You can have fun on an ice lake in Siberia

You can have fun on an ice lake in Siberia
Shifts in temperatures, wind, and sunlight cause the lake’s ice to form huge candy-like crystals called hummocks.
PHOTO: Levart

When the heat in Malaysia was peaking, someone suggested visiting Lake Baikal in Siberia.

When we checked that the Russian ruble was not too high compared to our ringgit, we were sold.

Lake Baikal is beautiful in any season. But, it is in winter, when the ice queen casts her spell, that the magic blossoms.

Covered with ice for five months, starting from November, Lake Baikal is transformed into a giant ice rink.

Our expedition began from Russia's Pacific Ocean port of Vladivostok, with a three-day trip aboard the famous Trans-Siberian railway to Irkutsk, the nearest town to Lake Baikal.

Despite the cold outside, our third class coach of 54 occupants was warm and muggy due to the lack of ventilation.

We were glad to get out during some long station stops to take in some fresh, cold air and throw some snowballs.

At Irkutsk (which has a lovely Russian Orthodox cathedral), we were finally free after being "locked up" in the train for three days.

Next came a journey by SUV to Olkhon Island, the biggest inhabited island on Lake Baikal.

The 300km journey took about six hours, with the last 12km on Lake Baikal's "ice road".

This road from the mainland to Olkhon island is prepared by specialists every year with ice thickness measured daily, before specific permission is given to cross, depending on a vehicle's weight.

The traditional Russian Orthodox cathedral in Irkutsk.
Photo: The Star

Signposts are stationed along the ice road with information such as "10 and 10T", signifying that the stretch is safe for one vehicle and passengers up to 10 tons, at a speed of no more than 10km/h.

The thickness of the ice on Lake Baikal varies between 70 and 150cm (60cm of ice can withstand 10 tons of weight).

Luckily, the weight of our large SUV was less than three tons.

Lake Baikal is a Unesco World Heritage Site and it's the oldest (25 million years) and deepest lake (1,700m) in the world.

Crystal clear

The name "Baikal", which comes from the language of the indigenous Buryats, means "the rich lake" or "sacred sea".

It is completely surrounded by mountains, with 320 rivers feeding into it and only one outlet, the Angara River.

Trekkers on frozen Lake Baikal. Others go skating, sledging or ice fishing.
Photo: The Star

It has the largest volume of any fresh water lake in the world and is one of the clearest lakes in the world, transparent down to 40m, enhancing photosynthesis and plant life.

Due to its uniqueness, the lake is also called the "Galápagos of Russia", as more than 80 per cent of its animal species are endemic (unique).

Temperatures fluctuate greatly from a comfortable 17°C in summer to a frigid minus 30 in winter.

The straits between Olkhon Island and the lake's western shore is called the "Small Sea" (the more protected and calmer section).

The rest is the "Big Sea".

We soon arrived at our homestay in a quaint village on Olkhon Island called Khuzhir, which had a population of just 1,200, mostly fishermen, farmers and cattle ranchers.

The village of Khuzhir on Olkhon Island.
Photo: The Star

Olkhon mean "having little forest" in Buryats.

The central portion of the island comprises of pine, birch and larch forests.

The northern and southern parts are bare as it is dry and sunny for 300 days of the year.

Among the Buryats living on the eastern side of Lake Baikal, Buddhism had a strong influence.

Those on the western side of the lake (including Olkhon Island), still practise shamanism and we could see many wooden poles with coloured ribbons tied around them as symbols of spirit worship.

Travelling in two UAZs (Ulyanovsky Avtomobilny Zavod), a Russian military off-road automobile, our expedition over the frozen lake began.

Clad in our down jackets, thick gloves, scarves, and beanies, we were ready to brave the sub-zero temperatures.

Driving across the frozen lake is challenging, with open ice cracks, rough fields of pack ice, deep snow and many other obstacles.

Drivers set their course following current conditions, using their experience to "read" the ice.

The ride was mostly smooth but where the lake surface was not uniform, we were thrown around inside the UAZ.

This was how the UAZ jumped over the huge crack in the lake.
Photo: The Star

During the five hours trip, we saw two men ice fishing, several groups of trekkers and skaters, a lady skating while pushing a pram, cyclists on a tandem bicycle, and a skater walking his (non-skating) dog!

Yes, when Lake Baikal freezes, the fun begins…ice hockey, dog sledging, horse sledging, marathons on ice, ice diving, skiing, revving up snowmobiles, motorbiking … everything icy and snowy!

The ice on the lake did not have that misty whiteness one normally associates with ice.

The water underneath the ice was so clear that if you dropped a coin, you could probably watch it sink for over one minute.

Not used to walking on ice, we moved gingerly, but falling down and sliding about was just part of the fun.

Surprisingly, I didn't get frostbite from touching the ice (but it was not the thick of winter).

Ice flowers

The air was dry and the sky was amazingly sunny, blue and cloudless.

The surroundings were eerily quiet but occasional strong winds emitted unusual sounds.

Beneath the frozen ice, algae are active, emitting methane gas through thermal vents.

The gas gets frozen close to the lake surface, making unique flower-like formations of frozen bubbles underneath the ice.

Methane from active algae gets frozen into flower-like formations beneath the ice.
Photo: The Star

Shifts in temperatures, wind, and sunlight do cause the frozen ice to crack.

Unequal pressures cause the formation of hummocks, huge blocks of turquoise-hued ice that can sometimes reach 12m in height, resembling huge rock candy (or Walter White's meth).

On the shores of Lake Baikal there are many grottoes (caves) and waves create amazing icicles inside them.

We rode the UAZ to Ogoi Island and then trekked uphill. On the top, stood an 8m-high Buddhist "stupa of enlightenment".

We went around it three times, expressing our respect to it.

We continued northwards, and as we approached the meeting point of the Small Sea and Big Sea, the frozen lake surface changed drastically into a giant field of jagged ice, as if strong waves had been frozen while surging forward.

A picnic lunch of hot tea, sandwiches and fruit rejuvenated us before howling wind and cold drove us to seek shelter behind our UAZ.

These wooden poles with ribbons show that shaman religions are still alive at Olkhon Island.
Photo: The Star

We were supposed to proceed to Cape Hoboy (meaning "molar tooth", a sacred place for performing religious rites), located at the most northern point of Olkhon Island.

It supposedly has the largest ice hummocks, piled one upon another.

Much to our disappointment, this part of the journey had to be abandoned, as a traveller from another group had fallen into the cracked ice.

On our way back to Khuzhir, we noticed that our experienced driver was driving in circles.

He had discovered that a big crack in the ice had suddenly appeared within the last five hours.

We had to alight from the UAZ to lighten the load and walk across the wet and slippery crack line.

Our guides then flattened the jagged ice to create space for the vehicle to "jump" across.

Back in Khuzhir, some of us went for dog sledging and some watched school children playing ice hockey on a frozen school ground.

The evening sky greeted us with hues of red, orange, blue, purple and grey.

We were quietly grateful that all had gone well on our Siberian adventure!

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