RUSSIA: Winter in Siberia

I am not the mountaineer or wilderness survivalist or that I wish I was, instead I visit distant locations by carefully planning my trips there, keeping those adventures on a pretty safe and comfortable level.


Places deemed too far for most travelers are the places deeply appealing to me, I like to go to where I have the least idea about what to expect.  I’ve lived my entire life on the West Coast of the United States, in cities where it doesn’t even snow.  Winter landscapes are therefore quite romantic to me; frozen lakes, bare trees.  Russia is already a country too culturally and geographically distant in the mind of most Americans, so the dead of winter in the middle of Siberia sounds to me like a dream destination.  This region is where the world's deepest, most voluminous lake, Lake Baikal is located.  In winter Lake Baikal freezes entirely over, making it quite the sight to see.

I am drawn to distant places...

My friend Alex and I had originally planned to take a variation of the Trans-Siberian railway journey from Beijing, through Mongolia and onwards to Ulan-Ude and Irkutsk in Siberia.  We changed our plans when we learned of the extremely poor air quality in winter in Beijing and Mongolia’s capital city.  These cities burn coal to keep their buildings warm in winter, and as a result there is a thick cloud of pollution that hangs in the air all winter long.  Rather than risk a respiratory infection, we decided to fly to Irkutsk directly, and along the way got to spend a 24-hour layover in Vladivostok on Russia’s pacific coast (I love it when long layovers give me just enough time to explore another place I’d wanted to visit anyway).  



I had no idea what Siberia's largest city would be like.  I imagined old Russian women in fur coats and smoke rising from chimneys of old wooden houses, a scene from another century.  It turns out that Irkutsk is an actual city with a population of half a million people, and it is sometimes called “The Paris of Siberia”.  Siberia only has a few cities, so maybe it doesn’t take much to earn the title as the region’s “Paris”, but Irkutsk was certainly a combination of charming, historic, and surprisingly modern and metropolitan too.  

Most of these photos are medium format film, which didn't develop quite as expected after exposure to extreme cold, and many x-ray machines along the trip.

Out and around the city of Irkutsk.

Out and around the city of Irkutsk.

Stepping out on the streets of Irkutsk I was greeting with the coldest temperatures I had ever experienced, which at first was only -5°F .  Things would get much colder before they got warmer, and I was both excited and nervous to be in these sub-freezing temperatures… would I get frostbite? Was the burning sensation in my throat and lungs a problem?  The women in Siberia were bundled up in fur like it was going out of style, but fur is always in style in Siberia… and the stylish women of Irkutsk paired their fur coats with giant fur hats, bare legs, and stiletto boots.  Meanwhile there I was wearing layers and layers of wool and down, several pant layers, Sorel boots, and a face mask to keep my boogers from freezing…  not the least bit stylish.


The road to Olkhon Island


From Irkutsk we had an all inclusive adventure booked that would take us many hours away to Olkhon Island on Lake Baikal where we would spend several days exploring the world’s largest frozen lake. The landscapes along the drive were otherworldly, however our driver insisted on putting the pedal to the metal and often had us flying at speeds of 140 km/hr.  When I wasn’t watching the speedometer, I was watching the outside temperature, and it had dropped to -20°F.  I had never witnessed snow at these temperatures, it behaves like a fine dust, almost like powdered sugar.  It was never warm enough for the snow to melt and stick to the roads, and the slight breeze had the snowflakes dancing on the roadway in this mesmerizing way.   I felt quite vulnerable in our speeding box of warmth… what if we skid off the road and were left to fend for ourselves out in that cold, in the middle of nowhere in Siberia? We probably wouldn’t last an hour.

Sights along the highway; sleeping towns, frozen farms and empty bus stops.

Sights along the highway; sleeping towns, frozen farms and empty bus stops.

I was surprised and relieved when the highway brought us to signs of living civilization; a gas station and a roadside cafe.  You wouldn’t think that we were in -20°F, because even in this cold there was a gas station attendant whose job it is to work outside shoveling snow and pumping gas, as if it wasn't a single degree below freezing.

Siberian lunch; borsch, plov (pilaf), local Lake Baikal smoked fish, and soup dumplings

After a warm-up in the cafe and a delicious local meal, we continued racing down the white dusted highway until we arrived at the edge of the lake.  We didn’t immediately realize that we had come to the lake, because the crystal clear ice we were expecting to see had been covered with a blanket of snow.  The sight was stunning nonetheless, and we took the first opportunity to walk out on the lake where we saw dusted white chunks of ice and boats stuck in the ice for the winter.


My first steps on Lake Baikal...

I couldn't tell where the beach ended and the ice began.

We finally arrived to the ferry port to Olkhon Island, but in place of the ferry there was a hovercraft that would take us to the island.  Later in the winter when the ice is thicker, it is possible to drive your own car to the island, but in January the ice is not safe enough to drive very far out, so a hovercraft shuttled us across to where a driver was waiting for us on the other end to continue to journey.

Hovercraft transport to Olkhon Island

Hovercraft transport to Olkhon Island