Travel scholarship to Lake Baikal, Siberia
26th June to 24th July, 1999
By Claudia Heidieker
It was always going to be an adventure. And an adventure it was, from staying with Russian students under field conditions (“Running water? Of course we have it, it’s just 50m to the stream!”) to staying in a Soviet style tower house where somebody had just pinched wire from the phone line and 5,000 people were without telephones for more than a week.
Arriving in Irkutsk Botanic Garden, I found that what I had expected to be a garden somewhat akin to European ones was in fact a full-blown commercial enterprise. The staff were producing large quantities of currants, apricots and cherries for sale, the university being unable to afford them a sufficient salary. We could probably all learn from the fruit growing skills of those people in Siberia as the varieties of fruit that they have bred over the years is just amazing! This is especially so given the climatic conditions of the area (temperatures drop to -50°C in winter and the growing period averages only 108 days per year). Botanical and educational collections were maintained in two large glasshouses.
But above all, I had come to see native plants. To see plants that we all know and value as garden ornamentals, growing in their native habitat on the shores of Lake Baikal and in the taiga forest surrounding it. And to see interesting plants in Siberia, you do not have to go far. The ground within the forest is often covered with herbaceous plants such as Trollius asiaticus, Lilium martagon and Aconitum septentrionale. Hemerocallis minor and Lilium pumilum grow all over the lake shores. And blue dots in the west meadows along the Angara River are nothing less than Gentiana barbata. I even got to see a large population of Paeonia anomala and a small population of Cypripedium guttatum (there are three species of Cypripedium in the area).
My botanical excursions included a trip to a site in the taiga that was just recovering from a forest fire two years ago, a trip to a nearby steppe area and two trips to different sites within the Pribaikalsky National Park, which spans most of the lake’s south eastern shores.
Lake Baikal itself, the oldest and deepest lake on earth and a World Heritage Site since 1996, is nothing short of a magical place to see. There are about 3,500 species of plant and animal living in the lake, 85% of which are endemic. The Nerpa, the world’s only species of freshwater seal, is just one example (I would go seal watching on the rocks in the evenings, but I haven’t managed to see a single one).
I was lucky to spend five full days in the biological research station of Bolshoye Koty within the Pribaikalsky National Park, where Russian biology students spend a month during every summer. In their practicals I learned about the unique marine life in Lake Baikal, as well as joining in their botanical excursions.
My trip has definitely been a very interesting and memorable experience. It is not just by chance that Baikal saw the beginning of the Russian conservation movement. Russians themselves will say: “If we cannot save Baikal, we cannot save the world”.