Dreams of Angara

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Midwestern echoes, otherworldly beings, nerpa, vanishing watercraft, shamanism & Irkutsk.

I spent the summer of 2019 living in Irkutsk, the largest city in southeastern Siberia. It has a population of about one million, and in some ways it felt like the small Midwestern city where my paternal family comes from: sweeping plains, families starting at a younger age, kids who grow up with dreams of the big city. In almost every other way, it was the most foreign place I’d ever been. I’d gone there to learn Russian, but I was just as interested in the history and geography of the area, and particularly of Lake Baikal.

Lake Baikal is the largest freshwater lake in the world, containing more than twenty-two percent of all fresh surface water on Earth. Some say it is the birthplace of shamanism—others, that aliens live at the bottom. There are rumors of Loch Ness–type sea dragons, of boats that are never seen again and winds that can change in an instant. It is the planet’s oldest and deepest lake. The Angara River, which is the only river to flow out of Lake Baikal, cuts through the middle of Irkutsk and from there travels a thousand miles northeast, where it connects to the Yenisei River and, farther north, eventually drains into the Arctic.

From its northern to southern points, Baikal is four hundred miles long—longer than the drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Most Russians I met had seen only part of the lake—maybe just a few of the towns closest to them. No one I spoke to had been to Severobaikalsk, the northern tip, where, I was told, there are hot springs. You can drink straight from the lake in certain areas. It is home to thousands of endemic plants and animals. The Baikal seals, nerpa, swam in circles at the Limnological Institute in Listvyanka, the closest town on the lake to Irkutsk, only an hour’s drive away, where Baikal drains into the Angara, but the water there was polluted from runoff and overdevelopment. They’d dammed the Angara in several places. Electricity in the region is practically free because of it, but it flooded some areas around the lake; entire villages disappeared forever. —Marlon Paine

Compass Rose

Marlon Paine is an artist and writer from Los Angeles. He is interested in documentary photography, memoir and other forms of storytelling. He graduated magna cum laude from Columbia University and currently lives in London, where he works as editor at a small East End publishing house, 9vt\5

All photos © Marlon Paine

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