The New York Times, November 25, 2007
By Richard B. Woodward
Russians sing patriotic hymns about Lake Baikal, and with good reason. Their "sacred sea" is the oldest lake on earth (more than 25 million years) as well as the deepest (more than one mile) and the largest by volume, holding so much fresh water it could swallow Lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario and still be thirsty.
Situated in southern Siberia and surrounded on all sides by mountains, this crescent-shaped wilderness remained isolated from civilization until the early 20th century, when the Trans-Siberian Railroad laid track along its southwest flank. Even now, the doughty tourists it attracts have to overcome a gimcrack travel network. What few paved roads exist are cratered with potholes. Villages of log cabins along its shores have never known automobiles.
The journalist Peter Thomson knew next to nothing about Baikal before reading a seductive article praising its pristine wonders in a 1992 issue of National Geographic. Eight years later, recently divorced and living out of boxes in his father"s house in Boston ("even my cat was in foster care"), he quit his job as an environmental news producer for NPR and talked his younger half-brother into joining him on a round-the-world trip to a place where neither of them understood the language or the culture.
The result is this superb paean to a unique and bizarre ecosystem. A laboratory of evolution, Lake Baikal is home to hundreds of plants and animals found nowhere else. Mr. Thomson investigates the biochemistry behind the myth that the lake"s water purifies itself. (Russian scientists think the secret lies with a miniature shrimp that filters industrial pollutants, of which tons were introduced during Soviet rule.)
Careful not to prescribe development scenarios from the comforts of America ("Baikal, Too, Must Work" is the title of the last section, on the economic history of the region), Mr. Thomson clearly favors low-impact tourism as the optimal model for the future. The lake"s remoteness has so far preserved it from becoming Tahoe or Banff. "Bad roads are good for Baikal," says a local.
Mr. Thomson is a trustworthy companion on these matters, but he has also written a compelling diary of personal discovery that reads like a manifesto about travel as a blessing in itself. Curiosity alone seems to have guided his footsteps. Wagering whim and risk over common sense was in this case the right move, for him and for us. The mottoes that speed him on his way are still valid at the end on his journey: "Good things happen. Kind strangers present themselves. Faith is rewarded."
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company