Hitchhiking Siberia: On the Shore of Lake Baikal
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
I dreamed about visiting the sacred Lake Baikal ever since I first started traveling. Hitchhiking, to be precise. Located in southern Siberia, Lake Baikal is the unofficial pilgrimage destination among Russia’s hitchhikers’ community. It took me 2 years, and to make this dream come true, I hitchhiked over 5200 km alone, and then another 300 km together with a friend of mine from Ulan-Ude. Finally, on January 19th, 2009, I saw Baikal.
We left the city of Irkutsk in the morning. It was a warm and sunny winter day in Siberia, one of those hitchhiking days when the Road itself is helping you in all of the possible ways. We didn’t spend much time waiting for a ride, and by noon we were already in the town of Kultuk, an urban-type settlement of about 4000 people located on the southwestern tip of Lake Baikal. The driver dropped us off on the main street of Kultuk, and as he left, we walked to the shore.
Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Lake Baikal is the oldest and the deepest lake in the world. Located in the south of Siberia between Irkutsk Region and Buryat Republic of Russian Federation, Lake Baikal is venerated by locals as a sacred lake. One of the legends related to Hambo Lama Itigelov, the leader of Russian Buryat Buddhists in the beginning of the 20th century, describes an episode when some drunken communists started a fight at a Buddhist temple near Baikal. Hambo Lama Itigilov was on the opposite shore of the lake. Upon learning about the fight, he miraculously flew over the lake, uttering prayers. A big wave appeared on the lake and it followed the lama who passed through the temple and the wave swept away the communists.
The main religious practice of Buryats before Buddhism spread throughout the region was Shamanism. There are many sacred places around the lake and on Olkhon Island. It is believed that the waters of Baikal have a special spiritual power, and I believe we witnessed this power. As we still had about 300 km to hitchhike to Ulan-Ude, we decided to spend some half an hour by the lake and then go back to the road. Sitting on the snow and watching the waves, we were enjoying the serene atmosphere. The Lake. The Sky. The Snow. The Mountains. It was all in one, a meditation without actually meditating. When at one point I checked the time, I realized we were sitting on the shore of Baikal for two hours already. Two hours passed as one single moment. I washed my hands and my face in the waters of the lake, then we took our backpacks and walked back to the road. It was past midnight when we arrived in Ulan-Ude.
Another miracle was the fact that Lake Baikal wasn’t frozen. It was 19th of January, and by mid January Baikal is usually frozen. Even some locals, who gave us a lift for few kilometers later, said that it’s very strange and not common for the lake. “Perhaps, Baikal was just waiting for me,” I suggested.