Anita Isalska explores the frozen surface of the epic Lake Baikal in Russia.
During Siberian winters, the mercury drops as low as minus 35ºC (minus 31ºF). Brightly painted houses in central Russia’s villages groan under the weight of snow. The surface of vast Lake Baikal freezes. But as I stand its shore, I see an adventure playground rather than an icy desert.
Hovercraft are thundering over the ice, spinning in figures of eight while bystanders cheer. A fleet of ice bikes and converted bumper cars race across the surface. Meanwhile a breeze carries the sound of chattering market vendors along with the scent of smoked fish.
At Listvyanka, one of Lake Baikal’s most picturesque villages, the number of visitors dips with the temperature. But visiting Baikal between November and March reveals the lake in all its wintry magnificence, with plenty of wild ways to experience Russia’s deep freeze.
Baikal, Russia’s record-breaking lake
It’s impossible to describe Lake Baikal without superlatives. It’s the world’s deepest freshwater lake (at more than 1.6km) as well as the most ancient (a whopping 25 million years young). It's a favourite summertime destination for Russians, who seize fishing rods and sunhats and clamour to Baikal's shores.
Lake Baikal is also one of the most cherished stops on the Trans-Siberian Railway – the world’s longest railway line, its 9289 km of tracks connect Russian capital Moscow with Vladivostock in the far east. Many travellers take the Trans-Mongolian route to China instead; but whatever the route, a stop at Baikal is a highlight.
I have reached Baikal in a rattling marshrutka (minibus) from Irkutsk, the closest major city to the lake, during winter to see a different side to this 3.15 million hectare expanse.
Natural wonders of the “sacred sea”
On a dry day, frozen Baikal looks dark and glassy. Cracks spider across its surface. The shifting, cracking and resealing of icy layers create small crevices. Blades of ice prick upwards like dragon scales.
Where the surface is polished smooth by footfall and passing hovercraft, the ice resembles black marble. But after snowfall, pillowy snowdrifts amass on the surface. The lake looks like a cloudscape.
Russians refer to Baikal as the country’s “sacred sea”, because of both its beauty and its size. To scientists, it’s “Russia’s Galápagos”: much of the fauna here is found nowhere else on Earth.
Most famous are the bulging-eyed nerpas, Baikal seals. But there’s one endemic species you’ll smell long before you see it: the omul fish.
Omul is an economic cornerstone for this part of Russia, with crates of the succulent fish shipped across the country as a delicacy. In Listvyanka’s fish market – a social hub for this small village – omul fill the stalls. Locals and travellers amble past leather-dry omul, dangling from strings, and appraise the day’s fresh catch. But the best stuff is hot smoked: market vendors snap open tupperware boxes to reveal iridescent omul, cloaked in steam.
Venturing out onto the ice
A feast of omul and hot tea is essential in this brutal cold, especially if I want to take to the ice. Locals step out fearlessly, knowing the spring thaw is a long way off. But I tread gingerly, thinking about the yawning depths under my feet.
I’m the only one worried. Children are skidding in the snow and holding aloft diamond-shaped shards of ice, while their parents sip from thermos flasks. Before long, my nightmare of being swallowed into a gaping icy crevasse has faded and I'm negotiating the fare for a ride on a hovercraft.
Once inside, the grinning driver sets the hovercraft buzzing across the ice at speed. He turns sharply and lets the craft careen across the lake. My grip on a feeble safety handle tightens as he slams the accelerator. The icy crevasse is starting to loom in my imagination again…
After a few minutes of white-knuckle driving, the hovercraft shudders to a halt. The driver waves his passengers out, and we stand at the shore to watch the sunset. The ice glows a warm copper before darkening to navy.
The temperature plummets with the dying light; people trudge away from the ice. Music starts to trill at shoreside taverns and Sovetskoye Shampanskoye (Soviet bubbly) is being poured.
It may be a bitter Siberian winter, but between the remarkable scenery and the pop of champagne corks, hibernation is unthinkable.
Need to know:
If you’re planning a Lake Baikal excursion as part of your Trans-Siberian Railway journey, plan to stop at Irkutsk for a few days. From Irkutsk bus station, catch a marshrutka to Listvyanka village (1.5 hours). Atmospheric guesthouses in Listvyanka have double rooms from around 3000RUB (50EUR) per night. One of the best is Usadba Demidova (Ulitsa Sudzilovskogo 2) with communal lounges, sauna and breakfast with a Baikal view (3,940RUB per night). Compare flights, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.