Briefly about Baikal

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One of the wonders of the natural world

The water in Baikal is legendary—it is extremely clear, almost transparent, and saturated with life-giving oxygen. The clarity of the water makes it possible to see up 40 meters deep, or about 130 feet. The Caspian Sea and Lake Sevan in Armenia are both famous for their clear waters, and yet you can see only 70 feet down in these other prominent lakes.

Baikal Lake is located in the center of Eurasia (in Southern Siberia), and is surrounded by high mountain ridges. In length, from north to south it runs some 400 miles (636 km); it averages around 50 miles (80 km) in width, east to west. The average depth of the lake (2,400 feet) makes it by far the world’s biggest lake, at least in the volume of water it holds.

There are many rivers and streams that empty into Baikal—some three hundred thirty six in all. The biggest of these is the Selenga River, which carries as much water into the lake as the other 335 combined.  There is only one river that flows out of Baikal, however: the Angara.

The flora and fauna at Lake Baikal are amazingly diverse. In fact, most species here are found nowhere else on Earth. There 848 different endemic animals—which means that about 60% of the wildlife here can only be found at Baikal, and 133 endemic species of plants accompany them.


Age of the lake

Scientists still disagree about the exact age of Baikal. Most texts say that it’s between 20-35 million years of age. But if it’s younger than this, by millions of years even, it is still the oldest lake in the world.

For a long time no-one could believe that the lake was that old. Most glacial lakes will never exceed the more modest age of 10-15 thousand years. By that time they’re usually filled up with muddy sediments, and have become swamps or meadows.

So what happened with Baikal, you might ask?

Well, we now know that Baikal is not shrinking but growing—mostly as a result of tectonic forces. A continental plate is separating out at Baikal, allowing it to absorb all the sediment that would normally fill it up. This separation also results in a number of fissures in the crust, both under and around Baikal, creating thermal hot springs on the lakeshores for both tourists and locals to enjoy.


The local geography of Baikal

Lake Baikal can be found on the map in the southeast corner of Siberia, just north of Mongolia. It’s not very high above sea level—around 1,500 feet in elevation—and there are about 1,300 miles of sandy beaches and other shorelines that rim the lake.

On the west coast is the state (or oblast) of Irkutsk; on the east: the Republic of Buryatia. The main rivers besides the Selenga and Angara are called the Barguzin, Turka, Upper Angara,  Sarma, and the Snowy River.  And in the central part of the lake, besides Ol’khon Island, you can also find the Holy Nose Peninsula, as well as a string of islands known as the Ushkaniis.


Tourism at Baikal

Every year, more and more international tourists are coming to Baikal. The improvement of communications with the outside world has made this possible. What’s more, the lake is as pristine as ever—so we don’t expect the flow of tourists to halt any time soon. By building trails and campsites (rather than roads and hotels), our partners at Baikal are minimizing the potential impact of tourism on the environment.

Fortunately, in 1996, the UN designated Lake Baikal as a “World Heritage Site”. The hope is that in the future, most tourism in the region will be environmentally friendly.


Where does Baikal’s name come from?

Baikal’s name is a bit of a mystery.  There are various theories for its origin floating around, such as:

Bai-Kul—which means “rich lake” in the local Turkic-related languages;

Baigal—which means a “lustrous fire” in Mongolian;

Baigal-Dalai—which, in one of the Buryat dialects, means “big lake”;


Bei-Hai—which in Chinese means “northern lake.”

The native peoples of Lake Baikal have their own unique names for the lake. The local Evenks call it the Lama, while the Buryats have named it Baigal Nuur.

The first Russian explorers in Siberia adopted the Evenk name of “Lama” for the lake. As soon as Russian soldiers started to arrive, however, the Buryat name of Bai-Gal started to be used more commonly. Over time, the Russians found it easier to pronounce the “g” as a “k”, from which they ended up with the modern name for the lake – Baikal.