The street to the lake is icy and very slippery. Standing at the edge, apart from the clear blue sky, it’s bright white as far as I can see. Like seeing St. Basil's Cathedral in Red Square, it’s a breathtaking moment. The water ahead of me is completely frozen. To my right, at the far edge of the lake, snow-covered mountains rise up. To my left, looking into the bright sun, a road runs alongside the lake to the town of Listvyanka. Looking out on the lake, it glitters as the sun picks out thousands of pieces of clear crystal ice amongst the pieces that are covered with fine white snow. It’s hard for me to take in, it’s so magnificent.
Lake Baikal is a gigantic lake. It’s 636 kilometres long (roughly the distance between Moscow and St. Petersburg), seventy-nine kilometres wide, and has a surface area of 31,472 square kilometres. The lake freezes completely from January to April every year and when it is not frozen, it’s water is totally transparent. It is twenty million years old compared to the other lakes on the planet that are only fifteen thousand years old. Lake Baikal also holds one-fifth of all the world’s freshwater reserves. Travellers call it ‘the Bright Eye of the Earth’ and scientists call it ‘the Great Puzzle of the Planet.’ On a globe or world map, it’s a blue “Eye of Sauron.”
I walk along the edge of the lake toward Listvyanka. On the shoreline, two sculptures of clear ice appear, shaped into ornate crosses; they sparkle in the sun. A few cars rumble by. People go about their daily chores and I hear dogs barking from the houses on the other side of the road. I stop at the tourist information center, which is closed this time of year. Behind it is a marina, where boats are marooned in the thick ice. Two ice-going vehicles sit nearby with their engines running, ready to move out onto the ice. Further along a TV crew emerges from another similar vehicle and shuffles out onto the ice to film some of the ice formations. Two other ice-going vehicles move speedily much further out on the lake, giving an impression of a cat chasing a mouse on a slippery wooden floor.
An hour or so later, I visit the Baikal Limnological Museum. Inside I notice my scarf, which I had wrapped around my mouth and nose, is frozen hard, as are the whiskers on my upper lip. Lost in the wonder of the lake, I had forgotten about the freezing temperatures—a chilling minus twenty degrees celsius. In the museum, I discover that there are over three hundred rivers flowing into the lake, but only one flowing out, the Angara, which flows through nearby Irkutsk and eventually into the Yenisei, the largest river flowing into the Arctic Ocean. Although the lake is the deepest on the planet, explorers only reached the bottom of the lake, a depth of 1,580 metres, for the first time in 2008. Since then many more explorations have occurred. Anatoly Sagalevich, a Russian explorer, holds the record for the deepest fresh water dive. He achieved it here at Lake Baikal in 1990. Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, and movie director, James Cameron, both made submersible dives in the lake as well.
I ascertain that the clearness of the lake is provided by millions of small crayfish which act as filters by eating the algae that would normally block visibility. The signature fish of the lake is the omul, but the species that captures my attention is the golomyanka, which gives birth to its offspring rather than lay eggs. Golomyankas also fry in the sun, just leaving a skeleton and an oil trace.
I chat with a local, Iakov, as I stand on the ice at the edge of the lake. Iakov explains that up until recently the locals, the Buryats, kept bears as pets. He recounts a story about a local fisherman who tied his bear to a tree on the edge of the lake and went out fishing on the ice. The fisherman cut a hole in the ice, caught some fish, and left them at the side of the opening. He did the same at the second and third stop, leaving his fresh catch at the edge of each hole. When he went back to the first hole to collect the fish, he found the fish were gone. The fish were missing at the second hole too. At the third hole, he found his bear eating the fish. Enraged, the fisherman punched the bear on the nose and told it to leave and that the bear would not be his pet anymore. On his way home, with no fish, he came back to the tree and his bear was sitting there peacefully still tied up; the fisherman had fought and punched a wild bear. It’s a good story, but maybe more amusing with some warmth and local vodka too.
As Iakov leaves, I notice a car drive out onto the ice. I tentatively stand by, praying the thin ice can bear my weight. I laugh at myself. The thick ice can easily hold a car! I step a foot further out on the lake and then walk far away from the shoreline. The car disappears off into the distance, and I have the whole lake to myself. Walking on the thick ice of Lake Baikal is a once in a lifetime moment.
Pete Martin is an author of transformational journeys. “After twenty-five years in the corporate world, I quit my job to travel. When I am not travelling, I am either cycling or writing about travel. I also coach those who are stuck and who seek help to fulfil their travel dreams. Please reach out to me. There are still too many places I haven’t been to, but my one “bucket list” journey is to cross the Indian Ocean by ship.”