Great Baikal Trail
|Purpose||Ecotourism, environmentalism, hiking, volunteering|
The Great Baikal Trail or GBT (Russian: Большая Байкальская Тропа or ББТ (Bolshaya Baikalskaya Tropa or BBT)) is a Russian non-profit environmental organization promoting the development of ecotourism, voluntary work, and ecological education. Based in Irkutsk, Russia, GBT is working to build hiking trails around Lake Baikal. Over the last 10 years, from 2003 to the end of 2012, GBT has run over 180 international projects, building or improving trails at various points throughout the Siberian regions of Irkutsk and Buryatia with the help of more than 4,500 volunteers from around Russia and the world.
The mission of the Great Baikal Trail is to promote the sustainable development of ecotourism in the Lake Baikal region as an alternative to industrialism. Their mission is for an overall goal of the preservation and protection of the environment, through an increased awareness of environmental issues. They also work towards creating more socially responsible community spirit, as well as a healthier lifestyle in the region. They hope to increase international cooperation and create more collaborative programs with local and international organizations.
More specifically, they hope to achieve this through the creation of a single system of environmental trails around Lake Baikal, developing of a special kind of Russian tourism called "volunteer vacationing." They organize a number of Russian and international cooperative programs, attracting young people to various environmental, educational, and other community programs. They aim to create a means for guaranteeing good communication and mutual support amongst community groups, government agencies, local businesses, and Baikal residents. GBT conducts educational programs, along with organizing various public conferences, discussions, seminars, and workshops. They form environmental teams to tackle various issues, with numerous field expeditions.
Irkutsk traveler and writer Valentin Bryanskii promoted the idea of a circular trail around Baikal beginning in the 1970s. However, the modern idea of the Great Baikal Trail was brought up in 1997 by Oleg K. Gusev, a Russian writer, photographer and scientist, who worked at the Barguzin Nature Reserve for over thirty years and was instrumental in forming the Baikal-Lensky Reserve. After visiting the Appalachian Trail in the United States, Gusev realized that creating a similar system of trails at Lake Baikal might also help its preservation. At this time the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) was working on the project "Bed and Breakfast and Baikal." The idea was to create a network of private homestays and "micro-hostels" to receive the tourists hiking the path around the lake.
In 1999, the Great Baikal Trail project was presented at international exhibitions in Scotland and the Netherlands. The idea was also discussed at a seminar for the representatives of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Ulan-Ude. In April 2000, it was presented at the International Conference on Ecotourism in Brazil.
In June 2000, Andrei Suknev made a presentation about the Great Baikal Trail project to representatives of the World Bank, the United States Forest Service, Greenpeace, and the leaders of environmental agencies in the Irkutsk Oblast and the Republic of Buryatia. This presentation met with a lively response from the Deputy Chief Forester of the Lake Tahoe watershed, Ed Guy, who was familiar with the Tahoe Rim Trail, a similar system of trails at Lake Tahoe.
In 2001, Guy organized a trip of senior officials from the U.S. Forest Service to Lake Baikal. The goal of this trip was to create a project of mutual exchanges to begin the practical implementation of the Great Baikal Trail.
Between 2002-2003, the U.S. Forest Service funded a series of exchanges between professionals, trail builders, and representatives from the protected regions around Lake Baikal. At the same time, two organizations – the Federation of Sports Tourism and Mountaineering of the Republic of Buryatia and Earth Island Institute's Baikal Watch in San Francisco, United States – were awarded a joint grant from the Foundation for Russian American Economic Cooperation for an exchange program to share experience in trail construction. In the fall of 2002, specialists from the Tahoe Rim Trail Association, the U.S. Forest Service, and EarthCorps came to Lake Baikal. They met representatives of the protected areas, and discussed trail building and planning techniques used in the United States. Gary Cook, the director of Baikal Watch, made great personal contributions to the Great Baikal Trail project.
In January 2003, a group of interested people from all around Baikal traveled to the West Coast of United States to learn about trail building. In February it was decided to start building the Great Baikal Trail.
In the summer of 2003, the first six teams of volunteers began work on trail construction with the support of the Baikal Nature Reserve, Zabaikalsky National Park, the community organization Ust'e from the village Bolshoe Goloustnoe, the club LAT from the city of Ulan-Ude, and the NGO GRIN School of Tourist-Environmental Education of Severobaikalsk. In its first season, GBT had 136 volunteers.
In autumn, after numerous requests by these students, GBT founded the GBT Youth Club. Foreign volunteers also came to the club and they, along with Russian volunteers, assisted in the preparation of next season's projects.
In February 2004, three young people were sent to train at the organization EarthCorps, in Seattle, United States, to gain skills on trail construction and volunteer management. They returned just in time for the 2004 season with GBT. With them came two qualified experts from EarthCorp], who spent three months helping with work on 15 projects. 2004 was a significant year, as Rotary International "adopted" 100 km of trail, and Baikal Plan in Germany joined up with GBT, sending 100 volunteers to help with trail construction. Also in 2004, GBT was incorporated as a non-profit organization, allowing it to apply for grants. This is how it became the interregional public organization "The Great Baikal Trail."
In the winter of 2004-2005, the GBT Youth Club began to travel to local schools to give presentations on environmentalism to children, prepare exhibitions, and most importantly find young people who wanted to become team leaders and translators. In the spring, GBT organized courses to help young people develop the practical knowledge and skills necessary to become crew leaders, which they would have to demonstrate at the GBT seminar in Listvyanka that May. Meanwhile, the GBT Youth Club participated in various events, such as Baikaltour, Winteriada, and Baikal Day. The Ulan-Ude club organized social projects, such as providing Christmas gifts to children in orphanages. As a result, hundreds of children have received gifts at the Children's Home and Rehabilitation Center.
In 2005, GBT conducted more than 30 local trail building projects. GBT began sharing its experience with others, including an organization in Kamchatka. Its main international partners included the Earth Island Institute (San Francisco), EarthCorps (Seattle), and Baikal Plan (Dresden).
In 2005, the Center of Expertise (ECOM) published a popularity rating of environmental NGOs in 2005. ECOM assessed public interest in the activities of 40 national and regional organizations by counting the number of searches in Internet search engines. The leading positions were held by Greenpeace, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Ringing Cedars of Russia movement. The Great Baikal Trail was at 6th place, sharing a place ranking with such organizations as the Baikal Environmental Wave, Center for Russian Environmental Policy, the Moscow Society of Nature, the Environmental Education Center "Reserves", and Sakhalin Environment Watch.
In 2006 they were able to raise the quality of work by attracting Russian and foreign experts to the projects, and widened the geographic area of their work. GBT began conducting more projects for and with children. They won a National Award in the field of Social Volunteering for the 2005 Volunteer Project in Nature Trails.
Since then GBT has expanded its work from trail building to hosting environmental education workshops, seminars, working on nature interpretation, visiting classrooms, giving lectures, and community service.
The summer is the most active season for GBT. They run several two-week trail-building projects around Lake Baikal. These projects attract both Russian and international volunteers seeking to spend time in the wilderness of Lake Baikal, where they can work, relax and get to know people from other countries and cultures. These projects often take place in protected areas of the lake, such as Pribaikalsky National Park, Zabaikalsky National Park, Baikal Nature Reserve, and Barguzin Nature Reserve.
Each trail-building project host between 10 and 18 volunteers along with a crew leader, assistant, and interpreter. Living out of tents, they work six hours a day, five days a week. At each of these project sites, volunteers are asked to clear areas for trails, then build and mark these new trails with special signs. They construct all the necessary trail features, such as switchbacks along steeper terrains, bridges over river crossings, and natural staircases made of stone and wood. They build campsites, create interpretive signs and displays, and create many trail markers made of stone. Most volunteers are individuals, but sometimes these projects involve entire families or groups of friends.
In winter there is no trail-building, but other projects take place. Participants create signs, trail descriptions, booklets and other promotion materials for the trails and protected areas around Lake Baikal. Often GBT conducts environmental programs for local children.
Eco-English is typically a ten-day full English language immersion program aimed towards Russian participants with at least an intermediate English level, to learn and practice English. During the program, there are English classes with environmental focus, interactive activities, and trail building.
Besides the standard trail building projects, GBT also conducts educational projects, often in partnership with other groups. These projects vary depending on the focus and desire of each individual organizational partner.
During the school year, Great Baikal Trail volunteers often visit classes in local schools in villages in the Republic of Buryatia and Irkutsk Oblast. Volunteers prepare interact lessons to teach about the protection of nature, ecology, and the importance of environmental protection.
The Great Baikal Trail organizes annual leadership courses for young, energetic, and inquisitive individuals who love travelling, intercultural communication, and Lake Baikal. It enables every volunteer to work as a crew leader or interpreter, leading an international team, during summer trail building projects around the lake.
Courses for crew leaders
A crew leader is a GBT specialist who has been trained in trail construction and maintenance, and who has shown an ability to manage international teams in an outdoor setting. The crew leader is responsible for setting up the camp and directing the daily work that the volunteer crew performs during each two-week project.
An interpreter is entirely responsible for fostering active communication between all crew members. The working languages on the trail are both Russian and English, so interpreters must be proficient in speaking both. Interpreters also plan a full agenda of recreational activities over a two-week period. They must understand communication basics and use of different languages, as well as psychological and cultural differences between Russian and international volunteers. They also must handle conflict resolution.
GBT Youth Club
In 2003, the GBT Youth Club was formed for the coordination of activities within the organization.
In the winter, the club organizes hikes on the ice of Lake Baikal, and hosts ecological exhibitions, conferences and international workshops in partnership with foreign environmental organizations. They often work with children, holding interactive classes on environmental protection. Club members often complete GBT courses on crew leadership and interpreting, and become leaders of trail-building summer projects. The club does not meet in the summer, as most members are involved in summer projects.
Members often have the opportunity to participate in the international programs of organizations such as EarthCorps, based in Seattle.
Listvyanka to Bolshie Koty
The Listvyanka — Bolshie Koty section of the Great Baikal Trail is located within Pribaikalsky National Park. This trail offers a scenic hike through Siberian forests and along the shores of Lake Baikal in the Baikal Mountains. It is a moderate 22 km (14 mi) hike, climbing 404m above the lake. It is easily accessible from Irkutsk and gives tourists an opportunity to truly experience Lake Baikal without venturing far from the city. On average, it takes 5-8 hours to hike. A permit from the Park is required for hiking or camping along this trail.
In the jungles of Khamar-Daban
This section of trail is in the Khamar-Daban mountain range and is located within the Baikalsky Nature Reserve. One must have a permit and must be accompanied by a member of the reserve's staff to visit the reserve. The trail is 12 km and follows a river valley leading to the Osinovsky Waterfall, alpine meadows and lakes, and views of the peaks of the Khamar-Daban mountains.
- Official website of the Great Baikal Trail
- Baikalplan.de, German partner organization of the Great Baikal Trail
- www.baikalinfo.com - useful information for travellers