We dipped our fourth fingers in a cup of vodka and offered a few drops to the spirits we hoped would protect us. We flicked a little towards the barren Siberian steppe that stretched to our north. To the east and south we sprinkled some over the vast expanse of creaking ice that covered Lake Baikal. To our west we gave thanks to the spirits that populate Russia’s great Silver Birch forests. We poured some on a roaring fire, causing flames to leap up into the cold air. We drank a drop and threw the rest to Munkh Tenggeri, the eternal sky, and for the Siberian Buriat people, the most superior spiritual force.
Joe, my anthropologist friend, and I poured ourselves another shot, knocked it back, silently stunned by the beauty of the sun setting over the frozen ‘Pearl of Siberia’.
I had travelled to Irkutsk, in the geographical centre of Russia, to trek around part of Baikal. This banana-shaped lake is the deepest in the world at 1637 metres deep and contains nearly one-fifth of the world’s fresh water. From top to tail it is 636km long and no more than 60km wide. It is late April when I landed, seven hours after leaving Moscow, across the Urals and into Asia. The arrival lounge is a tiny wooden hut with a grumpy looking Russia trying to cause as much damage as possible to my camping equipment as he throws my bags through a hole in the wall. Luggage carousels haven’t quite caught on here. Thankfully I am met by my old friend Joe Long who is halfway through an 18-month fieldwork stint studying the rituals and dances of the native Buriat people. That morning we retired to my hotel room to finalise our plans.
Irkutsk is probably known to most people as a popular stop off on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. The city, like most in Siberia, was founded on the fur trade, but it had extra prominence being at the strategic heart of trade between Tibet, China and nearby Mongolia to the east and Moscow and Europe to the west. During the 18th Century, money flooded the area, vast civic buildings sprung up, and thousands moved to the city, including the exiled Decembrists recovering from time in a close-by gulag prison. The city finally succumbed to the red tide of communism that scarred the otherwise beautiful city with vast Soviet monoliths.
Most travellers who want to see Baikal make a day trip to Listvianka, a crowded tourist town blighted by some pretty horrible architecture. We would travel a couple of hours further north to Bolshoi Goloustnoe, a rarely visited town in the heart of the Pribaikal National Park.
After negotiating a price with a marshrutka (minibus) driver and waiting until it is full, we bumped our way across unsealed roads, worrying whether I could keep down my vodka initiation the night before. Out the window I could see thick forests still sheltering the last of the winter snow and crooked wooden houses, twisted and bent through a lifetime suffering long unimaginably cold winters and scorching mosquito-ridden summers. One field we passed was a soviet military grave yard. Dozens of fighter planes and helicopters gleam under the rising sun. A surreal sight.
On arrival Bolshoi Goloustnoe appeared a ghost town. Stretched along the two roads is nothing more than brightly painted wooden abodes, and the odd cow. The Mongolian features of the Buriat people occasionally stared out through half closed shutters at two tall strangers. Not the friendliest town, I’m thought. Then we found a shop in someone’s front room and bought provisions: smoked fish, salted squid snacks (trust me they’re wonderful), fruit, caviar (at 80p for a 100g, it would be rude not to) water and vodka, for the spirits of course. The women laughed when Russian-speaking Joe tells them we are camping. “But you’ll freeze,” they said. I didn’t see a problem, it was a beautiful spring day, and although the lake was frozen the days were warm enough to get away with a sweatshirt. Little did I know.
Food and vodka assembled, we headed south out of the town. A new domed Russian Orthodox church marks the end of the ‘road’ and then I got my first look at the lake. A cold wind blows off the bright sparkling ice. “It feels like I’m walking across the Antarctic,” I told Joe. We dropped our sacks and rushed down to the shore.
We were warned endlessly about not walking on the ice because it begins to melt at this time of year. During the long winter there are scheduled bus routes to the villages that surround the Baikal. In the summer, fishing boats and tourist vessels sail across its choppy waters. April and May, however, is a deadly time to cross. More than ten cars have already plunged to the bottom this year, taking their drivers with them.
Cracks were beginning to appear, and the eerie moaning of vast ice plates scratching against each other is the only sound. Suddenly the peace is ruptured by the scream of a motorbike and sidecar hurtling out to the horizon. They soon became specks in the distance when they stopped and pulled out fishing rods, hoping the tasty omul, a pink-fleshed relative of salmon, will bite. Baikal is home to 1200 species for flora and fauna, 80% of which can only be found here. Popular natives include the fresh water Nerpa seal and a bizarre little lake floor dwelling fish that dissolves into an inky mess when brought near the lower pressured surface.
Continuing down a dirt road, past the remaining few houses, a feral husky-like dog began to walk alongside us. The road filtered out into a path, a 20 metre drop down to the lake was on our left and the dreaded woods rise up the rolling hills inland. ‘Dreaded’ because thanks to a throw away comment we heard while booking tomorrow night’s homestay, we heard it was tick season. It was a comment that could have saved our lives: ‘stay away from the woods, the ticks will get you. These nasty little buggers, not only gorge themselves on your blood, but also carry encephalitis, a disease that rapidly eats away the brain. It’s an unpleasant way to die and there is no known cure. They hang on tree branches and when they sense heat drop down and attach themselves to you. This, we quickly decided, would not be an option. ‘Tick checks’ on the neck became an hourly occurrence and such is the gravity of the consequences we agreed early on that pretending we see one on each, even for a second, would not be cool, tempting though it was. And to think our only previous worry was bears and the fact I couldn’t remember if my Canadian wife said you should run towards, run away or stand still when you see one. Fortunately bears are rarely seen this far south.
Our plans for a circuit through the trees now thwarted, our only option was to walk then retrace our steps tomorrow. We continued walking across on the side of the cliff and running under any stray branches. After a hearty lunch of cheese and dill gherkins, we continued, our faithful canine amigo, ‘Dogavich’ or ‘Dog Dogavich’ to give his correct Russian patronymic, still with us, despite occasionally running off halfway across the lake to bark at bikes and sidecars (even Russian dogs chase after bikes). He was our friend, maybe a spirit to protect us, despite our relationship taking a turn for the worse when I noticed a tick on his ear.
After several more hours on the undulating stony path the sun began to fall, so we set up camp on a headland. We covered every inch of skin before heading into the forest to collect wood for the fire, sparked it up and cracked open the vodka.
The Mongolian descended Buriats, who live and farm their cattle on the west of Lake Baikal, are shamanistic. (To the East their religion is infused with Buddhist elements). In the Shamanistic worldview, the landscape is populated with ancestral spirits, protectors of special places and higher-ranking deities. A proper relationship must be maintained with the spirits to live in harmony with the environment. Spirits control the land so we must offer gifts. The ubiquitous vodka is used in many rituals, including the Eastern burkhan, which we were about to perform. Sharing it with local spirits demonstrates respect for their land. We sprinkled the vodka in the directions of our compass before eating. I gutted the smoked fish – probably not well enough by the state of my own gut the next day – and cooked up a tasty soup, with Russian sourdough bread. Dogavich enjoyed the heads and tails.
When the sun had completely disappeared, twinkling lights from the settlements on the other side of the lake appeared. Above us we were treated to a spectacular celestial show: stars shot about the clearest sky I have ever seen. We drank more vodka – not the best preparation for the long hike home, but it seemed right. When it was too cold, we headed tent-wards.
Little did I know in my spirit-infused slumber I was about to endure the coldest night of my life. In my ‘four-season’ sleeping bag, I awoke at three in the morning with ice, from our breath frozen on the top of our tent, landing on my face. I put on all the clothes I had, still freezing. It reached minus ten and so did my nose. Considered more vodka, but decided tea would be better. At first light I lit a fire and saw the highlight of the trip: an enormous sun painting the ice bright orange. I dropped down onto the frozen lake. Crystals snapped like timbrels underfoot, Dogavich too seemed to stand a stare towards the sun.
Where the sheets have cracked gaps, water freezes only to the thickness of an ice cube. I broke through and collected water for a cuppa. I held the bottle up to the light and there was not a speck in it. People who live around the lake say every drop of water that touches your body will keep you healthy and young. It tasted wonderful. Pure. Underwater I could see the main sheets were still at least a metre thick.
We drank many cups of tea, before heading back towards Bolshoi Goloustnoe, this time across the ice covered shore of the lake. It was much easier going than the path. Only our chatter and sound of crunching ice below our soles broke the silence. Occasionally we passed ice plates that had clashed together jutting slabs 6ft up in the air; resembling the tectonic shift that formed Baikal 25 million years ago.
Wearily we made our way to our Buriat family homestay. Prepared for us was a typically large Buriat meal of pelmeni (boiled meat filled dumplings), potatoes and a salad. A large wood fuelled fire heated the kettle and the whole house. Replete we headed to what we had been looking forward to all day: a banya. Most homes have this traditional Russian sauna, above even a car. Armed with cold beers and snacks we stripped off and entered the shockingly hot room. Bliss. Not quite so blissful was standing under a freezing cold water shower for a few seconds before heading back in and sweating some more.
The next morning we bid a sad farewell to Dogavich and caught a bus, ominously numbered 666, back to Irkutsk. It has snowed heavily during the night and Siberia looked exactly how you imagine it. Halfway back we stopped and everyone piled out. On the bank of the Goloustnoe River is a tree with thousands of ribbons tied to it. At its roots are bottles of beer and vodka and packets of cigarettes, left as an offering to protector spirits called ejin. It is an old Buriat tradition, adopted by Russians, to tie strips of material to places where they would love to return. Mine is still flapping in the breeze today.
Irkutsk is the nearest major city to Lake Baikal and travelling to any part along the western bank to start a trek is relatively easy. Hiking in the Pribaikal National Park, both north and south from Bolshoi Goloustnoe takes in spectacular terrain with mountains climbs, forest walks and of course the lakeshore itself. Hikers will encounter lovely little Buriat villages with brightly painted ramshackle wooden houses. The eastern shore is practically virgin territory, not only from hikers but the Russians themselves. The northern shore is also mainly untouched and offers more rugged but great hiking. There are many activities you can do from all around the lake including ice walking, dog sledding, scuba diving and horse riding. All can be booked in Irkutsk.
The biggest problem about getting to Russia is still the tourist visa, but thanks to tourist agencies, spending a day or two queuing at the Russian embassy is over. Companies such as Intourist the former state agency, and KGB front, can organise hassle-free visas for around £40. Call 0870 112 1232 and see www.intouristuk.com. And doesn’t matter how many more treks you want to walk, do not, I repeat, do not, overstay your visa as I did. It very quickly descends into some bizarre costly Kafka-esque nightmare.
Many travellers go to Lake Baikal as a day break from the Trans-Siberian Railroad that rolls through Irkutsk daily. Reaching Irkutsk nowadays is very simple and well this lovely interesting city is a holiday destination in itself. Transaero and Aeroflot fly from London to Irkutsk via Moscow, from £420 including taxes and can be booked through Intourist on 0870 112 1232. Be sure they arrive and leave from the same Moscow airport. It is a three hour flight to Moscow and a further seven to Irkutsk. Taxis from Irkutsk airport to the centre are about £2.
Buses and marshrutkas (minibuses) leave twice daily to Bolshoi Goloustnoe from the main bus station on Ulitsa Oktabr’skoi Revolutsii (October Revolution Street). Marshrutkas cost 120 roubles (GBP 2.40), buses are 100 roubles but will charge 25 roubles for baggage. It is 113km and takes around four bumpy hours. It is advisable to buy tickets from the main office in the same building first.
When to go
Each season offers a completely different experience on Lake Baikal. I travelled in May, an odd time somewhere in between horrendously cold and the hot summer. From late September until May, Lake Baikal is completely frozen. It is spectacular, but it is advised you can only walk across it between November and March. Temperatures regularly reach -40C. From Late May until September, will be more touristy, but much warmer. Beware of mosquitoes. April to June is tick season and walking through the woods is unadvisable. See Precautions.
Accommodation and food
Camping is allowed anywhere around the lake, but it is best to check with the locals where any lurking dangers are. Homestays are a great option. A Buriat family will put you up in a spare room and cook all your meals for you. They can be booked at Baikal Hotel in Irkutsk on Gagarin Boulevard for around 600 roubles per person, per night. Intourist in the UK 0870 112 1232 can also organise homestays, including traditional ger (yurt) and activities before you go. All meals are provided. Many have a banya (sauna), or know someone nearby who has, needless to say this is very highly recommended, usually 100 roubles extra. Some places offer the opportunity to meet Buriat shamans, but be aware that many are fake.
All villages will have limited food stores where you can stock up on fish, fruit, bread, cheese, snacks, water and vodka, for the spirit libations. Water from the Lake can be drunk, as always, it is advisable to boil it first, but it never did us any harm. Camping and outdoor gear can be bought in Irkutsk, but no cheaper than the UK.
Guidebooks and Maps
Maps of Lake Baikal can be bought in any book shop in Irkutsk, however nearly all will be in the Russia Cyrillic alphabet. A shop in Baikal Hotel can provide English ones. I used the Lonely Planet Russia and Belarus, but it is a big book with limited information about areas around Baikal other than the touristy Listvianka. Another option is Siberian BAM Guide - rail, rivers, and road by Nicholas Zvegintzov which has a fairly extensive part on the Baikal area.
Dangers, diseases and vodka
Irkutsk is a relatively safe city, I heard about no problems at all. Alcoholism is a big problem, so just give swaying people a wide berth, but most are more likely to hug you.
When people invite you to their home it is common for them to open a bottle of vodka and symbolically throw the lid away, meaning the whole bottle will be drunk, whether you are two or twenty.
There are bears in the northern part of Baikal so precautions must be made, attacks are incredibly rare however. Ticks during April to July are a much bigger problem. They carry an awful disease called encephalitis. You must completely cover your body before going under trees and a vaccination is essential if you are going at this time of year. This needs to be done several months prior to travelling.
In Irkutsk most people have a smattering of English, but in hotels most people will be fluent. Out in the villages, however, a phrasebook will be essential.
Without any knowledge the Cyrillic is nigh on impossible to make head nor tail of. Many words bear no relation at all to English, again a phrase book will help.
Churchill somewhat accurately described Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”. Anything can change at the drop of a hat and frequently does, therefore the information here is very liable to change. The cost of living in Siberia is much cheaper than the UK, but hotels and imported goods are about the same. You never know what is going to happen next in Russia but that is its charm.