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Lake Baikal: the great blue eye of Siberia

'There are the Alps, the Caucasus, the Black Sea ... but there's nothing like Baikal'

CNN Interactive Correspondent Steve Nettleton is traveling east across Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. His dispatches from towns and cities along the way will report on what ordinary Russians beyond Moscow and St. Petersburg are thinking and feeling during this uncertain time in their nation's history.
Ice fishing on Lake Baikal: Lyudmila Sigayeva's husband, Nikolai, digs a hole as her brother watches.  

IRKUTSK, Russia (CNN) -- "It's a miracle," says Lyudmila Sigayeva on the edge of Lake Baikal.

"Endless forests all around. Then you see blue, blue and blue. It's like a coast-less entity. It's all blue and it's all beautiful."

A few meters away, the placid, frozen blue skin of Siberia's biggest lake ripples into crests of broken crystal as it approaches the pebbled coast. Even in winter the mighty tide of the sleeping lake challenges its icy restraints, crushing against the shoreline with the force of a glacier.

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Farther out, a smooth sheath of white flows uninterrupted to the horizon, where the faint outline of a majestic mountain range floats mysteriously on the hazy sky.

It seems as if we are standing at the spring that feeds Siberia its ice -- as if the vast permafrost that coats most of Russia begins here on a journey to the Arctic.

One-fifth of the world's fresh water

"There are the Alps, the Caucasus, the Black Sea ... but there's nothing like Baikal," Sigayeva says. "What is particular is its sudden change of mood. It could be blue, quiet and calm one moment, and then immediately the wind rises and huge waves appear. It's like an old man mumbling."

It is difficult to exaggerate Lake Baikal's beauty -- or its size. In surface area North America's Lake Superior may be 2.5 times larger and Africa's Lake Victoria more than double, but Baikal dwarfs all other bodies of fresh water in its depth.


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Having fun on frozen Lake Baikal

Plunging more than a mile deep (1,620 meters) in the middle, Baikal holds more water than any other lake on Earth -- one-fifth of the world's fresh water.

It is fed by more than 330 rivers. In its depths thrive between 1,500 and 1,800 animal species -- most of them peculiar to Baikal. And it is home to the world's only freshwater seal.

Dangers to the environment

The Lake Baikal shoreline also is home to a growing number of industries, including a controversial pulp and paper mill on the southern coast. Greenpeace claims the mill's filtration system is unreliable, and plans to convert its production process to reduce its impact on the environment have been repeatedly postponed.

Sigayeva says, however, the biggest threat to Baikal comes not from industry but from poachers and careless visitors.

Lake Baikal and the ancient village of Bolshoye Goloustnoye  

Sigayeva is a ranger for the national park and wildlife refuge that surrounds the lake. Her job is to chase away illegal hunters and to discourage unauthorized campers whose fires endanger the dense forests along the shore.

By protecting Baikal's natural surroundings, Sigayeva defends not only the life of the lake, but also the life of her village.

Her ancestors have lived for 300 years in the village of Bolshoye Goloustnoye, a small settlement on the southwest coast of the lake inhabited predominantly by Buryats (a Russian minority similar in culture and language to Mongolians).

Although she left her village to earn a law degree at a university in the regional capital of Irkutsk, Sigayeva found herself drawn back to Bolshoye Goloustnoye years later when her daughter was diagnosed with a skin disease. It was only in the unpolluted atmosphere of Lake Baikal, she decided, that her daughter could live a normal life.

'We're going fishing'

Sigayeva introduced me to Lake Baikal with an unexpected invitation.

I had climbed a steep, windswept hill overlooking the village for a panoramic view of the lake when a car appeared far below. A pair of flailing arms beckoned for me to descend.

When I reached the car, a woman with faint Buryatian features threw forward her hand.

"I'm Lyudmila. We're going fishing."


Village Scenes
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Images from the ancient village of Bolshoye Goloustnoye, Lyudmila Sigayeva's home

Her husband, a bear of a man named Nikolai, drives the car to the edge of the lake. He is quiet, a striking contrast from his energetic wife.

"He is my Russian elephant," Sigayeva says affectionately. "He is my deep, quiet ocean. I am a fire, and sometimes I need to be cooled by water."

At the shoreline Nikolai eases the car down a ramp made of snow onto the very surface of Baikal.

In winter automobiles become fishing boats. Drivers navigate their cars across the frozen lake on impromptu roads marked only by the tread marks of tires imprinted on scattered snowdrifts.

I ask how long a person can survive in such cold water if he falls through the ice. Nikolai responds: "That depends on how much vodka you've been drinking."

One visit to Baikal is not enough

Several hundred feet from shore Nikolai skids to a stop. He and Sigayeva's brother hop out and begin chopping through the ice.

Lyudmila Sigayeva's daughter, Nadia, plays with the family's dog, Tuman  

As they work to open a fishing hole, Sigayeva attaches a sled to the back of the car. Her daughter and two boys from the village jump on. In moments the car is circling the two fishermen, pulling the trio of delighted, screaming children across the ice.

Unlike the excited children, Nikolai is displeased. There are no fish here, save a handful of golomyanka, a thin, translucent fish considered inedible because it is mostly fat.

After a half-hour of enduring biting Arctic winds channeled by mountains down Baikal's 400-mile (720-kilometer) length, Sigayeva packs up the sled and Nikolai coils his fishing line.

"Now you must come here in the summer," Sigayeva says. "You must see both faces of Baikal."

Hours later, as I ride back to Irkutsk, I watch the lake fade behind a forest of pines. Though it is no longer in sight, I can still sense it -- the enormous, silent Baikal preparing to break free from winter.

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