The Pribaikal’ski National Park
Table of Contents
How the Pribaikal’ski Park was Created
How the Pribaikal’ski Park was Created
The first nature reserve in Russia was founded over a hundred years ago; national parks, however were first to appear in Russia only in the year 1980. National parks usually cater to tourists more than reserves, which highly restrict the movement of visitors.
One of the first parks in Russia was Pribaikal’ski National Park. It was founded during a time when local communities at Baikal were in the midst of fighting for better protection of the lake. In 1986 (on February 13th to be exact), the Counsel of Ministers of the Soviet Union decided to organize Pribaikal’ski as a federally protected territory. Later, in 1996, the park was included as part of the World Heritage Site that UNESCO designated around Baikal.
About the Park
On a map Pribaikal’ski appears as a thin strip of land that hugs Lake Baikal’s western shoreline. It stretches some 470 km (or 280 miles) from the village of Kultuk in the south up to Point Kocherikov in the north. The park itself slopes down the eastern edge of the Shoreline Mountains, while the southern flank of the park rise up to the Olkhin Plateau. And in the far north, there is Olkhon Island, the largest island on a lake in the world. The park is almost cut in half by the mighty Angara River, the only river that flows out of Baikal.
Pribaikal’ski covers almost a quarter of the entire Baikal waterfront. That’s more shoreline than the three other coastal parks around Baikal combined. In terms of bio-diversity, and the sheer number of rare species of flora and fauna—this national park can be said to surpass almost every protected area in Russia.
The total area of Pribaikal’ski Park is about 417,297 hectares, or slightly more than 1 million acres! The park stretches over three different counties in the Irkutsk region (or oblast’), including Slyudyanka, Ol’khon, and Irkutsk Counties.
The Park is zoned for five different kinds of usage, which can be described as follows:
Restricted wilderness areas—There are nearly 200,000 acres set aside solely for the purpose of protecting valuable natural ecosystems within the park. In these wilderness areas all kinds human activities are prohibited. What IS allowed, however, in these wilder areas, are various scientific research projects, as well as park work to protect the forest from man-made fire, wildlife poaching, or other human attempts to destroy park resources. NOTE: Visitors are allowed to enter these wilderness areas only with special written permission from our park staff.
Recreational and low-impact tourism areas—There are about 400,000 acres designated for recreation. In these regions the parks provides various trails and hiking routes, campgrounds, viewpoints, and other modest tourist facilities. Visitors are allowed to pick berries, mushrooms, and nuts here; and unfortunately, with special permission, some sport hunting is allowed. However, only local residents within the park are able to collect wood, or grass and hay for feeding their livestock.
Heavy-use visitation areas (@30,000 acres)—There are several sites set aside to accommodate a larger number of visitors, where local residents provide services within the park. Sleeping accommodations and other more extensive services are permitted within these zones.
Villages and Towns—When the park was created, a number of rural communities were already located in the Pribaikal’ski region. The residents who lived there are still able to pursue their livelihoods: some herding and tilling of the land is allowed, as long as this agricultural activity is low-impact in nature. In all, some one quarter million acres are zoned for these towns and surrounding areas.
Traditional land-use area—In the Onguren native lands some 75,000 acres have been designated as a zone of traditional land-use. The purpose is to preserve traditional economic and cultural activities that have been practiced for centuries by local tribes.
The Topography of the Park
Pribaikal’ski is noted for its unusual geo-morphology, particularly because of its location in an active rift area. The lifting of a new rift has resulted in a very long strip of cliffs and mountain benches, some 250 miles in length, looming above the lake. The views from these mountaintops are often breathtaking.
The height of the “Shoreline Mountains” rises from hilltop elevations of 1,500 feet up to 3,500-foot peaks. The southern half of park, on the other hand, is more hilly than mountainous. Mountain spurs protrude in a series of ridges, forming a number of small river valleys below. Many of the ridges reach down to Baikal itself, creating slide areas and steep climbs that measure 50-60º in vertical drop. The further you travel away from Baikal, the more forgiving the ridges are, as they slowly give way to a more hilly terrain: the Olkhinski Plateau rises only some 2,000 feet above Baikal.
The highest peak (some 5,500 feet above sea level) is found in the Anaiski region. Just north are the Zunduk-Onguren highlands, which lead up to the Baikal-Lena Nature Reserve. The tallest point on Olkhon Island however—Izhimyei Mountain—is only 3,000 feet high.
In Russia there is a system of national monuments of nature, which are considered outstanding areas of natural wonder. Within this park alone there are 16 of these official monuments of nature: one is noted for its botanical riches, another for its animal wildlife, three for their special geological features, another six for their geo-morphological formations, two for their caves and caverns, and five for their otherwise unusual landscapes.
The weather in western Baikal is continental, but varies quite a bit from region to region within the park. Needless to say, the massive lake next to the park substantially influences its climate.
The average year-round temperature in the park is barely above freezing; but in July it can reach the 70s (F), or even the low 80s during the day. In the winter, -25° weather along the shoreline is still much warmer than the frigid Siberian temperatures further inland.
The cold-water mass in the lake means that there are very few ascending currents of air, which tends to reduce the cloudiness of our region for days on end. For this reason, the park is famous for its clear, sunny days (although a few storms can roll in from time to time).
The rainy season usually starts in April and will last until October. Precipitation in the south of the park can reach up to 25 inches a year— more than in the north, around Olkhon Island, where one often sees less than 10 inches. Snow will cover the park starting in the middle of November, up until it melts at the end of April.
Lake Baikal will freeze over starting in early January, only to thaw out in May. The underground permafrost in the region can easily be 10 feet deep. One unique phenomenon, which only occurs in the Arctic, is the appearance of hydro-laccoliths (little hillocks filled with an ice core), which are actually common in the park.
Baikal winds are notorious in Pribaikal’ski. The most dangerous gales are the Sarma and the Karakaika, both capable of reaching hurricane strength. Many campers on Olkhon Island and the shores of Pribaikal’ski have had their tents blown away into the water. As you walk along the coast, you will come across a number of monuments or gravestones that memorialize the sailors who perished in these winds offshore.
The windiest weather usually occurs in the fall, during the month of November. Summer winds are usually not as robust, and bring warmer temperatures from the west and southwest—but the winter can bring blasts of colder, arctic air from the north.
Local Rivers and Streams
Pribaikal’ski is located between Lake Baikal and a very large man-made reservoir. The mountains give rise to a number of streams and rivers that flow both east and west into these two massive water bodies.
The only areas within the Park that lack an abundance of streams are on Olkhon Island and the mainland immediately across from the island. Most of the streams in other parts of the Park are not long, measuring only 5-10 miles in length. A few of the larger rivers include the Goloustnoye (80 miles long), the Anga (60 miles), the Bugul’daika (50 miles long), and the Sarma (35 miles). The most famous, however, is the shorter Half-Way River, only 15 miles from source to lake. This river forms one of the finest river valleys in the park.
In all there are some 150 streams and river-ways within Pribaikal’ski: 60 of them flow directly into Lake Baikal. There are also 80 small lakes scattered around the park. Up north many different types of lakes, lagoons, deltas, and floodplains contain very pure water. In the higher steppe lands one can find 20 different, semi-saline karst lakes, typical of Siberia. There is one such lake on Olkhon Island named Shara-Nur that is considered sacred by local natives. Finally, there are a number of mineral and other hot springs in the park, some of which are open to tourists even in the dead of winter.
Trees, Flowers, and other Plant Life
Pribaikal’ski National Park is a part of the larger steppe biome that stretches across much of Siberia. The taiga forests are mostly larch and pine, mixed with steppe-land vegetation. The forest undergrowth is teeming with rhododendron, fern, wild strawberries, and other fruit-bearing plants. In some areas, birch trees introduced by man have begun to dominate.
In the foothills above Maloye Morye (the Small Sea), one can also encounter sparse stands of a rare sub-species of larch trees. This highland area extends out to the western half of Olkhon Island. Lower down, once-underwater plains lifted by tectonic pressures are often covered with seas of grass and fescue.
Amidst these unending plains of grassy vegetation are a few rocky outcrops, home to prairie thyme and other herbs; and in the smaller depressions or on the bottoms of canyons—sagebrush and feather-plants. The steppe is often overgrown with chia and other brilliant halophytic plants. Of particular interest in this eco-system are various hardy plants like locoweed that prevail on the shifting sands of Olkhon.
Locoweed is one of the many plant species endemic to Baikal (that is, it occurs only in this very limited region). Some other species are relicts, i.e. plants that were once prolific eons ago, but are now relegated to a few select habitats. A relict called the sweet vetch (hedysarum) only occurs around the Zunduk Inlet, and dates back to before the ice ages.
Near to Olkhon Island there are a number of waterlogged meadows where the feathery primrose grows. In nearby rocky terrains grow the humorously named bastard vetch (or oxytropis trifoliate), another relict species that first appeared in the area 15 million years ago. In fact there are many relict species that flourish in the park.
In the middle slopes of the Shoreline Mountains, and up higher in the Olkhin’ski Plateau, light coniferous forests shelter cranberry thickets, wild rosemary, and other herbs. Some of the endemic flowers include the Cotoneaster rose, as well as a rare sub-species of hawthorn.
At present, the darker coniferous forests in the local taiga are somewhat fragmented. They are found only in the highlands around the Olkhinski Plateau, and in the shadowy mountain gorges. These are, ironically, called cedar forests because originally settlers mistook the trees here for cedars—they are simply more of the same: pine trees. Many relicts from the Tertiary era are preserved under the canopy of these forests. These date back to 15-20 million years ago. On the forest floor there are many flowering plants, such as the Yenisei and Altai anemones, the common viburnum, and the Daurian moonflower.
Two different types of landscapes crown the highlands in Pribaikal’ski: mountain tundra and elfin cedar forests. These ecosystems are also fragmented, and occur only on the northern reaches of the Shoreline Mountains. Various lichen species flourish in the gravelly mountain tundra, alongside sparse (yet healthy) thickets of elfin cedar.
The list compiled of all the flora in the park consists of some 1,385 individual species of vascular plants, of which some 12% require special protection for one or another reason (they are either endemic to our park, relict, or rare and endangered). Only 11 species of plants are endemic to the park. Another 20 are endemic to the whole Baikal region, 35 are endemic to eastern Siberia, and 50 appear only in a limited region of Asia. The park currently offers special protection to approximately 100 species of plants, most of which appear in the Red Book of Rare and Endangered Species.
Both mosses and algae are widespread in our park. Species of mushrooms at Pribaikal’ski are also common, both edible and poisonous. Mushroom hunting is actually one of the most popular pastimes for local Russians visitors. The park contains 62 species of fungi micromycetes, and 593 species of fungi macromycetes. 5 of these mushroom species are included in the Red Book of Russia.
Some 25 different species of fish swim in the rivers, or near the lake shorelines of Pribaikal’ski. Particularly notable are the taimen trout, the lenok (a freshwater salmon), and the black grayling.
Four species of amphibians and five reptiles live in the park. Several of them are relict populations that have been at Baikal since before the ice ages. Perhaps the most famous of these is the Mongolian toad. This toad inhabits several small corners of Pribaikal’ski: the higher steppes as well as Olkhon Island.
The most exciting reptile species may be the racer (or coluber) snakes. The southern border of Pribaikal’ski is actually the northern edge of this relict snake’s domain. There are several isolated communities of these racers in “focal point” habitats, the largest of which is on Olkhon Island.
In all, Pribaikal’ski is home to some 64 species of mammals. The crowd favorite is the Baikal seal, or nerpa: the only true freshwater seal in the world. Some of the best rookeries for the Baikal seal are located in this park, on Olkhon and on nearby smaller islands. The park is also home to 6 species of ungulates (hoofed animals), 2 rabbit species, 14 predators, 9 bats, 10 insectivores, and 22 rodents.
All of the insectivores and rodents are fairly common for this part of Siberia, with the exception of the Olkhon vole: the only endemic rodent species in the Irktusk region. A visitor can stumble across this tiny animal along the cliffs and other rocky formations in the Northern third of the park.
Pribaikal’ski Park cares about all of its species, however, regardless of their status. There are quite a few red deer, and in some places plenty of roe and musk deer. Wild boars are found in the southern reaches of the park, living peacefully alongside herds of elk (who particularly like the Big River Basin). One can even see reindeer from time to time, as they sneak into their wintering grounds in the northern half of the park.
For predators, Pribaikal’ski is home to ermine, weasels, steppe polecats, sable, and fox. Wolves and bears are also common in some areas—as is the stealthy lynx. One extremely rare species—the snow leopard—will occasionally cross into the park in search of prey.
Pribaikal’ski is also a birder’s paradise. Tourists can come to see some 300 different species, of which 174 actually nest in the park. 37 species will build nests in the park only from time to time; another 34 are migratory birds who use Pribaikal’ski as an important flyway. 8 species spend only their winters in the park.
A number of eagles and sea eagles live within the park, the most revered of which is the imperial eagle. At Lake Baikal this majestic bird will nest only within Pribaikal’ski, mostly in the steppe forests around Olkhon Island. Natives know the imperial eagle as the sacred white-headed eagle. It is a principle deity-symbol for many Baikal-Buryat shamans.
The Saker (or large) falcon, the demoiselle, and the bearded partridge also nest in this part of the Baikal region, mostly around Olkhon Island. And the colorful ruddy shelduck can’t be missed; the Pribaikal’ski region holds the greatest concentration of its nests in Siberia.
You can come across 14 separate species of birds that are listed internationally as rare and endangered in Pribaikal’ski. Amongst these are the aforementioned imperial eagle, the white-tailed eagle, the black crane, and the bustard. Another 15 species of birds are listed in the Russian National Red Book of Rare and Endangered Species.
Three key districts within the park enjoy special international status as migratory bird habitats. These are on Olkhon Island, along the southern Baikal corridor, and at the mouth of the Angara River. Because the water never freezes where Baikal empties out into the river, it is the largest wintering habitat in all of Siberia for aquatic bird species. In fact, at least 10 thousand ducks live near the mouth of the Angara in winter. It is one of the best corridors to see the autumn flight of birds of prey: with some luck one can witness several thousand of these larger birds swooping around Baikal in a single day.
The park welcomes visitors year-round.