As you experience the euphoria of looking at photos of the amazing winter views of Lake Baikal, lots of ideas will be replaced by a pretty accurate itinerary in your head, and you will probably have a lot of questions about the upcoming trip. So here I am, trying to answer most of the questions that might concern someone who is planning to visit Lake Baikal.
Well, according to my experience, 4-5 days is quite enough. Plan to spend a couple of days at Olkhon Island, explore the local beauties of the Small Sea strait without needing to rush, take pictures of the hummocks and splashes, cracks and ice. It is definitely worth it to just relax: take a steam bath, go ice skating, and explore the surroundings of Listvyanka. If you want to make a loop around Baikal - add a visit to Buryatia to your trip, look at the Barguzinsky and Chivyrkuisky bays, and then fly from Ulan-Ude back to your home or return to Irkutsk.
The ideal time to visit Baikal in winter is between late February and mid-March. During this time the ice roads are open and it is much easier to get to many places there. This is the sunniest time in the winter months and the weather should mostly be fine. But no one will guarantee you open spaces with clear ice. If there is a lot of snow, the Baikal ice will be covered with snow, and it will be quite difficult to see transparent ice that is as smooth as a mirror.
In some places, there’s absolutely no coverage. In Listvyanka all mobile operators work reasonably well. But, the deeper you travel into the forest, the quieter your phone will get. Beeline, for example, works very poorly in all remote places, especially in Buryatia. In Ust-Barguzin, my operator switched to Megaphone (without my request) and charged me money for roaming from a competitor. MTS works the best of them all in that region.
The time difference between Moscow and Irkutsk is +5 hours. When it’s midnight in the capital of Russia, it’s five in the morning in Irkutsk. One's body reacts immediately upon arrival. And if you don’t want to miss having all the great impressions during your trip, my advice is: do not go on a trip immediately upon arrival. Arrive a day earlier, have a good night's sleep, take a melatonin pill before sleeping, and your biorhythms will quickly rebuild.
Theoretically, when the roads are open, yes you can. But keep in mind that in a huge white space it is easy to get lost; only locals are good at navigating Baikal. They also know how dangerous dead cracks can be, and how and where to park offshore - many coastal zones are washed out by underwater currents. The only official road is 11 km long and it is managed by the Ministry of Emergencies. It is located in the Olkhon district and leads from the Gulf of Kurkut to the Irkutsk Bay. Volunteers try to mark dangerous ice tracks with sticks and pine trees, but they cannot guarantee safety - the ice can break, and the road can be covered with snow. Do not drive up to any objects lying on the ice, like boards or logs - these may be signals of danger. It is better to rent a car with a driver and move around on a Khivus (hovercraft). Just remember, there are no safe roads on ice. It is strictly forbidden to drive up to the edge of a crack with open water or try to cross it without examining the opposite edge.
Take everything you need according to your prescriptions. Also bring painkillers, cold and sinus and cough relief pills, and an antidiarrheal drug. Buy self-heating insoles and gloves. You will need wet wipes and a few packs of paper tissues. Hygienic lipstick will be very useful there, take two: one in your jacket and the other in your backpack.
For a winter trip to Lake Baikal you will need some serious gear. It should protect you from both the cold, strong winds (they blow pretty often) and the bad weather. Ski pants and a waterproof jacket - a parka (maybe even a fur-lined parka). You will need thermal underwear, cotton underwear, knitted warm socks, pyjamas and warm boots for hiking on the ice (fur boots are the most comfortable shoes). Be sure to take two hats: a fur hat and a fleece one for sunny weather. A down vest will help to insulate you on very cold days. A sweater with a high neck and a fleece jacket are very useful. You will need a warm scarf that you can wrap around your face. Gloves and mittens. You will need a swimsuit for the sauna and for swimming in an ice hole and in the hot springs. Flip flops will be needed - in some places you can’t count on hotel slippers. Be sure to take sunglasses.
The hotel service on Baikal is quite "special", as in many other regions of Russia though, in case you compare it with international standards. Just don’t have any great expectations of the accommodations there. There will be a bed, clean linen, and a private bathroom in the room. It can get quite cold in the houses or rooms, even if there is no severe frost outside. There are usually not hairdryers available, you need to either take one with you or look for one in very unusual places, for example, one day I discovered hairdryers in the dining room at the breakfast area. There are not bath accessories provided in any of the accommodations - you have to bring your own shower gels and shampoos. In some places, they often offer just one hand towel, for some reason. Bring a large fleece camping towel with you. Please, don’t expect any help with carrying your bags anywhere, unless the driver provides such a service. You will have to carry your own luggage up the stairs and along the off-roads.
Mostly omul fish. It's a joke, of course. But the farther you get from civilization, the less tasty the food gets. Only in guest houses can you count on home cooking. Sometimes it will be delicious (especially if it will be "posy" - Buryat manti), other times not at all. Most likely there will be pretty simple breakfasts everywhere. For lunch - omul fish soup, probably fried fish with buckwheat as a second course and a compote drink. The worst part of this trip is the terrible coffee. Everywhere I went I was offered only instant coffee. Ideally, you need to throw a decent amount of your favorite snacks and sweets into a suitcase, or buy what you need in stores. But keep in mind that in rural shops there is a very small choice. You cannot find high-quality alcohol there either. Fans of spicy foods should bring their favorite spices.
The first thing is - do not go out on the ice alone. And even if you go out with someone else, do not check the strength of the ice with your feet - don’t peck the ice with your boot or jump on frozen water. You need to be especially careful after a snowfall - under the snow there may be cracks and ice holes, or something worse - dead cracks. If the ice suddenly begins to crack underneath you, do not panic and keep yourself in control. Gently lie down on the ice and roll away from there.
It is important to focus on the situation and keep your energy. Call for help if there are people nearby. Gently crawl onto the ice with your arms wide apart. Put your foot on the ice and climb out. Keep trying until you succeed. Once you are out of the water, crawl away, roll over, and then immediately remove all your clothing and wring it out. Then put it back on again. Run to the nearest village or any other people that you see. Call an ambulance.
Immediately call a rescue team, if you see that a person is in trouble. While they get there, try to help. You must act with extreme caution. Lie down on the ice, and try to hand the person a stick or any object (a hook, a board, a ladder, a rope with a loop at the ends, tightly tied up scarves or belts, a thick branch) from a distance of 3-4 meters, so that the person can grab a hold of it. Verbally support the person who fell, encourage them. After a person is saved, take off all their clothes, wring them out, and give them some of your clothing. If possible, immediately make a fire and try to warm the victim, pour them hot tea. If a person has signs of frostbite on their body - the skin has turned pale and they have lost sensitivity in some parts of their body, gently rub the area with your hand. Never rub frostbitten skin with snow. If a person has fever or drowsiness, take them to the hospital as soon as possible - these are signs of freezing.
The Four Seasons of Russia project is supported by the Russian geographical society www.rgo.ru
A visit to winter Baikal is recommended by the Russian geographical society.
Also read about Baikal:
How I Met a Shaman at Olkhon: What Spirits of Ancestors Explain
Baikal: Winter trip. Part 1. Listvyanka. Taltsy
Baikal: Winter trip. Part 2. Olkhon Island, Ogoy Island.
Baikal: Winter trip. Part 3. Buryatia
How I spent the night in a tent on the ice of Lake Baikal
Lake Baikal: What do we know about it?
Ivolginsky datsan: A cloister that gives happiness
Kamchatka: Life-hacks and tips
Translation: Irina Romanova, Instagram: @astrabella1