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 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 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 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.