113 km north-west from Irkutsk, in the vicinity of Bol’shoi island and Narym river-arm, almost opposite River Belaya estuary, the third major tributary of River Angara, the affluent of Bratsk Reservoir comes distinctly into evidence in the river. The reservoir originated following the construction of Bratsk Hydro, which is a second stage of the River Angara Chain. The accumulation of the full storage of water was taking place between the years 1961 and 1967. Bratsk reservoir, its volume about 170 km³ , is the world’s largest artificial water-body, (for natural river-bed reservoirs); Victoria Reservoir in Africa, created from a major lake, is the only one that exceeds Bratsk Reservoir by volume. Water-plane area of Bratsk Reservoir is 5470 km² , effective volume exceeds 48 km, the stretch along River Angara valley is more than 500 km, maximum depth by the dam is 106 m.
Going by ship unavoidably increases the distance travelled as compared to the stretch of the reservoir due to calling at ports and terminals, deviations to bays, etc. Thus the distance from the terminal in Irkutsk to Bratsk increases from 606 km beeline to the actual 660 km.
Throughout its stretch, the reservoir is generally pointed to the north along the former bed of River Angara, whereas within the zone of affluent wedging (approximately down to Svirsk) the reservoir is in all respects indiscernible from the river. Its width there keeps within the range of 1 to 4 km, average depth is 8 m, water temperature does not exceed 12-14 C degrees. Down from River Belaya estuary, there stretch agriculturally developed tracts of steppe1 and forested steppe*. Horizontal and inclined strata of ancient, light and grey coloured limestone come into view along the precipitous banks.
On the right bank, opposite River Belaya estuary, a picturesque village Olonki is located, where the first «Decembrist» V. Raevskii spent several long years of his deportation. Farther on along the same bank, the village Buret’ comes into view, that is known for the rich Upper Paleolithic archeological site. There is the Barkhatovskaya timber trans-shipment base there.
After 139 km of travel by water, the ship calls at the port of a small satellite of Tcheremkhovo — Svirsk (19.5 thousand people) that is connected with the master-city by railroad and automobile highway. Svirsk was brought to life by the «VostSibElement» enterprise in 1940, when the plant started manufacturing a wide range of rechargeable and disposable batteries there. The status of a town was granted to the municipality in 1949. There also operates a ferry crossing.
Beyond Svirsk the railroad turns west from the reservoir. The towns and villages are left behind, and a regular agricultural landscape comes into view.
12 km from Svirsk, on the right bank of River Ida estuary, there is an old village Kamenka, founded in 1669, and Idinskii Fortalice. Nowadays the site where The Fortalice used to be is flooded by the reservoir.
Downstream from River Ida estuary, the territory of Ust’-Ordynsk Bouryat National District already occupies both the right and the left banks of the reservoir, which dissects the historic area populated by The Riverside (Western) Bouryats in the middle. After about 195 km of travel from Irkutsk, Bratsk Reservoir expands to 7-12 km in width and assumes marine appearance. The bays Osinskii on the right and Unginskii on the left penetrate for 40-45 km inland. Average depth increases to 20 m, maximum water temperature rises to 10-20 C degrees (and still higher in bays), thus making bathing possible.
Various carstic phenomena could be observed along the banks of Bratsk Reservoir — faults and landfalls, carstic funnels and niches, landslides and sinking slopes, disappearing streams, etc. Carstic phenomena, characteristic of this region, accelerated with the creation of the reservoir in this area. Intensive process of shoreline
erosion, associated with the wide amplitude of water-level fluctuations is also characteristic of Bratsk Reservoir. Normally those fluctuations do not exceed 2-3 m range, but they may increase to 5-6 m in low-water years, and to 10 m during critical periods. The stretch of eroded shoreline now exceeds two thousand km, or more than '/ 3 of its total length for the entire water-body, while the eroded area exceeds five thousand hectares.
Below the bays Osinskii and Unginskii, there goes the border of the Ust’-Ordynsk Bouryat National District, and from there onward the left bank belongs to Balagansk District, and the right bank to Ust’-Udinsk District. The capital of the district — the settlement Balagansk (4.2 thousand population) is situated on the left bank 262 km away from Irkutsk by water. Balagansk Fortalice, founded in 1654 and repeatedly besieged by Bouryat and Mongolian armies, was granted the status of a town in 1775. After Bratsk Reservoir was completed and flooded, Balagansk was relocated to a new site, 35 km away from the old one, so there is eventually nothing but the memories of the glorious past nowadays to remind about the former township. At present it is known for its fishing enterprise that operates both commercial fishing in the reservoir and fish processing; there is also an old Shelashikovkii highway, that connects Zalari near the Trans-Siberian Railroad and Zhigalovo on River Lena; there is also a ferry crossing there. Interesting carstic caves were discovered in the vicinity of the settlement, and the lime-stone of the precipitous banks yielded yet another curiosity — trilo-bytes, fossil marine anthropods.
Downstream from Balagansk, the shores of the reservoir are steep and precipitous, tinted red and brownish red due to the predominance of clayey grounds. 20 km away from Balagansk, on the opposite shore, there is the settlement of Ust’-Uda — the capital of the administrative district under the same name. Beyond Ust’-Uda the reservoir enters forested zone. The shores and the adjacent territory are exceptionally picturesque, the water is warm. This location has great potential for summer rest and recreation.
The reservoir narrows abruptly to 2-2.5 km beyond the great Udinskii bay and follows all the natural turns of River Angara for more than 200 km to the north to Shumilovo. The depth, however, is great there: average depth is 40 m, the maximum one is 75 m. The ship sails by the loggers’ settlements equipped with moorings — Klyuchi, Anosovo, Atalanka, Karda, Podvolochnoye, Tchistyi, Karakhun, Priboinyi, Yuzhnyi. All of them were built after the construction of Bratsk Reservoir, when the old villages and settlements were flooded (The native village of V.Rasputin, the writer mentioned above, was flooded too). From there to the north towards Bratsk, and partially to the south towards Svirsk and Usol’ye-Sibirskoye, timber logged on the territories adjacent to the reservoir, is rafted. There is an old trail from Podvolotchnoye (The name of the village in Russian means «The place from where boat-trailing starts») to Him, and a newly built road runs from Karakhun to the Okinsk bank of the reservoir.
From Shumilovo (524 km from Irkutsk) the reservoir begins to expand again. High degree of articulation is characteristic of the shoreline there. Narrow bays look like fjords up to 40 km long. The ship approaches Zayarsk, located 562 km away from Irkutsk and 98 km from Bratsk. This settlement is the successor of the flooded old Zayarsk that was built in late ’30s as a port, trans-shipment facility and the starting point of automobile road from River Angara towards River Lena in the vicinity of Ust’-Kut.
The ship turns west from Zayarsk and heads towards Bratsk. The reservoir gets particularly wide there — up to 12-15 km, while the maximum depth reaches 95 m. A peculiar cape with Monastyrskaya mountain on it penetrates far into the water. That is the place where the water-body forks into two reaches — the main Angara reach, and the secondary Oka-Iya reach that approaches Bratsk from the south. Maximum depth reaches 106 m, and even 150 m there, the width of Oka Reach in certain locations is 20-25 km, waves exceed 3.5 m high during storms. The Oka Reach is 320 km long, the Iya Bay that branches from stretches for 180 km.
The port of Bratsk, the terminal point of the journey by «Meteor», is located 660 km away from Irkutsk by water. This is the place to begin getting acquainted with the legendary Bratsk — a live specimen of enthusiasm and romantic spirit of the explorers of Siberia in 1950-1960. Bratsk, founded in 1631 as a fortalice nearby Padun Rapids, was repeatedly burned to the ground by the bellicose Bouryat tribes, rebuilt and relocated. The Fortalice was the prison of the first Siberian political exile — the leader of the «Old Believers» and a talented writer, Archpriest Abbacum. Not far from there, the Nikolayevsk metallurgical works operated since mid-XIX century, the ones that exported their products to Britain, Germany and China. However, for more than three hundred years, Bratsk remained a little-known settlement nearby the menacing River Angara rapids.
Its fortune took an abrupt turn in the middle of the present century, when the construction of the great Bratsk Hydro was started. Nowadays, Bratsk is a major city (259.3 thousand population, 287 thousand with satellite municipalities), an industrial stronghold of East Siberia, widely known for its world’s largest single producer of electric power (Bratsk Hydro), pulp and paper industries (Bratsk Timber Industries Amalgamated), non-ferrous metallurgy (Bratsk Aluminium Plant), machinery construction (Heating Equipment Plant), and general construction (Bratsk Hydro-Electric Power Plants Construction Trust). Bratsk is also a major transportation junction: it is connected with the Trans-Siberian Railroad by rail in the west, with Baikal-Amur Railroad in the east and Ust’-Ilimsk in the north, by waterways with Irkutsk and Ust’-Ilimsk, by automobile road with Tulun, Ust’-Ilimsk and Ust’-Kut, its airport is capable of landing big long-haul jets.
Inconsiderate concentration of several giant industries within Bratsk resulted in a sharp decrease of environmental conditions and health of the population. This is further implicated by the problems of public transportation, associated with its irregular and discontinuous urban structure, when the city is a loose collection of individual urban districts (Stroitel’, Padun, Bratsk proper, Gidros-roitel’, Energetik), satellite neighbourhoods (Tchek-anovskii, Porozhskii, Bikei, Osinovka) and industrial zones that sometimes stand dozens of kilometres apart.
Bratsk is also known for its skiing facilities equipped with cable lift, country’s best tobogganing passage, «Brat-skoye Offing» sanatorium. There is an outdoor museum «Angara Riverside Village» on the shore of Bratsk Reservoir where, along with other items, a wooden tower of Bratsk Fortalice, built in 1654, is displayed. Most interesting display of the Evenk nomadic camp tells the story of the nationality that used to populate the vast expanses of Siberian wilderness from River Ob’ to the Pacific.
* "steppe" — Russian term for vast, usually level and treeless plain, especially in SE Europe or Asia.