Travel: Lake Baikal, Siberia

The convoy of cars crosses the thick Siberian ice Picture: Lisa Young
The convoy of cars crosses the thick Siberian ice Picture: Lisa Young
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Frozen in the fast lane on a drive across the ice

The ice cracked like a shotgun going off as I drove on to Siberia’s Lake Baikal. The frozen lake lay ahead like a bleakly beautiful white desert, and I was about to drive across it, following a pioneering 62km route across its slippery surface.

A safety and rescue vehicle led the way. Picture: Lisa Young

A safety and rescue vehicle led the way. Picture: Lisa Young

The Sacred Sea of Russian folk song, Lake Baikal is the oldest, deepest and seventh largest lake in the world. A Unesco Heritage Site, it lies in Southern Siberia, close to the Mongolian border. At 25 million years old, it holds 23 per cent of the world’s unfrozen fresh water and is 2km deep, 644km long and 80km wide. Completely frozen from January to May it can get as cold as -45C, and with ice 50-80cm deep and strong enough to support a five-tonne vehicle, the daring can take their wheels on to the lake for the driving experience of a lifetime.

I arrived in Siberia after a six-hour flight from London to Moscow, followed by a six-and-a-half-hour flight to Irkutsk on one of Siberian airline S7’s Kermit-coloured planes. We were just an hour short of Tokyo time to the east, 350km north of Mongolia, with Kazakhstan to the west.

Siberia is a vast Russian province, stretching from Western Europe to Japan, with some of the world’s most extreme weather conditions and a sparse population of 36 million.

In the summer, trekkers come from far and wide to explore the Great Baikal Trail, a network of routes through the mountains surrounding the lake, but I had come in winter to drive across the frozen lake in a convoy of cars. Cars, that is, as opposed to off-roaders. I’d be driving a road-standard Mazda CX-5 automatic, all-wheel-drive SUV with a 2.5-litre petrol engine, with the only concession to terrain being studded winter tyres. Hopefully it would stand such extreme driving conditions.

Building a bridge with wood planks to cross open water on Lake Baikal. Picture: Lisa Young

Building a bridge with wood planks to cross open water on Lake Baikal. Picture: Lisa Young

Our journey took us from Irkutsk airport, through the Siberian forest to the town of Listvyanka, then on a 62km drive across Lake Baikal to join the Trans-Siberian Highway, ending in the town of Ulan-Ude.

For the next few days we’d be in the capable hands of Alex Simakin, head of Avtozum (Discovering Russia), who has led over 20 international driving expeditions, and Emercom, a Russian safety team who are specialists in driving on Lake Baikal who would survey the ice in advance and lead the convoy.

But before the main adventure we stopped at the Legend of Baikal hotel in Listvyanka, a step back in time, with its glitter, charm and chintzy Soviet era furnishings. Warm and reasonably comfortable, it has great views of the lake. At night, while snow fell outside, we dined at the nearby Svar restaurant on a traditional meal of omul, a white fish peculiar to Baikal, with pickled vegetables, followed by grilled pork ribs.

Next morning we were given a safety briefing on the dos and don’ts of driving on the ice, and warned of the risks, from extreme exposure to the cold to a car falling through the ice – rare but you have to be aware.

You’d think ice was ice, equally slippery everywhere, but Baikal is harder and more slippy than anywhere in the world and tyre manufactures and car companies come here to test their wares.

Alex offered us rookie Baikal ice-drivers a few tips. “There is no such thing as a safe ice drive. There are always risks. The ice is dangerous and its behaviour is unpredictable. The most dangerous thing is slipping up on the ice. If we do everything properly, we’ll be fine.”

However, we hadn’t expected the heaviest snowfall in Southern Siberia in the past ten years, which would make the drive more challenging, and definitely slower.

Setting off towards the lake in convoy, it was thrilling to see it, immense from the shore, then drive on to the ice for the first time. Where the wind had blown large patches free of snow, the ice was utterly transparent, the water being melt-water from the five surrounding mountain ranges including the Ural, Altai and Verkhoyansk, and pure and crystal clear.

Emercom led the way in a monster of a vehicle – a Trekol-39294, (aka Swamp Truck) – a specialised all-terrain, amphibious six-wheeler capable of operating in temperatures from –60C to 60C. We followed in its tracks, no detours allowed, in case we went through a gap in the ice.

Alex’s voice crackled over our radio with a reminder not to buckle our seat belts and to keep our doors unlocked in case we had to get out fast. “Usually cars take about 2 minutes to sink, so you’ll have plenty of time to leave,” he said confidently. Failing that, my co-driver and I had a Plan B to climb out through the sunroof.

Other ice-driving instructions included not to accelerate over cracks, not to over steer, and to do everything slowly. Cars should be no more than 100 metres apart, no less than 50 metres, avoiding too much weight in one spot.

We had the additional challenge of trying not to get stuck in the snow where it was deep, and the difficulty that we couldn’t see any deep cracks, crevices or chunks of ice that the snow might conceal.

Stopping often for Emercom to drill into the ice and check it was thick enough to cross, our slip-sliding convoy continued on its way.

The temperature was around –20C, and felt colder with the penetrating

wind factor, but we were well prepared in our warm down coats, good gloves, hats, and layers of thermal clothing. Plenty of battery chargers are essential too, as the intense cold flattens batteries quickly.

We travelled in a convoy, two drivers per car and switched halfway across the lake. The further you travel, the more you forget you’re on ice.

The biggest obstacle was a huge crack, exposing a considerable stretch of open water and Emercom took half an hour to build a makeshift bridge from planks they had brought along, then one by one we drove over.

The driving was great fun, ploughing through snowdrifts, and everyone was impressed by the way the car dealt with the tough conditions and handled responsively. We drove at around 30 kilometres per hour, to maintain momentum, and now and then the back of the car would spin out or we’d hit a well-camouflaged frozen chunk as we avoided vast hummocks and shards of ice like giant crystals jutting out from the icy lake, and big enough to bend wheels and end a drive. From time to time we’d stop to stretch our legs, or to wait for the safety team to rescue someone stuck in snow.

Finally, we reached the other side and, leaving the lake behind, joined the Trans-Siberian Highway for the three-hour drive to Ulan-Ude, where our journey ended at the Mergen Bator Hotel, and the rotating rooftop Bar 12.

What should have been a four-and-a-half-hour crossing, without snow, had turned into eight hours with snow, yet every second was enthralling, exciting and exhilarating. I loved the adventure, and plan to do it all again – without snow next time.

FACTFILE

Arranging an ice drive:

Alex organises all inclusive, self-drive, six-day expeditions (excluding flights) across Baikal during the winter months for anyone 21 years old and over. A professional driver will be in the vehicle to help with any issues, but you will be driving. If you don’t hold a licence, you can go along as a passenger (minimum age 12 years old). Prices from �2,000 (£1,770.00). discoverrussia.vip/baikal_2018_eng, travel@avtorazum.com, tel: +7 (495)008 1687; discoverrussia.vip

A tourist visa costs from £70 for a five-day turn-around. For a faster service you can go through an agency which will cost more, plus there is the cost of the letter of invitation required to visit Russia, although if you are booked into a hotel this generally comes free with the booking.