Traveling on the Trans-Siberian Railway, numbed by hour after hour of unchanging landscape, fantastic views emerged as the train exited a tunnel on a mountain pass about 90 minutes east of Irkutsk: Lake Baikal.
The lake provided a stark contrast to the relatively monotonous forest and isolated wilderness on the journey thus far.
The lake's clear surface nestled up against the left side of the train for the next three hours.
Baikal ranks seventh in the world among lakes and marshes. As a freshwater lake, it is the world's sixth largest in area and No. 1 in terms of depth. It is also the most voluminous, containing roughly one-fifth of the world's fresh water.
The lake also lays claim to having the most transparent water in the world.
Including the only fresh water seals in the world, about 60 percent of the approximately 1,550 animal species inhabiting the lake are said to be endemic. The importance of the lake's ecosystem ranks alongside that of the Galapagos Islands. In 1996, it was registered as a World Heritage Site.
Despite its pristine appearance, the lake, many say, is becoming heavily polluted.
Victor Gulevich, 59, is a diver with the Baikal Search and Rescue Center, which operates under the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations. Typically, his job is to assist in rescue activities at accident scenes; such as when a ship has sunk or a car has plunged into the lake. However, during the summer months, he gets together each Saturday, his day off, with 20 or so colleagues and works as a volunteer to raise garbage that has accumulated on the lake bottom.
"Empty bottles are probably the most prevalent. Beer, vodka, juice, there are all kinds," Gulevich said. "There are also a lot of sunken cars."
The surface of the lake freezes completely in the winter, and driving on it is a local pastime. But from time to time, the ice cracks open and cars sink.
There have been 110 such instances reported since 2000. The cars are usually recovered quite quickly. Even so, it is said that there are still 40 resting on the lake bottom.
"Baikal is not just another lake," Gulevich said. "It is a natural property for the people of the world. The government is not doing nearly enough. I started diving here 10 years ago, but the environment has not improved one bit."
According to local environmental journalist, Dmitry Taevsky, 48, discarded waste is only one of a number of threats to the lake.
One of those is the Trans-Siberian Railway. Because the tracks run along the water's edge, there are concerns about oil leaks from passing freight trains. Development is also picking up pace in the basins of some of the lake's 336 feeder rivers, and deterioration of water quality is becoming a problem.
"The most serious problem is waste liquid discharge," said Taevsky, referring to the Baikalsk Pulp and Paper Mill, which sits on the southern shore in the town of Baikalsk, a stop on the Trans-Siberian Railway.
Aiming to take advantage of the abundant forestry resources of Siberia, planning for the mill progressed during Joseph Stalin's time.
It started operations in 1960 and has served as a key industry in the region ever since. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the plant was privatized.
For years, scientists have expressed concern about chlorine and dioxin in the wastewater, even during the Soviet era. But nothing was done.
In recent years, however, protests have intensified, especially those led by local environmental organizations. In 2008, the plant temporarily ceased operations. But this had a detrimental effect on the local economy, and operations resumed in 2010.
Due to heightened sensitivity to criticism, media access to the facility has been severely restricted.
"You can probably get close (to the plant) from the lake," Taevsky said, with others nodding.
We decided to set out for the mill by boat, and reached the Listvyanka, a town on opposite side of the lake where pleasure boats offer rides.
The next step was to look for a ride to Baikalsk. However, no one was willingly to accommodate the request. Lake Baikal is usually calm, but due to the topography of the surrounding mountains, intricate wind patterns can cause high waves to suddenly spring up and batter boats. Boat operators call it the "devil's lake."
The water temperature is 4 degrees. If a boat capsizes, there is little chance of surviving.
Finally, one young operator agreed to take out his boat.
We proceeded as far as the middle of the perfectly still lake. The darkness of the blue water was undoubtedly due to its depth. There were no islands, other ships, or even the outline of a solitary fish visible. A flat, eerie world void of anything, only the sound of the boat's engine disturbed the nothingness.
Fortunately, we encountered no rough water during our trip, and four hours later arrived at where the paper mill fronts the lake. The spot where wastewater flows into the lake was not visible. However, five chimneys spewing white smoke into the air were testament to the plant's activity. According to Taevsky, the plant operator dug numerous bores on the lakeshore to a depth of about 20 meters, and it is from these that the waste liquid flows.
Both the mill and the government say the waste liquid is treated and there is no problem. However, Baikal Environmental Wave, an Irkutsk citizens group, says environmental pollution cannot be ignored.
During the two years the plant was closed, members said the number of fish in the lake increased dramatically.
Maxim Vorontsov, 41, a member of the group, said: "It's obvious that water quality is deteriorating. However, the government's handling of the situation is lethargic. We need the cooperation of specialists from Europe and the United States and look for solutions."
IN IRKUTSK, AT 5,153-KILOMETER MARK: NOTHING BUT FREIGHT TRAINS FOR AS LONG AS WE WAIT
Although it is possible to photograph scenery from the train window, unless you disembark, it is impossible to take shots of the traveling train itself. So, thinking we would like to shoot a passenger train lumbering out of the west, we took up positions on high ground commanding a view of the line running alongside Lake Baikal between Slyudyanka and Baikalsk.
We didn't have a timetable with us and going all the way to the station to look at one seemed troublesome at the time.
"If we wait, a train is bound to come," we thought without giving the issue much consideration. This easygoing approach proved to be a mistake.
We arrived at the location we wanted to shoot from in the early afternoon. Trains passed by frequently on the tracks below. Understandably, with hindsight, they were all freight trains. We waited four hours. During that time long trains pulling oil and coal cars and flatbeds laden with containers passed by in both directions every five to 10 minutes. However, not one eastbound passenger train came into view. Two westbound ones went past, but we had not prepared to shoot trains coming from that direction.
While getting thoroughly tanned by the sun's rays reflected off the lake, I came to realize that freight trains account for a high percentage of traffic on the Trans-Siberian Railway.
State-owned Russian Railways boasts that it has 25,000 passenger rail cars. In comparison, including those owned by private companies, there are about 1 million freight cars. Private companies account for a lot of the railways' business.
Passenger traffic, on the other hand, is miniscule because there is less profit. This will likely become an issue in the future.
- « Prev
- Next »