Words of a poet

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Mark Sergeev, Irkutsk poet

If you are stopped suddenly by a penetrating blue and your heart stops, as it sometimes happened only in childhood, from astonishment and delight... If all petty worries, all the vanities of the world, fall away like autumn leaves, and the soul takes wing and is filled with light and silence. If, suddenly, the ready word holds back, and you feel that nature has its own language and that it is now clearly understood. If a simple earthly wonder has entered your life and you have felt it ennobled by this encounter - it means, this is Baikal.

Indigenous Siberians have a mystical feeling for it. They believe that this is not simply 23 thousand cubic kilometres of water in some enormous stone bowl, but a wizard and healer who should be neither jested with nor enraged. This is why they never call Baikal a lake, only - the sea, or the Old Man, but more often than not they say-He!

Baikal water is truly living: from the surface to the depths, 1637 metres, Baikal has given a home to a multitude of forms of life. Unlike all other deep lakes of the world in which the lower depths are dead, poisoned by hydrogen sulphide and other gases, here the entire thickness is rich in oxygen. The water is mixed both by horizontal sea currents, around the lake and around each of its three hollows, and by vertically rising and falling currents. Now, scientists have discovered that thermal springs beat up from the bottom of Baikal, and no kind of pressure - and at the very bottom of Baikal it is enormous - can prevent the underground forces from driving out these jets.

Moreover, the only viviparous fish in the temperate zone, the small, transparent golomyanka, more than half of which consists of fat, plys calmly between the surface and the bottom. Deep water fish, as is well known, can withstand the dreadful pressure with the help of a special air-bladder. The golomyanka has no such air-bladder. This is Baikal. The beginning of its wonders.

Baikal's first wonder is its age. Lakes, as a rule, live some 25 to 30 thousand years. Gradually the whole area is taken over by slime, water weeds wreathe more thickly, the sediment layer raises the bottom up towards the surface, and finally water-loving plants turn the depths to greenery, the lake into a bog, and over many thousands of years, builds up turf and forms the tussocks of newly born marshland.

Baikal is 25 million years old! Scientists, having calculated the yearly build-up of sediment, give it still many years of life.

Baikal is 636 kilometres long and has a surface area of 31,500 square kilometres. By such standards there are lakes more expansive than Baikal - in Africa and America. But there is none among the world's freshwater lakes that is deeper than Baikal: Lake Tanganyika at its deepest is 1,435 metres, Lake Issyk-Kul - 702 metres. But in. Baikal, by the shores of its largest island, Olkhor, a plumb-line will reach the 1,637-metre mark.

The second wonder is Baikal's living waters! Anyone coming to the shores of this glorious Siberian Sea is amazed by its transparency.

Alas, a lot has changed. Only a few years after these lines were written - at the end of the 19th, beginning of the 20th century, the great trans-Siberian railway was laid along the banks of the lake. Immediately the railway brought Baikal closer to the whole of Russia and to the rest of the world. But with the railway industry and settlements coming to its sacred shores, Siberians became anxious for the fate of the blue eye of the earth. It was from here, from the shores of Baikal, that the first calls to the people of the world were made: there is only one Baikal and the misfortune that may befall the lake will be the misfortune not only of those living near its shores.

Siberians say that Baikal's waters are charmed. It is enchanted, the stuff of fairy-tales. When you can see stones at the bottom through the water it it's difficult to believe that there are some 30 to 40 metres under the keel. A newcomer sailing a boat by the shore, striving to pick up a stone of his fancy, will put his hand into the water and, pained by its icy chill, will suddenly realize that it was an optical illusion. An experienced Siberian, an old hand, however, leaning on the oars, will only smile - he himself had at one time been deceived by Baikal.

Even more astounding are the colour metamorphoses of the lake's surface. The water, taking into itself the smallest changes in the weather, the angle of the sun, moving clouds, or mists coming from the taiga, seasonal changes on the shores, soft greenery, the malachite radiance of summer and fire of autumn, changes in shade from blue-white or silver-grey to a piercing blue or slate-black with white wave sprays. You can stand for hours on the shore and, riveted, watch this ever-changing sport of water and sky, taiga and cliffs. Even those who live here and see the lake-sea daily and hourly, cannot boast of ever having seen Baikal identical on any two occasions,

Yet another wonder is the vivid life of Baikal. It contains 848 native species of animals unique to the lake and 133 species of likewise unique plants. Scientists call Baikal a unique natural laboratory, in which the enigmatic processes of creation are going on. Once, after yet another cataclysm had shaken the young Baikal mountain range, the shallow lake with its sandy shores and their southern forms of life--for millions of years ago, until the ice age, this was a sub-tropical area--collapsed into a rupture in the earth. The chasm gradually filled with water, and in the closed stone bowl ancient forms of animal and plant life were preserved and joined those organisms brought over hundreds and thousands of years by the rivers.

As a matter of fact, there is a theory that Baikal is the beginning of yet another, the fifth, ocean. Its shores are separating, shifting away from each other from year to year. Of course, two centimetres a year is not such a great distance, so neither our children nor our grandchildren's grandchildren will see the new ocean. But, as it has already been said above, Baikal is destined to live many millions of years, and, besides, nature has its own time scale.

Fifty-two species of fish have been counted in the lake. One of the most popular is ornul, whose catch has been the mainstay of shore-dwellers for centuries. During the Second World War, when the country overstrained all its resources in order to hold out and win, the fishing parties changed their usual nets for nets with a smaller mesh; in actual fact this was not trade, but devastation. Unfortunately, the wartime standards, established in a situation of emergency, remained into later years, and it was difficult for scientists to prove that such exploitation of Baikal was disastrous.

For many years there was a ban on fishing in the lake. Gradually the ornul population renewed itself, but the catch is to this day limited according to the instructions of limnologists.

Ornul is also found in other Siberian waters and even in the northern parts of the river Yenisey, in its lower reaches, but comparison shows that the Baikal ornul is quite different from its fellows.

I have already mentioned the viviparous, transparent, indeed glass-like fish, the golomyanka. This strange individual does not live like other fish. The golomyanka does not gather in shoals or schools; it makes its way around the Sacred sea alone, gives birth to a multitude of live fry, and has no roe.

The goby is well-known all over the world, but Baikal has an astonishing variety of them. Incidentally, the golomyanka is related to this species. Sculpins (another variety) are gaily coloured with coquettish, golden-yellow fins. They live on bed stones, where they lay their eggs; at each such stone the male stands guard like a knight. He defends his future yellow-fins so courageously, entering so boldly into combat with other gobies that are ready to make a meal of the eggs, that he sometimes perishes from standing by the cherished stones without food for the forty days the eggs take to mature.

Twenty-seven species of goby are unique to the lake, occurring nowhere else in nature except Baikal.

In this wonder-lake there is an enormous number of the minutest crayfish - distant relatives of the oceanic lobsters, crabs and shrimps. Only the Baikal inhabitants - and there are more than three hundred species - are extremely small.

However, if we think that because of their small size they are merely food for fish, we are seriously mistaken. Yes, the process of biological co-existence of different species is natural, but the minute crayfish - the Baikal epishura - is one of the main cleaners of the lake. The epishura catches the smallest waterweeds and bacteria. This crayfish is only one and a half millimetres in length, but within less than one square metre of the lake's surface scientists have counted up to three million of them! In the space of a year the armada of insatiable crayfish is capable of sweeping clean the top fifty-metre layer of water three times. Another crayfish - the gammarid shrimp (macrohectopus), which the locals call "Yur" and which is twenty times the size of epishura, destroys everything that might pollute the waters. It devours dead fish, drowned insects and even animals seized by the deep. So here is yet another secret of the famous purity of Baikal's water.

It is curious that even winter does not prevent the crayfish from going about their business. In the middle of the last century the well-known Baikal researcher, Benedict Dybovsky, left the corpse of a wild animal on the ice and a day later found a skeleton so cleanly picked that it could be put straight into a museum as an exhibit.

But here is yet another mystery: in what way, in a fresh-water reservoir hundreds of miles from sea and ocean, did seals appear?

The particular species of seal, which in Siberia is called 'nerpa', has adapted to such an extent to fresh water that there are years when scientists have counted up to sixty thousand in the lake. It is thought that at one time, many thousands of years ago, the salt water of the Arctic Ocean stretched into the (lower reaches of the Yenisey up to the mouth of the Angara, and, in search of food, the seals moved gradually deep into the mainland.

We have been so carried away by the living world of Baikal that we have forgotten about its shores. However, nature here has worked so hard and with such fantasy that the whole two thousand kilometre shoreline of the glorious sea presents a unity of landscape of striking and inimitable beauty. It seems as if Nature here was competing with itself, was trying not to repeat itself. It is framed in Bukhta Peschanaya (Sandy Bay) with two capes, the Bolshoy and Maly Kolokolny (The Big and Little Bell-towers) like ancient temples. When, at sunrise, on the background of golden luminescence, the silhouettes of the capes arise, it seems that just now a rich chime will sound out, church bells will pour out over the awakening Baikal. It sculptured Cape Dyrovaty in the form of a mighty elephant, or more exactly, a mammoth that had come to drink of the living water, dipped his trunk into the deep blue, and stopped dead, awestruck by the changeable wide spaces opening out before him. It scattered sand dunes at Cape Turaly, giving them the aeolian harp: the wanderer, happening to be here in his hour of rest, will hear musical phrases composed by Nature itself to the glory of its own creation. It has spread glaciers amongst the mountains and valleys of the lake's shores so that in July's thirty-degree heat they would remind us that winter is not far away. It has laid out rust-coloured, sandy spits, or, as they are called here, hags, into the waters of Posolsky Bay. And the space, cut off from the huge surface of Baikal, started a life of its own: here the water temperature can warm up to twenty degrees, while at the hottest time the surface of Baikal never rises to more than thirteen degrees centigrade. At Nature's beckoning, weird and fantastic pine trees ran out onto the sands, the so-called stilted trees, like green-horned deer. The winds of decades blew the sand away from under their roots, and the trees, so as not to fall, stretched their roots deeper; again the wind denuded them, and the trees doggedly resisted. And the pines are standing as if on stilts. Unfortunately, the most beautiful of these trees, which had adorned Peschanaya Bay for centuries, was not kept from destruction; it could not withstand the pressure of tourists. Now it remains only in photographs.

The 174 capes, inlets and bays are shallows with their own micro-climates. And no two are alike.

In Sagan-Zaba and Aya Bays one can see the rock paintings of primitive people - the first books of the first inhabitants of these parts - people, animals and fish, cut in rock 2500 years ago. And in the caves, of which there is no small number in the steep cliffs, numerous tools have been found by archaeologists - the stone knives, with which the spoils of the hunt were divided up, the arrow heads and fishing- tackle of our ancestors.

Mountains, covered in thick, variegated forest are the main feature of the landscape, but not the only one. In places the mountain ranges fall away from Baikal, giving way to steppe. A particularly large valley opens up near the settlement of Nizhnyeangarsk on the north-west shore of the Glorious sea. Not far from the settlement there are sandy beaches, the sandy Yarki Island, the deltas of the rivers Upper Angara and Kichera entering the lake, and many fish in the shallow lakes. What a place for a future holiday paradise!

The Academichesky mountain range is on the bed of Baikal. And besides this there are other mountains. Their peaks rise like the heads of giants standing on tip-toe to take a look: what is going on in the wide world! Twenty-nine heads, some covered with grasses, shrubs and trees, some bare and rough with boulders of barren rock, jut up over the clear mirror of water. In late autumn Baikal will get angry and swell up in an uncontrolled burst to shatter anything and everything with its transparent fists. The Old Man foresees the long winter captivity, resists with all his might, and thunders down hundred and thousand-ton blows on the islands, as if wanting to force them to dive under and hide in the still depths. But the islands remain and the threatening waters abate.

Amongst the grasses and shrubs, and sometimes on the bare rocks of island tops, seagulls rest and raise their young, which will take wing before the autumn storms, having had their fill of the tenderest fish. On other islands there are pairs of cormorants and colonies of other birds. Just as each cubic metre of water is heavily populated from the surface to the very depths, so each sod of dry land has long since been made a home: island, peninsular, the taiga on the shores.

The island of Olkhon is not like its brothers. It has laid itself out on the smooth Glorious sea more than 70 kilometres in length and up to 20 kilometres wide. On this sizable area of 730 square kilometres there are forests ("Olkhon" translated from Buryat means 'Little forest") inhabited by squirrel, hare and fox and full of the calling of birds; and steppe with herds of sheep; and mountains, adorned by peak Izhimey, 1300 metres high; sheer falling cliffs, and small bays with sandy beaches and warmed waters; and hollows, overgrown with berries. It even has its own town - the settlement of Khuzhir, with a population of almost two thousand.

With its sharp sides Olkhon rips open the living aquamarine of the lake-sea around it, and its capes, like the heroes of ancient Siberian tales, guard the peace of the island. The most beautiful of these bears the old Buryat shaman name-Burkhan. Its wind-swept cliffs, cleft by vertical cracks, open up over icy waters, a reddish-yellow fan, like the plumage of a petrified bird. Primitive people chose this place for their home and for many years scientists found the traces of their labour and life in the caves of Cape Burkhan. This cape is believed to be sacred. To its side is the half-circle of a bay and a beach sprinkled with soft sand. At the other end of this is another cape - Bogatyr, which stands in stone armour and takes on the full blast of the storm. The narrow sound between Olkhon and the shore bears the name Maloye Morye (or Small Sea). From the shores opposite the island, down the valley of the river Sarma, the wildest, most riotous and terrifying wind, the Sarma, storms out, and Bogatyr takes it on its brave breast. The southern end of the island is guarded by Cape Kobyliya Golova (The Horse's Head), like a horse drinking water, and the north-eastern end by Cape Khoboi which means in Buryat 'fang'.

When heavy summer rains lash down along the shores of Baikal, it is dry on Olkhon; it differs from the rest of the coast even in its climate.

Human impact on nature has taken on global proportions. People are blocking rivers with dams, depriving them of their natural movement, and, as a result, of the rhythms shaped over thousands of years. This is reflected in the climate, the way of life of the people and in the harvests, for such intrusion leads to unforeseen consequences. People explode mountains, excavate the bowels of the earth, leaving behind them a dead lunar landscape, fewer and fewer forests of the Earth, more and more deserts. Fewer song birds in the towns and ever-increasing numbers of crows, which have suddenly ceased to fear people. The whole world's factories are poisoning lakes and rivers and throwing out God knows what into the atmosphere and oceans; and this is all called progress. Over the last half century we have reached Baikal, have begun to build not resorts and hotels on its shores, but paper mills and large towns, seriously threatening Baikal and breeding fear in people's hearts. That is why we are turning all the more often to the small surviving islands of our earth, untouched by civilization. That is why the good idea of establishing nature reserves gives us hope that it will be possible to preserve at least a little for future generations. And if at last it enters the mind of Man, in his highest stage of scientific, industrial and, most important, moral development, to gradually return to the planet its natural aspect, then there will be the material, etudes, from which future architects can begin to draw the picture of an ecologically pure Earth.

For this reason we look with hope at Baikal, where the fight to preserve this earthly wonder has become the symbol of our time. For us there is hope here. And the first is the few nature and game reserves, including one on the island of Olkhon. But the earliest and largest of them is the Barguzine Nature Reserve, founded back in 1916, at first only to protect and preserve the sable, king of the furs. On an area of 248,176 hectares, and a 15,000-hectare strip along Baikal's shore, on the western slope of the Barguzine range the taiga has been preserved in its original form, with all its tiers of light and dark conifers, with its impenetrable low-growing cedar forests (pinus pumila), which is impossible to get through without leaving one's clothes on its needles. With rare and the rarest of trees, with that Siberian elm, which back in the 17th century was used instead of the famous mahogany by local craftsmen to make decorative furniture. With its clearings, brightly woven as if by talented carpet-makers, with its heady grasses and alpine meadows, in which grow plant 'relics' that have almost completely vanished from the face of the earth,- saxifage, and alpine poppy, and the Siberian orchid - "kukushkiny sapozhky" (cuckoo's little boots). Here it is easy to come across an untroubled wild animal, from a large bear or giant elk to the smallest insect, dermaptera, which you can hardly make out and then not straight away.

Other nature reserves are now functioning and being formed - on the spurs of the Khamar-Daban range, in the delta of the Selenga, and on the Shore of the Brown Bear, but, most important of all, at last work has started on the creation of a National Park in the expanses of Prebaikalye.

If, having drunk of the crystal waters and delighted in the jubilant rollers beating on the pebbles of the shore, lighting up like holiday fireworks, you return to your own hearths and homes and you suddenly feel that something is missing. If you suddenly sense in your soul something bright and elevated. If suddenly you feel you want to get a ticket for a plane or train and once again set off on the road. You understand: THIS IS BAIKAL.


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