It’s midnight and am trying not to fall asleep though it was a long and tiring day. And this is so because am mortally afraid. Our last night on frozen lake Baikal and tonight we are sleeping in yurt camps on top of the lake itself and now that there is no noise, we can hear the lake’s sounds - “crrekk” new cracks, “whoop” ice pieces breaking away below and then some which are difficult to fathom.Inside the camp we have the red hot stove to heat the camp and it’s three inhabitants. All this seems counter intuitive- fire on iced lake. Really ? Am imagining waking up in a floating or drowning camp alongside our heavy SUV parked outside the tent. Only saving grace was everyone had the same feeling 😊.
I met Venky of Nomadic Road in 2019 and heard of an amazing experience of exploring Lake Baikal in Siberia by driving over and around it while it’s frozen during the extreme winter. It’s been on my bucket list ever since. Baikal is the lake of extremes -Largest, oldest, purest, deepest in the world. Around 330 rivers empty into it and only one river Angara flows out of it. Baikal is 25 million years old and was formed as a rift and still growing few millimetres wide every year. It spans over 625 Kms long, 80 kms wide and 1700 meters deep. It carries 20% of all of world’s fresh water and more water than all the great lakes of United states. Russians call Baikal their sacred sea.
Coming from North of India, I was exposed to temperatures varying from 0-48*C during the year but preparing for -30*C in Siberian winters is a whole new ball game. I learnt about the layers - base, mid and outer everywhere from head to toe and in between. UV protection for eyes and thin warmers which one can slide in gloves, shoes and anywhere else. Sleeping bag to stay warm at night in camps too was an essential element. After everything I even found a fleece made in Nordics which had a battery operated electric heated back which worked for 10 hours per charge. Although Decathlon andAdventure Point in Delhi were a huge help in preparation, I was mortally scared of spending 10 days in the Siberian winters.
The mission was to drive over across the lake and also explore the life in towns and villages on its shores. Of course driving over the lake is no joke. Every year approx. 250-300 cars go to bottom of the lake due to driving over fragile ice and I was assured that if we can find a way to pull them out from 800 - 1700 m depth, most of them will be in good condition since there are no impurities in the lake.To complete the mission safely, we had a guide in Dasha who was a geologist, Arthur who among his many talents is also an emergency respondent and most important member of our crew Maxim, our Russian only speaking, fan of heavy metal and one of the best Ice Captain in that region. Ice captains are very experienced drivers who by the looks of the terrain, colour of ice, design of the ice structures can decide a safe passage over frozen lake. The expedition team apart from the crew was made up of 7 members with Venky leading it, a Turkish celebrity chef, a Pharmacist from Dubai, a doctor fromAzerbaijan, 2 bankers from India and myself. All between the ages of44-65 with some experienced adventurers and some amateurs. In addition to all of us we also had Paul, the most important member of the expedition- a 22 year old french videographer who would not think of putting himself in danger for that perfect shot which we will treasure all our lives or may be post on Instagram for some short lived fame. A small and as diverse as possible group yet we all bonded brilliantly.
Me and the two Indian bankers started out our trip by spending 2 days in Moscow our transit before landing in Irkutsk, the headquarters of eastern Siberia. The days in Moscow were just a bit informative with visit to many museums. Our guide Irene was middle aged women with lots of varied experiences, quite knowledgeable and we had great conversations. I wish we had planned this part a bit better with visits to nearby villages, dinner with a Russian family and also an afternoon at a Russian Banya with all the ancient rituals including a ling luncheon. Well ! Maybe next time.
Day 1 - 19th Feb - Landed in Moscow last night. Went to see Kremlin, red square, grave of the unknown soldier, deepest metro escalator(120 M deep) and a long & lazy dinner on cruise. First brush with cold (0*C). Comfortable night spent in hotel. Moscow city had decided not to dismantle the New year decorations which turned the city magical.
Day 2 - 20th Feb -Visited a few churches andMuseums etc. Boring kind of day. Did have stomach upset maybe due to change in weather or food.
Day 3 - 21st Feb -Flight to Irkutsk was long. We stayedcomfortably at Courtyard Marriott. Got Introduced to the crew and the cold(-25*C). Also tasted my first Omul, a Baikal fish.
Day 4 - 22nd Feb -Next day late afternoon we arrived at Listvyanka after lunch after a bit of shopping. Drive was short and uneventful. Stay at a wooden hotel on lake’s shore. First view of the frozen lake and Angara river flowing out of Baikal.
We were looking forward to driving Siberian dogs huskies pulled sledge al on the lake and temperatures of -25*C. The ride gave us a clue of what we are about to encounter as cold over the next few days. Siberian huskies are a great breed, very friendly and too eager to work.
Post the huskies sledge, there was a surprise waiting for us an evening with the Evankas tribe. This was like being transported to ancient times. Somehow all 10 of us fit into a small tent (made up of reindeer skin)around a traditional Siberian wood fired heater and the Evankas old lady performing rituals for our safe and successful trip. Mantras, food offerings to fire and tea afterwards seemed so very similar toHavan in Hindu culture. The tribe tracing their origins to China and Mongolia is so rare that Google search brings just one wiki page and the rest is all Ivanka Trump :)
The cold during the evening terrified me for what lay ahead. After dinner around 10 pm spent an hour going over my winter gear arsenal to ensure I am covered when I got a shock of my life - I heard giggling outside the window. I knew everything was covered with a few feet of snow. Who could it be ? I take a peak from the window and I see few young teen girls in bikinis covered with water and snow running to the hotel basement. I later learned what they were up to.
Day 5 - 23rd Feb -This was truly a magnificent day with sun shining bright and all of us covered with layers and layers of protection and then on top the ski suit, matching warm boots and thickest mitts you can get. We all looked like ready to take off to the moon. This was getting ready fora60 kms drive to Mamay mountain cabin on Snow mobile all over the lake and then mountains at speeds of 60 kms/hour. All this at -30*C +the windchill.
Snow mobiles are truly beasts and looked to me a cross between 4x4, a motorcycle and ski’s. Driving it requires a lot of strength specially shoulders. We had lunch on the frozen lake right next to a clutter of ice blocks which are formed when the wind blows the early ice and then the ice plates crash into each other. We all were like kids in a candy store trying different stunts (read over turned snow mobile by racing it),taking pictures, drone shots etc. In spite of all the layers, the cold always managed to reach our toes, fingers and the neck. We also realised how we will answer nature’s call with such heavy artillery on top of us.
Soon as we reached the lake’s shores we saw the snow covered mountains, trees and finally the mountain cabin (our night stay) itself was magical, almost out of Narnia. We found many family with kids walking in the mountains, skiing and playing all sorts of games including swings. Later we found an Igloo too near the cabin. The dinner looked like momo a dish called Boozie, a Mongolian delicacy. All prepared by our guides in the cabin. The heating arrangements in the cabin was quite insightful as it not only heated the cabin it is also used to melt the ice to water and then to heat the water.A long chimney of the massive hearth, built of 7-8 inches of metal pipe ran through the floors hearth heating all of them. We were woken up in the middle of the night first by extreme heating and then by cold. The formalities amongst the team also thawed in the cabin heat and we all came much closer. All in all great experience.
Day 6 - 24th Feb -Total distance 280 kms from the base of Mamay mountains to Ulan Ude, capital of Buriyat region. Terrain- Tarmac SUV - Toyota Prado.
Breakfast was eggs, breads and lots of chai and my pre mixed masala chai. We then came down the mountain on a snow mobile driven sledge taxi which could accommodate 4-5 of us. A 20 min ride (read roller coaster without harness and any kind of security) down we then took delivery of our respective cars. I saw my first of many Siberian cats aged around 20 (equal to 100 man years) extremely friendly to humans and few extra furs.
We drove on the tarmac (boring) for about 275 Kms and reached Ulan Ude. This is the capital of Buriyat region with Buddhism as religion part of Russian federation. The town square had one of a kind statue of Lenin with only his head with legend of a secret tunnel. The town had a strong evidence of Soviet union era with functional residential and official buildings. Dinner on the top floor restaurant of a star hotel we were staying at was fun with friendly banter among the new found friends.
Day 7 - 25th Feb -Total distance of 243 Kms from Ulan Ude to Barguzine. SUV - Toyota Prado. Terrain - Tarmac and frozen lake.
Next morning we leave the town and saw normal life - people going to office, kids to school and some meeting customers in cafes. And all this when I thought Siberia winters would shut down everything. We stopped over at a Buddhist monastery on top of a hill.. Again we saw lots of connections to Hinduism.
We drove for about 250 Kms and reached Barguzin Village near the Barguzin river close to Barguzin valley. Max was eager to move us from tarmac to frozen lake. The first test of ice proved not safe enough so post lunch on the lake we moved back to tarmac. During afternoon we all took a bio-break in a gas station and post which I realised I pulled up my warm pants without pulling up the inner thermals, height of amateurish and number of layers 😊.
We finally are on the lake to go across to the homestay we would call home for 2nights. Max stopped us and brought out a manual ice drill to prove we are on ice and a lake below it. What a demonstration.. Water came gushing out after a 3 feet of ice. Magical and scary, we were driving 2.5 Ton machines over the ice.. Hope to almighty we go back home safe.
After a lots of fun, games and pictures over the lake, we reach Michael and Julia’s place in a fisherman’s village on the lake shores opposite a frozen river. Stay at Michael’s place was very unusual with wooden train carriage like cabins built on his backyard. Each cabin could sleep 4pax and it also had a small pantry. Heated from floor, these cabin were extremely cosy & comfortable covered by snow all over. Michael and his wife Julia invited us for dinner inside their home. Theirs was a traditional Siberian home with a massive hearth in the middle of the house and it’s walls exposed to each room to heat. The hearth is also used to cook and heat water. Michael was in the army and took up a job in utilities and post retirement shifted to the village built a homestay. The kitchen floor opened to an underground storage lots of vegetables stored for long and brutal winters. The underground chambers were further cooled by ice blocks from the lake. They belonged to a community of old believers which are conservative Christians. Their grown-ups sons were in cities and they sent their 4 year old to their neighbours as they were serving us Russian whiskey.
Little did I know that I was about to learn something about human bodies for the first time. Post dinner we all did Russian Banya (Sauna heated by wood and stone) where inside sauna temperatures were 50-60*C and then we ran out in shorts to -17*C to cool off by diving into snow. This routine done 3-4 times in 30 mins was enough to ease all our aches/pains and prepared us for a deep sleep. The human body tolerated these extreme temperature differences and actually healed by increasing blood circulation. Something which is only possible in Siberia.
Day 8 - 26th Feb -Total distance 253 Kms in loop in Barguzine valley. SUV - Toyota Prado. Terrain - Tarmac covered with heavy snow and snowfall.
Next morning we left for Barguzine valley and the village of legendary Changez Khan’s mother. Access to the valley was quite treacherous and all of us got stuck many times in the heavily snow covered roads and falling snowman and Arthur patently dealt with each of these episodes.
Barguzine valley was mesmerising with lots of hay over the vast expanses of snow spread across. There were some drawings too on the rocks by cavemen. We finally reached the village for lunch after true off-roading in snow. Loads of fun. The lunch at an old lady’s Siberian house was quite a spread with beef, fish, bread, berries, potatoes & chai. Again, an old friendly cat was nestled between my feet comfortably. Drive back home was again spectacular with landscape out of a painting. On the way we had an appointment with a real Shaman who performed the rituals at bless all of us. Yet again, it was very similar to Hindu havan and the offerings included Vodka, chocolates& milk. Our guide told us young girls come and tie scarves on totem poles to pray for good husband and family. Ring a bell ?
Stay at Michael’s place again tonight but this time each of us prepared a dish. Indian soup (rasam), main dish celebrity chef from Istanbul and finger licking dessert from Azerbaijan were instant hit. Michael had invited few of their friends from the village. Great evening. I must say the hostess was quite gracious to allow strangers into her little kitchen and family dining room. All this was followed by a Banya session. By now I had befriended the cold and actually started liking it. Forgot to mention, Julia also had a 20 year old Siberian cat.
Day 9 - 27th Feb -Total distance 233 Kms Crossed frozen lake from east to west. SUV -Toyota Prado. Terrain - Frozen lake and ice structures.
Today we had to drive around 235 Kms on the frozen lake. After a sumptuous breakfast and a warm send off by Julia we loaded our SUV’s yet again and drove off to our next destination. The way on the road was marked by a series of Christmas or evergreen trees stubbed into the snow by expert Ice captains every year in early February to help the drivers find their way. Guides joked that these grow in snow which some of even believed. On the way we stopped by at the Holinose peninsula first which had some beautiful gravity defying ice structures.
Mid-day after about180 Kms, we had our own “Kiss of Baikal” which we had heard so much about. Arthur drilled holes into Baikal ice blocks, pored Vodka into it for each of us and we had suck the vodka from it. We then had lunch on the lake standard bread, left over breakfast, eggs, cheese, fruits and of course endless flow of chai.
The lunch was followed by drifting on the lake with expert advice from Max. Driving with gas pedal on the floor, going around in a circle and then turning outside to kick up the speed and snow all aroundUnbelievable!! Some of us were expert off roaders and some amateurs but this was thrilling for all of us. It’s rare to do car stunts over a meter thick ice on top of 1 km deep water. Yet again magical !!!
We finally arrive at Kotelnikovksy resort. This resort was built over an island around natural hot springs. Around the year this is approachable only by boat or helicopter. We were lucky to be able to drive to it. Must mention that there was no connectivity in the resort except for 1hour each every morning and night. Swimming in hot springs out in the open in cold was a completely different experience. Very similar to what we have inBadrinath but much lower in temperatures.
Wow !!! What a day and that hour of connectivity from 8-9 PM was a gift from God..
Day 10 - 28th Feb -Total distance 215 Kms from Frozen lake to its northern most point .SUV - Toyota Prado. Terrain - Frozen lake, snow covered tarmac and mountainous.
Next morning we leave for a trip to northern tip of the lake to a town called Severobaikalsk. The approach road to the Northern tip was not motor-able due to heavy snow and so we walked over for quick pictures. The town was quite laid back and we spent few hours in a cafe. Snow had been falling the whole day. We also saw many villages on the way and just like rest of the world, many houses were deserted due to young ones leaving for towns and cities. Quite unfortunate!!
On the way back to Kotelnikovksy, it was quite late and we got caught into a snow storm. Dark and tracks covered by snow, we were all following Max’s taillight. We came across landscapes which we did not when we left for town. This hour on the lake was quite scary and we all were planning a night in the car over the lake without food or water.. The resort lights from far gave us relief beyond words.
Day 11 - Total distance 243 Kms from West to east of the lake to reach yurt camp. SUV - Toyota Prado. Terrain - Snow covered frozen lake.
1st March We will be driving over the lake during the day again and would retire at a Yurt Campsite. On the way to the camp there were vans with 10-15 tourists each on the frozen lake playing all sorts of games.
The whole camp on the lake was quite well built with kitchen & dining room, three yurts with 3 camp cots in each. We immediately rushed to the Banya (now no longer scary) and spent an hour moving from Banya to ice cold pool in the lake and then Chaand (a huge bath tub with fire underneath it).
Day 12 - Total distance 400 Kms from yurt camp to Irkutsk via Olkhon islands. SUV- Toyota Prado. Terrain - part frozen lake and part tarmac.
2nd March Just some left over from dinner eggs, bread and chai we leave the camp. The breakfast chatter was all about the scary lake noises and whether they were cold or hot at night. Every hour the caretaker was supposed to check the wood fired heater in the Yurt but we are sure he probably visited maybe twice or thrice only. Middle of the night cold, I was meekly calling out “hello” from my sleeping bag to the passer-by footsteps outside tent but no result. It was however a potent content for jokes amongst all of us. Good fun and experience like never before.
On the way Venky and guides found some ice covered caves and we all stopped to celebrate birthday of one of us .. Magical again. From here we would go to Olkhon islands, home to Olkhon ice fest at this time of the year.Artists come from all over to carve sculptures from Balkan ice. Roaring lions, leaping dogs, inviting pillars all sculpted out of ice. Another magical place.
We finally reach Irkutsk in the evening and post freshening up headed to Indian restaurant for dinner. By now all us are friends who shared a magical journey driving on the frozen lake. We also realised that we are in the middle of a war and must leave as fast as possible. Back to real world I guess.
Day 13 - 3rd March flight to Moscow and Delhi.
I came home on 4th March and after a sumptuous home lunch lovingly prepared by Dimpy, I slept conscious of all the aches and pains now appearing from nowhere. Waking up in the evening, even though I knew I am home,I was also clear that I have to get up, pack my bags, put on my layers and drive in the snow over the lake following the trail marked by Christmas trees.