Hiking Nature Russia Volunteering

Volunteering with the Great Baikal Trail on Olkhon Island

We recently spent 8 days volunteering with the Great Baikal Trail, an organization building a trail around Siberia’s Lake Baikal. Along with 16 other campers, we cleaned springs on Olkhon Island, the largest and most famous island in the lake. We spent our free time basking in Baikal’s beauty.

Sunset on Lake Baikal (Байкал)

Lake Baikal’s many superlatives

Lake Baikal’s biggest claim to fame is that it is the largest freshwater lake by volume in the world, containing almost one fourth of the world’s freshwater. That’s enough reason to be impressed, but the superlatives just keep coming. 

  • Created by a rift valley — a place where the earth’s crust is actively pulling apart — Baikal is also the deepest lake in the world, with a maximum depth of 1642 m (5387 ft)! This outward stretching of the plate gives the lake its long and narrow shape. The extension gradually widens the lake, so Baikal has been described as the “world’s next ocean“. This tectonic activity produces earthquakes on a regular basis.
  • Created 25 million years ago, it is considered by geologists to be the oldest lake the world. 
  • It is one of the clearest lakes in the world. In the winter, when visibility is best, transparency is measured between 30 and 40 meters (100 to 130 feet).

Baikal is rich in biodiversity and home to the much beloved nerpa, one of the only freshwater seal species in the world. 

Baikal is one of the clearest lakes in the world
This advertisement was the closest we came to seeing a nerpa

Olkhon Island

We spent our entire volunteer trip on Olkhon Island (остров Ольхон), the largest island in Lake Baikal. The only way to get there is by boat or ferry. The island has long been appreciated by the Buryat people as a sacred place, and it is acknowledged by shamans as a center of spiritual energy. As visitors, it’s easy to see what makes it such a special place.

On one of our days “off”, we took an excursion to a couple of the landmarks on the island, including Shamanka Rock (Скала Шаманка) and Cape Khoboy (мыс Хоргой). The weather didn’t cooperate, but we still had a wonderful time.

Shamanka rock
Anya on the beach
From Cape Khoboy, Lake Baikal looks like an ocean
Example of a serge (сэргэ), Buryat shamanic pole, found in many places on the island.

Keep Baikal Blue: Connection to Lake Tahoe in California/Nevada

Ever since first looking closely at a map of Russia, I’ve had interest in visiting Lake Baikal — it’s hard to miss its presence in Siberia. However, my interest piqued after finding a connection between it and Lake Tahoe, a large freshwater lake in California that similarly prides itself on water clarity. As Californians, we love visiting Tahoe any chance we can get. Each summer we try to hike part of the Tahoe Rim Trail, a popular hiking route that runs around the entire perimeter of the lake (link).

One of the most ubiquitous bumper stickers on California highways is “Keep Tahoe Blue”, a message of commitment to protecting Tahoe’s water quality and reducing invasive species in the lake (link).  (It has also led to several knock-off bumper stickers, such as “Drink Tahoe Brew”.) On one visit to Tahoe a few years ago, I noticed a version of this bumper sticker in Russian. The sticker referenced the Tahoe-Baikal Institute, which led me down a rabbit hole of Googling — at the end of which I found out (1) there are many scientific collaborations between the two lakes, and (2) there is a Russian organization inspired by the Tahoe Rim Trail attempting to build a trail around Lake Baikal: the Great Baikal Trail.

Bumper Stickers: “Keep Tahoe Blue” & “Сохрани Тахо Чистым” (Keep Tahoe Clean/Pure)

Eco-graffiti near Baikal with the same language as the Tahoe bumper sticker

Great Baikal Trail (GBT)

The Great Baikal Trail (“GBT”) is a non-profit organization based in Irkutsk building trails around Lake Baikal and promoting eco-tourism in the area (link). In Russian, it is called the Большая Байкальская Тропа (“ББТ”) . The organization formed in 2003, and they have since built around 500 km (300 mi) of trails. Most of the trails are built by volunteer groups, and the organization also runs educational projects in the area. 

The scale of the project is immense, considering that the perimeter of the lake is 2,100 km (1300 mi). For comparison, the perimeter of Lake Tahoe is around 115 km (70 miles). In fact, Olkhon Island alone has a larger area than all of Lake Tahoe! The perimeter of Lake Baikal is more comparable to (though still longer than) the California coastline.

Geographical comparisons are made in MapFight

Our volunteer project

The main objective of our volunteer project was to clean one of the large springs on Olkhon and the stream that flows out of it. This spring is used as a drinking water source for both people and animals, so the goal was to make the spring clean from animal waste and create a pleasant place for humans to drink. The biggest challenge was to do this without reducing comfort or ease of access for the animals. This turned out to be more complicated that we expected, because the animals didn’t want to drink from the spring at the access locations we designed for them.

After several iterations, we managed to create access for both animals and humans at the main spring that should keep the water clear and drinkable for everyone. At a secondary spring, located near our camp, we created a clear pool and waterfall, so future work groups will have easy access to drinking water.

Working away
Horses not using the spring like we thought they should
Chopping wood was a common activity (if only to support our group’s banya habit)

Our volunteer group

We had a great time getting to know our group leaders and fellow volunteers. Much credit must be given to the GBT organizers, who put a lot of effort into helping us get to know each other. We played games to help us learn each other’s names and interests, we presented to each other about unique aspects of our cultures, and we staged an informal play about Baikal mythology. At the beginning of the week, we were each assigned a “secret friend” who we had to stealthily give a present during the project. Our secret friends, Evgeni and Nastya, set up an elaborate and very creative scavenger hunt involving several gifts and a whole lot of climbing through bushes.

Most of our fellow volunteers were Russian, and they came from as far away as St Petersburg and as close as Ulan-Ude in Buryatia. There were three other international volunteers, two from Luxembourg and one from Switzerland. It was really cool to connect with others our age from around the world who are interested in hiking, camping, and environmental protection. We all got along well and have been staying in touch since our project ended.

Playing a funny game to learn each other’s names
Anya was somehow able to convince us to dance together in the very early morning
Every Russian in our group wore these butt mattress pads everywhere! We were the odd ones out.
Celebrating Fyodor’s birthday with cake
Aline with a flower bouquet from her “secret friend”

Our camp

The GBT is a well-oiled machine for setting up and maintaining a camp for a large group of people. Within a couple hours of being dropped off with all of our supplies, we had a tent city complete with latrine, shower, compost, handwashing station, and “refrigerator”. The fire pit was an impressive construction, featuring a log rod for supporting two buckets, in which breakfast, lunch, and dinner were cooked each day. 

Each day, two or three volunteers were “on duty” to help GBT staff with the preparation of meals, collection of drinking water, keeping the latrine tidy, and dishwashing.  

We ate like kings for our whole trip. We had kasha every morning, with a wide variety of grains including oats, buckwheat, polenta, and rice. Lunch and dinner were usually a soup or stew of some kind. Each morning and afternoon, we had elaborate tea and snack breaks.

Our camp
Tanya setting up the food tent
All of our meals were cooked in buckets over the fire
Tarick serving breakfast on our “on duty” day
Hanging out around the fire
Snack and tea time

Basking in the Beauty of Olkhon

The scale of our project’s scope did not match our large group size, so there was a lot more time for relaxing than we had expected. At first, Tarick and I didn’t really know how to handle this, because we felt guilty about how much time we had to relax. But, after a few days, we embraced the schedule and realized that we had an amazing opportunity to soak in the beauty of our remote location in the company of new friends.

The shore of Baikal was a 45 minute hike from our campsite, and we made every opportunity we could to spend time there. This isolated section of the shore was a special place to spend time that we’re sure everyone in our group will remember fondly. The beach was made of round rocks, and across the clear water we could see mountains along the other side of the lake. Sunsets were spectacular, and the moon reflecting on the waves was an unforgettable scene.

Moon over Baikal
Our group relaxing at the beach, skipping rocks
Hiking back from the beach with Evgeniy

On the beach, there was a rustic cabin with a large window facing the lake. Many people in our group took an opportunity to sleep in the cabin and wake up to sunrise over Baikal.

The cabin

Next to the cabin, there was a banya (sauna) steps away from the lake. There’s nothing like a cold plunge in Lake Baikal after a long sweat in the banya!

The banya, steps away from shore
Some of the gals, post-banya

It rained quite a bit on our trip, but the benefit was an endless supply of mushrooms. We had a lot of fun collecting mushrooms, and for the second half of or trip, we often enjoyed mushrooms as a side dish to our meal. 

Proud of our mushroom haul
Cleaning mushrooms for hours
Cooking up the mushrooms on the fire

Thank you, GBT!

Our time at Lake Baikal was unforgettable, and through volunteering with the GBT we were able to experience Olkhon Island and the waters of Lake Baikal in a unique way that we would have otherwise been unable to. We feel very appreciative to have had this experience, and to have met so many interesting people.

We hope to see the Baikal sunset again someday

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