Baikal Explorer - Travel to Siberia in winter - Article by Bill Cain
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Siberia in Winter
"The colder months make for an exciting, albeit icy, adventure in this Russian region"

Lake Baikal Article: winter Siberia  By BILL CAIN     |     Published:    Concord Monitor: March 18, 2007

Tours to Siberia in winter

At -70 degrees, boiling water thrown from a pan will flash freeze in mid-air before reaching the ground," explained my Russian guide, Leonid. "Every square inch of skin must be protected and your eyes must blink continuously," he added. Mercifully, it never got quite that cold on my recent winter excursion to Siberia, but the possibility - however remote - that it could have was enticing.

Siberia! Just the name conjures up images of exiled prisoners laboring in harsh, frigid conditions far from civilization. The days of the Gulag and banishment to the Russian icebox are gone, and most areas of Siberia today are accessible to tourists.

But to appreciate what it must have been like when this far eastern Russian province was earning its infamous reputation, a winter trip is required.

Near the major city of Irkutsk lies Lake Baikal - the perfect destination from which to experience the wonders of a Siberian winter. "Largest, deepest, oldest, clearest" are some of the superlatives this awesome lake can boast. Its deep spot is just short of one mile, it contains 20 percent of the world's fresh water supply and its total volume is greater than all five Great Lakes combined. This mother of all lakes is so vast and ocean-like, commercial navigation licenses are issued based on seafaring conditions and contingencies.

At the beginning of each January, Baikal begins to freeze, and by the end of the month the ice in most of the areas around its protected bays and coves is 2-3 feet thick and can be safely explored by motor vehicle.

A three-hour drive from Irkutsk brought me to the spot where Olkhon Island, Baikal's largest at more than 75 miles long, can be reached by crossing the 4?-mile strait from the mainland. Here, where the summer water remains relatively calm, the ice freezes remarkably clearly and creates a disconcerting glass-like effect, which can be viewed during a stretch break about half way across.

The village of Kuzir takes another 45 minutes of driving, and most excursions in and around Olkhon Island originate here both in winter and the busier summer season. Nikita's Homestead provides comfortable, though rustic accommodations for those who don't mind the absence of modern plumbing coupled with outhouses and sub-zero temperatures. Business is brisk for Nikita, an enterprising Siberian who has an internet site and attracts visitors from all over the world. Chinese-, French-, German- and English-speaking guests were all in attendance during my two-night stay.

Driving on ice is never risk-free, especially on large bodies of water like Baikal, whose currents continually cause cracks, breaks and weak spots. I timed my visit to take advantage of the season's first expedition attempt over the frozen water up to Olkhon Island's wild northern tip. There, the lake opens up and results in unusual ice formations.

Only the most experienced local drivers who know how to read the ice are qualified to make this drive in a Russian military vehicle, as constant monitoring of the cracks and irregularities is necessary. According to Leonid, several cars are lost each year around the lake due to incorrect estimations of ice thickness. This danger hit home for me when, after stopping to photograph a chunk of ice several hundred feet from shore, I broke through the ice up to my waist in water and scrambled to safety after a second attempt at regaining firm hold of the 3-4-inch ice edge. I was okay, but my boots took several days to dry out.

Near the northern tip of Olkhon jagged ice shards - some as high as 8 to 10 feet - have been heaved to and fro during the freezing process, and litter the area, making it difficult to continue. It's in this remote area where, with expert guiding, several ice caves that re-form along the craggy shore each winter can be discovered.

In late January, the lake is not completely frozen, and with careful maneuvering, the edge where ice meets water can be approached within several feet. Doing this is considered a great accomplishment among local guides and is cause for celebration.

Closer to the village is Shaman Rock - an enormous massif jutting just off shore, which is regarded as a holy place by the indigenous Shaman population, but which is also regularly scaled by tourists during warmer times of the year. The island does offer many more recreational opportunities in the summer season, but there is something to be said for the quiet solitude, intense cold and sense of mystery that can only be found during a Baikal winter.

"Siberia in the winter?" I was asked before I left. At a time of the year when many people in these parts would like to escape New England winter for more sunny climes, it should be noted that unusual and rewarding travel experiences can be found by thinking outside the box. "Just envision Dr. Zhivago," I told people, "and travel to Siberia in the winter begins to make sense."

Bill Cain during the tour in Siberia / lake Baikal in winter

For the Monitor

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