Baikal A Winter Journey to the Sea of Siberia

I had always wanted to go there and experience winter in Siberia. Now I can say I did it. I travelled to Lake Baikal with other Polish photographers between late February and early March, at the time when the ice held strong and night temperatures were around -30°C. During the day, the weather was not quite as rough, and the temperatures would not catch anyone born and bred in Central Europe off guard … unless any of the notorious Baikal winds rose up. Verkhovik, Barguzin, Kultuk, Gornaya and Sarma are spoken with awe, and though their names may sound graceful, they can give you a hard time, indeed. The strongest of them blows around the Olkhon isthmus, Barguzin Bay and the northern side of Big Ushkan Island. We had first-hand experience of the latter on our way back from Davsha to the Ushkan Islands. More about that later, though.

At 71 km long and 12 km wide, Olkhon Island is the biggest island of Lake Baikal.

It took over a dozen hours to fly into Irkutsk, with a layover in Moscow. The plan was to take care of the food supplies and dash off to Olkhon Island on Lake Baikal, specifically the village of Khuzir – our base for the next three days. We caught a marshrutka bus and covered some 300 km from Irkutsk to Khuzir in approximately 5 hours. Irkutsk is dominated by steppes, with herds of cows and horses roaming around in the cold. The amount of trees and undulating terrain grows as one approaches the lake. With wood being in high supply, the sparse Siberian villages consist predominantly of wooden buildings. We were happy to dip into Buryat cuisine on our way to Khuzir, and “pozy”, volcano-shaped steamed lamb dumplings, became my favourite dish on the trip. The only thing that compared was Baikal Omul.

A zimnik route linking Olkhon with the mainland across the frozen Lake Baikal

The first surprise came as we reached the shore of the Sea of Siberia. We knew, from books and accounts by those who visited Baikal in winter, that thick snow rarely gets a chance to cover the lake, since strong winds usually blow away any amount of snow from the icy surface. This was not the case this year. Thick snow covered Lake Baikal all the way to the horizon. Maybe we would have to take another trip to give us a better chance to photograph the clear ice and its unique textures. We soon replaced the marshrutka with an off-road UAZ, nicknamed ‘a pill’, the basic means of local transport, and moved onto the ice for the first time.

Our ‘pill’ on the ice

We journeyed to Lake Baikal for photography, with each of us having some idea of the Baikal landscape. We wanted to record those vast expanses, and the unusual textures and colours of the ice, both for ourselves and those who would view our work later. It appeared, however, that many others were on a similar mission. Some three hundred young Chinese people with professional photo gear were lingering in the finest spots of Khuzir. We had to deal with this somehow. Did we?

Khuzir is popular with tourists as it is located near the holy Shaman’s Rock, a place of great importance to shamanism.

A major highlight of the trip was a four-day outing to the frozen lake, which was a bit of a thrilling experience. In the past, cars drove into crevasses, and two accidents, one tragic, occurred even during our stay. Although far from the places we were to see, those events stirred some emotions in us. Nevertheless, any concerns were outweighed by the vistas of expansive spaces, intriguing ice formations and the secluded places of the world’s deepest lake that few people ever get to see. We set out on this ice trip with Igor, a veteran driver and guide.

We headed to the Ushkan Islands, which are located at the heart of the lake and have just two inhabitants – employees of the weather station. With the help of Igor, we were happy to taste omul, the most popular and cherished fish of Lake Baikal. Endemic to the lake, this species of the salmon family lives at a depth of 400-600 metres. It is no longer the staple of Baikal fishery due to a three-year moratorium aimed at restoring the heavily affected fish population.

Among others, we visited the village of Davsha in the Barguzin Nature Reserve, the oldest nature reserve in the country, established in 1917 to protect sables, recognised in the time of the tsars as Siberia’s true gem. The species had been heavily exploited for decades, with fur trade revenues going straight into the tsar’s pocket. By the time the reserve was set up, an area the size of Poland had a population of just 40 sables.

Davsha is a unique village. It is situated along the banks of Baikal, at the foot of the Barguzin Range, and has five residents: three staff members of the nature reserve and two with the weather station. The village used to be home to some 120 inhabitants, mostly staff of the nature reserve, whose only contact with the outside world was by water or air, as the village was inaccessible by land. In 2002, the authorities decided the maintenance cost was too high and depopulated the village, forcing its inhabitants to relocate elsewhere in Russia.

The abandoned village of Davsha within the Barguzin Nature Reserve
“Lake Baikal might be the only lake with pines growing on ice,” said Igor. In fact, these are pine branches other drivers stuck into the ice as safety signs.

We knew that the Baikal ice ‘was active’ whilst driving round, as could be seen by the cracks and ice blocks we would pass every now and again. Occasionally, Igor would stop and take time to inspect a crack with his metal probe before we could safely carry on, always asking us to get out, too. Every year, the largest cracks appear in roughly the same spots and usually cross the ice between islands and peninsulas. Each new crack forms with a bang that can be heard dozens of kilometres away, as huge ice masses generate enormous power by the shrinking or expanding caused by changes in temperature. Lake Baikal is far from silent, even when no spectacular cracks are forming. Especially at dusk and early in the morning, Baikal ‘talks’ due to rapid changes in air temperature. They are often very peculiar sounds, evocative of whining or wailing.

Cracks and ice blocks

When we first arrived to Lake Baikal, we learned that the lake had solidified calmly this year. Locals told us that “Baikal had not hummed”. There were no usual November/December storms, and as a result, there were fewer spectacular ice formations created as the waves freeze when violently crashing upon the rocks at abrupt changes in temperature . This is yet another sign of climate change and something the locals brought to our attention quite often. We learned that both winter and summer temperatures have risen in recent years, and that the Olkhon steppes, once green for long summer stints due to the Baikal microclimate, increasingly resemble the ones found closer to Mongolia. Discoloured and yellowed, they no longer provide animals with the quality nourishment they once used to. The abundant snow that covered the lake this year was not normal for the region, either. This may occur once in a decade or so, yet those living with or close to nature are very sensitive to any changes.

Shapes created by waves violently crashing upon the rocks and freezing

In our quest for interesting ice formations, we would often crawl amid the ice spalls and rocks along the Baikal shore. We sought after cracks in the rocks and hidden caves. We walked through fields of ice blocks. On our way back from Davsha to the Ushkan Islands, we could feel the Barguzin wind, which for a while unveiled the ice from under the thick layer of snow. During our journey, we were also lucky to meet people always willing to lend a helping hand under the harsh conditions. This unique adventure to Baikal Lake was followed by a trip to the Autonomous Republic of Buryatia … but that leg of our expedition makes for quite a different story, both visually and emotionally.

The Barguzin wind exposed the ice sheet for a brief moment

Text and photos: Jarek Solarczyk


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Jarek Solarczyk

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