Coke & Som Smith Photography & Travelogue

Expedition to Lake Baikal


  A foggy morning scene along the west edge of Lake Baikal.

 

For years Lake Baikal was basically a large body of water on the map that I never really thought too much about.  Then I was watching the PBS special, "Land of the Russian Bear", which dedicated a full hour on the nature and wilderness of Lake Baikal.  I knew immediately that I needed to get there some day!  In fact, the entire eight-hour series spent time in regions of Russia that I included throughout our three month to this immense country.

Planning travel in Lake Baikal can be difficult.  I did some preliminary research and learned fairly quickly that travel on the lake was limited to boat if you really wanted to experience the true wilderness the lake had to offer.  Most people who travel to the lake may simply see it from the windows of the Transsiberian Railroad.  Others may take a bit more time to see it by car, which can basically get you as far as Khuzhir Village on Ohlkon Island or Chivyrkuysky Bay.  But this would limit you to the population centers and eliminate any serious wilderness viewing opportunities.  So we went all out and contracted a Yaroslavet fishing boat for a one-week cruise around the lake combined with another week exploring Ulan Ude and the Selenga Delta region, where we stayed at a remote lighthouse with the family of the lighthouse keeper.  Our entire expedition to Lake Baikal was accomplished with the incredible assistance of Baikal Explorer (http://www.baikalex.com), and their owner Leonid (Leonya).  Leonid ran a top-notch operation and everything promised was delivered!  I would absolutely recommend him for anyone interested in visiting Lake Baikal!

Our expedition in Russia started with a week in Moscow followed by a four day experience on the Transsiberian Express.  We spent over two weeks in the greater Lake Baikal waters and region.  Experiencing life aboard a Russian fishing boat (Yaroslavet) for many days was truly spectacular.  We spent several days cruising the lake and trekking its surrounding Zapovyedniks (reserves requiring special permit and generally not open to the public or tourists).  We trekked and viewed from the deck of the boat, but night spotting was virtually impossible due to two reasons – darkness did not set in until after midnight, and our vodka consumption usually started at dinner time and after a few hours…..

 

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Lake Baikal Landscapes Gallery

 Here are some images of our amazing expedition of Lake Baikal!

The shoreline of Baikalolenski National Park in the far northern parts of the lake.

Lake Baikal and Surrounding Areas

Lake Baikal is a vast area.  The lake itself is as long as the British Isles and the body of fresh water is the largest in the world, containing 20% of the planet’s surface fresh water.  We spent time trekking and exploring three reserves and one national park.  We also spent three amazing days birding in the Selenga delta region of the southern portion of the lake.  While the wilderness areas around the park are filled with wildlife, spotting animals is a challenge.  We were very fortunate to see at least seven European or Siberian brown bear (Ursus arctos arctos) including a sow with cubs and two very large males.  We were even charged by a particularly large male feeding on caddis flies along the “Shore of the Brown Bears” in Baikalolinsky Zapovyednik.  We did catch a quick glimpse of a Barguzin Sable, a Forest Lemming (Myopus schisicolor), Siberian Chipmunk (Tamias sibirica), Suslik (arctic ground squirrel species – Spermophilus major) and hundreds of Baikal Seals or Nerpa.  We had quality sightings of both fox species in the region – Vulpes vulpes and the amazing Corsac fox (Vulpes corsac).  We saw lots of sign of at least two cervid species including Manchurian Red Deer (North American “elk”) and Roe Deer.  Although we did not see large numbers, the quality of sightings and the amazing venue well made it all very worthwhile.

 

 A quiet morning along the coastline of Baikalolenski Zapovyednik.  One of the greatest parts of this expedition was that we were completely in charge of our destiny.  We contracted our own boat for the entire time and the crew and capitan would stop anywhere we wished for as long as we wished.  We had a great time simply enjoying the solitude and amazing wilderness of Lake Baikal.  If we saw something interesting on the shore, the capitan would simply veer in that direction and beach the boat!

 

 During an afternoon in Baikalolensky, we decided to "park" the boat and go for a hike.  We headed up the tallest mountain in the region!  After a two hour trek basically straight up a scree slope, we captured amazing vistas of the northern portion of Lake Baikal.  We could see for over 100 miles in virtually every direction.  Here you can see the mysterious Lake Baikal fog that forms seasonally and is unique to the lake.  We saw this fog on two occasions while there and the sight was sublime.  The quiet that enveloped the lake when the fog set in was beautiful.

 

 One afternoon while we were cruising north, Som shouted, "bears! bears!"  The capitan immediately veered in their direction and I started shooting images.  Sadly my cameras was not set up properly, so these images were without the IS function.

 

 Momma bear had the good sense to get out!  The cubs were too busy slurping up caddisflies to notice our approach.

 

 While Som, Cokie, Vova (our wonderful high-school student guide and friend) and I were trekking the shores of Pribaikalsky National Park, observing the copious amount of fresh bear sign, Som shouted, "Bears!  There are two bears over there!"  Vova, our young guide, said that there was little chance that there would be bears right now, but I knew better.  I knew that when Som said she saw two bears, there were definitely two bears.  Vova basically convinced Som and Cokie that she was mistaken, but I decided to trek a bit further to see if I could get a good look.  So I continued up the shore for another kilometer or so.  When I turned a sharp bend in the shore, I immediately spoted the bear in the above image.  He was gorging himself on the caddisflies that made the "Shores of the Brown Bear" so famous for its high population of Brown Bears. 

I tried to signal Cokie, Vova and Som, but they were all too preoccupied skipping the prefectly flat Lake Baikal skipping stones to notice my waving!  I wasn't about to scream to them as I was a bit too close to the bears and didn't want to scare them off or alert them to my presence and provoke a charge.  After a few minutes of wild waving and gesticulating, they finally saw me and I waved them over.  They came up and everyone got a good view of these bears.  But then the bear noticed us.  At first it appeared that he was going to simply ignore us and go about his business, but then he started to gallop in our direction.  He stopped and stood straight up in order to get a good look at us.  And then he returned to all-fours and started to charge us!  I knew inside that he was most likely mock-charging us, but we could not take that chance.  We started back in a very brisk pace which before too long evolved in to a full sprint.  I knew that it was bad to run from predators and Vova did too.  He told us to stop running!  But the bear was closing the gap between us and him a little too quickly, so I decided to shunt our small group in the forest rather than continue escaping along the open shore, in plain view of the approaching bear.  This seemed to do the trick.  As soon as we disappeared from view, the bear stopped and went back to work slurping up caddisflies.  This was one of the scariest moments I had ever experienced in the wild with my family.  We were much more careful from this point when we left the safety of the boat.  Although I did have another close call when I followed a bear trail about two kilometers in to the bush and heard a very large grunt and a massive thrashing in the bush just ahead of me.  I returned to the ship very quickly...very quickly...But this time I was alone.

 

 The place we camped out on the shores of Pribaikalsky was a veritable bear highway.  There were literally hundreds of bear paw prints from several different individuals.

 

 Lake Baikal is home to a mosaic of habitats and ecosystems.  Along with the mixed conifer, dwarf cedar communities, there were thousands of acres of taiga forests with birch species.  There was also a healthy steppe grassland in the region.  In the steppe, we commonly spotted the Russian Arctic Ground Squirrels or Sousliks.  This one was a curious little devil!

 

 While on Ohlkon Island, we spoted many many red foxes and even a Corsac Fox.  This one was hunting Souslik on the steppes of Ohlkon.

 

 Although we saw a great deal of sign of the Red Deer species common in the area, we never caught a glimpse of any in the wild.  Maybe next time!

 

 The main target species for us on this expedition was of course the enigmatic and highly endemic Lake Baikal Seal or Nerpa.  I actually caught a glimpse of a couple while waiting FIVE hours for our ferry on day one in Lake Baikal.  (A FIVE hour adventure as tourists always get last priority after locals and commercial trucks.  Just as we thought it would be our turn to board, a local school bus or two fruit trucks would show up as if from nowhere!  We were only two cars back in the tourist line...which is why it took FIVE hours to board the ferry!  This must have been a leftover from the Soviet era...)

 

 We woke early on day two to visit the amazing Ushkany Islands to see the large colony of Nerpa or Lake Baikal Seals.  We spent several hours with these amazing animals, watching their morning activities while they warmed themselves on the rocks of the Ushkany Islands.  We all got a kick out of how they would scratch each other's backs!

 

 Their eyes are almost not of this world!

 

 I call this one the "no neck wonder!"

 

 The Russians still hunt the Nerpa, but their numbers seem to be fairly stable from what I have gleened from the literature.  We saw literally thousands of them while we were in their habitat.

 

 Another un-named stream feeding the crystal clear waters of Lake Baikal.  This seemed like a good place to pull over and take a stroll.

 

 There is that amazing fog again!  The trees in this images are mainly Siberian Larch (Larix sibericus).  While we were in the region, the flora were in full bloom and we had some incredible botanical times!

 

 Another un-named stream near Vova's fathers place, which was a small 50,000 hectare spread that basically comprised an ENTIRE mountain range!

 

 Some more Siberian Larch forests along the Pribaikalsky coastline.

 

 Sacred Shamamka Rock is a spectacular landmark found on Ohlkon Island.  The light this evening was stunning!

 

 Although we only spent one brief evening in Kuzhir Village, we got a good sense of what it is like in a remote Siberian viallge.  Electricity had just arrived here a year before we did! 

 

 Cokie was in the "stick-his-fingers-in-his-mouth-for-every-picture" stage of his developement.

 

 A brief lunch stop with some delicious soup and some incredible salad.  While in Russia, we had hundreds of soups and hundreds of salads, and rarely did we have the same soup or salad twice!  Amazingly good grub in Russia.  Som especially loved the omnipresent dill.

 

 Arriving to board our boat at Izhimey Cape!  We had already been on the expedition for three days by this point, but now it was time to see the Lake Baikal I had always dreamed of!

 

This lovely Yaroslavet was a renovated fishing boat.  I believe it even had some military service earlier in its history.  This vessel was a very comfortable way to experience the wilderness of the lake!

 

 Som taking a look at a distant Corsac Fox scouring the grassland steppes of Ohlkon Island.

 

 Throughout the region there was evidence of the Buryat Culture.  These sacred sites were everywhere throughout the vast Lake Baikal region.  I was impressed with the reverance both the Buryat and Russian people showed these special places.  Even the white Russian people would religiously stop and pay homage to these sacred totems before proceeding on their way.  We came across these daily.  Cokie instinctively treated them as if they were a Buddhist temple.  Fascinating!

 

 We came across more than a couple herds of wild horses in the region.

 

 This was a local shepard who we bargained with for a lamb.  Evidently he wanted too much as we left empty handed...

 

 Simply beaching the Yaroslavet was the mode of parking the boat, which made landings every easy to do!  The only hard part was navigating the wobbly ladder to disembark the ship.  After a bit of practice we got pretty good at it.

 

 Som soaking up the sun on day two of our amazing Lake Baikal expedition cruise!  This was without a doubt the most amazing expedition I have ever been on!

 

 As Leonya and I would always joke, "It's Vodka Thirty!"  Time for a few snorts of the Russian state liquid before dinner, which usually consisted of fresh Lake Baikal Arctic Grayling or fresh Omul!

 

 Just one of our many campfire barbeques along our trip.  Just find a place and build a fire and cook up today's catch!  So much fun!

 

 Initially the Capitan seemed like a rough and stern Russian ex-marine.  While in fact he was a solid guy for sure, after a couple days we started to see his softer side.  Here is the Capitan and his lovely wife reading Russian children stories to our little 4-year old Cokie!  Cokie loved it!  We initially told Cokie that the Capitan was a strict tyrant who would nail him if he misbehaved on the ship (typical parent lies to get desired behavior from their offspring), so when the capitan sat at our dinner table on our first night, Cokie cowered in fear.  I told the Capitan what our strategy was and he cooperated gladly.  But it didn't take Cokie too long to figure out that the Capitan was a softy!  This book reading pretty much did it...

 

 These Arctic Grayling were all caught on this day!  And in about 30 minutes!  And Cokie caught every single on of them!  Although he of course did have help, Cokie will never be able to surpass the fishing experiences he had in Lake Baikal.  It had been a long time since I had seen such productive fishing grounds.  Wow!

 

 

 While we were in Irkutsk, Som had some really ransid Chicken-kebabs and had a heck of a case of food poisoning!  Leonya was really worried about letting her go on the boat as help would be very far away in the middle of the 700 km-long Lake Baikal!  So his wife and the Capitan's wilfe collected the above herbs and tubers from the local forest and gave Som a tea brewed from them.  She felt better within one short hour!  I thought this to be impossible but I saw it with my own eyes!

 

 A local Kvas stand selling the main Russian drink, which is basically a liquid created with fermented bread?

 

After we finished our amazing adventure in Lake Baikal's wilderness, we spent several days exploring the Autonomous region of Buryatia, which is basically the Russian-owned section of Mongolia.  The culture is absolutely Mongolian and the features of the local majority people were very Asian, as was the cuisine.  We had an authentic Buryat meal filled with tons of guts!  Very Asian.

 

 While in Buryatia, we stopped off to see the most sacred Buddhist site in all of Russia, the spectacular Datsan Temple.  This temple was such a cultural paradox.  All that we had been seeing all summer long was so European, but now we were right in the middle of a completely different country and culture.  We were definitely in Mongolia, not Russia.  But the Buryat people would be quick to point out the distinction that they are not truly Mongolian either.  They are Buryat and that's it!  Genghis Khan was born in Buryatia.  At least this is what the Buryat people tell us.

 

 Spectacular Datsan Temple

 

 While at the Datsan Temple, we were fortunate enough to be visiting during a very special and auspicious day.  This was the day that a monk, who was buried exactly 75 years ago this day, was to be unburied.  Evidently this monk meditated himself to death (or enlightenment) 75 years earlier.  The amazing thing was that when he was unburied, his body appeared as supple and fresh as the day he died!  I had heard of this occurence many times in temples around the world but this was the first time I was actually able to be at the temple the day they revealed it!  What an amazing event.  While we were there, the monks sat us at the only table with westerners, most likely so we could speak English...or because we had the same color skin...who knows.  But this was fortuitous as they sat me right next to the President of Estonia and the Prime Minister of the Ukraine!  We had a wonderful conversation, and these two very non-Buddhist gentlemen were amazed with the condition of the 75 -year-old corpse.

 

Our home base while in Buryatia was Ulan Ude, where we spent a couple very pleasant nights.  Being in Ulan Ude was like a trip back in time to the Soviet Era as the Soviet art and memorabilia was more commonly seen here than virtually anywhere else we visited.

 

 Now it was time to venture out to the wilderness of the great Selenga Delta on the southeastern section of Lake Baikal.  We planned a multi-day trip out to this remote region to try to do some world-class birding.  Although we were there during the completely wrong season, we did pretty well with at least 40 species!  The beautiful young Buryat woman sitting next to Cokie was our local guide, Lika.  She had never been to the delta and had never traveled with a nature-freak family like ours.  We ended up becoming good pals and she even told us that she learned, from our experience, expertise and enthusiasm, how to better appreciate her homeland.  I took this as a fantastic compliment.

One of the things that I cherished the most about our stay in the Lake Baikal and Buyratia regions was the truly indepth cultural exchanges we participated in.  We were with local Russians every minute of every day.  We were either living in their homes (as was the case below with the lighthouse keeper and his family) or their boats.  We drank together, ate together and had many experiences together.  We talked about our own cultures - their quirks and strong points.  We joked about eachother and ourselves together.  We chatted about and even cursed the Cold War that had kept our two peoples apart for so long for no good reason.  My time in Russia very much endeared me to the Russian people.  The way they treated myself and my family taught me what true sincerity is all about.

 

 

 

 This Eared Grebe is just one of the many bird species we saw up close in the Selenga Delta!

 

 Our few days in the delta were spent at this small, simple lighthouse.  We stayed and ate and drank with the lighthouse keeper and his lovely family.  Our stay with this simple and kind Russian family is an experience my whole family will cherish always.

 

Som with the lighthouse keeper's son.  He is holding up a catfish the Russians call "Som"! 

 

 Our meals throughout the expedition were spectacular yet basic Russian food.  We always had fresh salads, soups, bread and generally some sort of fish.  Here we are eating Omul, the Lake Baikal region's most important fish.

 

 We came across these European Common Cranes during our early morning birding safari.  While we were there during the worst birding season, we did pretty well and I was pleased to see these and several other lifers while there.

 

 Black-headed gulls are common in the Lake Baikal region and especially in the Selenga Delta.

 

 

 On this afternoon, the lighthouse keeper took us to a "special bird spot" that he knew about.  It ended up being this massive Grey Heron rookery deep in to the middle of the Selenga Delta.  Here we got incredible views of these lovely birds, which were present in the hundreds.  

 

A young Grey Heron trying to get a good look at me!

 

 Barn Swallows were a common visitor to the lighthouse keeper's home.

 

 This Eurasian Curlew must have had a nest nearby.  He kept circling us during our trek to the Grey Heron rookery.

 

 Lake Baikal is home to a unique, maybe even endemic, subspecies of Hering Gull.  We saw sizable flocks of the Lake Baikal Herring Gulls in many spots throughout the expedition.

 

 

 The grasses and sedges of the Selenga.

 

  The flora were in full bloom while we were in the Lake Baikal region.  These lovely Pulsatilla ajanensis were a common bloomer in the steppes of the area.

 

 We stayed in Irkutsk on both ends of our expedition.  We walked for miles exploring this spectacular Siberian outpost city.  We were impressed with its high-culture architecture combined with the simple, yet elegant wooden houses that permeated the city.  Many of the homes are in poor condition but they are still very attractive to view.

 

 

 The wooden homes of Irkutsk!

 

We spent time touring the spectacular homes of the "Decembrists" who were exiled to Siberia during the times of the Czars.

 

 

To see our complete Russian Species List, click here!

 

Be sure to visit our Russia Galleries!

Lake Baikal Landscapes Gallery