A Guide To Crossing Lake Baikal
Lake Baikal, Russia: a place of mystery and beauty. A place where stories from the depths of history mix with recent tales of shadowy goings on. And adventurers who dare to cross Lake Baikal get to hear them all. Here’s a record of my Lake Baikal crossing. It’s a story you must read. Take your time, I’ll be here.
And you’re back!
No doubt you have some images in mind and you want to know more. Which is good. Consider this guide to crossing Lake Baikal yours. Grab yourself a warm drink and settle in. Make notes, live inside the images you’ll see and, most of all, enjoy the read.
The Start Point: Money
Funding a ski to the South Pole will cost you $60,000+! That’s a lot of money. It’s more than some people earn in a couple of years. You’ll need about £5k to fund the cost of crossing Lake Baikal. This is a lot of money but is less expensive than a major polar expedition.
This figure covers:
- Flights, transport, hotels and visas.
- Polar-rated equipment and clothing.
- A bottle of champagne (because you’re going to complete this trip of a lifetime).
- Admin charges (see below).
I recommend using a tour company to navigate the interesting Russian bureaucracy. You will save money.
Most expensive is the equipment. Buying all your own gear can cost a few thousand. Renting skiing/hiking gear isn’t very cost-effective. I leave this choice to you, though many expedition companies may well include equipment in the cost. Here is a polar clothing list of things you will need. Take a reserve of cash – a few hundred Euros will be fine.
A quick note: Euros are the preferred currency in Irkutsk. Up north, in Severobaikalsk and Nizhneangarsk, you’ll need Rubles.
Training to Cross Lake Baikal
Let’s assume you’ve decided to cross Lake Baikal. There are many ants to herd. Stamped on the back of the first is the word ‘training’. You need to train hard. Create a combined cardiovascular/strength training programme. Or check out this rucking training plan which prepares you for endurance events. Some people will tell you that moving over ice is easy. And it is. But only when you prepare your body and mind.
Here’s a snippet of my training plan:
Monday – AM 5 mile run PM 1 hour upper body strength training
Tuesday – AM 8 mile run PM 1 hour upper body strength training
Wednesday – rest
Thursday – AM Lower body strength training
Friday – Rest
Saturday – Long run, 10+ miles
Sunday – Rest/recovery bike ride
You don’t need to be super fit, but the more endurance and strength you have the easier you’ll find the trip.
Getting To The Start Point
Now your journey gets interesting! If you’re heading south to north, you will start on the edge of the lake, near Kultuk. Before starting the 400 mile trip up Baikal spend a few days in Irkutsk. Rest, prepare your gear and take a look around the city. In some ways, it’s a beautiful place. Beautiful churches dot the city and the war memorials reveal huge Russian pride.
Even the rundown parts of Irkutsk hold a fascinating appeal. Explore. Explore like your life depends on the very essence of discovery, and take thousands of photos! The key point about getting to Irkutsk is: there are no direct flights in from major airports. First hop on a plane to Moscow. Enjoy about 5 hours in the city, waiting for your connecting flight. Spend another 4 hours on a plane to Irkutsk, then rest for a couple of days.
Once you’ve explored the city and recovered from your flight, head to the edge of the lake. Another 2-hour journey.
For explorers travelling north to south, you first need to get to Nizhneangarsk. There is an airport at this most northern town on the lake’s shores. But flights are irregular and getting a seat is like winning the lottery! Which is good news, because you’d rather travel on the mythical Trans Siberian Express. Trust me and make this 36 hour train journey.
We’ll cover the Trans Siberian Express details soon.
The Starting Pistol: Crossing Lake Baikal
Well done! You’ve reached the start point, now you’re standing on the shore of Baikal. Behind you is the city of Kultuk, in front of a sheet of white laid overall you can see. At the edge of the frozen surface, families play. Young children shout and chatter. Russian words hard-edged even in those high-pitched voices. Behind you, the guide pauses to wave you off.
You take a step. Then another.
Cold air burrows through your layers of clothing. An hour passes and the chill still touches the tips of your fingers, your nose.
To your left is the original route of the Trans Siberian Express leading to Kultuk. Still used, but only as a service line and for irregular journeys. If you’re lucky, you might see one or two trains on this line in the next two weeks.
Because 14 days is a good time for crossing Lake Baikal.
The trek will be hard. And strange. And cold.
Striped to base layers, or ultra-lightweight hiking gear, you’ll feel the warmth of the winter sun. Other times the Siberian gales will punch you. You’ll stagger and curse.
Every moment will be a pleasure, even when the cold bites deep and ravages your body like this:
This small injury might not seem like much, but it hurt like Hell.
Wildlife will appear on fringes of the lake and you’ll forget those cold wounds. Did you see that loose pack of wolves dancing in the gloom and the sun moved on? Yes, you did.
And they didn’t eat you. They don’t, because mischief makers painted those myths of death by a large canine.
So, the wolves pass by and, at the end of every day, you pitch the tent. Your fingers will hurt. The night will grow cold in a way that seems impossible for most people.
Supplies transferred from your pulka to your tent, the outside world hidden by a single tug of the zip, you cook.
But not quite yet. For some time, you’ll lie in your sleeping bag listening to the boom and groan of shifting ice plates. The entire lake shudders. Don’t worry. You wake up in the morning and those sounds are now a dream. Then you eat breakfast, pack your gear and move again. It’s cycle you repeat for 10 hours per day. Until you finish the crossing. And you’ll take many photos on your journey. You MUST take hundreds of photos. How else will you be able to convey the beauty of this place?
Ending Your Baikal Expedition
The beginning of the end comes as a vague shape. Coated in ice, the pier at Nizhneangarsk is the traditional end of a Baikal crossing.
For a short time, you pitch your tent and wait for pickup. You wolf down remnants of your trail rations (chocolate, nuts, snack bars – all the good stuff). Your body needs all those calories.
Your burning hunger quenched, you wait. After a short time, a truck will arrive. One of the ‘fixers’ colleagues will greet you with a smile and a handshake. There will be congratulations. You deserve it. 400 miles is a long way to travel on foot.
Minutes later, your gear loaded on the truck, you head into the city and to a hotel room booked before you set off. Here you can shower, dress in warm, clean clothes, then call friends and family.
The crossing is complete.
Your journey is almost done.
The Ride Home
You can fly. But why would you? Nizhneangarsk has a train station. It’s one of the stopping points for the Trans Siberian Express.
Catch the train. Enjoy 36 hours of doing nothing but eating, sleeping and the views of the Russian wilderness. Do it! If nothing else, your body will need recuperation time. The train stops at Irkutsk where your guide will meet you. You’ll head to a hotel, spend a night sleeping more hours than you could ever imagine. When morning comes, your guide will take you to the airport.
You’ll say farewell. Of course, it’s not farewell – you’re hooked, you’ll be back.
This time you fly. Breathe in the air. Notice how different it feels? Can you feel the clutter of life as you shift through the airport?
These thoughts will be with you. Then familiar faces will appear.
The people who love and care for you throw their arms around you. You are home. But your Lake Baikal crossing is only the start.
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