Guest Post by Stephen Rohan
Lake Baikal in Russia’s Far East is the largest and deepest body of freshwater on the planet. At its deepest it measures 1,642m (5,387ft) from surface to lake bed. It is also the world’s oldest lake dating back at least 22 million years. Already attracted to the extremes of Siberia, I decided to embark on an overland journey from London to see this natural wonder of the world.
While travelling, I try to give back so I started to inquire about volunteer projects in the area and happily stumbled upon the Great Baikal Trail association (GBT). This NGO is helping to create a series of interconnecting hiking trails around the lake to encourage eco-tourism in the area, reducing the need for reliance on heavy industry which destroys this beautiful and unique habitat. Not an easy thing considering the lake is 636km long by 89km wide!
After a slow and enjoyable journey from England through France, Belgium, Germany, Finland, and Estonia, I arrived in Moscow ready to ride another 5,000km on the legendary Trans-Siberian (which is actually the name of the railway line rather than any particular train, contrary to popular belief).
After 4 days on board, I was glad to put my feet on steady ground and was whisked late one night from the station in Irkutsk to a nearby hostel before a six hour drive into the vast taiga of Siberia the next day. We arrived in the small village of Tankhoi a few hundred metres from the lakeside and then hiked for two hours up into the Khamar Daban mountains that separate Siberia from Mongolia to the South.
One tiring hike with full packs later, we reached the campsite deep in the forest. A log cabin stood atop a cliff with a raging river a few metres below. A clearing had been made in the dense undergrowth for the six or seven tents scattered around camp, and a fire pit with logs and tree trunks for seating completed the set up. We were introduced to the other volunteers and GBT staff. There were a couple of Germans, an American, an Australian and a few Russians, plus my friend and I from England.
Although we were there to do a job, we had plenty of free time to explore, swim in the river, pick fresh berries and generally lose ourselves in nature. After a hard morning digging and hacking away the path many of us would dive into the ice-cold river and be instantly pulled downstream with the strong current, thanks to the melting ice farther up the mountain. The temperature was around 0 degrees Celsius so you couldn’t stay in long, but it certainly was refreshing. Everyone worked great as a team, often overcoming language barriers to get the job done, and we enjoyed relaxing together or cooking up meals on the campfire in our spare time.
At one point during the work I swung my pick into a wasps nest and was rewarded with three stings for my efforts (it could have been a lot worse). There was another interesting encounter another night when I awoke to a loud huffing and snorting sound outside the tent. Suddenly flashlights darted around and someone shouted something indiscernible. The fire was usually kept alight overnight to ward off predators but as it had been raining for two days it seemed that a bear had come down to our camp to see what was going on and if there was any food. Thankfully it was scared off, but needless to say it wasn’t one of the best night’s sleep I have ever had!
After two weeks it was satisfying to see that we had cleared over 2km of trail through what was complete wilderness. It was the experience of a lifetime and I will never forget my time spent in the Siberian taiga. I leaned much from the experience including the knowledge that pulling together as a team in sometimes difficult circumstances and often transcending language barriers can achieve great things! I had a renewed respect for nature and it sewed a seed in me that has been impossible to stop growing. Since then I have volunteered in the great outdoors more and spend every opportunity I have in nature.
About the Author
Stephen Rohan is an English teacher currently living and working in China. He has travelled to over 40 countries across Europe and Asia and has a passion for the outdoors and extreme destinations. He writes for the travel blog The Trip Goes On.