On the great ice road
Russia’s Lake Baikal in winter defies all logical imaginings
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