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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Foreign Tourists Rare To Lake Baikal's Sights

KHARANTSY, Eastern Siberia -- Tourists are still a rare sight on the two dirt roads which make up Kharantsy, a straggling village of 50 picturesque wooden houses separated by sand and bog from the deepest lake in the world.

Local residents get 10 hours of electricity on a good day. The shop, indistinguishable from the other buildings, sells Western chocolate bars, cans of imported pork and a limited selection of rice, sugar and buckwheat porridge.

"We do not get many visitors," said pensioner Yekaterina Shakirova, showing a rare party of six foreign tourists around her two wooden houses, a heated two-room building where she spends the winter and a smaller "summer home."

She lives on Lake Baikal's Olkhon Island, a ferry ride from the mainland in summer and a car trip across the ice in winter.

Baikal, roughly the size of Belgium, is in eastern Siberia, 5,000 kilometers east of Moscow. Surrounded by spectacular marble cliffs, lush pine forests and home to some 2,000 species of plants and animals, Baikal could be a prime tourist spot -- except for the distances involved, the problems getting a Russian visa from abroad and a short tourist season.

"Baikal is good for tourists for two months of the year," said guide Sergei Palamarchuk, a electrical engineer who gave up some of his 1996 vacation to lead tourists around the lake.

"There are projects to develop the old railroad, to bring individual tourists here in winter, but basically we are talking about visitors in July and August."

Many Russians visit the Baikal region in the summer months for camping, kayaking or trekking, carrying all the supplies they need for a three- or four-week vacation because they know they cannot rely on the local shops.

They come to watch the freshwater seals -- a species found nowhere else in the world -- fish for salmon-like omul and enjoy the stunning scenery.

But most foreign visitors to the region are simply taking a break from the week-long trip on the Trans-Siberian railway, which delivers them from Moscow to Beijing or to the Pacific port of Vladivostok.

A trip to Baikal itself is expensive and may involve a dreary hunt for a Russian visa and complicated transfers between airports to board the seven-hour Irkutsk flight, a daunting prospect for a visitor who does not speak Russian.

"The main tourist is a person who goes by railway and stops in Irkutsk or maybe Listvyanka," said chemistry teacher Vladimir Baransky, deputy director of a small private company organizing such stopovers as well as tours of the lake itself.

Listvyanka, on the lakeshore 65 kilometers away, is the starting point for tours on the lake itself.

But tour operator Baikalcomplex, founded by scientists who want to share the lake's beauties with visitors from abroad, has organized just two boating trips so far this year. The firm concentrates on providing services for the Trans-Siberian tourist. "We have an e-mail address and get some inquiries, but we have not got much money for advertising," said director Yury Nemirovsky.

The ships used by Baikalcomplex, patches of rust poking through their gray and orange paint, usually service buoys or weather stations offshore or along the coast, and the crews are far from sure that tourism is the way to go.

"Tourists bring problems," said one sailor gruffly, asking not to be named.

Industrial pollution from Ulan Ude, the next big stop on the Trans-Siberian railway remains a problem, but the water in most of Baikal is still pure enough to drink. Baikal Water, pumped up from a depth of 400 meters, sells for $4 a bottle in the Intourist Hotel in Irkutsk, but it is easier and cheaper to throw a bucket over the side of a boat.