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.
We are leaving the biggest island on Baikal, Olkhon. Here, the roads of beaten earth contrast sharply with the ice roads that lay ahead. Luckily, riding in a UAZ is like upgrading to a Mercedes from an old Lada. Suspension muffles the uneven road and Russia’s iconic 4x4 crosses the ice smoothly. There can be no doubt, roads on this Siberian sea are Russia’s best motorways.
There are many different types of ice on Baikal, and each one has a name. During the early winter storms, water freezes along the cliffs, creating deep ice caves that are filled with enormous ice stalactites, known as “sokui”.
We stop at the Khoboy Cape, a massive rock that resembles a tooth. It is a sacred place where shamans practice rituals. At the intersection of the Gulf of the Little Sea and Big Baikal, the lake is at its widest here (over 80 km).
Alexander and I get ready to tread on the ice of Big Baikal. Everything must be checked because the ice around Khoboy is vicious. Between night and day, the temperature changes as does the ice mass. While it may feel like we are driving on solid ice during the day, it may not be more than 5 or 10 cm thick. This is an insidious trap for every person that sets foot on Baikal for the first time. Alexander, the experienced ice captain, is skilled in the art of cracks, which he can recognise at a glance. With a few taps of his stick, he can tell immediately. Everything is fine this time: “We’re going to make it”, he announces.
We travel northwards to the Baikal–Lena Reserve, one of 5 protected areas on the lakeshore. The mountains of Baikal rise up like a cliff, reaching an altitude of 2,000 m. Lena, Russia’s longest river, draws its source in these peaks.
One French author, Sylvain Tesson, spent 6 months on this reserve in 2010 in the Bay of Kedrovya Svernaya. He narrates his experience in his book called “The Consolations of the Forest: Alone in a Cabin on the Siberian Taiga”.
As dusk sets in, we arrive at the limits of the reserve where we are greeted by Vasili, who lives there year-round with his dog in a cabin on the lakeshore. His home is warm, and the table is set with a feast of pickled cucumber, boiled potatoes and omul. The voice of Vasili fills the room as sleep sets in; this man has a lot to say.
Dawn breaks and the wind torments the champagne powder snow. The sky is clear and sunny, but the ground is awry with swirling vortexes of white flakes. We continue our travels on the ice in the direction of Ushkani, home to the largest Baikal seal colony. Despite the maritime atmosphere, the shores of Baikal are nearly always on the horizon. In the distance, I can see the mountains on the far shore, regardless of the hundred kilometres that separate us. Even now, the islands seem closer together than when we left an hour ago.
Yuri and Tatiana have been working at the weather station near the seal colony for two decades now. These civil servants are paid by the state, but their salaries don’t always cover the expenses that come with this lifestyle. Luckily, far-flung weather stations often receive deliveries made up of canned foods, cereals, pasta and other non-perishable goods.
Professional hermits, like Yuri and Tatiana, often welcome tourists who want to visit the seals on the neighbouring island. It’s not easy to reach them, and you have to be on the lookout! Tatiana has been waiting for us since yesterday because she has some things to take care of on the mainland. That’s the way life is in Siberia: even if it requires a big detour, you do it with a smile if “it will help someone out”.
We progress further with the meteorologist who, since Ushkani, has not stopped talking. The road is long, and I learn a lot about her family, children and “neighbours” that live about 100 km from here.
Near the Yuzhnoe Izgolovie Cape on the Svyatoy Nos Cape (Sacred Nose Cape), we can see something looming on the horizon. Alexander tells me it’s a German tourist. The man is crossing Baikal – he started from Severobaikalsk, a town to the north-west of the lake. At night, he sleeps on the ice in a tent. How does Alexander know these things? Baikal has a sophisticated communication system, which includes stopping vehicles to ask them about local news and happenings. The information captured by the ice captain is then shared with the residents of weather station who, in turn, share it with the fishermen.
It takes us an hour to reach the Bay of Chivirkuysky, which is one of Baikal’s most beautiful places. It is also a rich fishing pasture for the lake’s endemic trout, the omul. Fishermen camp in yurts on the lake’s frozen surface. Every yurt has a hearth, beds, a table and all the necessities to live and enjoy life on the ice. We stop here to meet a fisherman and Alexander shares the latest Baikal news of Vasily, the Baikal-Lena Reserve and the German tourist. In turn, the fisherman will broadcast this information until it reaches the far shores of the lake.
Our UAZ has broken down near the camp, and Alexander has spotted another problem: the accelerator cable is broken. It is impossible to repair as we don’t have the parts to fix it. We finally decide to detach the cable from the pedal and keep going. At this new pace, we eventually make it to our next destination: the town of Kurbulik in the bay.
In Kurbulik, we meet Anatoly on his tractor, which he has nicknamed “Dyadya Styopa” (“Uncle Stephen”). Anatoly is clearing the snow from the road that leads to the village of Ust-Barguzin. He is skilled with his hands, and his workshop has enough spare parts to build a Soyuz rocket. While Anatoly and Alexander repair the UAZ, his wife invites the meteorologist and myself in for tea. What “have some tea” really means is not quite what you would imagine. The table is laden with open-faced sausage sandwiches, homemade jam, cheese, chocolate, omul and milky tea. Welcome to Buryatia! Here, contrary to the national tradition, tea is served with milk!
The 4x4 fixed, we say our goodbyes and drive on to the village of lumberjacks, Ust-Barguzin, via the isthmus of the Sacred Nose Cape. A professional hunter called “Misha”, and his wife Natasha, welcome us into their home. More omul – freshly caught that day. Natasha has baked the filets with cheese and potatoes. After a long trek, we raise our glasses of vodka and share the latest news… The Baikal Telegram is once again open for business.