National Parks–Here and over There

Homey was explaining about his upcoming drive.  “We are going to spend some time in Yellowstone… Do some National Park things and see some wild stuff.”  “Cool,” I said, “Just stay on the roads.”

I love Yellowstone.  I still savor the times my now-grownups and I camped, fished, hiked and looked there.  That brief conversation, however, got me thinking about the last national park I was in—it was Pribaikalsky National Park.

Pribaikalsky National Park is in Siberia.  It was founded in 1986 with the intention of preserving and protecting Lake Baikal’s western shoreline, including storied Olkhon Island.  That national park designation pairs with the region’s 1996 designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

As Diane and I and friend/colleague Elaine Glenn planned schedule detail after schedule detail of our train trip across Russia, Mongolia and a piece of Northeast China, we set aside enough time in Irkutsk to make an overnight trek to Lake Baikal and Olkhon Island.  What geographer would miss that chance?

Lake Baikal is the oldest (about 25 million years) and deepest (nearly 6000 feet) lake in the world.  It is also, by volume, the largest lake in the world, holding about 20% of the fresh liquid water on the planet.  It is deep, is amazingly clear and is cold, cold.

Olkhon is the biggest island in Lake Baikal and, actually, the biggest “lake” island in the world. It is about 45 miles long and nine miles wide.  There is not a paved road on the island—most of them are what we might call jeep trails—especially after a rain.  It has no landline phones, but reasonable cell service and fairly reliable electricity.  There are five villages on the island and a year-round population of about 1,500, swelling to thousands during the peak of tourist season (we were a bit early for that).  We would overnight in Khuzir, the largest village, and explore the island’s steppe and boreal forest (taiga) landscapes, bays, capes, cliffs and sandy beaches from there.

There is a good variety of wildlife in the region, including elk and white-tailed deer, bears and unique critters like the nerpa—the Lake Baikal fresh water seal.  Several couple dozen fish species are found in the lake, including lenok and taimen—large Asian trout/salmon species—and grayling, pike and sturgeon.  We were most interested in the iconic food fish of the region—the Baikal omul, a type of whitefish—and did enjoy a rolled and filled omul filet in Irkutsk.

Long story short, we booked a couple days with an English-speaking guide and his Toyota Land Cruiser.  There are dozens of B & B options in Khuzir, and we picked Olkhonskaya Terema Guest House.  Once off the Trans-Siberian and settled into our hotel in Irkutsk, we piled into Ivan’s Land Cruiser and headed north.  250 km later, we were queued up for the hour or so wait for our ferry ride to the island.

Olkhon Island is an ancient shamanistic land of the Buryat People.  There are certain rituals associated with a safe and happy journey there.  Thus, we stopped at a hilltop shrine, made an offering, tipped a sip of a Buriatia balsamic liqueur, and headed to Khuzir.  At our B & B, we ate fresh bread, cereals, vegetables and grayling cakes—simple and tasty meals.

Our 20-mile trip to the northern tip of the island was a great adventure.  We picked up our entry permit for the journey (it was Pribaikalsky National Park after all).  As we left Khuzir, we passed a large colorful sign similar to what I might expect at the entrance to a national forest or park in the US.  It included, among others, a picture of a vehicle with a red line through it.  A hundred yards later was a propped open gate.  We, and several other touring SUVs, went on.

It had been raining for a couple days, and whether we were crossing the broad steppe grasslands or churning through the taiga forests, we were seriously four-wheeling.  On the grasslands, we might slip and slither our way down a slope, cross the creek and tear up the other side on one or another of ten recently cut tracks up the hill.  In the forest, it the road became too rutted or muddy, Ivan simply found another way through the trees.  Amidst my inner conflict about the road business, we stood in fog atop amazing cliffs, hiked steep rocky trails, looked across the biggest lake in the world and had a great cookout at the extreme end of the island.

I hoped to see wildlife.  We saw two ground squirrels, a large number of free-ranging Buryat cattle and a couple dozen Mongolian horses.  We saw a few birds and fishermen with omul.  Ivan said there were elk on the island, but the closest we got was a five point shed leaning up against an old house at one of the Soviet Era prison camps we drove through.  We talked about humans and their use of such beautiful country.

As we drove out past that sign, I turned to Ivan.  “You know, Ivan, in the US that symbol of a car with the line through it means ‘no vehicles’ and they would shoot us for tearing up the trails and making new ones.”  “Yeah, same here,” he smiled, “that’s why we pay for the ‘entry permits.’  And the gate is what they close if the parks guys need more money—then we have to pay again to get out.  We are doing better now but it is still Russia, you know.”

That’s what I know about Russian national parks.

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized