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Baikal needs you!

Young Explorer Elena Kiseleva investigates environmental problems concerning the reopening of a paper mill at Lake Baikal, Russia.

We have a famous expression that Russia isn't just Moscow. It means that mostly for-eigners judge our country by the capital. But if you leave a busy life of heavy traffic and noisy center and go to Kamchatka, Sakhalin or other far places, you'll feel you're on the different planet.

I felt something like that when I found myself in Irkutsk, one of the largest cities in Sibe-ria. Just about 65 kilometres separate it from the «Pearl of Siberia», Lake Baikal, the oldest and the deepest lake in the world. Its maximum depth is 1642 metres! At the same time it's the most voluminious freshwater lake in the world and contains a total of roughly 20 persent of the world's surface fresh water. Lake Baikal hosts 1085 species of plants and 1550 varieties of animals. Most of them are unique like the Baikal seal nerpa or the omul, a smallish salmonid. Now Lake Baikal is among the clearest of all lakes in the world. But it can change soon…

Day 1

My trip to Irkutsk wasn't for the purpose of tourism. I was sent there by Mike Horn and his team in order to see what happens with a much-talked-of Baykalsk pulp and paper mill, meet some ecological organizations and locals. This factory was constructed in 1966, directly on the shore line of Baikal, bleaching paper with chlorine and discharging waste into the lake. After decades of protest, the plant was closed in November 2008. However, recently the government decided to reopen it for creation of new working places for locals. So, the production was resumed in January 2010. The first day in Irkutsk me and Dmitry, a photographer of Mike Horn's team, visited a rally against the factory which was organised by some ecological organisations. Over 1500 locals came to the main square to support this protest. During the speeches of fa-mous people of Irkutsk, ex-workers of the factory and guests of the city every person could sign a letter to UNESCO with a request for help. By the way, Baikal Lake got a status of World Heritage property in 1996.

Day 2

Early morning we were sitting at the bus on the way to Baykalsk, a town where Baykalsk pulp and paper mill is situated. The main social problem there is that people don't know where to work. Reopening of the plant in fact it's not this situation solving. Some ex-workers tell that they will never come back there in any case, the other ones own they would like to find more suitable work place but it's nowhere to go. At the same time these places have the wonderful opportunities for development of eco tourism that could in-crease work places tenfold and show people from all over the world how beautiful here is. Local people have a lot of enthusiasm here. The problem is money. We got out of the bus and decided to walk as far as the plant. I didn't saw the mill even but I already felt the smell like rotten eggs. Just ten minutes later I saw a several huge chiminees and smoke that went up. It was forbidden to go inside the plant that's why we walked round and came right to Baikal. It's difficult to say when it's more amazing here, in summer or in winter. But I definitely can say that in the end of March Baikal Lake is awesome! There is a solid ice and a lot of snow everywhere so you can walk, run, try to make an ice hole and so on. The blocks of ice that I managed to see were really pelluced. It means that water here is still very clean.

We saw some fishermen far away from us and wanted to speak with them. We were walk-ing about an hour in deep snow and when we came to the tent of fishmen at last, nobody was inside. There was a big ice hole in the middle and a lot of small fish near it. We met a fishman just when we came back to the road as he was standing right there and watch-ing us. «There are some settling ponds near with the waste from the mill», he said. «They aren't frozen over in winter and you can see ducks and fish there. But even dogs and cats refuse to eat their meat. The owners of the plant says that these settling ponds aren't con-nected with Baikal but nobody is sure in it».

Day 3

That day was full of meetings. The locals residents Vasiliy Zabello, a poet, and Taisa Baryshenko, a local activist, shown us the settling ponds. They both worked on the paper mill some time because they had to feed their families but now they left it. Vasiliy says: «I was born here, I like these mountains, forests, Baikal… We fondly call this lake «a sea». So it's very sad to see what's going on here with the plant. Why it's impossible to think of the other alternative? When Baykalsk pulp and paper mill was closed, some companies wanted to invest money to eco tourism here but they abandoned their's plans when the plant was reopened. Who wants to come to the place where it's smells rotten eggs and water is poisoned?». «We sighed with relief when the Baykalsk pulp and paper mill was closed. The air became clean and many tourists started to come. Here we have wonderful beaches with red sand, it's difficult to find the same somewhere else. But now we have to fight for the ecology again. What will we leave to our generations? Just pol-luted environment and illnesses? You know too much people ill here because of the bad ecology», Taisa tells.

In order to have some positive emotions we decided to visit a several local sights. One of them was Russian bathhouse created from (!) ice. Nikolay, a creator of this unusual place, has never studied that art before so I was shocked. It's unbelievable but he used about 164 tonnes of Baikal's ice for it. Another interesting place we managed to see was «Soboli-naya mountain», a famous local ski resort. It's wonderful zone for relax but it has one problem. The smell from the plant goes to this place from time to time… While we were waiting for the bus to Irkutsk, we decided to have some rest and tried the local food. One of the main dishes here is omul. Fried omul, broiled omul, tempure omul… This fish is everywhere! I have to say that you must visit Baikal at least for tasting this delicious fish! The other tasty food was pancakes with strawberry. Just here people raise so big and sweet berries and tourists miss it a lot when they back home from Bai-kal.

In the evening we found ourselves in Irkutsk as we arranged to meet with the local eco-logical organizations such as the Baikal Environmental Wave and the Great Baikal Trail. Both organizations have volunteers from the whole world and always welcome people who are interested in environment because there is a lot of work here. «Baikal and the places near it are unique. For example, Tunkinskaya valley near the bor-der with Mongolia», tells Marina Rikhvanova, who works in the Baikal Environmental Wave. «There are Buryat sacred places, hot springs, remains of old rice fields, old Chi-nese tea way, Buddhist templs and out-of-the-ways villages where shamans still live». «Well, the north of Baikal is pretty good too», Elena Agarkova adds. Elena moved to New York when she was 14 and grew up there. Once she decided to go to Baikal and fell in love with this place. Recently Elena won a fellowship of Institute of Current World Affairs and thanks to it studies management of natural resourses and the relationship be-tween Siberia's natural riches and its people. «There is a famous Barguzinskiy reserve which was created for protection of the barguzinskiy sable. Near you can find a Barguzin mountain range; if go through this range, after some days you can approach right to Bai-kal».

For this meeting a lot of volunteers of the Great Baikal Trail came. They were young people, mostly from the local universities who wanted to act and make a difference. Me and Dmitry presented the Pangaea project and knew something interesting about their activity as well.

Day 4

The Great Baikal Trail works to develop, maintain, promote, and protect Russia’s first network of hiking trails. «For example, we had a project in the village Bolshaya Goloust-naya», Natasha Luzhkova, a project coordinator says. «There is a picturesque Saint Mountain where shamans had their rituals a lot of years ago. The locals asked us to help them and build a trail up to this mountain. We brought into play Russian and German schoolchildren, it was a great experience. Our projects don't include just development of trails, we do a lot of social work, support young leaders. Last year our volunteer Dima thought of the Eco English camp where foreign volunteers taught the local guys English and helped in different ecologicals programmes. Now we have an idea to create the camp where the locals could teach Russian. We support every plan!»

Natasha told us about another interesting project where some local volunteers took part in. Every summer Tahoe-Baikal Institute hosts North American, Russian, Mongolian, and other international undergraduate, graduate, and young professional participants for 10-week environmental exchange. Participants spend five weeks at Lake Baikal and five weeks at Lake Tahoe, the US, meeting with top scientists and environmental policy-makers, developing and presenting research projects, and conducting ecological restora-tion work.

As me and Dmitry were so excited about what they guys do we wanted to spend with them one day. The regular camp was located in Tanhoi, a small township. But that day volunteers was visiting another township Vydrino and we met them here. Usually the winter camps are pretty small as more people prefer to come in summer. So, we got to know Monika Hiller (Switzerland), Nora Huth (Germany), Rolf Sieber (Switzerland), Robert Thomas (Canada), Inna Phomina, Nastya Anpilova and Anya Belova from Russia. With them we managed to see the local attractions like library and museum, arthouse and houses of locals. When we came to the arthouse, little and laughing kids surrounded us: there were classes where they danced, played musical instruments, sang, created some-thing from paper, silver bark, plasticine… I was really surprised when I saw two 3-year-old boys playing chess!

We made a presentation of the Pangaea programme there for the young and their parents. «It's so cool what you are guys doing!», said me a young boy after the presentation. «Un-fortunately, I'm just 12 years old and I don't speak English well», he added lamentably. «You still have time to improve it», I smiled. «We'll do all our best!», promised guys who surrounded me for taking my contacts…

We visited the houses of music teacher and painter as well. Although I knew how a tradi-tional Russian house in the village looks like it was very interesting to go inside. Tatyana, a teacher, graduated from a prestige university but decided to stay here in order to de-velop music and help little talents. She also composes music and believe me I seldom heard something more beautiful. But Nikolay's story surprised me even more. He is a lo-cal painter, very respected person in the village. He was paralyzed for some years but love of art returned him to the life.

In the evening we already were in Tanhoi. I found a minute and spoke with guys from the Great Baikal Trail. «I came to the Great Baikal Trale five years ago with friend», Anya Belova relates. «We didn't know geography very well, applied for the volunteer project and it turned out that we chose the farthest place from the list. But it was a great holidays because we spent it building the steps in the cave! Then I took part in the projects like interpreter and now I'm a project coordinator so I develop my own ideas and work with groups of volunteers».

«We help to the Baikal reserve a lot», Inna Fomina adds. «It's a hard time for this unique place now but very enthusiastic people work there. They build the ethnic settlements, de-velop a local museum. We translate in different languages the lists of birds and animals of the reserve for them. We are going to help with creation of museum of the stuff of poachers because a lot of work against them are done here. You can find the great oppor-tunities for biological research here as well, everyone is welcome!»

But it's time to ask our foreign friends why they decided to come here. «I wanted to get away from Vancouver you know and find any volunteer project abroad», Robert Thomas says. «When I knew about the Great Baikal Trale I was so impressed. The description was that we would live in the small village and according to the list of equipment we had to take some headlamps with us. I thought: «Okay, I have to be ready for a real camp life». But when I came here I found that the conditions are much better than I expected. I like to feel that I do some real important things here». He mentioned also the problem of the mill: «In Canada ordinary people have more power I think. That's why I can't imagine the same situation there. I think you guys must pay attention of the international commu-nity, maybe it can help».

«I heard that Russian nature is amazing and local people are very true and warm so I wanted to check it that's why I'm here», Nora Huth says. «Concerning the plant, in Ger-many we had a lot of discussions about the nuclear power stations. But I think the situa-tion is much worse here and have to be solved immediately».

Day 5

We are in Baykalsk again. When we were leaving the camp, we met a local fishman Fe-dor. «When the plant was open, sometimes we had the fishing nets full of cellulose. For about two years a lot of healthy and large fish appeared. Just because the government closed Baykalsk pulp and paper». He also mentioned that the activity of the plant influ-ence people's health. We checked it when found ourselves in the house of Irina, a woman who worked there. After her husband became deaf because of the hazardous work condi-tions in the plant, he left it and found a new job far from his home. They have two cute daughters: one of them has asthma, another one is allergic. The doctors say that this air is bad for them. But what should they do? Nowhere to go.

Before moving to Irkutsk me and Dmitry came to see Nikolay Osipenko, a local resident who created a great garden. In winter he has a special greenhouse where orchids, citruses and other plants are blowing. He shown us not only beautiful plants but also a collection of precious stones which he collected, for example, sky-blue lazurit. Not far from these places are pools of this stone, the same you can find just in Chile and Afganistan. «Our nature is very rich here», Nikolay concludes. «It's possible to take out all chemicals from the plant and use actual power of the mill for the other purposes. There were a lot of ideas of locals, for example creation a factory for recycling. But the main possible project is a development of tourism because such a biodiversity can be found nowhere but in this place».

On the board of the plane to Moscow I had so many thoughts in my head. Lake Baikal and the places around have many natural resources and spiritual wealth that we should be proud of. Maybe ordinary people can't change anything but it will be much worse if we wouldn't try! Even if you live too far from all these problems, it's not right to think that it's not concern you. We have one world, one nature. And it's our time to make a differ-ence.

Elena Kiseleva Irkutsk-Baykalsk-Vydrino-Tanhoi-Moscow

P.S. Sign a letter to UNESCO and keep Baikal alive! Many people have already done it. Join them!

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