Cyberian Dispatch 9: Playing Hide and Seek with the Angara

By Gabriela Bulisova and 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

December 29, 2018

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, use of the Buryat language was forbidden, 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 5: The Closest Place to Kiss the Lake

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 & Mark Isaac

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cyberian Dispatch 2: Russia's Vast Galapagos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cyberian Dispatch 1: Exile Begins

by Gabriela Bulisova and Mark Isaac

"You're going there willingly?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tagged: siberia, cyberian dispatch, exile, irkutsk, climate change, lake baikal

A River in Retreat

Gabriela Bulisova and Mark Isaac

It was not only the grape harvest in Chl’aba, Slovakia that was compromised by a scorching hot summer without rain (see our last post), but the nearby Danube River has dropped to its lowest levels since the early 1960s, according to local residents. 

The most obvious result is that vast expanses of pebbly beach have opened up on both sides of the river. And the drop in the water level is so precipitous that the larger cargo and cruise ships that move regularly in both directions on this major European thoroughfare have temporarily ceased their operations.

But the most tragic and upsetting result of the extended heat and drought is a major fish kill in the river and the pools along its banks. As with many other bodies of water across Europe, the prolonged extreme temperatures and lack of oxygen created a toxic mix that many of the Danube’s plentiful fish could not escape. Worse still, the water in the ponds that dot the river’s banks in Chl’aba slowly evaporated, leaving listless fish flopping in a trickle of fetid water, along with hundreds of carcasses for birds to pick apart.

The Danube is already stressed by extensive agricultural runoff, chemical discharges, pharmaceuticals, poor wastewater treatment, and extensive plastic and other solid waste (and its problems then become the problems of the Black Sea, into which it flows). All this is worsened by extremes of climate that have an immediate impact on water quality, fish and other wildlife.

Keeping the Danube healthy requires a cooperative effort of the nations through which it flows, including Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova and Ukraine. Its drainage basin extends into nine more countries. A recent European Union report strikes a hopeful note, citing advances in wastewater treatment and other pollution controls. But at this fragile moment in the European Union’s history, it is hard to know if environmental protection is top of mind for the governments that need to tackle this problem, or if they have the will to take collective responsibility.

For the moment, the Danube is a shadow of itself, a river in retreat, choking up its fish. Can we move beyond this moment, or is it just the beginning of something more atrocious?

A CLIMATE OF CHANGE

Gabriela Bulisova and Mark Isaac

Our back to back Fulbright grants took us in 2017-18 to Ukraine and will take us in 2018-19 to Eastern Siberia. While the projects are 5 time zones away from each other, they have much in common. Both are focused on water that has been dramatically affected by climate change.

In Ukraine, we told the story of the Southern Bug River, once the historic territory of Cossacks on the steppe, now reduced in flow so much that the nearby nuclear energy complex proposes to flood a national park to provide more cooling water to its parched Soviet-era reactors. The decision is now in the hands of the Verkhovna Rada, or Ukrainian Parliament, and activists hope to use the film, titled God’s River, to influence the outcome, which remains uncertain. (Stay tuned, the film will have its online debut in the near future.)

In Siberia, we’ll focus on Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest lake, which is revered by the indigenous Buryat people as sacred. In the Buryat origin myth for Lake Baikal, fire exploded from the earth and the people cried, “Bai, Gal,” or “Fire, Stop!” Their prayers were answered and the deepest lake on earth was formed. Our project will connect the fire of this ancient myth with the new fire that now threatens the lake: that of climate change. Lake Baikal, which contains a significant percentage of the world’s fresh water, is one of the places in the world that is most affected by global warming, and its long-term health is now at risk.

As we travel to Siberia, we are pausing for three weeks in the 800-person village of Chl’aba, Slovakia, where Gabriela’s mother lives and where Gabriela spent her childhood summers. This has been a frequent stopping off point for us in our travels, and it is the subject of our longest project to date -- more than a decade of work documenting her “Returns” to her family, the natural beauty of the land at the confluence of the Danube and Ipel Rivers, and the changes the village has seen in the post-Communist era.

The first thing we noticed about Chl’aba upon our latest return was how hot it was. Like a large swath of Europe, it was blasted with intense heat for weeks on end, with no rain. And the results were immediately apparent when we visited the family vineyard, where two-thirds of the grapes were withering, diseased, or gone. Nonetheless, the harvest went on one late August morning, when the weather had mercifully turned milder. With neighbors gathered to assist, the chatter among the natives (in Hungarian, as Chl’aba is a border village that is dominated by Hungarians) turned to the dates of harvests over time. They noted that the grape harvest used to take place in October, then shifted to September, but in recent years has occurred as early as late August.

As we move closer to Lake Baikal, we are experiencing a change of climate. The hot weather of the American and European summer gave way to the first hints of a cooler autumn, foreshadowing the brutal cold of the far East that will be a central feature of our lives in the coming year. And at the same time, our stop in Chl’aba was a forceful reminder that climate change is with us now, in all parts of the globe. The climate is changing, from Washington, to Europe, to the Far East. And unless we can alter the climate for change, our march toward an apocalyptic crisis will be a shorter one than any of us imagined.