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Author:  Sergeev M.
Source:  Baikal: four seasons. - Irkutsk, 2002.

Baikal seems to be woven of legends and miths. The most ancient inhabitants of thes parts were the Kurykane, which were a misterious and enlightened tribe. However, likemany other realties of Baikal life, they have disappered from the face of the Earth. The Kurykane were replaced by the Yakuts. The later were driven futher north by the Buryats. Later, in the reign of Peter I, came the Russian pioneers and the Old Belivers. They populated the forests, mountains and Lake Baikal itself with spirits and gods. Primitive man held the miraculous sea in holy esteem and people of long past ages did not permit themselves to throw anything into the clear water as they were sure that they would be punished for it - the terrible wind could overturn their little boats, take away their nets, lift the roofs from their dwellings and drown them in the incredible, two-mile deep of the lake. In olden times there existed special places for rest for people, who travelled far. In these places special tethering posts, decorated with fretwork, were put up. (These posts were called «serghe».) A special place was allotted for the bonfire and people strictly abided by the rules of using fire so as not to let this spirit loose and bring harm to the taiga. The most beautiful trees, usually firs, were proclaimed to be sacred trees. The place around them was intended for the performance of ritual ceremonies. Some caves, of which they are many in the Baikal Region, mountains and rocks were sanctuaries. Gifts for the gods were brought to these caves and on the Shaman Stone, which stands near the headwater of Angara, different tests were arranged for persons, who had committed a grave offence. Such a person was usually sentenced to spend the night on a cliff, the area of which was about two metres. This cliff hung over the river, the water in which was ice-cold at all times, and if the poor wretch were to fall asleep and fall into the river and drown, it was 1 assumed that he had been guilty. But if he was found to be alive the next morning, it was interpreted that the gods had forgiven him. On streams, which flow into Baikal, people used to place special drums (hurde), to which they attached pieces; of cloth or slips of paper on which they wrote some prayers. The water rotated these sacred prayer-drums day and night, and with each revolution of the drum, the message of goodwill would be carried to the gods, again and again. To the hot springs, every person, who had been cured or warmed by them, had to bring a stone as a sign of gratitude and through out many centuries large walls, made of granite, sandstone and limestone, were built up this way.

«The so-called sacred groves or forests were, essentially, the prototypes of the modern reserves. Shamans were buried there and people found sacred stones, the meteorites, of which they made up legends, in these places. These groves or forests were populated by the ezhins», the spirits of the mountains, of fire, of forests and different other areas. Shaman rites were also performed there.

For many years the very origin of Baikal remained a Mystery for scientists. It seemed obvious that Baikal was the product of titanic processes, which formed our world in general: the breaking of the earth crust, the falling in of soil, the powerful movement of glaciers -all these phenomena have left traces in the history of the world. But if we assume that the bed of Baikal is a gigantic crevice in the land surface or a great collapse of the soil then how did animals, adherent only to the ocean, happen to appear in the depths of Siberia?

Geological research of the shores of the sea-lake and its clastic deposits drew the following picture for the people of science: a fairy-tale, subtropical land. Scientists give different figures, when determining the age of Baikal, some say it is 20 million years old, others hold that it is 23 and even 25 million years old. Later the earth crust broke and everything around trembled and roared, fell to pieces, and was drawn

into the earth or else pushed out of it. And, finally, everything calmed down for a while. Tropical rains and rivers, the path of which was cut off by a new depression, very quickly filled it with water, and with numerous currents, ancient fishes and other small living creatures, slid into the boiling deep. And so Nature began its ruthless natural selection, determining, which creatures, would survive and which would perish.

Nevertheless, this «escapades» of Nature did not, according to geological time, last long. From the North came ices, like a white legion, and cold overtook the entire planet, including modern South Siberia. Gay little groves were covered by an ice armour, beasts began to migrate to warmer parts, but even there the fatal could, ice and the lack of food caught up with them. They disappeared and new dwellers - the mammoths, loudly hooted, their bass cries ringing out over Baikal. Or may be they were not bass cries for who has ever heard the call of a mammoth?

As yet we have no lucid answer to the question «To what extent have the glaciers absorbed Baikal itself?» If it had been frozen to the bottom, we could not today be able to observe its unique animal world -the live sprout of antiquity. How did this magic oasis manage to survive in conditions of planetary changes of the glacial period? From those distant times have remained moraines and other traces, and this has, throughout many decades, evoked hot scientific debate: one group of scientists held the opinion that the lake was of rift origin, while another group asserted that it/was of glacial origin. However, today it has, at last, been finally established that though the glacial period had undoubtedly effected the formation of the sea-lake, the hollow came into being through a titanic breakdown of the crust. The anomalous warming up of the entrails of the earth under Baikal is an indisputable fact. And so here we encounter yet another mystery - fire, and burning hot magma under icy Baikal water.

In recent years, due to modern equipment, researchers have managed to penetrate into the depths of Baikal, examine its bottom and measure the thickness of the depositional layer in its dish. Researchers discovered that the bedrock lies seven kilometeres beneath the surface of the cistern, and this means that at that time, when the breakdown took place and a new hollow appeared on the body of the Earth, the bottom of Baikal was six kilometres lower than the level of the ocean. Throughout millions of years an enormous amount of deposits accumulated, but even today its surface is lower that the ocean level by 1,181 m. At present the maximum depth of Baikal is 1,637 m, the largest depth to be found in all lakes of the world.

The 2,000 km coastal line of Baikal is an inimitable display of enigmas and miracles of Nature. Its cares are reminiscent of fossilized ancient animals: Khoboi on Oikhon Island is much like the fang of an unicorn, the Dyrovatyi Crag, with a through hole, from a distance looks like a mammoth that is drinking water, while the Arka Cape seems to carry us to the Crimea, where a similar cliff is pointed out to all visitors.

The multi-tier halls of the Mechta Cave seem appear before us by sheer magic. In summer, the cave looks like a rich hall decorated by twisted columns and an embellished ceiling. In the winter the entrance into the cave turns into the jaws of a dragon for the huge. Many of these caves were original temples of the Siberian aborigines, as we mentioned earlier. To these caves they brought their gifts to the principal god Burkhan and to the spirits («ezhins») and keepers of the mountains, skies, taiga and water.

Baikal bays are remarkable landscape monuments and therefore, their protection from destruction and rough anthropogenic invasion is a planetary measure.

Cutting into the golden sand bank like a bow, it is guarde by two solemn bays - the Bolshoi and Maly Kolokolnyi (Large and Small Bell Bays). The entire area between the- sunny sand of the bay and the mountains, which is much live theatre scenery which stands in a semi-circle in the background of the stage, is covered with a malachite net of the forest, which has sent to the bay its advanced detachment, consisting of some unusual pine-trees.

The Aya Bay, at the source of the Anga River, seems to have been transferred here from another world because here it is not the omnipresent taiga that comes up to the bank, but the hilly steppe. This open space gladdens the eye. However, when we say «open space», we do not at all mean a flat plain. The high left bank, abounding in limestone and dolomitized marble rocks, shines even on gloomy days. The semi-oval bay, which lies at the foot of the cliffs, cuts into the fragrant herbage and even in the hottest days of summer, when the sun singes the foliage and everything around takes on a yellow-brown hue, the blue water seems to acquire a particularly dazzling quality.

Here, as on other Baikal cliffs, ancient caves invite us to visit their depths and the famous stones on the Ulan-Zaba Cliff, which are covered with the famous pictographs, Nearly, on the pink Ulan-Nur Bay, stands the natural museum of minerals.

We have already spoken about the deep lakes of the world, about Tanganyika in particular, which in its contours is so much like Baikal that it seems that somebody has cut an apple into halves and placed them in two different of the planet. However, in all such lakes of the Earth, the water remains «living» only at the depth of 300 m because in deeper waters accumulate gases, which kill life. However, this Siberian sea is inhabited by living things throughout all its depth, which is nearly two kilometres.

There is about 23 thousand cubic metres of this living and eternal water in Baikal. This amount represents 1/5 of all surface fresh waters in the lakes and rivers of the world. From a territory of 57 thousand square metres, which is equal to the area of a number of countries taken together, Baikal collects its tributes. This contribution, in a dry year, is brought in by 330 large and small rivers, and in a year of «big water», when heavy showers fall on the coastal mountains and when warm rains intensify the melting of glaciers on the summits, the number of such tributaries reaches 500!

Nevertheless, the Siberian sea has one more secret. Already in the 1920s, the prominent researcher of Baikal, G. Vereshchagin was working on the problem as to how the surface waters, of the lake penetrate into its depths. Gradually researchers established that the slopes of the subaquatic mountains, which surround the sea-lake, serve as a natural springboard for the coastal waters. In certain periods of the year, the belt of coastal water, which is from 3 to 9 km in length, begins to invariably move down, pushing out the deep layers into the middle part of the cistern, where the water is, naturally, pushed up.

Strong winds, which blow here quite frequently intensify the exchange between different waters. Each of the winds has, like a human being, its own name and temperament. The terrible hurricane, the «sarma», is the most dangerous, it overturns and drowns vessels, ruins the banks, tears down roofs and breaks trees. The mountain (Gornaya) or the angara wind is slightly weaker. It is followed by the fresh and brisk barguzin, which is mentioned in the old song, and by the restless southern kultuk and by many, many other winds. They make the water heave, raise the waves to the low gloomy clouds and with invisible hands churn up the water surface which only a few hours before calmly shone in the sun. But the clouds disappear and with them go the winds, and again the liberated and renewed Baikal shines dazzlingly.

This water is called «living» or life-giving water, because from the surface to the very bottom, it is saturated with oxygen, and air, which lend it both colour and energy.

In this section we shall speak about the' unique fauna-and flora of Baikal. All in all, scientists have discribed 1,300 species of animals and about 600 species of plants, which inhabit it. However we are dealing with a unique, inimitable cistern, in which processes of live-creation continually operate. And it is not casually that scientists consider it to be a huge planetary laboratory, and the preservation of it in the state of inviolability would be an ideal solution for researchers. The whole point is that 2/3 of these I animals are not found anywhere else on earth.

Here is yet another mystery of Baikal - two groups of living creatures live in it. The European-Siberian species - pike, perdh, roach, dace, minnow, crucian carp, sheat and different kinds of small crustaceans, say the lake side-swimmer, are found in many lakes and rivers of Siberia. The other, endemic fish, such as the omul and the grayling, numerous gobies, fishes and crustaceans, which are found only here, live in the sea-lake itself, on its surface and in its depths and they never mix with the coastal inhabitants of warm-water coves and gulfs, which are fenced off from the big water by sand and pebble shoal heads. The Baikal seal, one of the species of the ocean seal, which for many centuries live in the fresh water of Baikal, are of oceanic origin. How did they happen to appear in Baikal? Already in the 19th century it was a fiord of the Arctic Ocean. However, the extensively studied territory around this blue Siberian miracle bears no traces of an ancient sea. In our century some scientists put forward suppositions that in olden times there used to exist a chain of large lakes, that made up a single water system, and that Baikal is their heir, and it is from this system that different species of animals, typical of the ancient fresh-water reservoirs, migrated to Baikal together with the oceanic immigrants, which moved along water arteries for centuries. And, finally, it was surmised that the daring and brave inhabitants of the North forced their way into Baikal swimming against the current along the system: ocean - Yenisei - Angara - Baikal.

Take the goby, one of the most widely spread fish in the world. Nevertheless, of the 29 species of the Gobuis family, which populate Baikal, 22 species are not repeated anywhere else. To one of these species belongs the oilfish (Golomyanka) a small fish, which differs so greatly from the entire animal population of the sea-lake that it is perceived as a sheer miracle. Seen in the depths, it seems to have been cut out of tender pink mother-of-pearl. But the most interesting property of this fish is that it is the only viviparous fish in the middle belt of the Earth: the oilfish does not lay, but releases larval fishes, which are capable of living independently. The fish gives birth to 2,5 thousand children simultaneously. It would seem that, in this case, there should be a great multitude of oilfish here, but these yet unsturdy infants become the prey of fishes, seals and... the oilfishes themselves. This fish is a great individualist and each fish lives on its own, and it rises to the surface from the depth by itself in order to feed on the crustaceans, and it moves or sleeps at a great depth all alone. It is a surprising thing, but the oilfish lacks the bladder, which helps other fish to stand the heavy pressure of water at more than a kilometre depth. How does it endure the multiton weight of the water column? So you see what a miraculous fish lives in the famous Siberian sea.

Baikal, which is identified with a unique laboratory of Nature, is never idle, and it still holds many secrets, which scientists will have to disclose in the future.



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