Lake Baikal, Siberia, Russia
As far as the eye can see is frozen dark blue ice. It’s hard to believe that I am standing on a freshwater lake and not the ocean. Below my feet is some of the most attractive shades of blue I have ever seen and below that over 1km deep of lake. Nearby is Orkhon Island, an island wrapped in mystery and is said to be the heart of Baikal. The worlds deepest and oldest lake is home to 1/3rd of the worlds fresh water, it is also the spiritual home to the Buryat people. Descendants of Mongols, the Buryats are believers in Shamanistic traditions and are the protectors of Baikal. Only with their help were we able to venture this deep into the wilds of Siberia. The first day on the ice highways of Siberia’s, Lake Baikal and I couldn’t be more excited to see what lays ahead on this epic Russian adventure!
The Capital of Siberia, Irkutsk
It’s a long six-hour flight from Moscow to the capital of Siberia, Irkutsk. The vast distance really shows the mass scale of this truly enormous country.
Landing in Irkutsk I soon realized how different Siberia is from the rest of Russia. Siberia and Irkutsk have a wilder frontier feel like nearby neighboring Mongolia. Irkutsk has a typical Soviet style center equipped with concrete slab buildings and a statue of Lenin. Outside the city center, Irkutsk shows its true colors.
There are countless avenues of old-style wooden Siberian houses, some of which are up to 100 years old! Although many of the houses are succumbing to time and beginning to decay, there are plenty in good enough shape to imagine what Siberia must have looked like in its past.
Irkutsk has a few colorful churches, hipster cafes and a young population due to the University making it a pleasant stopover for a few days. The local tourism board has also constructed a tourism center which has hotels and restaurants all in the style of traditional Siberian architecture.
The Ice Highways of Lake Baikal
From Irkutsk, I linked up with my team a local adventure tour agency called Baikaler. The owner and his guides are Siberian locals dedicated to exploring the area. A few photographers from Irkutsk also joined in on the epic adventure into the unknown.
Boarding our Soviet-style 4×4 van we hit the six-hour highway toward Lake Baikal and Olkhon Island. The road towards Lake Baikal is an interesting ride. You pass by smoky wooden villages and dark forests thick with meters of fresh snow.
Upon reaching the banks of Lake Baikal the ice roads take over from the dirt tracks. It truly looks like a full-blown highway. Everything from large trucks to small cars plows across the ice obeying what seems to be proper ice highway edicate. Flying across the ice we passed by remote islands and large sections of the ice that have broken and pushed up creating massive cracks in the lake.
Shamans and Buryats
The local people of Lake Baikal and Olkhon island are known as the Buryats. The Buryats are decedents of Mongols and have lived here for thousands of years. They are strong believers in spirits and magic. Each region is governed by Shamans and all that happens here must be consulted by them first.
You will find many colorful totem polls littered with coins and covered with prayer scarfs. These are sacred grounds for the Buryats and traditions of leaving coins or circling the totems must be performed to appease spirits.
The Buryat also have a vastly different cuisine than the typical Russian staples. Buryats love to eat a juicy meat dumpling known as Pozy. Its important to firstly take a bight and then suck back the soup inside before eating it, otherwise the Buryats will surely laugh at you.
Drinking with Priests and Banya in Khuzhir
Olkhon islands largest town is the ramshackle wooden metropolis of Khuzhir. It appears, at first sight, the town has no organization and that houses are just strewn everywhere. This isn’t exactly untrue but spends enough time here and you will begin to understand its grid.
Most Lake Baikal explorers stay here as it is home to many comfortable guesthouses. Arriving in the evening our crew dashed to the closest food we could find. Being that my fellow adventures were Russian they came well equipped with an assortment of hard liquors.
The mini bar, of course, attracted none other than the village priest and a local athlete legend who is said to have hiked across the entirety of Lake Baikal. With our motley crew complete we ate drank and in Russian tradition went for Banya.
Banya is a delightful transformative experience. You enter a feeble weak foreigner and emerge a dehydrated, Russian singing, drunk and exfoliated god. Basically, it is an extremely hot traditional wooden sauna, but it has many rules to follow, some of which consist of beating each other with oak leaves mid sweat.
Thoroughly intoxicated and in a whole new layer of skin he promised our new drunk village priest friend that we would attend church the next day, it was Sunday of course!
Olkhon Island the Heart of Lake Baikal
Olkhon Island is dubbed the heart of Lake Baikal. Even more, so is the pultruding island rocky outcrop located on the west shore of Khuzhir. This is one of Olkhon’s top sights and where the division of North/South ends of the island began.
As mentioned before Olkhon is the spiritual home of the Buryat. If you are to venture further afield you must get a local Buryat guide, not just for protocol but logistics as well. Olkhon island remote dirt roads are extremely hard to navigate and so are the ice highways that begin to disappear the further North you head.
Our Buryat guide has lived here his entire life. He drove like a madman but navigated the ice like an experienced captain at sea. He also knew plenty about the local Shaman traditions to keep us safe from any pesky forest spirits.
Lake Baikal’s Northern Regions
Our first day into Baikal we headed to Olkhon’s Northern territory. In order to get to the North, you must cross some of the worst dirt track roads I have ever seen. This is because the further North the more open the lake is. The ice is not as well understood here, and sections have been known to be unstable.
Our first stop was at a sacred artwork of a tree. This haunted looking tree was erected atop of a hill with a stunning view over the lake. It was done by a Buryat artist to commemorate those who died in the Gulag camp that was located here.
At the bottom of the hill, the tracks lead again onto the ice. Here is the best location to see the crystal-clear ice as the wind here is stringer blowing away the now and polishing the emerald blue ice.
Sending my drone above you truly get a unique look into the massive breaks and gorgeous colors of the crystal ice. The mountains of Olkhon are much larger here creating a great perspective of this beautiful region.
From here you can see how vast Lake Baikal is, as the next land is hundreds of kilometers away not visible to my eye.
In Search of Ice and Caves in Lake Baikal’s South
Next day we headed to Olkhon’s Southern Region. Here the highlight is ex0loring the countless small islands dotted across the shoreline of Olkhon. These islands are covered in thick white ice and its shores hide secret ice caves that reveal incredibly clear ice that give views to the lake bottom.
For photography, this place is a dream. The blue ice covered in long white cracks that make their way to the jagged rock outcrops covered in thick white ice. Many of the islands also have spooky black trees covering parts of them.
At one of the islands we stopped and made a fire right on the ice to cook lunch. Our Buryat guide also doubled as a chef cooking us a local fish called Omial, only found in Lake Baikal.
In the afternoon we stopped by an island which had a Buddhist stupa on its summit and then ventured to the very South arms of Olkhon island. Here we climbed to the tops of the mountains to get amazing views of the remote corners of Olkhon.
Signs of the Ancient Siberians
Our final day on Olkhon we began to trail back to Irkutsk. We took a detour on the mainland to a scared mountain nearby to the town of Yelansy. Here our Buryat guide told us of ancient cave drawings left by Siberians thousands of years ago.
If you want to come here yourself, you will have to contact Baikaler as many locals here have not even heard of them before. Stopping at the foot of a grassy mountain we began an ascent up towards some jagged looking rocks. Nearing the rocks, you begin to make out drawings of hunters chasing giant Siberian deer. There is even what looks like a Siberian tiger etched out of the rock walls.
Seeing these drawings really takes you into how ancient this area is. It is the oldest part of the earth after all! This was the climax of my Siberian adventure. This extremely remote part of the world was one of the most exciting experience I have had in Asia!
Jack is somewhat of a local legend and with his main guide Alex they have pioneered the only true adventure company to Lake Baikal. They are always looking into unique angles of tourism here basing themselves more on experience than a usual mundane sightseeing trip. If you are looking for something different or a cultural exploratory adventure these are the guys to contact! Don’t try to tackle Lake Baikal alone, it’s vast, complicated and to be honest somewhat dangerous due to the elements.