Jennifer Smith-Lee is an Executive Director of an international NGO Tahoe-Baikal Institute. She studied in Irkutsk for one year in 2001-2002 and travelled to Lake Baikal several times. I asked her to share an experience of being here.
- TBI works at two lakes – Tahoe and Baikal- for 20 years already? What is the connection between the lakes?
The idea and proposal for the formation of the Tahoe-Baikal Institute originally came from US and Soviet students at a 1988 international youth conference in Helsinki, Finland. They managed to present their idea to Presidents Gorbachev and Reagan in person, as well as Secretary General Perez de Cuellar, and Governor George Deukmejian of California. Apparently, the students wanted to form a collaborative partnership to help promote peace and cultural understanding between the two countries, and the two lakes were a perfect topic of focus.
Lake Tahoe and Lake Baikal share a number of features. In terms of geology, both lakes are graben lakes, which mean that they were formed tectonically, when a deep depression formed between two fault zones. Graben lakes are often very long, narrow, and deep, and have steeply sloping (mountainous) banks, which contributes to a number of the unique features of these two watersheds. Also, both Tahoe and Baikal are oligotrophic, which means that the water is nutrient poor and oxygen rich—this is a primary factor contributing to the remarkably clear water that both lakes are famous for. In terms of geo-political similarities, both lakes have very complicated systems of governance, because there are multiple political jurisdictions within the territories of their watersheds. For Baikal, these jurisdictions include two countries—Russia and Mongolia—as well as two federal subjects of the Russian Federation—the Irkutsk Oblast and the Republic of Buryatia. For Lake Tahoe, the watershed is located partially in the state of California and partially in the state of Nevada.
2. What is the input of TBI to environmental protection of the lakes?
Over the course of the past 20 years, TBI’s exchange participants have taken part in over 60 environmental restoration, policy, and research projects completed in Russia, Mongolia, and the U.S. For a list of these projects, check out this link to our website: http://www.tahoebaikal.org/projects/exchange/research/ Additionally, more than 350 young environmentalists have taken part in our educational exchanges, learning new perspectives and techniques for addressing watershed issues around the world. Many of these alumni now hold decision-making positions at Lake Tahoe and at Lake Baikal, and continue to contribute to the protection of these world treasures through their daily work.
3. In your opinion, what is the main mystery of Lake Baikal?
You know, I’ve often asked myself this question, and I’ve never found a way to articulate my answer. What I can tell you is that ever since the first time I saw Baikal, I have been drawn back to her shores again and again, and each time I visit I become more passionate about the work I do to help educate people about her wonders and mystery. I find it fascinating to think about how deep the lake is, and what a large quantity of water is contained there…pondering that amount of water makes me think about the timelessness and the power of nature, in contrast to the brief history of man on the planet. When I sit on the shore of Baikal, I always feel grounded and at peace.
4. I know you have travelled a lot at Baikal, could you name your 3 favorite places at Lake Baikal and why you consider them as your favorite? What place you would definitely recommend to visit at Lake Baikal?
Hmm. My three favorite places… Just this fall, I traveled to Bukhta Aya and hiked to Lake Frolikha, and it was breath-taking. I loved the lichens in the taiga forest along the trail! I also really enjoyed being in Severobaikalsk, because the landscape—and even the town—reminded me quite a bit of Lake Tahoe and the city of South Lake Tahoe. Another place that is really special to me on Baikal is the Circum-Baikal railway—during the year that I lived/studied in Irkutsk, my friends and I often went for hikes along sections of this historic railroad.
5. TOP 10 things to do in Irkutsk and Lake Baikal?
- Irkutsk is my favorite city in the world—many people find it surprising when I say that, but I really do love it. My favorite part of the city is the park along the naberezhnaya—I wish that all cities had easily accessible green spaces that also offer a great location for community gatherings. So, my top thing to do in Irkutsk is to walk along this park, at any time of the year!
- HOT SPRINGS—I love hot springs anywhere in the world, but I really enjoyed visiting the springs at Khakhusi and Goryachinsk.
- Banya on the shore—I also LOVE Russian banyas, really anywhere and anytime. But my favorite banya memory is from a resort in Bukhta Peshanaya, where the banya is directly on the shore and you can jump into the frigid Baikal waters between your steam sessions. (I think there are many places on Baikal where you can have this fantastic experience).
- The central market in Irkutsk is a great place to really feel immersed in local culture—or more specifically, local food culture. Flowers, spices, fresh vegetables, breads, meats, cheeses, fish… it’s a fantastically colorful place that always makes me want to try new things. I usually leave regretting how heavy I’ve allowed my shopping bags to become!
- The Museum of Regional Studies—this is a very interesting museum, and is also one of the best spots to buy souvenirs in town.
- Taltsi Architectural museum (along the road from Irkutsk to Listvyanka)—the original buildings at this museum were moved here from around the shores of Baikal when the hydroelectric dam was built, in order to preserve them when the water level of the lake rose. Additional buildings have been added over time, and the museum now gives a fairly broad representation of the various cultures around the Baikal region. The best time to visit is when the museum is holding a holiday festival (such as their incredible Maslenitsa celebration!) but it’s a very educational excursion at any time.
- The first of September—this is not necessarily a “thing to do”, but I always really enjoy being in Irkutsk (or any other Russian city) on the first of September, when all of the school children dress up for the first day of the school-year. I’m especially fond of the large white bows the little girls wear in their hair—it’s really a sight to see!
- The Baikal Museum in Listvyanka—this is a great museum for learning about the ecology of Lake Baikal, and even has an aquarium where you can watch nerpa swim underwater. Some of their exhibits are quite old, but they have been working to modernize and update the museum as a whole and now have several state-of-the-art sections, including a live web-came showing the nerpa colony in the Ushkanii Islands, a simulation of a submarine trip under the lake, and a teaching classroom with digital microscopes at every station.
- Volunteer with the Great Baikal Trail—for travelers who want to give back and make a lasting contribution towards sustainable economic development in the Baikal region, consider signing up for a volunteer trail building crew with the Great Baikal Trail: http://www.greatbaikaltrail.org/index_en.html.
- For those who are interested in a more intensive learning experience focused on environmental issues at Baikal, consider one of the programs of the Tahoe-Baikal Institute: in 2011 we are offering a two-week EcoTour, which will include 8 days of travel by boat on the lake. This trip is aimed at tourists who are interested in a trip that combines exposure to Russian culture, some of the best sight-seeing possible on the lake, and simultaneously supporting some of the non-profit groups working to promote environmental awareness in the region. (for more details, see http://www.tahoebaikal.org/Ecotour2011/index.shtml.) We are also offering our annual Summer Environmental Exchange for students and young environmental leaders who want to gain in-depth training about watershed management practices in the Lake Tahoe and Lake Baikal regions. (see http://www.tahoebaikal.org/projects/exchange/).