Few inhabitants of Siberia consider Baikal a lake. In fact, they prefer to call it “the Sea of Siberia”. Much about Baikal is reminiscent of the sea, rather than a lake, and many records carry its name. It is the world’s biggest reserve of fresh water, covering a territory of 620 km and the deepest lake, reaching a depth of 1,640 m in some places. The water of this Siberian sea is so uniquely pure and crystalline that you can see your reflection perfectly, even if you are drinking from its waters.
The local populations of Baikal – whether they attend an Orthodox church, a datsan (school for Buddhist monks), a Buddhist temple or a shaman – always stop to “appease the spirits” of the lake. According to tradition, they pour a few drops of vodka or milk into the soil to honour the Siberian sea.
In mid-February, the waters of Baikal finally freeze, capturing the lake in an icy blanket, and locals adapt their lifestyle to the new opportunities of the season. Fishermen venture further out onto the ice in search of the lake’s endemic species of trout, the omul.
Thanks to the new frozen pathways, locals can deliver groceries and even furniture to the far reaches and remote communities of Baikal. Marvellous areas that are cut off in summer can finally be accessed, like distant weather stations and areas where meteorologists and forest rangers have exiled themselves.
When the lake is frozen, the hermits of Baikal rely on the “captains of the ice”, drivers of Russia’s iconic UAZ, a local 4x4. My guide and driver is called Alexander, and he has been an ice captain for over 30 years. Together, we will travel over the most deserted region of the lake, known as the “wild North”.
Ice captain is not a job for any man and only those who understand the secret messages and signals of the lake will identify any traps during the journey. Every so often, Alexander stops and examines the frozen waters, giving the surface a tap with his stick before climbing back into the UAZ and taking off. My guide is a descendent of the famous Cossacks, pioneers of Siberia and the Far East. They built forts on the banks of the Lena River that winds away into the depths of Yakutia from the mountains of Baikal. From the wheel of his 4x4, Alexander is taciturn and expresses himself modestly, except when braving cracks in the ice with a hearty “We’re going to make it” as he speeds across them.