If you’re a fan of large bodies of water that are encompassing like the ocean yet very still and silent, then I recommend you visit this phenomenal place. It will make you feel an interesting contradiction of emotions, such as the notion of being compelled and very much at peace. Siberia is a province that extends along a large portion of Central and Eastern Russia. It is administered as part of the Russian Federation and made up of three geographical regions: Western Siberia, Eastern Siberia and the Russian Far East. It accounts for 77% of the country’s surface area. Vast regions of the province are uninhabited and most of its population is concentrated within large cities. But aside from its geographical constitution, what makes this region in Russia so unique that it is often referred to as its own entity? For years, I heard many stories about this vast and extremely cold land, and was curious to explore its unique cultural diversity. Before visiting the region, it was encrusted in my mind that it was made up of a radical blend of ethnicities. It seemed that Siberia was a large enough region and so prominent in character that it was often referenced to uniquely by its name rather than in the context of a Russian province. A few things I quickly learned while there was that it’s actually not cold at all during the summer. The average temperature in June is 59 degrees F. The population is conformed of 90% Ukranians and Belorussians, and the remaining 10% percent of native/indigenous Siberians. Russia recognizes 40 different indigenous communities living in in the region. These remote cultures were the image in my head when thinking of Siberia. Ever heard of the Australian photographer Alexander Khimushin? I recommend viewing his photographs of the indigenous Siberian communities for his project The World in Faces. They will leave you in awe. However, on this occasion, my voyage to Siberia concentrated on only one small part of the province: the city of Irkutsk. The reason for landing there was to take the Trans-Siberian Railway across parts of Russia, Mongolia and China (have I mentioned I’m a big fan of geographical and cultural transitions?) Irkutsk has one international and domestic airport, and arriving there from Moscow is quite the experience, since it means you’re basically traversing an entire continent. To paint a picture-- there’s a five hour time difference between Moscow and Irkutsk! Visting Lake Baikal from Irkutsk is quite easy, with available minivans leaving the city every few hours. One thing to note is the language barrier. Unless you’re fluent in Russian, navigating the road signs and directions can prove quite challenging. However, the local community was very attentive and kind to help. My host gave me instructions on how to find the bus that led to the town of Listvyanka, which is where most Irkutsk locals and tourists go to spend the day at the lake. I probably missed a couple of buses before actually getting on, since it seemed that no one was actually waiting, but little did I know I was simply misreading the signs, literally. The ride was about 30 minutes long, and stopped periodically along the road to pick up pedestrians. I rode at the front, in between the conductor and another passenger. It’s a pretty informal ride, which is my favorite cup of tea. Think of an Uberpool ride but with a much larger and unfamiliar group of people. Visiting Lake Baikal in late June meant that even though it was the summer, the water was still freezing cold. I wasn’t able to do more than dip my toes to get across to a floating pier. I felt as though my little toes would fall off. People around me however, were enjoying parties on small boats and sitting on plastic chairs placed firmly against the rocks at the shore, and children splashing around in the lake. The environment was lively. It’s important to note that Listvyanka is pretty much the entrance and beginning of Lake Baikal, which then continues to expand towards the northeastern part of Siberia. It extends up to 395 miles, which is eight times larger than Lake Michigan in the US and over three times larger than Lake Titicaca on the border of Bolivia and Peru (the biggest lakes in the continent of America). “Its presence is electrifying” What I was most compelled by when coming into contact with Lake Baikal was the feeling of being in front of the ocean, with no end in sight. It’s hard to say whether what makes an ocean so powerful is its majestic size or the sound of its crashing waves. In the case of Lake Baikal however, there weren’t any waves, nothing but a light splashing. There are no seagulls or seashells. There are mostly rocks, pebbles and sand. The water is clear, but not blue at all, just very transparent. Yet one thing that differentiates it from every other lake-- it’s massive. So much tranquility makes you feel like something is about to happen, and when it doesn’t, it brings you to a place of complete peace. Its presence is electrifying. Another thing to fully take advantage of is the fish and fruit markets. They extend along the main piers where most people gather. You can’t miss it. The market is packed with grilled fish, dried salmon, trout and fresh blueberries. My favorite part of all: eating an entire fish straight out of a plastic bag, and being able to fully hear myself chew on it while contemplating what seemingly appears to be a never-ending lake.
If your reason for travel is specifically tied to the concept of conserving the environment, then selecting your destination in terms of local ecotourism is a must. Find out why Mongolia is a country paving the way in this effort. The landscape of Mongolia is so ever-changing and abundant with grasslands, mountains and deserts over the span of just a few kilometers, that it brings to mind: where am I really? Landlocked between Russia and China, the country is home to a little over three million people, out of which approximately 27% live in nomadic conditions. Even teenagers embrace this lifestyle. So if you’re wondering— what makes this a country where ecotourism is possible? Read below. It’s one of the least dense countries in the world. Ecotourism has been defined by the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) as ‘tourism in which the main motivation is the observation of nature, and is generally organized by small and locally owned businesses.’ Mongolia is made up of 28 cities, and its capital of Ulaanbaatar concentrates half of the country’s population, which explains why it’s considered one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world. To put things into perspective, there are five people per square mile in Mongolia compared to the 92 residents per square mile in the US. Yes, that’s quite the difference. The second and third largest cities in the country were founded in the late 70s and 80s, which led to a radical urban population growth that went from 27% of the population inhabiting cities in 1955 to 73% today. Aside from these highly dense cities, the country is mostly made up of vast and ample grasslands, also known as steppes. The result: miles and miles of untouched land. With this in mind— you can almost guarantee coming into contact with some kind of nature related activity, ranging from horse riding, horse watching (a truly beautiful experience), sleeping in a yurt in the middle of a grassland or desert, to camel riding, climbing, and fishing. Additionally, the local communities have most control over the tourism industry, with even nomadic families welcoming tourists to their very own homes. Its wildlife is diverse and free. Travelers generally think of South African safaris when it comes to interacting with wildlife in its natural habitat, but Mongolia is actually an exemplary country in this area as well. Mongolia is home to a wide variety of wildlife, with a unique fauna and flora where most of the species are endemic to the region. During my visit, I was able to see eagles, camels, and many horses roaming free along the grasslands. A truly unbelievable sight. There is something very unique about seeing a herd of horses running free. It heavily relies on trains and buses for domestic transportation. As most of us know, cars, trains, trucks and planes can use a hefty amount of fuel. So if you’re trying to reduce your carbon footprint, then the best method to travel domestically is using the bus or train over planes. Luckily, the country offers a reliable rail system called the Trans-Mongolian Railway which connects with the Trans-Siberian Railway, which offers routes to Russia and China. Taking the train is a particularly convenient option over the bus, since the there are relatively few paved roads. As far as planes-- Mongolia has limited international air access, with only one international airport located in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. Not surprisingly, these limited transportation methods are also affecting the country’s tourism development with the largest tourist group coming from China, which is directly connected through the rail system. Other factors responsible for a lower tourism influx are the harsh and long winter periods. The advantage? Today is a good time to explore Mongolia in its raw nature. Note that the relatively higher-peak tourism periods are in June, July, and August. It’s a historically nomadic culture. Whether it has intentionally done so or not, Mongolia’s long-standing nomadic practices are the reason why the country stands as a leader in modern sustainability practices. Living in a yurt or ger as is locally referred, means sharing resources. Generally, entire extended families live in a plot of land and move from one location to another based on weather conditions (e.g. setting up a yurt camp in the lower plains during the winter, and higher plains during the summer). The yurt camp that I stayed in with my mother and sister was made up of 6 large yurts and one outhouse (a pit latrine outdoor style bathroom, with a hole in the ground). The family that so kindly hosted us cooked meals in one large pot, such as stews and dumplings, and was shared amongst the whole family. Water was extracted from a few groundwater pumps. And the coolest thing of all-- the yurts are designed in such a way as to insulate the heat or cold, with its cylinder shape and pointed top allowing for an ideal flow of cool air during the summer. Historically, two events had an impact on why the nomadic lifestyle still prevails in Mongolia: the 1911 independence from Chinese rule breaking ties from Chinese agrarianism, and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 which brought Mongolia to a market-based economy, putting the livestock under the hands of private ownership rather than the state. Our tour guide Ari Sune, a recent college graduate who speaks fluently in English described the engrained nomadic culture like this “Yes, in Mongolia we all accept the nomadic culture. I have friends who were born living like this, and it’s quite normal. It’s meant for the young and the old.”