Epic adventure across the Lake Baïkal

Some of my friends say I am living my dream. Some say I am living my passion. But it’s not as rosy as it looks. It’s not easy to travel on these adventurous expeditions while having an 11-year-old Autistic daughter at home. I am able to do these travels just because my one and only wife is supportive and allows me to follow my passion of adventure even though it’s difficult for her to manage without me. I will always stay indebted to her for this.

The same evening that I returned from the Mount Everest base camp expedition, I received a message from Venky regarding the Road to Baikal expedition in Siberia. In the morning, I had the permission granted and the confirmation went out to Venky and there was no looking back.

Expedition in this part of the world where the maximum temperatures are -10 degrees and minimum anywhere between -30 to  -35 degrees required 100% preparation. Looking for appropriate clothing including sleeping bag, shoes, socks, etc. began. In the meantime the flight tickets were booked and the Russian visa was taken care off. Being in Russia and not visiting Moscow would be considered a crime. So, I decided to take a stopover at Moscow on my return journey.

Months passed by so quickly and before I knew it, I was on my way to Irkutsk in Siberia from Dubai via Moscow. The journey to Moscow was not so bad. But the 9-hour wait in the airport lounge was killing even though there was food and free drinks. Sitting all alone (only Indian) with no company was the worst part. I reached Irkutsk the following morning where I had to forward the clock by 5 hours. The representative of Nomadic Road, organisers of this expedition, transferred me to our hotel, The Courtyard by Marriott.

As usual Venky was at the reception to greet and welcome me. The temperature was a little disappointing. It was only -2 degrees whereas the average temperatures at this time of the year are above -10 degrees. The Adventure began the same day. We were booked in for a private helicopter tour on Lake Baikal to cover the south side where we wouldn’t be driving and a lunch to be served on the lakeside. After a quick breakfast and freshening up at the hotel, we assembled at the lobby by 12 pm. Also, met the guys who would be, partners in crime on this expedition. I knew Ashlyn (who has done 2 expeditions with me) and Ajesh as we are members of the same off-roading club in Dubai. Met Ram from Mumbai and Mittal my would be partner in the vehicle from Pune. Also met the brother in law duo of Vijay from Mumbai and Suresh from Cleveland, Ohio, USA. Another brother in law duo Neeraj from Delhi and Deepak from Mumbai were to reach later that night. Charles, the French filmmaker also would arrive later that night after missing his connecting flight to Irkutsk. Ram and Mittal were not taking the helicopter tour. So the 5 of us were transferred to the helipad, a half an hour drive from our hotel along with an English-speaking guide.

“Once a year, go someplace you’ve never been before”

After a simple briefing, which was translated to us, we were on the choppers ready for take-off. I was paired with Vijay in a small chopper (due to weight issues) and the others were in a 6 seater. The ride took us above Irkutsk giving us a bird’s eye view of the city and following the frozen Angara River towards Lake Baikal. We were told to watch out for any wildlife below, but were not lucky enough to spot anything. We could also see the long Trans-Siberian railway line winding through the mountains.

The first view of the humongous frozen lake Baikal brought goose bumps all over. The magnanimity of the lake and the thought of driving on it for the next 7 days brought more excitement within.

At the first sight of the clear blue ice below, I almost screamed out of joy, but somehow contained it. The scenery below was out of the world and brought back memories of some good science fiction movies such as The snow creature. We also got to see some locals carrying out ice fishing, cars driving on the lake, a hovercraft and surprisingly an adventurer trying to cross the lake with a cycle. The experienced pilots took us as low as possible so that we could get a good look of the lake and easily landed the choppers on the lakeside at Polovinniy bay besides the railway track. This village at Polovinniy bay is abandoned during winters. By the time we walked along the railway line near the village, the pilots had set our lunch on the lakeside and surprised us with a bottle of champagne.

The lunch was a good spread of Fish and Beef along with the famous Omul Salad.  Omul is a white fish species of the salmon family endemic to Lake Baikal. It is considered a delicacy in Siberia and eaten raw in a salad. As the champagne disappeared in a few minutes, Ajesh pulled out a bottle of Remy Martin from his bag. The Omul salad tasted great with the company of cognac and I had never imagined that I would be eating raw fish someday. Once done we took off again and flew over the town of Listvyanka where most of the tourist from Irkutsk comes to enjoy the frozen lake. It seems around 300 rivers come and empty themselves into lake Baikal and only 1 river flows out of lake Baikal which is river Angara and starts from Listvyanka.

We got to witness one more wonder of Mother Nature. The 700 meters at the mouth of the river Angara, where it flows out of Baikal never freezes under any circumstances and any temperature even in the harshest winters. The remainder of the journey was very scenic and kept me busy making video clips and clicking pictures. We also flew over the famous Taltsy museum, which is an open-air museum. Taltsy was a village of wooden houses, which was moved and preserved in the present location to enact the life of the Russians in the 17th and 18th century. It was on my list to visit this museum, but had to be satisfied by the aerial view due to shortage of time. Upon landing at the helipad, we celebrated our trip with local Baikal vodka shots at the heliport bar and returned to our hotel. In the evening Ram and Mittal joined me, Ajesh and Ashlyn for a walk to the old town. A picture by Babur the lioness, a bronze sculpture was a must.

Exploring the old town on foot with the temperature dipping and the snow gleefully falling on us was a heavenly feeling. Dinner at a local restaurant along with a bottle of vodka felt good. We returned back to the hotel early, as we had to start the expedition on a high note.

Day 1 on 14th March began as a disaster, especially for me. We were supposed to have had breakfast and assemble in the lobby at 9.30 AM. The time difference of 5 hours and lack of sleep the previous night hit me hard. To add on instead of AM I had set the alarm at 7.30 PM. Even the knocks at my door couldn’t get me out of my slumber. Finally when the room phone rang, I woke up and to my horror the time was 9.40 AM. Luckily all my bags were packed and I was fully prepared. I just changed clothes, got ready and was in the lobby within the next 10 minutes. There was enough time to have breakfast as some guys were still in the dining.  What a start to the expedition I thought to myself, hoping that these things won’t repeat again. Mittal, my partner in the car for the expedition had checked the car and signed the rental contracts, etc. Finally at 10.30 the convoy got moving and as decided earlier, we stopped at the mall to buy crampons. Instead, we bought vodka, liquor, soft drinks and eatables as some of us had crampons and the ice captain’s team had a few.

The convoy started moving out of the city and the view started getting better. The countryside was pristine and clean. The mountains and fields were partially covered with snow and looked mesmerising.

The frozen rivers added to the beauty of the landscape. The weather over here is very unpredictable. It is sunny and in a few moments it turns dark and starts to snow. The journey from Irkutsk to Khuzhir on the Olkhon Island was around 300 kms out of which we had to drive 40 kms on the frozen lake to reach Khuzhir. We stopped for lunch at a local Russian café where we had beef soup and Pozy.

Pozy are the famous meat dumplings of Siberia, which are commonly, found everywhere but differ in taste from place to place. Out of the 11 people, 6 were having vegetarian food and I knew they will be having a tough time ahead. For desert we had frozen berries with honey, which shook us up. The berries were so sour that we had to add a shot of vodka to finish it. I took over the steering wheel after lunch and here we were at the shore of mighty Lake Baikal, completely frozen and covered with a thin layer of snow.

The lake is 640 km in length and 70 km at the widest point. The depth at a certain place is 1600 meters. Its volume is so huge that it holds 20% of the world’s fresh water. Lake Baikal is home to more than 1700 species of plants and animals, two thirds of which can’t be found anywhere else in the world. It was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1996. All these days of reading and dreaming about driving on the frozen Lake Baikal was  soon to be reality. Before we could hit the ice, we had a short briefing and were told to keep a minimum of 50 mts distance between cars. Also, the doors had to be left unlocked at all times, windows a little bit open and seat belts not to be worn. The moment we were on the ice, I experienced a moment of accomplishment. The sight of the blue ice brought a twinkle to the eyes. It was not difficult to drive on ice, but if you over steered or stepped on the brakes, you would go out of control and start spinning.  After a few kilometres of driving, the convoy stopped and we got to set foot on ice.

What a way to experience nature’s handiwork first-hand! It was very slippery and all the shutterbugs got busy with the cameras. Asking everyone to be careful, Venky was the first one to slip and fall flat on the ice. We had to move on and reach our destination as the light was fading quickly. Our place of stay was a decent resort in Khuzir with cabins built out of wood. We were asked to be present for dinner at 8 in the dining and there after a proper expedition briefing by Venky and the ice captain. The ice captain was very knowledgeable about the ice as he was a local from the Island and had lived there all his life. He seemed very shrewd at the beginning and we were all really taken aback when he said absolutely no alcohol during the drive. The do’s and don’ts were quite interesting. Once the briefing was done, we all gathered in Neeraj and Deepak’s room for a small session. The small session turned out to be a big bonding party. The camaraderie was such that the people we met for the first time that too in Siberia, felt like friends we knew forever. Surprisingly the group was of all like-minded people and took less than a night to knit a bond as a close family. The way we were partying, Venky was seriously in doubt and asking us whether it was the first day of the expedition or the last day of the expedition. Finally, all satisfied we retired to our rooms at 1.30, as the expedition would start at 9.00AM

Day 2 on 15th March as scheduled we all gathered at 9 am in the parking lot. We got the stickers for our vehicles. As usual after a short silent prayer the convoy began rolling and after a few minutes of driving on land we were on ice again. Huge cracks had appeared in the ice around the island overnight. It was fascinating to watch the Ice captain negotiate these cracks with ease. As we were driving close to land finding our way out of the cracks, we were able to see the scintillating ice formation on the rocks. Also the cracked up ice turned blue which looked really spectacular.  We were lucky enough to spot 2 black Baikal seals, which had come out through the open cracks.

This, we were told was not a good sign for us. The ice might be vulnerable as the seals make holes in the ice for their access. In the middle of nowhere on the vast expanse of ice we stopped for our first outdoor lunch. The captain surprised us by serving a shot of vodka each for lunch and said so much was allowed. Lunch was dry consisting of bread, mozzarella cheese, ham, nuts, biscuits, chocolates and hot herbal tea.

If I was thinking that we were the crazy lot driving on this lake, there were people crazier than us. They were traversing the length of the lake by foot drawing their sledges, which had their food, tents and essentials. By evening we had reached the sunny weather station where we would be staying for the night.

Only 2 scientists stay at this remote location. They have basic accommodation for up to 15 visitors. The beds are wooden cots with a thin mattresses and a blanket. Fortunately they have enough wood and stove heaters keep the temperature inside the house warm and cosy. Here comes the dreaded part, the toilet. You can’t have normal toilets here as the water freezes within minutes due to the extreme temperatures. So the toilets are outside the house, which is a small wooden cabin, underneath it a big hole is dug in the ground on which is a wooden platform with a round hole. You squat on it and finish your job quickly. The smell is excruciating. But that’s what part of adventure is. No complaining and take whatever comes your way. We wanted to take a walk around the weather station, but were stopped saying the bears might have woken up from their hibernation and it’s dangerous to wander around. Our Chef Dmitry made us a simple dinner with chicken soup and a good Russian salad. Again our drinking session continued after dinner and somehow politics crept into the conversation, no surprises for guessing, the topic was Modi, which went on for some while.

Day 3 on 16th March Sunny weather station to Koteinikovskii. After a decent breakfast of scrambled eggs and rice porridge, the convoy began to roll.  The drive was the same.  Mittal and I were taking turns driving. To the make the drive more interesting we were let to make our own paths but behind the ice captain. The depth of the snow was little more than normal and we were enjoying putting the vehicles to the test. The Land Cruisers were having fun where as my Explorer was struggling due to the ABS and traction control. It wouldn’t allow our vehicle to slide nor do donuts. But we were having fun in our own way. On the way we met one more group of people walking on the lake. We stopped by them and got a chance to pull their sledges for a little while.

It was quite an experience, but really salute these people for their resilience. A little further we met a couple of cyclist’s stranded and tired. As the depth of the snow on the ice was more than a feet, they were unable to continue their ride and were dead tired. We arrived as their saviours and they put their cycles in the captain’s UAZ and accompanied us to the hotel. The captain would stop the convoy where ever he saw a good photo opportunity and all would get busy posing and clicking pictures.

Lunch was again the same with different vodka. It was surprising to see a nice hotel in the wilderness at Koteinikovskii. It was a well-equipped hotel with natural hot water pools drawn from the geothermal springs. After relaxing a bit in the room we all went to the pools.

There were 2 pools with different temperatures. Usually people get into the warm water pool first and move to the hotter one. We had a nice time there and realized only after coming out of the pool that the sulphur rich hot water had completely drained our energy. Today was the chance for a nice shower as we would stay again in basic accommodation and wouldn’t have shower for the next 3 nights. We packed a small bag with required things and took it to the accommodation and left the suitcase back in the car.

Tonight we had a decent dinner at the restaurant.

As usual all gathered in my room for the daily night ritual. Just at the stroke of Midnight Venky came up with his lap top and made an announcement, which made me, remember it was my birthday. To my utter surprise, Venky played a video in which my beautiful family was singing Happy Birthday to me which brought tears in my eyes. This was my first birthday away from my family. It was an emotional moment.

Venky had also organized a cake and carefully transported it for the last 2 days in his car. It was so nice of Venky to contact my wife Arathi even though he didn’t know her and get this birthday video recorded, that too when I was still in Dubai. The party continued. I thank each one of them for the surprise they organized without me getting a slightest clue. 0ver all it was a memorable birthday celebration.

Day 4 on 17th March Koteinikovskii – Severobaykalsk – Khakusi. The best thing at this hotel was that they had Wi-Fi even though we didn’t have mobile network. They gave us 1 hour of Wi-Fi, which was enough to make some calls and receive loads of Birthday messages. After a good breakfast at the hotel we were back on the lake. Today we had to visit the town of Severobaykalsk to refuel and buy rations for the next 3 days. We also had fuel stocked up in cans, as we would get fuel only after reaching the mainland. We stopped at the place where a French adventurer built a house and lived for 6 months. We all had fun at the place shaking the pine trees and having the snow fall on us and made video clips in slow motion. The ice captain, by now had confidence in our driving skills and let us play with the vehicles on ice. After a long time we were driving on land again and had to wear the seat belts. On the way to Severobaykalsk, is a beautiful viewpoint of the lake on the top of a hillock.

They have a nice Buddhist Stupa built there. By now all our mobiles were active as we had network and internet. I made a few calls and replied to most of the birthday wishes I had received. After capturing some nice pictures we had the packed lunches organised from the hotel where we stayed. Severobaykalsk is an isolated town in the republic of Buryatia, Russia. It is located on the northern end of Lake Baikal. Even though it is connected by train, the nearest town is 260 km away and is 490 km from Irkutsk. At the place where we refuelled our vehicles, we found and had some good coffee after a long time.

We also stopped at the city centre local market to buy supplies for the next few days. We had run out of stock on our liquor. So we restocked our quota for the next 3 days with enough Vodka, soft drinks and chocolates. When you have Marwadis, Gujjus and Madrasis in the group, you don’t have to worry about snacks. They come well stocked and hence we didn’t need to buy any till the last day. Once done, we exited the town and were on the way back to the lake to cross over to the eastern side of the lake and our place to stay for the night Khakusi. Suddenly we heard some screaming on the radio about that there was an accident and stopped immediately. Team Nomad 3(Neeraj and Deepak) had gone off down the road and the land cruiser precariously balanced resting on some pine trees.

There was snow on the side of the road and when the right side tire got held in the snow, it automatically pulled down the vehicle and went off the road. Thankfully it was not very deep on the side of the road. The ice captain and his team without any delay got into action and with sheer expertise pulled up the vehicle. It was only some body damage and a broken headlight and bumper. The car was drivable and we could continue our journey and reached Khakusi. Khakusi is a small village with a few inhabitants and is famous for its natural hot water springs. It was a bad day for Charles. He slipped and fell down on the ice and broke his precious 18 to 35mm lens. I had never seen him so sad and distraught. Luckily I had the same lens with me and he was happy to use it. He almost gave a funeral to the damaged lens. So once we settled in our accommodations, we all left for the hot springs.

It’s so refreshing to be in the sulphur rich hot water when the outside temperature is -6 degrees. We even tried rolling on fresh show and jumped into the pools. There weren’t many more crazy things to do. The vodka bottle would accompany us wherever we went. Back at the accommodation, dinner was ready with some nice soup and Jeera rice, which Ram had carried. As usual we gathered again for the night ritual and Venky had a class and got tips how to develop business. I can proudly say I celebrated my Birthday in Siberia with a lovely bunch of friends.

Day 5, 18th March Khakusi to Davsha. It was nice to see the cars covered with snow which reminded me of the expedition in Iceland where we had to clean our cars daily from the thick layer of snow.

The day started with the daily ritual of silent prayer hoping for some safe adventure. Today again a photo shoot was planned with vehicles moving in a formation, which was a success, and Charles was happy.

Nobody wanted to spend time in the open and immediately after lunch jumped into their respective vehicles. On the way we didn’t face many obstacles as expected and reached Davsha early. We had plenty of time on hand and began playing like kids in the snow.

The layer of fresh snow was so thick that we were jumping into it and making video clips in slow motion. We almost spent an hour playing in the snow before going into our rooms. Indeed the sunset was beautiful and managed to get some fantastic pictures.

Davsha was abandoned after the government stopped funding for the nature reserve. It has 2 permanent residents and 3 from the government who change shifts. Davsha has a beautiful small museum where many animals and birds of the area have been preserved. Also the history has been well recorded and there are hardly any visitors there. The famous sable, which is an endangered animal, comes from this part of Baikal. After listening to all the information that was translated by our guide, we had a lot of free time. We were told that the area had a beautiful sunset. So we were again out in the cold armed with the cameras waiting for the sun to set.

It was worth spending time in the cold. The rest of the night was spent as usual with dinner and after party till the wee hours. We were told to be ready by 8.00 AM for the forest walk with hunter skis.

Day 6, on 19th March Davsha to Ushkani Island. After a cup of steaming hot coffee, we were waiting for the local guide to take us for the forest walk on hunter skis. But there was no sign of any of the local people. There was a miscommunication and they thought the walk would begin at 9.00. Since we had enough time on hand, we got busy clicking pictures of the beautiful birds, which had started coming back at the end of the winter. The woodpecker was the best among them.

Finally our guide arrived. We were ready wearing the hunter skis armed with the a stick for support. It was not at all easy to walk with these skis. Everyone kept falling and getting up. But when I fell, I couldn’t get up on my own nor could anyone help me except for our huge guide Uri. He was very knowledgeable and just by seeing the footprints on the snow would tell us which animal that was and when it passed by.

The almost 1 hour hike was exhausting and we were sweating in minus temperatures. But what an experience it was. Breakfast was ready by the time we were back. The convoy began rolling after saying goodbye to the 5 residents of the island. Today was an exciting day for me as we were visiting the famous ice caves. The videos I had watched would become reality today. The ice caves were beautiful as expected. It’s difficult to explain it in words.

The ice formation inside the cave was out of the world. When light passed through them they would turn blue. The icicles were so sharp that if they fell from a height they could pierce through the body. After capturing the mesmerizing sights with the cameras we explored the cave for which at some places we had to crawl on our knees.

I will never forget this sight for a long time. Our next stop was at the place where the locals were carrying out ice fishing. Ice fishing means they drill a hole in the frozen water of the lakes or rivers and catch fish with their lines and hooks. Some sit in the open and some if spending more time fishing make heated cabins and do their fishing in comfort. We were lucky enough to see them catching some good fish including the famous Omul.

After lunch on the lake we were heading to our destination for the night Ushkanya island where we would be staying at a weather station again. On the way we got to see some weird but beautiful cloud formations.

The passengers were busy clicking pictures of the rare cloud formations when the drivers were negotiating the numerous cracks that had formed on the ice. The cracks were fresh and the ice around the cracks was brittle. Our ice captain was very choosy about the place where we could cross the cracks.

Hence we spent a lot of time finding a suitable place to cross the cracks before reaching Ushkanya Island.  We reached well in time for the sunset and were able to capture some awesome pictures of the sunset.

This weather station had a Russian Banya. A banya is originally a Slavic steam bath with a stove where only firewood is used. It is considered an important part of Russian culture. The bath takes place in a small room designed for dry or wet heat sessions. The steam and high heat make the bathers perspire. There a huge tub with water which gets heated up due the heat and at the end you use this water for a bath. Today Venky prepared some nice Dal makani and Dal tadka for dinner. We also got to have a bonfire today.

Sitting next to the fire warm and cosy, sipping our drinks, we all played Dumb charades, which was quite funny. As usual we partied till late after shifting indoors. I was wondering if it was easy to get over the new habit of partying till late daily once we were in reality.

Day 7 on 20th March Ushkani island to Khuzir. Today was the last day we would be spending on the lake and driving on ice.

Because of the heavy snowfall we were deprived of the actual beauty of the ice of the frozen lake. But God was gracious with us. We found lot of stretches of pure ice without any snow cover on it and were able savour the beauty of it. Charles with his drone got to capture some really nice pictures and videos.

While we were still enjoying the beauty of the ice, we just saw Nomad 2 get stuck in the ice with one tyre breaking the ice and going in. It was a panic situation for all of us. We were told to park far away from this car and also park far away from each other.

The ice over here was really thin and we could hear the sound of ice cracking around us. But the ice captain and his team swung into action and in a few minutes the car was successfully rescued without causing any further damage. Neeraj and Deepak had to bear the brunt of the land cruiser for the second time and were demanding entertainment tax from the rest of us. For the rest of the day all participants were very well behaved and never veered of the captain’s tracks by a single feet. The captain also didn’t want to take any risk on the cracks and spent more time searching for suitable places to cross.

We had our last lunch on ice of the frozen lake Baikal with the captain generous with his vodka.  After lunch we began the last leg our drive to Khuzir. We shared our experiences on the radio thanking the ice captain for this memorable journey and Dasha our guide and translator without whom we wouldn’t be able to convey or understand a single message. At Khuzir we had a nice group picture and gave some parting cash gifts to ice captain and his team and Dasha and her team. Khuzir was a different place in a week. When we began our drive from here it was covered with snow everywhere and now after a week, it was dry everywhere without any hint of snow. All were in a mood to visit some local joint and have something local to drink. But unfortunately all the places were closed for winter and would be operational only in May.  We were told there is French cafe, which serves beer, coffee and cakes. Once settled in the room, we felt fresh after a shower (had shower after 3 nights) and we were off to the Bistro Francais.

I think we were the noisiest lot in this café ever. After gulping down few beers and cakes we were back in the resort right in time for dinner. After dinner we assembled again in my room for our last party, which we all really enjoyed.

Day 8 on 21st March Khuzir to Irkutsk. Today being the last day of the expedition we had to drive on ice for 40 kms from Khuzir to the mainland and then a 260 km drive to Irkutsk. Since it was only half a days drive back, Venky had organized a 2 hour hover craft tour around the Olkon island.

Riding on the hover craft was one more first time experience. Its same like riding on a boat, but more smoother within the luxury of a closed cabin. The ride took us around a small beautiful island where there were beautiful ice formations on the shore. WE stopped there for a while to click some pictures and admire the sheer beauty of nature.

We continued our journey to the other side of the island where a Buddhist stupa has been built on the top of the mountain. Some guys climbed up to the stupa, but I had to stay put at the bottom as my knees wouldn’t be able to make the hike.

Once back in the hovercraft back we drove back We all decided not to stop for lunch on the way and to reach Irkutsk and have lunch. We were driving on the ice for the last time and just before reaching mainland we decided to play around and drift our vehicles. The ice was also clear and Charles got some awesome drone shots with us all sleeping on ice in the formation of a circle.

This would be the best picture of our expedition.

The journey to Irkutsk too became adventurous, as we had to pass through some heavy snowfall and blizzards. Once settled at the Marriott, we gathered in the lobby bar to plan the evening.  The plan was to party at a nightclub. When we reached the selected place we found that it was a dead place and didn’t even get inside. Venky found us a nice place for dinner and after few drinks and dinner we decided to visit the strip club Las Vegas. We had some fun over there and were back in our hotel as few of us had a flight to catch that morning. It was difficult to bid goodbye to the gang as we had gelled into one big family of only men. We promised to meet whenever possible and do some adventure again together.  With heavy but satisfied hearts we retired to our rooms.

Thanks Venky for making this expedition, an experience of a lifetime happen. And Ashlyn, Ajesh, Mittal, Ram, Neeraj, Depak, Vijay and Suresh, it wouldn’t have been the same expedition it has been without you guys. Charles, you are a star. Hope to catch up with you guys on some expedition.

Bye for now and wait till I pen down my next expedition.

Watch the complete expedition story below: