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Suntanned in Siberia

Our arrival in Irkutsk. We had a brief tour of the town, which is filled with old Siberian style buildings. It has a lot of Universities and Museums, being the cultural and educational centre of eastern Siberia. We then drove to Listvianka by the shores of Lake Baikal. We passed through more beautiful taiga (which means "green sea"), and were told about the local wildlife. The local name for brown bear means "tsar of the taiga", but what I found most amusing was that the local name for the wolf means "doctor of the taiga", because they kill the sick and injured. Siberia means "sleeping earth" in the local tartar language.

Lake Baikal is a rift lake caused by the pulling apart of the Eurasian plate 26 million years ago. It is the world deepest lake, being 9km down to bedrock, although there are kilometres of sediment such that the deepest point is 1.6km down. This is deep enough that it holds 20% of the world's water, as much as all the great lakes of North America combined, even though it is much smaller in surface area, being 640km by 100km.

In the evening of our first day in Listvianka we had dinner at Rita's house (John, Luke and I are staying in a homestay), delicious mushrooms.

Our second day in Listvianka was simply glorious. The taiga couldn't have been greener, nor the water or sky bluer. Barely a cloud in the sky, and mid-twenties temperatures. It felt like a tropical island rather than Siberia. In the morning we went to the Baikal Ecological Museum, which was quite interesting. Lake Baikal has every odd weather. Because of the depth of the lake, the 12 degree surface water has to cool to 3.6 degrees and sink to the bottom, and the entire 1.6km of water cycle in this way, before the surface can freeze. This means that the lake doesn't freeze until the end of January, nearly at the end of Winter. The same occurs in thawing, which occurs in mid-May, towards the end of Spring. This creates a very powerful microclimate.

Lake Baikal also has fascinating ecology. There are 3500 species, of which 80% are endemic. The Golomyanka, also called the oil fish, is a twenty centimetre gray scaleless fish, made up of 30-35% oil (enriched with vitamin A). It is unique in the ability to live at the bottom of the lake during the day, and rises to the surface at night, a change of 160 atmospheres each direction, enough to crush steel. It gives birth to 2000 live young at a time (the female normally dies in the process), and its biomass is twice that of any other fish in the lake.

The water of Lake Baikal is exceptionally pure, about the same as distilled water in mineral content (my hair was so soft after washing in it). It is so clean because of nine endemic sponges and a one millimetre crab called the epischurn. This tiny crab fills the lake, and strips down all organic matter. If any body is left in the lake for three days only bones are left (after two weeks the bones are gone because the hypotonic water dissolves the salts). Someone asked the lady if you could put the crabs into polluted water elsewhere to clean it up. She answered, "Niet, they do not want to go anywhere, they like it here".

I also saw Nerpas at the Museum. Nerpas are the smallest seal in the world, and the only fresh water seal, endemic to Lake Baikal. They give birth in Spring (when the lake is frozen) and make a snow cubby for their young, keeping the breathing holes open with their large claws. There are 80 000 to 120 000 in the lake. Two years ago a mother and pup were injured in a fishing accident, the museum took them in and cared for them, they now live there. The pup was gorgeous, swimming up and down to see us, until the mother slowly swam in, so fat she looked spherical (it was just because she pulled herself into her body for warmth, when she swam she elongated), and chastised the pup for seeking attention. We watched the mother scratch the pup's belly, to her obvious enjoyment. It was so cute.

I bought a small statue of the Spirit of Baikal made from the local rock (it is only found here). I rarely buy souvenirs, but if you put vodka on the belly of the spirit and make a wish it comes true, and if you leave it at home when you travel you will return, so it seemed only prudent ;)

In the afternoon we went on a cruise on the lake, and soaked up the warm Siberian sun. It could have easily have been around the Greek islands. Afterwards we had a traditional Russian banya. We all went into a sauna, waited until we could take no more heat, then whipped each other with wet birch leaves, before running out and jumping into the icy waters of Lake Baikal. Legend has it that dipping your hands in the water gives you an extra year of life, your feet an extra five years, and jumping in like we did an extra twenty five years. It certainly removed the last vestiges of grime from the trans-Siberian.

That night after dinner everyone went up to the hill to watch sunset over the Lake.

Today we drove back to Itkutsk. We went past Shaman rock. The legend (Shamanism is still very strong in Siberia) is that Baikal's daughter, Angara (the only river to run out of the lake) tried to run off with her love and Baikal threw a stone to stop her, which is Shaman's rock. They used to leave criminals on this rock overnight to test their guilt - if they survived they were innocent (they always died). Also the same to test wives to see if they were unfaithful.

Just outside Irkutsk we visited the wooden architectural museum, with wooden buildings from all over Siberia from different times. It was really quite interesting. The buildings are different from Russia in that the windows are tiny and high up (so that snow drifts don't blow in during winter). The doorways are quite short so you have to bow to enter the room - in front of the entrance is an icon, so entering involves bowing to the icon.

In Irkutsk I wandered around the city, looking at the old wooden buildings. Irkutsk was built in 1652 as a Cossack garrison to control the Buryats. After the Decembrists uprising (mid 1800s if I remember correctly), the rebels were exiled here, but allowed to take their money, so it became quite a rich city. It was the centre of the White Russians from 1917 until they were defeated in 1920. I walked up Karl Marx street and saw statues of Marx and Lenin, before hopping on the trans-Mongolian train.

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