At least since Klaus Bednarz brought us closer to this region in the 1990s through his travel reports with the "Ballad of Lake Baikal", many people in this country also dream of a trip to Lake Baikal. Many travelers have since come to know and love this lake. We have also contributed our part: already in 1991 we, from biss, made a first pilot trip to Lake Baikal with more than 10 participants. It took us another 10 years to establish a rhythm of regular hiking trips to Baikal. (the Russians call Lake Baikal simply "Baikal" and often even the Siberian Sea) Although I have been to the Siberian Sea many times privately and as a tour guide, Lake Baikal has not lost any of its magic.
Why does Lake Baikal inspire so many people?
Lake Baikal fascinates every visitor in a different way. Some people look at the lake for hours and let themselves be drawn into another world by its play of colors, vastness and tranquility.
Others are impressed by the rich endemic fauna, such as the Baikal seals or the famous salmon-like omul, one of the lake's more than 60 species of fish. Others are overwhelmed by the sheer size of Baikal. With a length of 670 km and a width of 80 km, Lake Baikal is called the "Siberian Sea" by the locals for a reason. Since the lake is also up to 1.700 m deep, it contains about 20 % of the world's fresh water reserves. So Lake Baikal is really a lake of superlatives.
How cold does it get at Lake Baikal in winter??
Although the Siberian Sea is magically attractive, most people in this country can hardly imagine a trip to Siberia in winter for themselves. The ideas of bitterly cold, icy and hostile snowy landscapes are too strong in the mind. Although the picture may be true for some regions of Siberia in certain seasons, it is certainly not true for Lake Baikal. Even though in the depths of winter the temperatures can drop below 20 degrees Celsius, not at the times when we organize our winter trips. These usually take place from the end of February to the end of March. At this time the temperatures on Olkhon Island, where we do our walks, are usually in the single-digit minus range. During the day it can also have plus degrees. As the humidity is low, the cold feels much more pleasant than at the same temperatures in this country. Should the lake show its rough, stormy side during a hike, you can look forward to a hot, Russian banya, which awaits you in the family-run guesthouse.
At night you are well accommodated in this cozy, warm accommodation with sanitary facilities of simple, European standard anyway.
The sun shines in winter at Lake Baikal?
Due to its geographical position, there are long-lasting high pressure areas, which bring a lot of sunshine to our hiking region.
Olkhon Island has an average of 310 days of sunshine per year and can easily compete with some Mediterranean resorts. So in our Baikal travel season you can definitely count on sunshine. The sun then makes the ice of the frozen lake glisten in paradisiacal colors. Often there is also a beautiful distant view over the vastness of the lake.
But Baikal can also show its rough, stormy side and should never be underestimated. Apart from weather, what is different in a winter trip than in summer??
What is special about a winter trip to Lake Baikal??
The biggest difference to a trip in summer is surely that Lake Baikal is frozen over. This offers travelers special opportunities to experience the lake from completely different perspectives. So you can walk on the ice and explore the shore of Olkhon Island from the lake. Fascinating ice caves and caverns with bizarre ice stalactites can be discovered there. Often the harbor of the small island together with the ships lying there are covered by a thick layer of ice, which reminds of insects embalmed in synthetic resin. It is also possible to take longer hikes on the ice, but how does the ice look like on the frozen Lake Baikal??
What is the shape of the ice on the frozen Lake Baikal?
The ice of Baikal can take completely different shapes, colors and forms. It depends mainly on weather and wind during the time of freezing over. The lake does not freeze over in one piece, but layers of ice or even small icebergs form, which can then break open again and pile up on top of each other. If it is stormy during the freeze-up, small icebergs form in some places and ice sheets form in other corners. These are reminiscent of the back plates of the stegosaur and are difficult to overcome. Many parts of the ice are smooth as glass and can be skated over, while others are covered with snow that gives a good grip. A special highlight are air bubbles frozen in the ice. These can be found in many places of the lake in very different shapes and sizes and, depending on the light conditions, also in different colors. To experience all this you have to venture far out on the ice, but it is not dangerous?
How dangerous is it to hike on the ice of Lake Baikal??
"No one should challenge Baikal" the locals warn with much respect and reverence for their lake. Not unfounded, because every year accidents happen. Whole trucks or cars sink into the lake and people collapse. Even if the lake has a very solid, load-bearing ice cover with an average of 80 cm to over 1.20 m, there are also large ice holes and meter-wide gullies that are completely open or only covered by a very thin layer of ice. These are caused on the one hand by hot springs at the bottom of the lake, on the other hand by the permanent working of the ice. The ice is under permanent pressure due to different influences, which leads to loud, banging noises every now and then, when ice layers shift jerkily against each other. While these can be scary, they are usually completely harmless. Open water holes and gullies and other critical spots are usually easy for hikers to spot. Most accidents happen to non-local, careless or drunk drivers.
If you pay attention to a few things, you can make good hikes on the ice, but what should you pay attention to??
What to watch out for when hiking on the ice?
Where the dangerous spots are on the ice is best learned from locals who are out on the ice. Here, besides our tour guides, especially ice fishermen or professional drivers know their stuff. However, when I led my first winter trip on Lake Baikal, all the locals I asked had categorically advised me against a longer hike to the mainland. Nevertheless, we were driven by a local driver to the edge of a barrier consisting of a gully and small icebergs, which was insurmountable for the bus. The missing 3-4 kilometers to the mainland and the ca. 13 km back we hiked. The driver was extremely uncomfortable with our plan and his possible involvement in it. He left us with a heavy heart with good advice and a harpoon to check the thickness of the ice, which he gave us. We have completed the routes safely and since then they are an optional part of our trips in good weather. However, many travelers shorten the hike by taking the driver back to just before the home shore.
In addition to the tips of the locals and the careful observation of the ice with regard to the thickness of the ice over frozen water holes or gullies, the weather is of central importance. It can be extremely uncomfortable to get caught in a snowstorm on the open ice. Longer hikes over the ice should be limited to days with stable, good weather. As a third point it is important to estimate your own condition correctly and to plan always with conditional reserves. The last important point is the right equipment. But what do you need for a winter hike on the ice?
What equipment is needed for hiking on the ice of Lake Baikal?
Warm and windproof clothes will surely not be forgotten by anyone. But sunglasses are also necessary and an emergency ration of food, such as granola bars and a thermos bottle with hot tea should be in the backpack. There is no shelter or seating on the lake unless you happen to meet a fisherman with a hut on skids. Therefore it is practical to take a seat cushion with you. Since the ice of the lake is very different in texture, you would also need different footwear. Very few people have skates or cross-country skis at their disposal. For the slippery passages of the ice you should take spikes, which can be strapped under your hiking boots. A longer walking stick, preferably with an iron tip, is important to check the thickness of the ice at critical points. Last but not least you should always have a first aid kit with a blanket and a cell phone.
But if you already have to keep so many things in mind when hiking, where do cars drive on the ice?
Are there really roads on the ice of Lake Baikal and how is the right of way regulated??
There is indeed car traffic and even real roads on the ice. However, local drivers know many routes beyond the official roads on which they can drive without hesitation. But you also know the critical passages and know that where it was safe to ski yesterday, it can be dangerous today.
The few officially designated roads over the ice look different from roads in the countryside. Although there are even traffic signs, the roads are usually 100 to 150 meters wide in one direction of travel, because the braking distance of the vehicles varies greatly depending on their weight and type of tire. This is how the ice skaters on Lake Baikal get out of their way and keep huge distances from each other.
With an experienced local driver you can make safe tours on the ice. We use this possibility on our trips to be able to use the different areas around Olkhon Island and on the island as a starting point for small hikes.
Desire to see Lake Baikal in winter?
To experience Lake Baikal in winter and to be active on the ice and on land is a unique experience. Can you imagine / Can you imagine now also such journey? Or do you / have you still concerns or questions. I am happy to receive feedback.