So we immediately started to think about where we can go instead. It wasn’t a vocational trip for us, we were supposed to film an episode for our own show for the First Channel, which meant waking up before sunrise to film the break of dawn, that’s 10 takes in a sheer dress on a steep slope and hours of moving on different modes of transportation for a sake of a good shot. But the most important thing is to embrace the culture and history of the place we are visiting. But there is no need for further suspense; we decided to visit the deepest lake in the world – Lake Baikal.
It is located in South-Eastern Russia, and its total length is 600 km. Just imagine how big it is – there are a few countries in Europe that size. We dreamed of taking a trip to Lake Baikal for a long time, but it all happened by a twist of a fate. We asked the local guys from the Bailalika tour agency for help and they quickly came up with an interesting programme for us. We were lucky enough to film frozen Lake Baikal, as we were told, it was only possible to drive over the ice only for 2 months in a year from the mid February to April. It was the most indescribable experience I’ve ever had. But, first things first, we flew to Irkutsk from Moscow overnight, and the most surprising thing was that by flying just 6 hours we crossed 5 time zones. Russia is huge, after all! We were warned that it would be cold, Siberia was never famous for its sunny days, but I have to say I’ve never worn more layers of clothing on me in my entire life. What saved us were professional coats for Antarctic expeditions "Arctic Explorer", which are, by the way, made by Ksenia Chilingarova, the daughter of the famous Arthur Chilingarov!
I would like to give a shout out to people who live around Baikal – our guide, drivers, locals whom we met in different villages – they’re all are very simple and genuine people with a special kind of energy. Their simplicity isn’t a sign of naivety; it’s a lifestyle, free of vanity and arrogance. They’re real. I’m grateful that I had a chance to meet them. Alexey Strelyuk, Alexandr Golovin, Grisha, Maria Strelyuk, Anastasia, Tanya Zvyagina.
We flew from Irkutsk on a helicopter to the starting point of our journey - the Ogoy Island, where a stupa was constructed in 2005. Its official name is Stupa of Enlightenment. While we’re on the topic of religion, it would be good to mention that Buddhism, Christianity and Shamanism co-exist peacefully near Baikal. By the way, from the bird’s view the island looks like a dancing goddess Dakini (Buddhists, unlike Hindu, call all their goddesses Dakini).
Because there was not enough space for the whole team on the helicopter, part of us went by car. It took them 5 hours to get to the island! The island is 6 km in length and is famous for the Stupa of Enlightenment.
We spent about an hour there filming in a national buryat costume, which was not suitable for such harsh climate. I was changing in the tourist house without heating, my hands were freezing, to tell the truth, my whole body was chilled to the bone, despite the fact that the crew was near me with hot tea and sleeping bags to keep me warm. At the time we got to the highest point of the island it was unbearably cold (even though the locals said we were lucky, as the weather was quite warm). I looked around and was mesmerized by the wild beauty of nature of Baikal, so untainted and stern, and I was not even feeling cold anymore.
After that we set in our cars (we were very lucky to have our drivers Sasha and Grisha). By the way Sasha was listening to an awesome album during the drive - Paul Lawler (Tibetan Journey) and I highly advice you to listen to it.
We were taken to meet the spirit of Baikal. It was as awesome as it sounds. We were dropped off on the crystal clear ice. By the way in this time of the year the ice covering the lake is about 75 cm thick and it can support the weight of up to 1 ton (at least, that’s what our guides said). So the guys made a small hole in the ice and poured some tincture in it, then topped it with lingonberry, which immediately started to freeze. They told us to drink it and by that please the spirit of Baikal. Even though I don’t drink, I could not resist, that was a tradition. At night we made it to the Olkhon Island, where we spent the next two days.
We woke up early in the morning on the Olkhon Island, and I gave up on the idea of better looking good than warm, and wore literally every piece of clothing I had. We stayed the night at the Khuzhir settlement in the tour base “Baikalov Ostrog”. Just to be on the safe side I took a pack of hot water bottles, however, they were not needed that time. We decided to look for clear ice and just drive around Baikal, feel all of its might. We came closer to Shamanka – a small rock near the Olkhon Island, which is known because of the legends and stories about it. There used to be a cave where only Shamans were allowed. During the Soviet era the entrance of the cave was blocked so that unreligious people couldn’t desecrate it. While filming, we witnessed heavy aura of this place – Murad and I had an argument twice. Coincidence?
Next we started looking for ice, and en route I truly understood the meaning of the phrase “Baikal is a living lake” and that it really has the ability to breath. In winter, as Baikal is frozen, cracks are appearing on its surface; with these cracks Baikal actually “breaths”, but the ice slowly but constantly moves and the are around the cracks could be very dangerous for the tourists and ones on a car. The sound of cracking ice is also one of the most unbelievable things there. Just imagine, kilometers of ice, nature, wind, and the sound of cracking ice. It is not very dangerous, just exciting. Some of the noises sound very similar to laser blasters from the Star Wars.
After that we had unforgettable dinner. We found a harbor, where the wind was not as strong and started cooking right on the ice, put out a fire, prepared Baikal omul, brought pickles and tincture in a shot glass, which was supposed to be smashed after drinking. Let me tell you, that was one of the best dinners I have ever had. And that’s because of several factors: the nature, an unusual atmosphere and a taste of food I had never tried before.
What I would advise you, If you would like to follow our route, you will need a good guide (I would like to share mine – Aleksei Strelyuk www.baikalika.ru), calm harbor and a few warm coats.
Early in the morning we drove our SUV to Baikal to explore our next transportation method – the Khivus or saying simply a boat on an air cushion, because that was the only way to reach “the open seas” of Baikal. We were making our way to Listyavka. Spending the whole day on a boat turned out to be not as boring as it sounded. Your eyes could not get used to the wild beauty of the nature and ice of Baikal.
We stopped at little harbors to look at plants frozen inside of ice, and even decided to fish there, but unfortunately we only lasted for half an hour. On our way we visited a restaurant in the village “Bolshoe Goloustnoe” named “Mikhalych’s” – don’t pay a lot of attention to the name, food in there was very delicious, and the hostess of the place would tell you a lot of stories and myths while you dine. By the evening we were already back, and went to bed earlier, looking forward to the new day. The hotel we’ve stayed at was called “Krestovaya Pad”.
The last day was very eventful. We started our morning driving through nearby woods on snowmobiles. I’ve never dressed warmer in my life. But it appeared that it still was not enough to keep me warm, I was frozen to the core, crying from the wind, but that could not spoil my sensations.
In the afternoon we met with the Siberian Husky and Malamute. There are many catteries with dogs of these breeds. At this point every girl should dreamily sigh, because puppies are the cutest things ever. I’ve spent two hours laying, playing and hugging them, laughing like a child. I really recommend everyone to take a ride on a dogsled around Baikal, it’s pure joy and fun.
And at the evening we had a special surprise - Russian banya with diving into the ice-hole.
Going to Siberia and not paying a visit to a banya is a real crime. First you should blow some steam in the bath, and repeat the process at least 2-3 times, in the spare time between which you can chat to your friends, drink lingonberry tea and just relax. Then the next obligatory procedure is to get a massage with a ‘venik’ (bunch of green birch twigs) and only after that to run outside not to the warm car, but to the ice-hole! Your legs will stick in the snow, your heart will start racing, and there will be one thought in your head – “Why am I doing this?” My advice to you is not to think, but to jump into the water. This is an incomparable experience in which you would experience a whole spectrum of emotions just in seconds. A feeling of entire happiness!
It was a short, totally sobering trip, thanks to which your thoughts and emotional state would come to harmony in only 4-5 days. It was like a breath of fresh air, a clear look, a fascination with nature.