Monday, March 30, 2009

Introducing Baikal lake (1st part)

From Severobaikalsk (Northern Baikal lake), March 30th 2009

Baikal lake, classified and protected within UNESCO heritage, is the lake of world records:
- The biggest reserve of fresh water on Earth with 23,000km3 to be compared to the 89km3 of Geneva lake (see below figure),
- The richest in term of animal and plant species with 3,500 species, including 2,500 animal ones (Timochkine, 1995), and a 82% endemism rate (Mazenova, 1995),
- The oldest with its 23 millions years,
- And the deepest reaching 1,637m at maximum.

Compared to Geneva lake (the biggest lake in Western Europe), Baikal is 5 times deeper, 54 times larger, and contains 258 times more water. Baikal’s volume equals the one of Baltic Sea.

Baikal lake is the sacred sea (“sviatoie morie”), known in the legend as the Father and his daughters representing the rivers connected to him. The legend says he had difficult relationships with his one daughter Angara and this is why it is the only one river flowing from Baikal lake, while all others flow into.

Baikal is also what saves and helps to escape Rawicz and his friends prisoners of a goulag near Yakoutsk. Going along the Lena river and planning to flew through Mongolia, he suggests: “Trouvons seulement l’extremite Nord du lac et sa long rive orientale nous menera presque au dehors de Siberie. Cette idee du Baikal comme guide naturel pour quitter ce pays de servage fut l’aiguillon qui nous fit poursuivre a marche forcee au cours des semaines suivantes”.

Finally, Baikal plays a major role in history. December 14th 1825, tsar Nicolai 1st stops the insurrection of officers and members of the intelligentsia in Saint-Petersbourg, the so called “insurrection decabriste”. Condamned to exil and forced work in Siberia, several dozens of these revolutionaries established in Irkoutsk. Nobles, educated and generous, they will give a new twist and dimension to the region. For example, lieutenant Mikhail K. Kioukhelbeker had taken part in expeditions to Artic Circle and was a knowledgeable marine and explorator. He developed in Bargouzine gulf at Baikal lake the first method of winter sondages from the banquise (Kolotilo, 1989). Famous poet Alexander Pouchkine had several of his good friends among the “Decabrists” and sent them the following “Missive en Siberie” in their honor:

En Siberie, au fond des mines,
Plein d’endurance et de fierte,
Sachez que votre oeuvre chemine
Vers l’ideal de liberte!

Fidele soeur de l’infortune,
L’esperance dans vos sous-sols
Maintient courage et foi commune,
L’heure attendue a pris son vol!

Et malgre toutes les serrures,
L’amour ainsi que l’amitie
Vont au fond des prisons obscures
Porter la voix de Liberte.

Quand tomberont vos lourdes chaines,
Vos freres rendront a vos bras
Le glaive, et terminant vos peines,
La Liberte vous attendra.

The beach




Crossing the lake

Thursday, March 19, 2009

-31 grads

Tinda, Wednesday March 18th 2009.

Look carefully at the number announced at Tinda train station for my visit: -31 grads. No comment.

On the Trans-Siberian railway (Baikal Amour section)

Tinda, Wednesday March 18th 2009.

A piece of adventure...
Getting on the train at Komsomolsk, the “provodnitsa” (train manager) tells me to be careful with other passengers because they are on their way to work and will surely drink. I thank her for the advice, but what can i do? Arrived at my place, I discover my neighbours and recognize in them the type described by my dear provodnitsa. How to describe them? Mercenaires, animals, solid guys, alcoolics, unpolite, dirty, noisy, violent. The full team is here: 20 of these guys, who are heading to their work place, in the forest for wood industries, or to the metallurgic manufacturing sites of the region of Tinda. And me! 20 of these mercenaires and me in a dormitory, 5 of them with me in 4m3, for the next 24 hours. All have left their family for one month, and will be working in extreme rough conditions for a very low salary. I do my best to understand them and integrate myself in the group. I discover in some of them kindness and curiosity. One of them offers me from his dinner some bread with a big piece of... fat, purely fat, that i enjoy with a vegetable soup. This is typical Siberian meal, and i have to say it fits well with the local climate in winter. Another of them, my neighbour, helps me for my exercises of Russian, smiling at me with his golden teeth and multiple scarces on the face.
Finally, the alcohol will have inhibited my dangerous neighbours for the rest of the night, until they got off in the early morning, the same morning that offers me this beautiful taiga landscape before my arrival in Tinda.

En voiture! :-)

Our shared samovar (to supply wagon with hot water)
Saleswomen at train stops selling famous Baikal lake fish "omul"
And some history...
After the foundation of Vladivostok in the early 1860’s and to sustain the colonization of Far East, it became a priority to build a proper infrastructure to replace the existing “sibirsky trakt” built with stones and linking Moscow with Irkutsk in only 2 months. The work was launched by an oukase dated March 17th 1891. France took active part in the project by engaging capital and industrial competences: for example, Eiffel factories delivered metallic elements necessary for the numerous bridges. From a territory only synonym of exil, Siberia could become an integrated part of Russia, and the Empire could start exploiting its immense resources. This development reminds us strongly of the story of American Far West.

Historic train from Blaise Cendrars's time (see below quote)

Today, the network is composed of 3 main roads:
Moscow – Vladivostok, the so called Trans-Siberian road,
Moscow – Oulan Bator – Pekin (Trans-Mongolian),
Moscow – Karbin – Pekin (Trans-Mandchourian).
To go from Komsomolsk to Severobaikalsk, I used the Baikal Amour line that doubles the Trans-Siberian one on the North. Going on average 60km/h, it is a game of patience, but above all an incredible sociologic experience and opportunity to read, think, and admire Russian taiga and steppes, sometimes accompanied by music.

Landscape from the train on a sunny morning

Photo souvenir at one of the numerous stops

After a short (at -31 grads) visit of Tinda, emails check at the post office and some grocery shopping, it is already time to catch the next train for 26 new hours of plaskart. Next stop: Baikal lake and Severobaikalsk, the location of my project with local schools.
Along the way, contemplation pure: sun, blue sky, deep taiga and mounts covered by snow. The train is navigating in an amphitheater of mountains, and suddenly enters a 17 minutes long tunnel to exit in the middle of a new range. After the Swiss Glacier Express from Zermatt to Saint-Moritz, meet the Russian Trans-Siberian!

Blaise Cendrars, who has also lived the experience of Trans-Siberian, will conclude for us this article, with an extract from his Prose du trans-siberien:
Les vitres sont givrées
Pas de nature!
Et derrière, les plaines sibériennes le ciel bas et les grands ombres des taciturnes qui montent et qui descendent
Je suis couché dans un plaid
Comme ma vie
Et ma vie ne me tient pas plus chaud que ce châle écossais
Et l'Europe toute entière aperçue au coupe-vent d'un express à toute vapeur
N'est pas plus riche que ma vie
Ma pauvre vie
Ce châle
Effiloché sur des coffres remplis d'or
Avec lesquels je roule
Que je rêve
Que je fume
Et la seule flamme de l'univers Est une pauvre pensée...

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

From Sovietic utopic dream: Komsomolsk

Komsomolsk, Monday March 16th 2009.

Komsomolsk na Amure is the symbol of Sovietic utopic dream and systematic planning. Its name comes from "komsomol" (communist youth) that litteraly built this city out of nothing on an existing swamp in 1932.
The objective was to populate the Far East and help develop and defend this region. It brought steel, aeronautic and naval industries with itself, and corresponds to the first quinquenal plan (1929-1933). Alone at the commands since the eviction of Trotsky, Staline decides the massive and fast industrialization of the country, starting with basic heavy industry and following on selected tractors, cars and planes ones.

The city of Komsomolsk impresses by its architecture and urbanism, typical of Sovietic times: large avenues 90grads crossing, big block houses all similar and usually situated around a small garden and playground.

The square at Amur is again the best place in the city, but here the wind is blowing strongly and hurting faces. We do not stay long and head to a warm place: the eternal flame of local war memorial.
In the afternoon, i have the chance to try local movie theatre. The movie is terrible (American ridiculous happy end comedy), but the room is as i expected it and has this Sovietic style as the rest of the city: big, very big especially for the only 6 clients: the 4 of us and a couple), cold, but comfortable.

The evening comes and it is time to catch my next train taking me 1500km further west to Tinda in 37 hours: departure from Komsomolsk Monday 20:25, arrival Tinda Wednesday 8:35 local time (Moscow + 6hrs: my first time change :-)

From Xabarovsk and the Amur river

On this Friday March 13th evening, there is a strong snow storm in Vladivostok and i am heading to the train station. Trans-Siberian adventure is starting. Departure 22:00, arrival in Xabarovsk 10:15.

Sitting in the plaskart full of people, i am torn between mixed feelings of happiness, sadness and fear. Happiness to start the real adventure, a moment i have waited for for so long, a unique soliogical experience into the heart of Russia. Sadness to leave good and careful friends in a peaceful environment. And fear to go deeper alone into the unknown, so scary after stories and recommendations i have read and received. My neighbours, who are not aware of the privilege they have to share this important moment with me, are a mother with her daughter, two men alone and a woman alone. We wil be sharing this 4m3 room for the next 12 hours. All seem very used to night train plaskat practices and have prepared their beds in a few minutes while i am enjoying every second realizing where i am.

Welcome in Xabarovsk by the leader of German network for Russian Far East Anna, I have the chance to discover the university and take part for the time of a meeting in the organization of a graffiti festival in coming August. I am also welcome by prestigious Russian people such as Xabarov the explorator and Pouchkine the poet.

Xabarovsk is a city founded on 3 hills and turned towards Amur river. What a charmful place! Active and with a beautiful architecture, its old buildings of maximum 2-3 levels, colored with pastels or built with small bricks, along large and clean streets.

The approahc of Amur river is taking my wonder to its paroxism. A large square, with a colorful church and traditional war memorial, overlooks this majestuous river running to the North. At this time of year, it is a large space of ice and snow where people walk and enjoy fresh air.

With its 4416km flow the largest river in Russia, it is interesting to notice that Amur for a long time had been pouring its waters into the Yellow Sea and only in the Quarternary times acquired the current profile. This comprehensive record of formation laid its footprint on the fish fauna too, numbering over a hundred species.

Among them, the Amur river in the Russian Far East is home to four species of the family Acipenseridae: kaluga Huso dauricus, Amur sturgeon Acipenser schrenckii, Salihalin sturgeon A. Mikadoi, and sterlet A. Ruthenus. Only kaluga and Amur sturgeon are endemic to this river (Berg 1948, Nikolslkii 1956). Kaluga is the largest freshwater in this river system reaching 5.6m in length and 1000kg in weight.

Historically, both were commercial species and the survival of sturgeon populations in the Amur river became problematic after the turn of the 20th century. The number of individuals in the lower Amur river population at age 2 or greater was recently estimated to be 40,000, and in the middle Amur 30,000. The population will continue to decline because of rampant over-fishing. For note, populations in the Zeya and Bureya rivers are extremely small and on the verge of extinction.

Amur sturgeon and kaluga at the aquarium of Vladivostok

A conservation program has been put into place for Amur river basin, based on 9 zapovedniks (reserve areas) and 8 zakazniks (restricted use areas).

Friday, March 13, 2009

My 1st train tickets on mythic Trans-Siberian railway

From Khabarovsk, March 15th 2009

Within my project, Vladivostok has been an important first stage to familiarize myself with Russian life outside Moscow, improve my Russian, learn and write on the Siberian tiger, get 2nd vaccination for encephalite, and organize key documents like registration and train tickets. I am now ready to enter Russian taiga and head to Khabarovsk, the capitale of Russian Far East, before continuing to Baikal lake.

My first train tickets on the mythic Trans-Siberian railway:
Vladivostok – Khabarovsk: night train 12h15min
Khabarovsk – Komsomolsk na Amoure 9h
Komsomolsk – Tinda 37h
Tinda – Severobaikalsk 26h

And now some pictures to give you a feel of Vladivostok life in winter, starting with the favorite activity: ice-fishing on the Sea.
Elements of architecture The old houses on the Vladivostok Arbat street:

Tha advices of my dear local friends brought me to the cape and lighthouse, "Mayak", last point of continent before the Russkii islands and last stop of bus lines #59, 60 and 81. The area is destroyed by all sorts of various constructions and industries. The only shop there is a petrol station, but which is actually the best place to observe harbour activities and the islands.
It was windy that day and very cold, i was of course the only tourist. Followed by cars driving fast to the petrol station, observed by a homeless person living with his dog behind a truck and workers building a house, and accompanied by few people going ice fishing. Despite few worries and unpleasant walk, i reached a promontory that allowed me to make some nice pictures and gain a feel of Vladivostok harbour activities in winter.
A ice-breaking rescue boat helping a freight boat to navigate out of the ice:

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Save the tiger

From Vladivostok, Mar 12th 2009

Vladivostok is the core city of Pacific Russian marine forces and was therefore forbidden to foreigners during most of Soviet time. Below the prestigious S-56 now transformed as museum. It contains 7 rooms for 40 people, could transport 12 rockets 7m long each, go 40km/h and up to 24h under water.

But Vladivostok is also more generally an active harbour opened towards Asian neighbours Japan, Korea and China:

And also the entry point to the large Primorski territory and its Sihote Alin mountains, that you can see starting at the back of this cafe:

There is a funny anecdote about this territory. During the Creation of the world, God got tired and falled asleep. Waking up, he noticed that there was a small corner, “Primorie”, remaining without fauna and flora. Gathering all plants and animals he had left, he put them into this lost corner.
This territory is the one of Sihote Alin mountains, sung by Vladimir Arseniev in his roman Dersou Ouzala, who I introduced to you in an earlier post (February 2009). Part of UNESCO human heritage, this region composes one of the largest regions where massifs of ancient coniferous and broad-leaf forests still exist. Besides, the impact of human activities on this region has been very insignificant. A very complicated and bright picture of mutual integration and mixture of different flora and fauna representatives characterize this area. This region maintains the largest number of rare and endangered species, the greater part of which cannot be encountered anywhere else. Almost 1,200 vascular plant species represent the flora of the Sikhote-Alin. This area inhabits 71 mammal and 370 bird species.

Among those numerous animal species present on Primorie territory is the Amur or Siberian tiger that we know from our zoos and circuses, but represents a protected species classified as endangered and scientifically called Panthera Tigris.

The above pictures show the specific Siberian tiger, which differs from other tigers by a paler orange colour and widely spaced brown stripes rather than black. A tiger’s stripes usually act as camouflage within long grass and dense vegetation as they help distort its body outline. However, as the land here is covered in snow for most of the year the Siberian Tiger has developed stripes much paler than that of other tiger subspecies.Siberian tiger also has a white chest and belly and a thick ‘ruff’ of hair around its neck. Specifically designed for the rough climate of Russian taiga, its thicker fur and the layer of fat along its belly and flanks, allow it to live within cold and harsh temperatures which can reach as low as - 46°C.It is the largest of all cats with males growing up to 3.3m long and weighing up to 300kg. The smaller females measure around 2.6m and weigh between 100 and 167kg. They can live up to the age of 25 years in their natural habitat.

Availability of a sufficient prey base is the tiger's major habitat requirement: "wild pigs and deer of various species are the two prey types that make up the bulk of the tiger's diet, and in general tigers require a good population of these species in order to survive and reproduce" (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002). Based on studies, Karanth et al. (2004) estimate that tigers need to kill 50 large prey animals per year. Tigers are opportunistic predators, however, and their diet includes birds, fish, rodents, insects, amphibians, reptiles in addition to other mammals such as primates and porcupines. Tigers can also take ungulate prey much larger than themselves, including large bovids (water buffalo, gaur, banteng), elephants and rhinos (Nowell and Jackson 1996).
Tigers are generally solitary, with adults maintaining exclusive territories, or home ranges. Adult female home ranges seldom overlap, whereas male ranges typically overlap from 1-3 females, a typical felid pattern of social organization. Tiger home ranges are small where prey is abundant : for example, female home ranges in Chitwan averaged 20 km², while in the Russian Far East they are much larger at 450 km² (Sunquist and Sunquist, 2002). Similarly, reported tiger densities range from 11.65 adult tigers per 100 km² where prey is abundant (India's Nagarhole National Park) to as low as 0.13 to 0.45 per 100 km² where prey is more thinly distributed, as in Russia's Sikhote Alin Mountains (Nowell and Jackson, 1996).

The global tiger population is estimated to range from 3,402 to 5,140 specimens, and is decreasing. In terms of conserving the wild tiger's genetic biodiversity, population biologists prefer to work with a number that approximates the actual breeding population : the number of animals which raise offspring to reproductive adulthood, or effective population size. The number of breeding tigers in one population was equivalent to just 40% of the actual adult population, based on long-term demographic studies in Nepal's Chitwan National Park (Smith and McDougal, 1991). Therefore, the tiger's effective population size could be in the range of 1,361 to 2,056 reproductively successful adults.
More specifically in Russia, a comprehensive winter snow tracking census done in 2005 estimated 331 to 393 adult tigers. Using a similar methodology, 330 to 371 adult tigers were estimated in 1996. Russian Far East represents the largest Tiger Conservation Landscape worldwide with 269,983 km² (to be compared with the smallest : 278 km² in India).

The greatest threats to Tigers are habitat loss, poaching and lack of sufficient prey.

Once found across Asia, from Turkey to eastern Russia, over the past century Tigers have disappeared from south-west and central Asia, from Java and Bali in Indonesia and from large parts of South-east and East Asia. They have lost 93% of their historic range, and more than 40% of their range in the last decade. Much of the remaining habitat is becoming increasingly fragmented. See below an example of deforestation in Russian taiga.

In the early 1990s, trade in Tiger parts was banned worldwide, but Tigers remain in serious danger from illegal wildlife trade —poaching— mainly for their bones for use in traditional Asian medicines, and for their pelts and other body parts, such as teeth, skin and claws, as decorative items. Tiger bone has long been considered to hold anti-inflammatory properties, with some support from Chinese medical research, but many consider the effect to be more psychological than pharmacological (Nowell and Xu, 2007).

I would like to finish on a positive note and share a non-exhaustive list of projects recently launched to help conservation of Tigers :
- In June 2008, the World Bank has announced a global joint venture to help reverse the decline in numbers of Tigers in the wild—the first-ever species initiative by the Bank. To read more:
- After a program conducted launched in 2000 for US forests, the American Forests association continues its “Trees for tigers” project to protect the Siberian tiger within its habitat of Russian Far East. Follow:
- In February 2009, the Wildlife Conservation Society, together with the World Bank and Global Environment Facility, has announced a commitment of $2.8 million toward tiger conservation across its range. WCS will lead a new project, Tiger Futures, in partnership with other conservation organizations with long-term field experience in tiger conservation throughout countries spanning the big cat’s geographical range in Asia. Article:

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Definitions around species conservation

From Vladivostok, March 11th 2009

While I am working on upcoming posts with specifics on Vladivostok and Primorie region, let me share with you definitions, taken from Science Daily articles, of two key concepts that we will be using intensively in this blog. As we progress in our journey, we will go deeper into the recent IUCN Red List updates, and define concrete solutions we can put into place to limit the risks.

An endangered species is a population of an organism, which because it is either few in number or threatened by changing environmental or predation parameters, leaving it at risk of becoming extinct.

Many countries have laws offering special protection to these species or their habitats: for example, forbidding hunting, restricting land development, or creating preserves. While species have evolved and become extinct on a regular basis for the last several hundred million years, the number of species becoming extinct since the Industrial Revolution has no precedent in biological history. If this rate of extinction continues, or accelerates as now seems to be the case, the number of species becoming extinct in the next decade could number in the millions. While most people readily relate to endangerment of large mammals or birdlife, some of the greatest ecological issues are the threats to stability of whole ecosystems if key species vanish at any level of the food chain.

You will find nice visuals and interesting articles related to this topic under the following link:

The conservation status of a species is an indicator of the likelihood of that species continuing to survive either in the present day or the future.

Many factors are taken into account when assessing the conservation status of a species: not simply the number remaining, but the overall increase or decrease in the population over time, breeding success rates, known threats, and so on. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species is the best-known worldwide conservation status listing and ranking system. The system divides threatened species into three categories: Critically Endangered (CR), Endangered (EN), and Vulnerable (VU). Here is the link to this fantastic database:

Monday, March 2, 2009

Mission impossible

Your mission if you accept it: make all these objects fit into my backpack: picture 1.

Mission successfully accomplished: picture 2. Ready to go :-)

Invitation au voyage

From Paris, March 2nd 2009

The evening before leaving, I would like to send you an "Invitation au voyage", sung by Charles Baudelaire in his famous poem:

Mon enfant, ma soeur,
Songe à la douceur,
D’aller vivre là-bas vivre ensemble !
Aimer à loisir,
Aimer et mourir
Au pays qui te ressemble !
Les soleils mouillés
De ces ciels brouillés
Pour mon esprit ont les charmes
Si mystérieux
De tes traitres yeux, brillant à travers leurs larmes.

Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté,
Luxe, calme et volupté.

Meet Dersou Ouzala

From Paris, March 1st 2009

As an appetizer for our first stop in Vladivostok, I would like to introduce to you a good friend of mine, whose adventures have taken me throughout the large and wonderful Primore territory, taught me numerous things on fauna and flora of Russian taiga, and who will follow us for the next months: Dersou Ouzala, hunter of the Gold indian tribe and hero of Russian officer Vladimir Arseniev’s roman.
Here is his description made by the author after their first meeting in 1906: « Cet individu était habillé d’une veste et d’une culotte en peau de renne tannée. Coiffé d’une sorte de bandeau, il portait aux pieds des ountes (chaussures sibériennes en peau d’élan ou de chamois tannée et rendue très souple). Une grande besace au dos, il avait en main des fourches (petits supports servant à viser) et une carabine aussi longue que demodée. »

The end of the XIXth century shows the colonization by Russians of their Far East territories including Primore, which is the band of land between China and the Japan Sea. Seduced by the intelligence and tenacity of his officer Arseniev, the governor Unterberger gives him the lead for 3 explorating missions in Sihote Alin mountains between 1906 and 1909. His roman “Dersou Ouzala” tells the stories of those missions especially his growing friendship with the hunter. His work can be considered as a masterpiece for 4 dimensions:
- Military: he is discovering and mapping undiscovered territories that can be important in case of Japanese attack via the sea,
- Ethnographic: he gathers observations of local pickers and hunters,
- Scientific: he studies fauna and flora,
- Artistic: moved by the primitive nature of the taiga, it awakes in him poetic feelings.

If you are interested by Dersou’s stories but are not fan of books, i recommend you the movie made in 1975 by Japanese regisseur Akira Kurosawa.