LAKE BAIKAL, Russia — Along the shores of a lake considered deeper and older than any other, there is a place some locals regard as sacred. It is here, in Lake Baikal’s Olkhon Island settlement, that the cremated remains of shamans were placed inside the trees, many townspeople say.
Four years ago, a Russian family moved to the village and bought a plot of land within the “shaman forest,” now considered part of a national park. The garish pink house they built has come to represent the growing divisions over Lake Baikal — about 2,700 miles east of Moscow — as it becomes an increasingly popular destination for East Asian tourists and, with the pandemic restricting international travel, Russians, too.
For some, the land should never have been sold to start with. The pink house embodies the rapid development encroaching on a precious ecosystem, home to more than 2,500 species and subspecies of animals, half of which exist only here. For others, the outrage over the pink house is seen as backward thinking. They point to environmental restrictions that many locals say hold back the potential of tourism in a region that has grown dependent on the industry.
“It’s become like a symbol,” said tour guide Yulia Fedeeva. “Everyone here knows about the pink house.”
The Russian government has already moved to develop other environmentally sensitive areas in Siberia and the Arctic to tap energy resources and secure potential shipping corridors as climate change opens new routes. Baikal, however, is a particularly delicate battle for the Kremlin.
The lake has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996, and for many Russians, its unspoiled grandeur is part of the nation’s identity.
Moscow this year significantly weakened the legislation that protects Baikal and was part of the UNESCO conditions. Activities now allowed include restricted logging, construction of large food-processing facilities and waste incineration.
Most worrying for activists and scientists is that there will be more “pink houses” — land-grabbing that will lead to the construction of residential and tourism facilities in previously untouched areas.
“It destroys the most vulnerable coastal landscape,” said Eugene Simonov, a coordinator of the Rivers without Boundaries international coalition.
Meanwhile, Russia has declared 2021 the “Year of Baikal,” inviting even more people to visit.
Home of the nerpa
Lake Baikal, cutting into Siberia’s Taiga forest north of the Mongolian border, is a mile deep in some places and believed to be 25 million years old. It contains 20 percent of the world’s surface fresh water and is home to the Baikal seal, or nerpa, the only freshwater seal species.
During the winter freeze, the ice is both remarkably clear and sturdy enough for cars to drive across. The temperature dropped to as low as minus-38 degrees Celsius (minus-32.8 Fahrenheit) on Feb. 1, according to weather experts.
For those who live near the lake, it has an aura of mysticism tied to the area’s strong belief in shamanism, a spiritual practice linking energy forces and nature. Many make wishes while standing beside it. Some refer to it as if it were a person, or even a close friend. But its waters are no longer clean enough to drink after years of sewage discharge.
The new list of permitted but regulated activities is loaded with potential exceptions, activists say. For example, logging is allowed only for “sanitary” clear-cutting of trees affected by pests. Mikhail Kreyndlin, a Greenpeace lawyer and expert on protected areas, said that measure could invite more-extensive timber harvesting under rules that are difficult to enforce. Clear-cutting risks exacerbating the forest fires that have devastated Siberia in recent years.
During a five-hour drive from the city of Irkutsk to the Olkhon Island territory, trucks headed in the opposite direction with logs were a frequent sight.
Environmentalists have raised alarms that legislation regulating the lake’s minimum and maximum water levels, controlled by a dam, could similarly be sidestepped. This has been a recurring point of contention between business executives and activists. Entire industries in the area — especially companies profiting off hydroelectricity — depend on manipulating the levels.
But raising the water level is a danger to Baikal’s unique fish species, some of which live or have their nurseries in warmer, shallow depths.
“You basically kill whatever is being grown in these nurseries with the influx of cold water,” said Simonov, of Rivers without Boundaries.
The population of omul, a Baikal white fish, was one of the species that suffered from water-level manipulation. Omul stocks declined so severely that all commercial fishing was banned in 2017.
Though Baikal is not currently listed as a site “in danger,” UNESCO plans to review the lake’s “state of conservation” in July. The director of the UNESCO World Heritage Center, Mechtild Rössler, said in a statement that the U.N. agency has not been receiving the necessary environmental assessments from the Russian government.
“We are indeed very concerned about reports on the weakening of this protection status and have contacted the authorities of the Russian Federation in this regard, but so far have not received any further information,” Rössler said.
The Irkutsk region’s governor, Igor Kobzev, told The Washington Post he “will not sign a single document if there are objections from ecological organizations.”
“We will be looking for compromises and will openly discuss all the issues,” Kobzev said.
But local scientists said their objections have so far been ignored.
“For several months, we were fighting to at least have some explanation at every meeting and every roundtable,” said Marina Rikhanova, an Irkutsk-based environmentalist and winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize, considered the “Green Nobel.”
“We can only conclude,” she added, “that all of these [environmental rule] changes are needed for some private or financial interests."
Gala Sibiryakova grew up in Listvyanka, a small town near the point where the Angara River meets Baikal. Deer used to come to her doorstep. Now the waterfront is a row of hotels and restaurants to accommodate the rising number of tourists.
The changes disgusted Sibiryakova. Fifteen years ago, she moved to a different spot along the lake — the remote Khuzhir village on Olkhon Island, which has a population of roughly 1,500. Electricity was a novelty there at the time.
“Then tourism came here, too,” Sibiryakova said. “Now my friends laugh at me and ask where will I go next.”
Olkhon Island has become the go-to spot for visitors to Baikal. In the summer, it is accessible by ferry. In the winter, scores of wagons, called bukhankas, carry up to eight passengers across a makeshift ice road on the lake. Some vehicles tow inflatable banana boats across the ice.
Cigarette butts and candy wrappers litter the ice. Depressions are made for a “French kiss” — sucking a shot of alcohol from the divot and then chasing it with berries.
Some tourists wrap colorful ribbons on the trees, copying a shamanistic prayer practice. Activists later cut them off because the ribbons weigh down the trees and cause branches to break.
Fedeeva, the local tour guide, said clients often want to light colorful smoke flares near the openings of ice caves to create a unique Instagram photo. (She refuses, believing it to be harmful to the caves.)
Anyone entering those caves or enclosed grottoes also must be mindful of where they step — they are popular for bathroom breaks.
“My grandmother used to tell me that if you’re angry or in a bad mood, you shouldn’t even look at Baikal because you don’t want your bad thoughts to taint it,” Sibiryakova said. “Now people pee on it.”
She worked locally for the national park service for three years. Among the most frustrating parts of the job was the ineffectiveness of the existing rules, she said. The fine for placing a portable sauna near the shore, a clear hazard to the lake, is 3,000 rubles, or about $40, but the saunas will happily accept those fines when they charge 2,000 rubles ($27) for one hour.
Tourists also build bonfires along the lake, Sibiryakova said, a threat to the many animals and plants. She resigned from her job with the park service recently because she disagreed with some of her colleagues who she said are considering approval for “glamping” — luxury camping — on Sarayskiy Plyazh, the beach beside the shaman forest.
“People need to learn that some places are off-limits,” she said. “Some areas have to be protected. But people don’t want to be told that they can’t do something.”
Natalya Bencharova grew up in Moscow. In 1995, she visited Baikal and fell in love at first sight. She eventually left behind a well-paying job and moved to Khuzhir, where she and her husband, Nikita, have run the village’s oldest guesthouse for more than 20 years.
Their early days there were difficult as money was tight. But then the tourists started to come, and the residents of Khuzhir realized renting a few spare rooms could be a profitable business.
“It became clear the village needed new sources of income, and tourism became the answer,” Bencharova said. “When we got electricity, a huge tourist boom followed.”
Khuzhir now has cell towers, schools and art programs even more sophisticated than those in Irkutsk, a Siberian city of about 600,000. Yet residents of Khuzhir are still locked in conflict between those who say the area is suffering from “over-tourism” and those who depend on the steady flow of visitors to put food on the table.
“I don’t think there’s such a thing as over-tourism,” said Semyon Mayor, who owns a local tour company. “I have a dream that one day we’ll have a cable car on Olkhon Island.”
Though quaint guesthouses remain in Khuzhir, several multilevel hotels have popped up — some owned by Chinese investors. One hotel was built directly on the shore and is now an empty eyesore, deemed illegal for violating environmental regulations. Another one nearby, the upscale Port Olkhon, was ordered to be demolished by regional authorities, but it continues to rent rooms to those who know the right number to call.
‘We’re all waiting’
On the shore opposite Khuzhir — across the Maloe More, or “small sea” in English — a road was recently constructed leading along the coastline, alarming local activists who fear it signals the next spot for development.
“We’re always told there needs to be some kind of balance between protecting the lake and development,” said Vitaly Ryabtsev, a local environmental activist. “But where’s the balance? We have a huge imbalance when development commands everything and defeats any conflicts of interests.”
Bencharova used to regularly attend the community meetings where debates on that question would devolve into shouting. She disagrees with Ryabtsev on most fronts, insisting that her livelihood comes first. However, she agreed that Khuzhir’s development has now gone too far.
“When you have 10 rubles today and then 20 rubles tomorrow and then 500 rubles and then suddenly 100,000 rubles, a person loses their sense of boundary,” Bencharova said. “And obviously, this became very bad, the endless construction. Six months pass, and there’s another hotel.”
The infamous pink house remains part of the struggles over Lake Baikal’s future.
In 2019, the owner of the pink house died of a heart attack. His wife told local news outlets that the couple had received constant harassment for building their home. She continues to live there as questions about the structure’s future — and whether it might have to be demolished — are being decided in court.
“If she wins, the other plots here will be developed, too,” said Fedeeva, the local tour guide. “We’re all waiting to see what happens next.”