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"Enriching experience that I would recommend to anyone"

For many years I marvelled at the blue crescent shape that pierced Siberia in any scale of world map. I have been fascinated by Lake Baikal for many years and knew that one day I would visit the pearl of Siberia - the Sacred Sea.

Back in 2008 I had reached the summit of Russia, on Mount Elbrus. That trip had introduced me to the wonders of Russia: her capital, her scenery, her culture, her mountains, and the hospitality of her hugely diverse peoples. I felt privileged to have had such a great time and experienced so much on that trip. I vowed to return and give something back to Russia.

I decided to volunteer for the Great Baikal Trail non-profit organisation. In so doing I knew that I would be giving something back to the country that had welcomed me with open arms back in 2008 and elevated me to her apex (from which the views were breathtaking).

This humble little non-profit organisation is graced by a wonderful team of office staff, project leaders and regular volunteers and each year they welcome volunteers from across Russia and other countries for short duration projects. They are a credit to their nation - and what a fascinating nation it is! In evolving a series of environmentally sensitive hiking trails in the Lake Baikal region, the Great Baikal Trail organisation is pioneering in spearheading eco-tourism in this region. The GBT team help foster a socially responsible society through their educational programmes too.

I signed up for the Island in the Wild project for the summer of 2015. We were due to work on Big Ushkanii Island - a haven for Nerpa, the beguiling endemic seal species. Forest fires changed our trajectory, however, and our team helped rebuild a section of trail on the Holy Nose Peninsula instead.

Prior to the project I spent some time volunteering in the new GBT office in Irkutsk. I helped setup computers, perform some administration and help organise some of the rations for the various summer projects. As I've mentioned the GBT team are a great bunch of people - very welcoming, helpful, passionate about their work and keen to progress their cultural experience by spending time with volunteers from other countries as well as from all over Russia.

I had the privilege of spending a few days of holiday on Olkhon island, prior to the main project I had signed up to. The coastline of Olkhon has stunning scenery and enchanting history and there are plenty of places to visit including the very famous Shaman Rock. I took my first swim in Baikal whilst at Olkhon and despite it being a wonderfully hot summer day the water was shockingly cold. The temperature varies depending whereabouts on the shores of Baikal that you decide to take the plunge.

We started and finished our project under the watchful eye of Vladimir Lenin: the huge (largest in the world) bronze Lenin head sculpture. It was nice to experience Ulan-Ude before and after the project and sample Buryat culture and cuisine.

We constructed over 850 metres of new trail during our two week project. This was on the Glinka slopes leading up to the Holy Nose Peninsula Plateau (summit altitude 1877 meters) on the East coast of Lake Baikal. This involved hacking through vegetation (sometimes by hand, other times utilising our cache of trail-building tools), clearing trees damaged by forest fires and ultimately digging a new path that took a more gentle gradient than its predecessor.

Our campsite was at an idyllic little bay about forty minutes walk from our trail site. We would often bathe in Lake Baikal either at our campsite or at a nearby sandy beach - the water was significantly warmer in this part of Baikal compared to where I had bathed previously. There was a little banya nearby that we could run from into the lake and back - truly invigorating and even better whilst watching a stunning Siberian sunset.

My birthday fell on the second day of our project and the team presented me with a wonderful birthday cake and poem and sang for me - thank you once again team! It was a most memorable birthday!

We were well stocked with food on our project and everyone helped cook and perform camp duties as per the rota. As well as tinned fish we also sampled Omul - a local delicacy of the salmon family. We were well stocked with buckwheat, rice, and various other foodstuffs and able to concoct plenty of satisfying dishes.

On our project were Russian volunteers from across the nation, two German girls, and myself - a Scotsman. Gloria and Jana gave a wonderful expose of German culture one evening around the campfire. On another evening some of the Russian girls gave a great presentation on Russian culture. I helped teach the group Scottish dancing and a famous challenge from Scotland: tossing the caber. We shared more culture with each other over the two weeks.

The weather was very settled during our project and it was warm enough to sleep outside of our tents some nights. Some of us opted to do this and were rewarded by wonderful star-lit skies and beautiful sunrises.

On one day off we had the privilege of visiting Big Ushkanii island and marvelling as we watched the endemic seals (Nerpa) cavort with each other. The boat trip there and back offered magnificent views too.

I took a little travel guitar with me and this was great to have as we were able to sing songs around the campfire each night. We also had great fun playing various games in the evenings too.

After we had completed our section of trail we had the chance to hike up it and on to the plateau at 1877 metres. As a qualified International Mountain Leader this was a most enjoyable experience for me, to marvel at Lake Baikal from high up on the mountain side.

It is said that Baikal can inspire song and verse. It motivated me to compose a song about our team and I performed it on the last night around the campfire. I also pulled out a big bag of marshmallows that I had been saving for everyone for our last night. We roasted them on the fire and indulged ourselves.

Many thanks to Zarina (our project leader), Dasha (our interpreter), Natasha (our food guardian), and the other wonderful folks of the project. It was an enriching experience that I would recommend to anyone. There is much more that I could write but I will rest the pen for just now. Go and investigate, satisfy your curiosity, sign up for a GBT project and help protect Mother Nature whilst having a whale of a time. I look forward to my next trip to Russia.

Graeme Whitty
Twitter: @graemewhitty