) represent the spirits of Angara and her grieving father, Baikal floating in the fog.

 
I specifically used field recordings of water and wind that Mark and Gabriela sent me. Their samples served both as a vehicle to bring me closer to a place I have never actually visited (Siberia), and as a launching pad for this composition. When I listened to the field recordings and looked at the photographs, a certain mood, feeling, and image of the Angara came over me. I then channeled this feeling to write the music. 

credits

MASLO is a project of Maria Shesiuk

“Fog” released January 28, 2019 
Track mixed (but not yet mastered) by Nathan Moody 
Field recordings courtesy of Mark Isaac and Gabriela Bulisova 
Photo credit: Maria Shesiuk

All rights reserved

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 8: A Blazing Welcome in a Frozen Baikal Village

Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

The indigenous, traditionally semi-nomadic Buryat people of Eastern Siberia used to live separately from one another until the Soviet Union forced them into collectives where their language and customs were suppressed. Now, in post-Soviet times, many still live side by side with Russians in villages like Bugul’deyka, a tiny hamlet of traditional wooden homes on the Western shore of Lake Baikal. There, Buryat families endeavor simultaneously to preserve important customs and traditions from the past while entering the modern economy.

Thus we came to stay with the Boldakov family in one of the only Airbnb rentals available near Lake Baikal. Run from Italy by multilingual Ilja, a classical Spanish guitarist, the Boldakov family farm, named “Eastories,” welcomes visitors seeking an off-the-beaten-track encounter with the natural beauty of Lake Baikal, the surrounding hills, and the nearby Bugul’deyka River. A visitor might find the path to the outhouse blocked by cows on this working farm, then return to the house to post on social media. But more importantly, the hosts are focused on doing everything in their power to support responsible tourism that preserves the health of the Lake.

Fingering through the guest book, it was apparent that most visitors come in the summer, with a sprinkling in spring and fall. We came amply prepared for a bitter Siberian winter, wearing as many as six layers on our body, three layers of gloves and mittens, four layers of hats, Arctic boots, and balaclavas to protect our faces. But with temperatures plummeting to -40 Celsius (that’s the same in Fahrenheit!) in the night, and a howling wind relentlessly sweeping through the village and onto the Lake, our preparations were put to the test. We ventured out for at least several hours every day to the Lake, where fog steadily formed over the wind-driven waves and shaped icy sculptures on the banks. We climbed the monochromatic hills and struggled to operate our cameras with brittle, aching fingers until the final day, when we lost our courage and huddled inside, staring through glazed windows at spectacular cloud formations and listening in awe to the wailing blasts of attacking wind.

We survived, but we now know that the best preparations can fall a tiny bit short. Mark had his second experience with “frostnip,” a mild form of frostbite, and Gabriela’s eyes and toes throbbed in the relentless cold. So it was wonderful to return to the Boldakov homestead, where an inviting wooden banya restored full circulation and thawed shivering body parts.

It was also satisfying to sit in front of the traditional Russian “petchka,” or wood-burning stove, where Ilja’s Uncle Volodya, an extremely kind-hearted man with an infectious laugh, shared astonishing tales of the Buryat past and present. In our experience, many Russians began a reminiscence with the phrase, “In Soviet times,” and Volodya was no exception. Like many others, he divided his memories into two categories -- the repressive and cruel actions of Soviet authorities, together with the kinder, gentler economy and humane conditions for workers.

Under the Soviet Union, instruction in the Buryat language was forbidden in schools, and Buryats weren’t educated about their own culture and history. Worse still, their land was appropriated and their lives were threatened if they failed to conform to Soviet ideals. One of Volodya’s grandfathers was taken from his birthplace on Olkhon Island, charged with “pan-Mongolism” and summarily shot. He could have fled in advance, as others did, but he chose to stand his ground and suffer the consequences.

His other grandfather, who lived on the mainland, had his considerable property confiscated and was sent to a prison in the north. The grandfather’s sister, unwilling to tolerate these conditions, fled across the ice of Lake Baikal in the middle of the winter, leaving a one-year old behind because she didn’t dare risk his life in the cold. She escaped to China, then Japan, and she ended up in Australia. But her son who was left behind became a Communist, and when his mother’s letters arrived from abroad, he refused to open them, perhaps because of his beliefs, or perhaps because it could threaten his safety.

Many of these stories came out into the open only recently, because family members were deeply traumatized and didn’t want to talk about them. But recollections of intolerable injustices coexist with positive memories of a time when education was essentially free, there was a very strong forestry and fishing industry, salaries and pensions were high, and living conditions for workers were generous.

Following perestroika, the Buryat language was recognized again, and a revival of Buryat customs is taking place, but Volodya’s generation is considered expendable. Like elsewhere in Russia, the collective farm in Bugul’deyka lies in ruins. There is little investment in the village, jobs are scarce, many houses are crumbling, and electric poles are patched precariously instead of being replaced.

Moreover, Volodya insisted that environmental protections for Lake Baikal and its surroundings were stronger under the Soviet Union than they are now. Officials at the nearby national park aren’t focused on the most important tasks and fail to understand and work with local people, whose respect for the Earth is deeply ingrained in their history.

Despite concern over poor stewardship practices, Volodya has a lot of faith in Baikal’s future. “Baikal is a living, breathing organism,” he asserted. “It is always moving. This is where my ancestors came from, and I’m a little piece of the lake.” While he knows that certain locations are affected by pollution, including chemicals from factories and sewage from increasing tourism, he considers the Lake to be “self-cleaning” and has strong confidence that Bugul’deyka and most of the Lake remains unaffected by these problems.

One of Volodya’s biggest worries is that traditional Buryat customs and beliefs are slipping away, including purification and healing techniques such as pressure points that prevent illness. Following a concussion, modern doctors could find no way to treat his continued dizziness, and it was only a female Shaman who restored his health. And at the age of 16, he participated in a ritual in which his uncle killed a ram without spilling any blood, then lay all the ram’s organs on top of his own. After lying underneath, Volodya “became a human being again,” in his own words.

As the fire continued to roar in the background, Volodya performed some simple Buryat rituals. He burned sacred herbs that are reputed to cleanse and purify, walking to the corners of each room to spread their scent. Then he blessed us and our work in Siberia, sharing a shot glass of vodka with us. We each moved our feet in circles three times in opposite directions, then spilled a small amount of vodka onto the hearth, where it hissed and evaporated instantly. Fire is considered an incredible force, helping or destroying depending on how you treat it, and it must be respected. Here, in remote Siberia, we spent our Christmas Eve and Christmas Day huddling around the fire and respecting its warmth and its power.  

A Buryat legend says that Bugul’deyka was created when a member of a Buryat clan found a place where grass was wildly abundant and a bucket dipped in the river came out full of fish. Now, life in Bugul’deyka is much more difficult and uncertain, and local people struggle to find the right balance between the ancient and the modern, but faith in Baikal’s future still runs strong. This powerful belief is understandable in a people so deeply connected to the land, who embraced sustainable practices long before the term “ecology” was invented. But if we hope that modern stewards of the Lake and its surroundings will learn from Buryats and find ways to purify and heal the Lake, rather than destroying it in a mad rush to profit, we will all have to play a role.



 



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.


Cyberian Dispatch 6: 114 Gigabytes of Ice

Gabriela Bulisova and Mark Isaac

Most people who have never visited Siberia imagine it as a vast territory locked in permafrost. In fact, it was far from that when we arrived in September. We often walked about Irkutsk in shirtsleeves admiring the flowers and enjoying the warm breezes. Temps slowly diminished over time, but were still very tolerable into early November.

When we traveled to Buryatia last week, a remote area on the east side of Lake Baikal, we came prepared for the worst. New thermal boots, thick hats, extra layers, mittens the size of boxing gloves. But most of that was for nothing, since the weather was still cooperating. The temps were relatively balmy for this time of year, hovering between -10 Celsius in the night and +7 during the day (between 14 and 45 degrees Fahrenheit). We left the mittens at our guest house, shed layers, and even removed our coats during hikes.

But...it’s still Siberia, and that means the appearance of ice. Ice is now omnipresent along the coast of Baikal. Its small bays are crystalline. Its nearby wetlands are glazed. Memorable icicles dangle from shrubs, trees, and wiry debris. The undulating grasses of its tributaries are viewable through a transparent screen. And along its shores, the frozen spray forms a winter-long record of the Lake’s waves and the wakes of passing boats.

Unless you’ve been confined to the tropics, everyone is familiar with ice. You know its color, its texture, the threat to safety it can pose. But Baikal’s ice is distinctive, an experience unto itself. A natural artwork that manages to outdo any possible human exploit.

It’s clear, white, gray, black, sometimes in rainbow colors. It’s in crystals, patterns, outlines, layers. It grips plant life, bubbles, and rocks in an unyielding, graceful headlock.

What’s more, it’s already often thick enough to walk on. We hesitantly stepped onto the frozen shallows of wetlands, fearful of falling even a few inches. But locals, knowing its strength from experience, plunged without any qualm into the middle of deep pools.

In art school, learning video, Mark’s class had an assignment to use as many video filters as possible in one short film. The goal was to get it out of the students’ systems once and for all and get back to the basics of shooting.

Maybe that’s what our week in Buryatia was all about, at least in part. For a full week, we celebrated the unparalleled allure of frozen water. We photographed it morning, noon and eve. We have at least 114 gigabytes of Buryatia’s ice frozen on our hard drives.

Is it out of our system now? That is extremely unlikely.

Cyberian Dispatch 5: The Closest Place to Kiss the Lake

By Gabriela Bulisova and Mark Isaac

If the goal is to get to Lake Baikal quickly, Listvyanka makes it easy. Sitting at the source of the Angara River, Baikal’s only outlet, Listvyanka is a mere one hour marshrutka (minibus) ride from Irkutsk. It also has a reputation as the most commercial and touristy of all lakeside destinations, drawing a surfeit of visitors twice a year. In the summer, the warm weather inspires swimming, boating, and hiking. In the winter, skiing draws the crowds.

In late autumn, though, tourists are more of an oddity. We were the only ones registered at the Gavan Baikala (Baikal Harbor) Hotel, and we selected a choice room with views through a deep canyon toward the immensity of the Lake in the distance.

One reason people are scarce in fall is the capricious weather. When we arrived, it was sunlit and undeniably warm. In the evening temperatures plummeted, and we woke to a delicate snow powdering the landscape. Throughout the next day, faint sun alternated with blasts of wind and drizzle. It was every season in one.

Despite catering to tourists, Listvyanka is a small town with cows wandering its dirt roads and traditional wooden houses packed in amongst Soviet-era apartment buildings. It also has a burgeoning collection of small luxury hotels -- some legal and some that likely are not. There is a buzz about excessive construction fueled by Chinese investors, who allegedly build structures under rules for family homes and then operate them as hotels. And there is outrage over “lectures” by Chinese guides who contend (indefensibly) that Lake Baikal is historically Chinese and only in Russian hands temporarily.

The problem with the building boom is that the town has very limited sewage treatment capacity, so when tourists inundate the area, excess sewage flows directly into the Lake. While an influx of easy money is hard to resist, it may culminate in an environmental catastrophe that chokes off tourism permanently. And scientists are already raising alarms about high levels of dangerous pollutants and the mass death of native sponge populations in the waters surrounding Listvyanka.

For the moment, this tourist mecca is a strange blend of visual and emotional experiences. The collapsing concrete esplanade attracts sightseers who bound out of cars with selfie sticks to make a permanent record of their rapture in front of the Lake. The wooden houses, wandering bovines, and roadside stands offering smoked omul (the most prevalent of Baikal’s fish) present a pastoral scene. The stuffed seals, omnipresent Coca-Cola signs, and men using bullhorns to tout boat trips expose a kitschy capitalism. The construction of faux-glamorous hotels suggests a luxury that is still mostly aspirational. And often there is a rough (but photogenic) edge to the scenery, with building materials strewn about, crumbling fences, and peeling paint.

All that is juxtaposed with the sublime experience of walking out of the village to the east, in the direction of Bolshie Koty (see our blog post from that location, here). At first, grim metal lockers mar the pebbled beach. A few steps away, a landslide has deposited a torrent of boulders on the banks. Then, an ascent along the cliffside offered an astonishing perspective on the Lake’s incomprehensible vastness. Despite a dense cloud cover, a slim opening in the sky in Buryatia created a luminous white line on the Lake’s surface, a divine presence that persisted implausibly. Did it mean the gods were pleased with our visit?

We’d like to think so, but ultimately, it’s difficult to be a visitor in Listvyanka. The town’s messages are mixed, and it is disturbing to think that in small ways, we contributed to the growing problems facing the Lake. We came to kiss Lake Baikal and tell others of its charms, but we were left to ruminate...was it a kiss goodbye?







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.