Lake Baikal: Siberia's Frozen Jewel
Updated: Aug 29, 2018
Big, beautiful, spiritual, frozen. A few days on Lake Baikal gives you a new perspective
A version of this article ran in Metro newspaper on August 28 2018 - read it here
Alexei the driver puts the jeep onto the ice at a fair old clip and hits the accelerator. As we pass 70 kilometres an hour, markers on the ice road flying by to either side, our guide chimes in from the back seat. “Take your seatbelt off!” she says with a broad smile. Take your seatbelt off? “It is for safety,” she explains.
Everything is a bit different at Lake Baikal. It is a place of superlatives and records. It is one of the oldest geological features on Earth, perhaps 70 million years old. It is the deepest lake on the planet, more than a mile down at one point. It holds one fifth of the unfrozen fresh water in the world, more than the five Great Lakes combined. Its 632km length is London to Paris and all the way back again. And its water is of such extraordinary purity and clarity that one can see as far as 40 metres in it: swimmers and divers have reported vertigo, so far down can they see.
But I won’t be swimming on this trip: I’ve chosen March to come and it is still frozen a metre thick, which is why our jeep can cover anywhere on its entire surface area – equivalent to that of Belgium – without alarm, and why on the official ice road leading to Olkhon Island on the western side, trucks and oil tankers can safely drive over it. One winter, many years ago before the Trans-Siberian took its current route and when the ice was too thick for icebreakers to clear a path for a ferry, a railway was built on the ice. When it freezes, it really freezes.
Baikal in winter is peaceful, spiritual and exquisitely beautiful. It is the jewel of Siberia. And it is not as hard to get to as you might think. At its closest point, Listvyanka, it is just an hour’s drive from the city of Irkutsk, which has non-stop flights to Bangkok, Beijing and Seoul, among other places. But daytripper-heavy Listvyanka is not the lake at its most beautiful and the part I have chosen will take us three or four hours to reach. It is truly worth the journey.
I start my trip in Irkutsk after a morning spent meeting the city’s burgeoning bitcoin miners, a whole other story. My guide, a cheerful outdoor-spirited local woman called Yulia, and my driver, a red-cheeked chunk of a man called Alexei among whose many fine qualities cheerfulness cannot be numbered, pick me up in a sturdy but dilapidated jeep with shattered wing mirrors in Irkutsk’s city centre, where young soldiers are goose-stepping their way through a changing of the guard at the war memorial.
It does not take long before we are in open countryside and the vistas become increasingly fine as we head north, parallel to the lake’s western shore, as yet without seeing it. Settlements are increasingly sparse, although it is alarming at the three-hour mark to find an Irish pub.
When we reach the ice we drive headlong onto it, and nothing quite prepares you for the oddity of this. It’s not the speed, so much – in fact driving fast on ice is considered safer, because if you happen upon a thin bit you’re swiftly across it without having sustained pressure on the surface for very long – it’s just the fact that you’re in a heavy vehicle with a mile of water underneath you, separated from it from a layer of ice that represents a tiny fraction of the water body. That thing about keeping the seatbelts off is to make it easier to escape should you go through the ice. But such a thing is unheard of among professional groups and Alexei knows what he is doing. The road will stay open until April; fragmented ice will still be plentiful through May.
There is a formal ice road, twin-laned, with markers along its length, but we quickly ignore it and break to the left. This is not strictly legal, but everybody does it. For a driver it must be enormously freeing: no markings, no traffic worth worrying about, just endless ice which can be pursued in any direction. This, in fact, is by far the fastest way to drive to our guesthouse.
Though it is early evening now, there is time to stop at a few places on the way. The particular segment of Baikal we will focus on during our trip is just a slice, a gap between the western shore and the island of Olkhon; even this is 20 kilometres wide. Its full bulk extends over the other side of the island, and the lake is 50 kilometres across at its widest point.
Between the mainland and Olkhon are lots of smaller islands, and we stop at them for a look around. Many have beautiful ice formations on them, remants of high waves that have crashed against the sides during early storms and frozen solid. They are weird and smooth and wonderful, shining in the late afternoon sun and dripping as they begin to melt. Often the bottom 20 centimetres or so have thawed away, leaving them hanging above the ice as if hovering.
On another island, we climb a hill to see two different forms of worship. One is shamanic, a totem pole covered in ribbons, the other Buddhist, a white stupa at the top of the hill. At the first, one wishes for something; at the other, for something unattractive about yourself to be taken away. The norm is to leave a coin at both, eagle-side up, looking at the sky.
Guides know the best places to find little caves, for that classic shooting-out-from-the-darkness-through-the-icicles shot; they’ve brought a lot of budding photographers taking exactly the same photos and know when the light is best.
Eventually we turn off the ice into the small hamlet of Kyrma, where we reach our guesthouse, the Uyuga, rustic and wooden and no Shangri-La but just fine, if fabulously overheated. That night we eat hearty Russian food – salads, borsht, lamb, the endemic local fish called omul – and Yulia brings out some local home-made hooch. There is some uncertainty about what this contains, but pine nuts and “old jam” are among its ingredients, and some herbs and possibly something to do with a birch tree, all of it then distilled to around 50% proof. The effect is like a whiskey or sherry, and it goes down with a splendid burn.
There are a number of rules I am taught about Siberian drinking. First, I have to hold the glass in my left hand and use the ring finger of my right to dab into the drink and point upwards to the spirits in the sky. A second dab goes to the spirits all around, in four directions, and a third, for the spirits underground. A fourth, to the heart, for family. And then you make a toast, and finally you down the shot.
The first toast is to happy travelling. The second is to our meeting. The third is to love and women, and apparently if a man gets this wrong any woman nearby is entitled to cut his tie in half. A fourth is family, and by the fifth, with bracing enthusiasm, we’re on to grandmothers. “Babooshka!”
By the sixth Alexei and I are getting long famously, which is to say that he is still frowning like a freshly ploughed field but is talking about his grandchildren (sixth toast). We discover we are the same age, 46 (seventh toast).
Right. Focus. By the eighth toast it is necessary to put one’s finger in a spirit and throw the people around you into the air, then drink the floor. Or to put a spirit in your drink and eat the person next to you before pouring the sky into your glass and drinking a grandmother.
After that, it gets hazy.
Next morning we head on to the ice again for more islands, and the target of Cape Khoboy, the northern tip of Olkhon island. In the morning our guide has phoned other drivers and residents to ask about conditions and is warned a new gap has appeared in the ice somewhere; it’s something to look out for.
In practice what we find is not a crack opening, but the opposite: like plate tectonics, where the ice sheet has sought to move but run into ice and then buckled upwards. The result, while a hell of a thing to drive over, is wonderful: long lines of ice rising in cluttered white and blue chunks, cascading and dripping and re-freezing into endless unique forms. When we do reach the Cape, from where on a clear day one can finally get a true sense of the scale of the whole lake, there are more and more of these ice formations, great temporary boulders piled precariously upon one another, an unruly jumble of random forms. In many case the purity of the water has made them a vivid light blue.
We return to the happy accident of the ice crack and set up for lunch on a gravel moraine to the side of it, where temporary fishing shacks have been formed from corrugated sheets and old vehicles. Alexei, looking his happiest when wielding an axe, chops wood for a fire, and then places a metal box on top of it; within it, he smokes local fish. In 20 minutes they are ready, and delicious.
Baikal is spiritual. It is home to five different cultures around its considerable perimeter, with the shamanic forms of the Buryat people most visible, but in truth everyone has their own relationship with it. Yulia, an educated and well-travelled woman who spent five years travelling before concluding Irkutsk was the finest possible place to live, says she thinks of the lake as a grandfather: wise, revered, loving. She communicates with it, makes offerings to it, reasons and makes peace with it. She believes in God, and finds the lake intrinsically connected with her sense of faith.
Seeing it up close, it is very easy to see why it inspires such emotions. It is a giver of life – there are hundreds of species of fish, lichens, seals and crustaceans here, many of them totally unique to the lake – but also a taker of it. People die every year from one mischance or another, pushing their luck and driving too late in the season, scuba-diving beneath the ice without proper supervision, or just freezing from exposure.
Yulia says that people only look for a body for a week. The water is so exceptionally pure, so empty of minerals, that once the crustaceans have eaten all but the skeleton, the lake itself will have absorbed even the bones within a month, such is its capacity to take minerals into its water system. This purity, coupled of course with the sheer volume, has also protected the lake from environmental threats, though concern remains about a factory on one of the 300 rivers that feed into the lake (only one river drains it, the Angara, passing through a dam and a hydro plant to Irkutsk).
The silence here is deafening. That’s a cliché of course, but it makes sense here. There is a total absence of anything at this time of year: no insects, no birds, and if you choose your spot carefully no people. The absence of all sound is actually something of a shock to the ears, so used are we to the hums and whines of normal existence. Still, it’s not entirely isolated: strangely I get a better signal on my phone on the ice than I do in the guesthouse, and experience the weird novelty of Google Maps telling me, correctly, I’m in the middle of the world’s most voluminous freshwater lake.
The weather changes constantly, many times a day, and I spend much of the afternoon re-taking pictures I’ve already taken once as the sky turns blue. On the way back, we stop in no particular spot and Alexei brings out a lethal-looking corkscrew device with which he laboriously drills a hole a full metre through the ice. Water rises to fill the tunnel he has made, and we scoop it into a cup and drink it. It is good, refreshing, and unsurprisingly, brain-freeze cold.
It is clear that we are late in the season; no longer is the ice black and scratchless as in the classic photos (you need to be here in February for that). As the surface keeps melting and re-freezing it has turned white, though it is endlessly diverse in appearance, turning into crazy fractals and needled patterns and occasional perfect symmetry. “Ice” seems an absurd word when here, as if a three-letter appellation could capture it in all its diversity: one word can’t capture the shapes, the textures, the forms, the beauty.
But melting it surely is, and the resulting spray that the jeep throws up is so impressive that Alexei makes us get out and video him driving through it, by far the happiest he has been in two days, and possibly ever.
When we get back the weather has turned beautiful and I walk down to the shore, step on to the ice, and start walking.
Where to go? Anywhere. No paths. No topography in the way. There is an infinite range of routes and directions I can take. I walk a good kilometer off the shore, head for one island, change my mind and find another. At it, surrounded by those melting old waves again, I find an ice-free rock and lie flat on my back looking at the sky and a crescent daytime Moon, marveling at the serenity. I reach for my camera; no, do it later. I reach for my phone; no, absolutely not, it can wait. For once I will not check my email, nor the cricket. For a city-dweller the moment is extraordinary. There are people walking at least two miles away and I can hear them, and nothing else. The air is pure, the water purer. It is the beauty of solitude.
But it’s not all so still. This is a place for the red-blooded risk-taker too. There is a paraglider drifting around, someone doing doughnuts in the ice in a sort of glorified go-kart. Some are ice skating, others cross-country skiing on the ice. You can do motorbike tours on the ice, ride rafts towed by hovercrafts on the ice, scuba dive beneath the ice (with supervision and guiding ropes).
As the sun sets I walk back to the shore and then the lodge, where over dinner Yulia shows me pictures of what it all looks like in summer: kayaking, and sailing; hiking, on a trail it is hoped will one day circumnavigate the entire lake; people swimming at the beach. There is an annual mini-Olympics among the Shamanic Buryat people, competing in riding and archery. It seems a world away, and indeed it will be a completely different place when the summer season kicks in in June (which is, regrettably, also when the bears start waking up, though apparently they don’t bother people).
Our final day takes us first to a nearby mountain to appreciate a fuller view of the lake. We drive most of the way up then walk the rest. Alexey, who has a similar gross carriageweight to his vehicle, does not join us.
It is only from the top that I see the other side of the lake for the first time, fully 50 kilometres away, and only then because there are mountains there too and it’s a clear morning. From here we can see that Olkhon Island and the inlet it creates, which looked so vast when we were driving on its surface, represent just the slightest sliver of the whole lake. It stretches out of sight to both north and south.
So vast. A battle was fought on this lake once, between the Czechoslovak Legion and the Red Army a century ago; then in 1920, the White Russian Army retreated across it, many of them freezing to death and becoming part of its surface until the ice melted in the spring.
Finally we drive to a part of the lake more southerly than where we have been, to a place Yulia calls Big Lake: one where there’s no island to interrupt the lake’s girth and where the ice extends into nothing, merging with a clouding horizon. Lake Baikal is growing, and will one day be an ocean in its own right, splitting Russia down the middle.
It is time to go now, and Yulia, solemn but with a happy smile, says her goodbye to the lake, her grandfather; she takes a moment to put her hand to the ice, closes her eyes and reflects a while. And off we go.
It is a long drive back to Irkutsk, especially as a blizzard sets in, yet another meteorological switchback. Throughout the trip we have been treated to a high-volume soundtrack of Russian metal and ska to which Alexey nods along stoically, looking like a sedated bear with a mild interest in Metallica.
Then, somewhat unexpectedly, comes a Russian rock cover version of Venus, by Bananarama. Here it is, I think: a chance to use my broken Russian and break the ice with Alexei!
“You know this song?” I try. “It’s Bananarama!”
Alexei looks at me with infinite confusion. “It’s about bananas?”
You can understand, professionally speaking, why a man in his line of work is not big on breaking the ice.