[Viewpoint] Meditations on Lake Baikal

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[Viewpoint] Meditations on Lake Baikal

Lake Baikal, known as the “North Sea” in ancient Chinese texts, stretches 636 kilometers across the southernmost region of Russia and Mongolia. The world’s most ancient and largest lake - estimated to be 30 million years old - has an intimidating antiquity and purity. Guarded by natural stone sentries, it glares at foreign visitors in stoical silence and suspicion.

The journey from Ulan Bator, Mongolia to Lake Baikal on the Trans-Siberian Railway passed endless green plains and pale-green birch forests. The crystal waters of the lake, icy even in summertime, have depths of 1,637 meters. The full moon over Lake Baikal was not like any other moon. It rose in such an illuminated golden holy halo across the opaque, black skies that even clouds dared not approach.

Baikal is the world’s deepest freshwater lake and the last natural resort unspoiled by modern pollution and the kind of human activities that have penetrated the jungles of the Amazon and started melting the ice on both poles.

The pure, deep and rich lake waters are home to thousands of species of rare plants and animals, including seals, which live as if in God’s original form without evolution.

In a eulogy titled “Baikal Kiss,” Korean poet Shin Dae-chul once wrote: “We have been here before we existed. We longed for here before we existed.”

The Mongolian part of Baikal is regarded as the cradle of North Asian shaman culture. The monuments, cults and rituals commonplace to the region are familiar to Asian eyes. The lake known as Tengis - meaning the sea - to Mongols gets its name from a combination of sky god Tengri and Genghis Khan, founder of the Mongol empire.

There is also a Korean connection to the area. The indigenous Bruyats, who populated the Baikal region, use a dialect derived from the Altaic family of languages, from which the Korean tongue derives. The birch trees that are also common in the north-central part of the Korean Peninsula are considered by Buryats as sacred gateways to the spirit world. The burning of the white bark of birch trees to ward off negative forces is a ritual ceremony ancient Koreans used to perform as well.

Korean shamanists used to visit the Shaman Rock on Cape Burhan at Baikal Lake to immerse themselves in the shamanist energy and spirit. They believed the ancient name Bulham of Mt. Baekdu was derived from Burhan.

Some would criticize the theory that our race originated from the northern region as a remnant of Japanese colonial brainwashing. But they might change their mind upon encountering the incredible infiniteness and purity of Baikal.

The area, which sits at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, is rich with fresh water, green plains, woodlands and abundant natural resources, including coal, oil, uranium and copper. It is scarcely inhabited and has the minimum infrastructure of waterways and roads disturbing the habitat. It is easy to imagine infinite development in the region.

The Russian republic and Buryat Autonomous government have pursued tourism and economic development for a long time but have made little progress due to the rigidity of socialist practices of old.

We can offer a push to cultivate the region’s natural resources with our science and technology. Russia does not trust capital from the U.S. and Europe or China and Japan, with whom it has been wrangling over territorial claims. Korea has the most advantages to make inroads into the area.

The leaders of South and North Korea have recently visited Mongolia and Siberia. Is this mere a coincidence or a harbinger of things to come?

The North’s Kim Jong-il took a boat tour of Baikal Lake before summit talks with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. We have to wonder what thoughts could have passed through his mind while witnessing the awesome spectacle of the lake. I like to imagine that one day South and North Koreans will stand shoulder to shoulder on the mountain peak of Baikal and look down over Asia and the world, harboring the same dream.

*The writer is a partner at Hwang Mok Park, P.C. and former head of the Seoul Central District Court.


By Lee Woo-keun

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