The first explorers of Baikal
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December, 02 #183#

The first explorers of Baikal

When Yermak Timofeyevich made his famous march, the conquest of the vast lands of Siberia and the Far East has become a matter of state importance for Russia.

Historical documents has kept many of the names of those who first reclaimed and studied the expanses of the rich territories behind the Ural Ridge: Demid Pyanda, the discoverer of Lena; Pyotr Beketov, the founder of Yakutsk, Chita, and Nerchinsk; Yerofey Khabarov, the conqueror of the Amur Region; Semen Dezhnev, the first man who passed through the Strait between Chukotka and Alaska, and others ...

One of the most important stages in the exploration of Siberia can be considered the discovery of Lake Baikal. This natural wonder is the living history that started about 25 million years ago with the formation of the Baikal basin. Many pioneers and researchers also showed themselves here, because the Lake has always attracted people to come to it: some by the richness of nature, others with the lack of knowledge, yet others by mystery and even some mystical force.

The Russians first came here in 1643, when the Сossack Kurban Ivanov with his squad got out of Verkhnelensky jail to the Western coast of the Lake, coming before it directly opposite the island of Olkhon. Ivanov drafted “The Drawing of Baikal and the Rivers Running into Baikal, and Lands” which was the first schematic map of the places visited by the Cossacks.

This small journey was the beginning of the rapid accession of the Baikal region to the Russian Empire. 

Already in two years the Ataman (Cossack chieftain) Vasily Kolesnikov prepared a squad of a hundred of Cossacks and went to Lake Baikal in search of silver ore, which was rumored to be abundant in these places. When he sailed to the northern end of the Lake, he founded Verkhneangarsky jail which has become a transit point for moving farther to the Trans-Baikal region and the Far East.

The exploration of the previously unknown water reservoir was in full swing: the Cossacks were able to sail to the source of the Angara River flowing out from Lake Baikal, examined the southern shore of the Lake. There they met with the powerful feudal Lord of the Northern Mongolia - Tsetseg-Khan. New fortresses and wintering places were gradually founded, local people had to regularly pay tribute (“yasak” - the tribute paid in furs).


One of the main events of those years was the foundation of Irkutsky jail on the right bank of Angara opposite the mouth of Irkutsk by Yakob Pokhabov in 1661. The place chosen for the settlement was rather nice, as Pokhabov wrote in his report to the Tsar: ... “Here is the best place fit for plowing and cattle breeding, hay meadows and fish catching – everything is near”. In 1686 Irkutsk was awarded the status of a city, it received its own coat of arms and, in fact, became the capital of Eastern Siberia.

Baikal has been inseparably bonded with this city that became its “gateway” for already three and a half centuries. Anyone who arrives in the Baikal region is sure to stop in Irkutsk. We cannot but mention the Archpriest Avvakum, a prominent Church leader of XVII century who was exiled to Siberia for his old believer’s views. In his book titled “The Life of the Archpriest Avvakum” he colorfully described what he saw on his way to the place of exile in 1650: “There are high mountains nearby, and stone cliffs are very high: twenty thousand versts (21,300 km) and even more, I have not seen anything of this kind before. The water is fresh, seals and hares are large: I never saw any of these in the ocean-sea when living on Mezen”. For the first time Lake Baikal and its surroundings were described in such detail.

A scientific approach to describe the Lake that had been known by Russians for a little more than 30 years by that time was incremented by Nikolai Spafarii. This well-educated Moldavian served the Tsar and the Russian Embassy in China in 1675-1678 and conducted his geographical research along the way. 

For example, in his journey notes he gave a detailed description of the middle reaches of Ob, its tributaries - Irtysh and Ket, as well as Angara; mentioned all major rivers flowing into Baikal, including Selenga, Barguzin, Upper Angara; described the island of Olkhon; made a correct evaluation of the depth of the Lake, pointing out that it was comparable to the height of the mountains. 

While crossing Siberia, Spafarii was making first measurements of the geographic latitude of a number of places with the help of an astrolabe. Generalizing the information of the explorers, the traveler made a scheme of the relief of Eastern Siberia (though it later proved to be very far from the truth), pointing to the existence of a “Great Ridge"  between the rivers of Lena and Amur from Lake Baikal to the Sea of Okhotsk.

Thanks to the findings of the first Baikal explorers, Russia gained a water reservoir with a huge significance, began to realize its natural resources potential that has been used by people until today. “Baikal-Father”, as the inhabitants of the region respectfully refer to the Lake, still keeps many secrets, which means that new generations of explorers will be able to open to us the veil of mysteries of the Great Lake on and on.

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