Siberian Spring: Back to Baikal

Besides killer bragging rights and a sense of masochistic pride, one of the great parts of Siberian winter is the ability to go outside in your pajamas (a total no-no in Russia, completely нельзя) without anyone knowing or judging you, thanks to your layers of pukhavik and snow pants (until you publically admit it on the internet, that is). But by far the best thing about living through a Siberian winter is the onset of Siberian spring. Officially, in Russia, spring doesn’t begin until March first. But for the Buryats, spring traditionally starts with Sagaalgan—and, having survived the coldest Siberian winter in decades, I’ll take spring as soon as I can get it.

Well, folks, “spring” is here, and words simply cannot convey the glorious relief and joy that this spring brings. While the winds are roaring and nights and mornings are still quite brutal, we now have daytime highs that reach positive Fahrenheit temperatures! It’s snowing more than ever, the birds are singing, the sun is shining (not that it ever stopped), my breath is only just visible clouding around my head, people are milling around on the streets, and the smell of spring is in the air. I even took off my hat for the first time in months, just to see what it’s like. And it was glorious! Just as nothing compares to the harsh brutality of a Siberian winter, nothing can compare to the ecstatic hope and good feelings of the beginning of Siberian spring.

It's beginning to look a lot like springtime...

It’s beginning to look a lot like springtime…

In honor of spring, I decided to take a trip to Lake Baikal with a friend—to marvel at its frozen winter splendor. This was no small feat. It was actually quite difficult to pull off. Despite being one of the world’s biggest, most beautiful lakes, the “pearl of Siberia,” one of Russia’s greatest treasures, Baikal’s tourism infrastructure is surprisingly underdeveloped (at least on this side of the lake). Please note that this is NOT me trying to whine and complain: the hassle and confusion is half the adventure, and I wouldn’t have it any other way; plus the complete inaccessibility just adds to Baikal’s natural charm. It’s both a blessing and a curse.

Even with excellent command of both English and Russian at my disposure, all of my meticulous internet searching failed to yield any useful information on how to get to Baikal from Ulan-Ude. At best, any information I found was incomplete, unofficial, and contradictory. In the end, if I hadn’t asked a friend how to get there, I never would have made it. Baikal, like the Isla de Muerta, is a place that cannot be found except by those who already know where it is. Once I knew what village I should go to and where to buy a bus ticket, it was “just” a matter of going to the Avtovokzal to check the bus schedule and buy tickets (this took two trips and a great deal of wandering helplessly lost around in sketchy, run-down areas along the riverside).

Like many of life’s greatest adventures, this one began at the ugliest hour in the early morning. After an uneventful two-hour bus ride, the jostle of Russia’s notorious roads masked by excitement and anticipation, my friend and I were dumped smack-dab in the middle of a dinky Russian village. Welcome to Goryachinsk—named for some hot springs, home of one of Siberia’s oldest sanitariums, situated right on the shore of Lake Baikal, population 3,000. Baikal was nowhere in sight, and we hadn’t a clue where to go from there. You’d think it’d be hard to miss. But you’d be wrong. After a while of aimless wandering through the village, we found ourselves on the outskirts of town on a snowy lane. And there we spotted the smallest, dingiest, sketchiest sign on which someone had painted the word “Baikal,” pointing into the woods. With nothing to lose, we plunged through the snow bank and took our wandering to the forest.

Looks legit.

Looks legit.

A kilometer later, just as we were beginning to second-guess our assumption that the path must lead somewhere—there it was: Lake Baikal, in all its frozen glory.

Just beyond the holy tree!

Just beyond the holy tree!

It was a stunning winter wasteland, a veritable snow desert. We could just as easily have been playing on the icy plains of Antarctica or the North Pole. Pocahontas once told me that you can’t step in the same river twice, so it doesn’t surprise me that Baikal, too, is always changing. Each of my visits has been a unique experience, from the glowering gray of Baikal’s October evening, to the glistening blue of a Baikal fall day, to the steaming black Baikal of December, to the completely frozen-over Baikal of winter, hidden under two meters of ice and God-knows-how-much snow.

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We strolled along the “shore,” hopped down onto the frozen lake surface, carved our names and made snow angels on Baikal, explored ice caves, walked out far onto Baikal’s tundra, and dug through the snow to the layer of ice, which was—as promised—so clear I could see the bottom of the lake. I lay down on Baikal and watched the brightest clearest blue sky. I hugged the lake and basked in its energy and aura, in no way muted by the feet of ice and snow.

Standing on the world's deepest lake

Standing on the world’s deepest lake

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Baikal Stonehenge?

Baikal Stonehenge?

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Yes, I am INSIDE lake Baikal.

Yes, I am INSIDE lake Baikal.

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The journey back home was rough. After missing not one, but two buses (luckily, I can’t really complain about having to spend an extra five hours staring at Lake Baikal), we finally got seats on the last bus of the evening. I was tired after a long day, my neck was inexplicably and acutely sore, and my bladder was uncomfortably full—and the three-hour bus ride was just painful. The highway from Baikal to Ulan-Ude (read: between Siberia’s greatest tourist attraction and one of Siberia’s larger cities) is half paved and, like much of Russia, has never seen the likes of a shovel or a snowplow or road salt. Counter-intuitively, the closer to the city you get, the worse the road becomes. It was essentially a pain in the neck that lasted three hours—which was, on the plus side, long enough for at least two Eminem songs to come on the radio.

Sitting at the very back of the bus, staring in wide-eyed terror and pain through the windshield at the dark road illuminated in the bus’s headlights, I felt exactly how my character on Mario Kart must feel: jarred and jerked, constantly swerving in vain attempts to stay on the road and avoid tortoise shells and banana peels, only to be laid flat by a stray cow (for the record: I only ever hit stray cows in Mario Kart, not on Russian roads). And need I remind you that no Russian has ever worn a seat belt ever? I think Russia invented YOLO.

Classic Russian "Garage"

Classic Russian “Garage”

But I made it back to Ulan-Ude safe and sound—and feeling very, very much alive, thanks to both the energizing powers of Baikal and the perpetual adrenaline rush that is Russia.

About Arielle

I am a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Ulan-Ude at the Buryat State Agricultural Academy.
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