“At -70 degrees boiling water thrown from a pan will flash freeze in mid air before reaching the ground”, explained my Russian guide Leonid. “Every square inch of skin must be protected and your eyes must blink continuously”, he further added. Mercifully, it never got quite that cold on my recent winter excursion to Siberia, but the possibility – however remote – that it could have, was enticing to consider.
Siberia! Just the name conjures up images of exiled prisoners laboring in harsh, fridged conditions, far from civilization. The days of the Gulag and banishment to the Russian ice box are gone, and most areas of Siberia today are happily accessible to tourists. But to appreciate what it must have been like when this far eastern Russian province was earning its infamous reputation, a winter trip is required.
Near the major city of Irkutsk lies Lake Baikal – the perfect destination from which to experience the magical wonders of a Siberian winter. “Largest, deepest, oldest, clearest” are some of the superlatives about which this awesome lake can boast. Its deep spot being just short of one mile, 20% of the world’s fresh water supply resides here and its total volume is greater than all five great lakes combined! Commercial navigation licenses are issued based on sea faring conditions and contingencies, so vast and ocean-like is this mother of all lakes.
At the beginning of each January Baikal begins to freeze, and by the end of the month the ice in most of the areas around its protected bays and coves is 2-3 feet thick and can be safely explored by motor vehicle.
A 3-hour drive from Irkutsk brought me to the point where Olkhon Island, Baikal’s largest at over 75 miles long, can be reached by crossing the 4 ½ mile strait from the mainland. Here, where the summer water remains relatively calm, the ice freezes remarkably clear and creates a disconcerting glass-like effect, which can be experienced during a stretch break about half way across.
The village of Kuzir takes another 45 minutes, and it’s at this settlement from which most excursions in and around Olkhon Island originate both in winter and the busier summer season. Nikita’s Homestead provides comfortable, though rustic, accommodations for those who don’t mind the absence of modern plumbing coupled with outhouses and sub zero temperatures. Business is brisk for Nikita, an enterprising Siberian who has an Internet site and is attracting visitors from all over the world. Chinese, French, German and English speaking guests were all in attendance during my brief 2-night stay.
Driving on ice is never without risk, and especially on large bodies of water like Baikal, whose water currents continually cause cracks, breaks and weak spots. I was fortunate to have timed my visit to take advantage of the season’s first expedition attempt over the frozen water up to Olkhon Island’s wild northern tip where the lake opens up, is more like the north Atlantic and results in unusual ice formations.
Only the most experienced local drivers who know how to read the ice are qualified to make this drive in a Russian military vehicle, as constant monitoring of the cracks and irregularities are required, lest the unthinkable should happen. According to Leonid, several cars are lost each year around the lake due to wrong ice thickness assumptions. This danger hit home for me when, after stopping to photograph a particularly interesting chunk of ice several hundred feet from shore, I broke through up to my waist in water and scrambled to safety only after a second attempt at regaining firm hold of the 3-4” ice edge. I was OK, but my boots took several days to dry out.
Near the northern tip of Olkhon jagged ice shards – some as high as 8 to 10 feet - have been heaved to and fro during the freezing process, and litter the area making it difficult to continue. It’s in this remote area where, with expert guiding, several fantastic ice caves that re-form along the craggy shore each winter can be discovered.
In late January the lake is not completely frozen, and with careful maneuvering, the edge where ice meets liquid water can be approached within several feet. Doing this is considered a great accomplishment among local guides and is cause for celebration.
Back closer to the village is Shaman Rock – an enormous massif jutting just off shore, which is regaled as a holy place by the indigenous Shaman population, but which is also regularly scaled by tourists in warmer times of the year. The island indeed offers many more recreational opportunities in the summer season, but there is something to be said for the quiet solitude, intense cold and sense of mystery that can only be found during a Baikal winter.
“Siberia in the winter?” I was asked before I left. At a time of the year when many people in these parts would like to escape New England winter for more sunny climes, it should be noted that unusual and rewarding travel experiences can be found by thinking outside the box. “Just envision Dr. Zhivago”, I told people, “and travel to Siberia in the winter begins to make sense.”
For custom itineraries through Siberia contact Sokol Tours.