On the great ice road

Rus­sia’s Lake Baikal in win­ter de­fies all log­i­cal imag­in­ings

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - MATTHEW CLAY­FIELD

THOSE crazy Rus­sians. We have just over­taken a fish­ing boat on Lake Baikal in east­ern Siberia and are now head­ing at a clip across its surface in the direc­tion of its largest is­land.

We are not in a boat but a four­wheel-drive and the fish­ing boat is frozen in place. As it re­cedes into the dis­tance be­hind us, the sheer mag­ni­tude and mad­ness of what we are do­ing sets in. But there is no other way in win­ter to reach Olkhon Is­land, the world’s third largest lake-bound is­land.

The last ferry left a cou­ple of months ago and it won’t run again un­til the ice be­gins to melt in spring. By then the is­land and its res­i­dents will have been ice­bound for a good four months, when tak­ing to the lake’s surface in their ve­hi­cles is the only way they can get to the main­land.

‘‘We’re not crazy,’’ Irkutsk na­tive Leonid Ba­torov, our guide, laughs from the driver’s seat. ‘‘We have to get around some­how.’’

It is a strik­ing in­tro­duc­tion to one of the world’s least-known but most sta­tis­ti­cally im­pres­sive nat­u­ral won­ders. More than 25 mil­lion years old, with a ca­pac­ity of al­most 24,000 cu­bic km, Lake Baikal is the world’s old­est and deep­est body of fresh­wa­ter; it throws up num­bers so high, they tend to­wards the mean­ing­less.

In Sa­cred Sea: A Jour­ney to Lake Baikal, Peter Thom­son puts the data into per­spec­tive: ‘‘The world’s six bil­lion-plus peo­ple could drink, bathe, wash their dishes and clothes, flush their toi­lets, ir­ri­gate their crops and lawns, wa­ter their live­stock, run their fac­to­ries, make cof­fee and brush their teeth us­ing only Baikal’s wa­ter for more than six years.

‘‘Or, if the en­tire cur­rent pop­u­la­tion of the planet de­cided to use wa­ter from other sources for all those other needs and merely to slake its thirst with Baikal wa­ter, we could stick a gi­ant straw in the lake, suck out the nec­es­sary three litres per per­son per day, and not hear that gur­gle at the bot­tom of the glass for more than 3000 years.’’

But as Leonid hits the brakes and jack­knifes the wheel, the car de­scrib­ing the full cir­cum­fer­ence of a cir­cle as its tyres fail to find much pur­chase on the ice, such sta­tis­tics are rel­e­gated to sec­ondary im­por­tance. In any case, Bo­torov rat­tles off a few of his own more rel­e­vant to our present cir­cum­stances.

‘‘When the ice is 2cm thick,’’ he says, ‘‘it can sup­port the weight of a per­son. At 5cm, a mo­tor­cy­cle. You need about 30cm to drive on it and when it’s 1m thick it can sup­port 25 tonnes.’’ He catches me writ­ing th­ese num­bers down. ‘‘Un­of­fi­cially, Matthew,’’ he adds.

The ice is clear enough for us to see we should be OK. Bright white lines, like veins or sy­napses, reach down to a depth of about 40 or 50cm be­fore dis­ap­pear­ing where the dark and not yet frozen wa­ters of the lake be­gin. Leonid stands lean­ing against the 4WD, watch­ing in amuse­ment as we slide about in won­der.

If it weren’t for Olkhon Is­land’s un­of­fi­cial roads depart­ment mark­ing out a route across the ice in the dis­tance, it could al­most be an im­age from a car com­mer­cial.

‘‘They have to mark out a road for peo­ple to fol­low,’’ Leonid says, nod­ding at the ice. ‘‘You have no idea how many cars there are down there.’’ And with that we find we are home­sick for terra firma.

We ar­rive in Khuzhir, the is­land’s largest vil­lage, at 6pm; our room at Nikita’s Home­stead is mod­est but com­fort­able, with a large stove heater in the cor­ner and a pile of wood for fuel. A former Rus­sian ta­ble-ten­nis cham­pion, Nikita Ben­charov, built the place in the mid-1990s, not long af­ter the col­lapse of the Soviet Union. At first, ev­ery­one in town thought he was crazy, par­tic­u­larly given that the is­land didn’t get elec­tric­ity un­til six years ago. But Ben­charov proved pre­scient as tourism is now one of the is­land’s main in­dus­tries.

On our first night in the vil­lage, we are in­vited to what we are ini­tially told is a school con­cert. But a group of French ex­pats, hi­jack­ing the evening, take to shout­ing out re­quests in­stead. The pi­anist, a self-con­scious man with a face like John Hurt and fingers like Rach­mani­nov, proves to be a mae­stro. ‘‘Chopin!’’ some­one yells out, and he dashes off one of the etudes. ‘‘Michel Le­grand!’’ an­other cries and, with­out a mo­ment’s hes­i­ta­tion, he plays I Will Wait for You from Jacques Demy’s The Um­brel­las of Cher­bourg. The French in­vite us back to their room for wine and vodka, hav­ing bought the local store’s en­tire sup­ply of the former.

The next morn­ing, fol­low­ing a brisk walk up to Burkhan Cape and the Crag of Shaman, one of Bud­dhist-shaman­ism’s most sa­cred sites, Leonid ar­rives with a Soviet-era mil­i­tary van and its owner, Sergei, a local fish­er­man. We set out for the is­land’s north­ern­most point, again tak­ing the ice road along with var­i­ous other ve­hi­cles, mostly driven by fish­er­men off to check their nets. They treat it like a frozen au­to­bahn, tear­ing along at im­pos­si­ble speeds and ap­par­ently un­con­cerned that it’s made of a sub­stance that surely makes it im­pos­si­ble to brake eas­ily.

Sergei drives at a more sen­si­ble pace and the bet­ter part of the morn­ing is spent pe­rus­ing ice caves in the is­land’s cliff faces. To­tally in­ac­ces­si­ble by land, many of th­ese are not much more ac­ces­si­ble by ice. ‘‘I didn’t know there was go­ing to be so much hik­ing in­volved,’’ I say as I climb over a gi­ant tri­an­gu­lar shard of the lake, formed early in its freez­ing process when waves still buf­fet the shore­line and wreak havoc with ice that has al­ready frozen.

Leonid points out var­i­ous rocks and crags. ‘‘Th­ese are the three broth­ers,’’ he says of a trio of out­crops that jut out from the is­land at reg­u­lar in­ter­vals. ‘‘The na­tive peo­ple of the re­gion, the Bury­ati, say that three broth­ers came down to the lake­side to drink and were trans­formed into th­ese three rocks.

‘‘And that’s Cape Khoboi, which the gods made out of a woman.’’ He points up to a large rock that does in­deed seem to form the pro­file of a rather shapely fe­male. ‘‘Ac­tu­ally, the local fish­er­men say that it looks more like Stalin.’’ ‘‘Stalin had breasts?’’ I ask. Af­ter a lunch of fish and pierogi in the van and a mouth­ful of sur­pris­ingly warm Baikal wa­ter from the hole Sergei has made in the ice, we take to the land again. A former fish­ery, run­down and aban­doned, gives us rea­son to pause. ‘‘Stalin sent po­lit­i­cals to ex­ile here,’’ Leonid says, no longer jok­ing about the great dic­ta­tor. He tells us it wasn’t ‘‘a gu­lag’’ — there’s an is­land in that par­tic­u­lar ar­chi­pel­ago sev­eral hun­dred kilo­me­tres away on the north­ern shore of the lake —‘‘but they couldn’t leave’’.

Later that evening, over vodka and brown bread in the home­stead’s oth­er­wise empty bistro, Leonid tells us about his connection to Lake Baikal and the is­land. ‘‘My fa­ther used to bring me fish­ing here,’’ he says. ‘‘We came ev­ery summer.’’

He says he never gets tired of vis­it­ing. ‘‘In spring, the bears come out of hi­ber­na­tion and you can see them walk­ing on the east­ern shore of the main­land. They’ve dis­ap­peared by summer and we take over our sleep­ing bags, get drunk, and sleep un­der the stars.

‘‘And then in win­ter . . . it’s an­other planet.’’

As we leave the vil­lage for the last time next morn­ing, two boys of about 10, ice skates hang­ing around their necks, walk out past a frozen-in fish­ing boat to­wards the moun­tains on the other side of the strait. The wind picks up, blow­ing snow across the ice in thou­sands of im­pos­si­bly fine rivulets.


A four-wheel-drive on the surface of Lake Baikal, pic­tured through an ice cave

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