Traveler’s Tale: Siberia’s Baikal Ice Marathon and Other Adventures on a Frozen Lake Baikal
Willis Hughes, a MIR Tour Specialist, has traveled extensively across Russia, the South Caucasus, Turkey, and Ukraine. This winter journey was his first trip to Siberia’s Lake Baikal, and he made good use of the time, skating, riding snowmobiles and driving a dog sled on the Baikal ice.
We caught up with him back in Seattle to ask him how it went.
Where did you first hear of Lake Baikal?
I grew up in Lake Tahoe, where some locals consider the two bodies of water to be sisters. The now defunct Tahoe-Baikal Institute introduced many Nevadans and Californians to the Cyrillic alphabet with their popular stickers – Сохрани Тахо Чистым (Keep Tahoe Clean/Pure). However, in recent years my interest in Baikal centered on one event: the (BIM).
How did you hear about the Baikal Ice Marathon?
I first heard of BIM in 2012 when a Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty article characterized the event as a thrilling challenge that brought contestants closer to the beauty and culture of Baikal. For a runner with an interest in Russia, the marathon seemed too good to be true. I began to mark the race date on my calendar each year, hoping for the opportunity to compete.
This chance finally came in 2017, shortly after I started at MIR. Although I was only able to get on the waitlist for the race, MIR’s man in Irkutsk, Vladimir Kvashnin, worked through the race and trip details with me and helped me prep for my first visit to Siberia.
I remain grateful that Vlad, in addition to helping me plan the trip, was also able to be my guide – his knowledge of the region’s culture and history is encyclopedic, and his passion for the destination is infectious. He really helped make this a remarkable and memorable experience for me.
Tell me about your itinerary. What were the highlights?
Our itinerary was fairly straightforward, with the exception of the marathon and whether I would be able to run.
Day 1 – drive to Olkhon, visiting cultural and religious spots along the way. Picnic on the frozen lake and, if possible, do a bit of skating on Baikal’s famed ice road.
Day 2 – explore Shaman Cape on Olkhon Island, drive a dog sled, and then hustle to Listvyanka (on the Baikal shore) for overnight.
Day 3 – snowmobile to the start line and then, hopefully, run in the Baikal Ice Marathon. If not, follow the race on snowmobiles and look for a clear patch for more skating. After the marathon, return to Irkutsk for a bit of relaxation.
Day 4 – take a quick city tour of Irkutsk and visit Baikal’s ethnographic museum. In the evening, enjoy a final meal in Irkutsk before boarding a late night flight.
Did you get to go on Baikal’s frozen highway?
I did, on the way to Olkhon Island.
Approaching the start of Baikal’s frozen highway in an SUV can be forbidding. The small resort houses that line the road are empty and shuttered. Human activity is minimal and those who are out and about do not look thrilled to be there. Signs warn of where cracks have appeared in the ice and about the importance of staying on the cleared path.
Things change once you distance yourself from the shore. Nearby cliffs and islands are decorated with massive icicles that defy gravity. Snow blankets the lake in a light layer of white that amplifies the blue and black hues across the ice. Everything is quiet, as the wind drowns much of the noise from the limited amount of traffic on the road. The setting was serene and spectacular, which helped to erase my concerns as we sped along the frozen surface of the world’s deepest lake.
Tell us about your picnic on Baikal and toasting lesson.
We laid our picnic, a bounty of sandwiches, pickles, tea, and the inevitable Russian beverage, vodka, on the hood of our vehicle after finding shelter from the wind behind a small island covered by snow and ice.
Once we had a bit of food in our stomachs, Vlad decided it was time to teach me the proper ritual for toasting on Baikal. Vodka in general should not be drunk without a toast. Debates rage over the proper order, but for visitors, a common first toast can be something simple, such as za nashei vstrechi – to our meeting.
In the Baikal area, these practices are merged together with local traditions and beliefs. Revelers pay their respects to the spirits of the lake by dipping the tip of their finger into their drink and dabbing a bit of the beverage on their table. If the toast takes place outside, a drinker is expected to shake a few droplets to the four corners of their surroundings prior to their toast and consumption of their drink.
Our toast was short and sweet: Za Baikala (to Baikal)! Za nashei vstrechi! The vodka brought much needed warmth to my extremities and allowed me to fully enjoy the rest of our picnic. Dessert was a thermos of scalding Russian black tea, spiced generously with sugar, which helped to further insulate us from the cold.
I hear you went skating on the Baikal ice?
Absolutely – it was the highlight of my trip!
Vlad pulled over to the side of the ice road, and gave me a series of simple directions.
See where those people are? That is Shaman Rock. I will meet you there.
I did not need any additional encouragement. I laced up my skates and took a few long strides to stretch my legs after years of waiting for just such an opportunity.
Besides being fascinated with the Baikal Ice Marathon, one activity I greatly anticipated was the opportunity to skate on Lake Baikal. I grew up playing hockey and always loved skating. On the rare occasions when the temperature plummeted in Tahoe, I did all I could to get outside and onto the ice. If I was going to visit Baikal, I was bringing my skates.
The ice was smooth, but not pristine – cracks marred the surface on occasion and the snow cover varied wildly. With each stride, I was able to increase my speed and raise my body temperature enough to add a bit more blood flow to my extremities. There were no crowds; I had the road to myself. With each stride, my smile and affection for Lake Baikal grew.
All told, I spent about an hour skating on the Frozen Highway and taking a few ridiculous photos in front of Shaman Rock. It was easily one of the best experiences I have had while traveling, and certainly one of my most memorable moments in Russia!
What did you think of Olkhon’s Shaman Rock?
I understand why it is one of Lake Baikal’s most recognizable landmarks. Locals treasure the sight as the home of Azhin, the lord of Baikal, and even today show the location great respect. Vehicles are not allowed within two hundred yards of the area, and shamans regularly perform cleansing rituals and special ceremonies near the rock throughout the year.
The rock itself is impressive. Its outcroppings and crags are a unique composition of marble, quartz, and granite, all of which seem to absorb the color of their surroundings. In various lights, Shaman Rock displays hues of burnt orange and dusty beige, both of which are magnified by the reflections from the frozen green and blue waves that cover its base. From the ice, the sacred spot towers over the cape and shelters its shore from the wind, but the view from above places the sacred spot alone in front of the breadth of Baikal.
Photos really do not do this place justice. Shaman Rock is stunning.
What was your favorite Siberian food?
Sagudai. Without question.
Sagudai is a simple, but dangerously delicious dish. Slices of partially frozen fish are thawed in a light amount of sautéed butter and mixed together with fresh onion and garlic slices. My first experience tasting this treat was at the Baikal View Hotel, just a short drive from Shaman Cape. Plates are regularly served as an appetizer or an entrée, and Russian and Buryat locals recognize the dish as one of the region’s finest.
If the main ingredients, muskan or omul, two breeds of white fish endemic to Lake Baikal, were available elsewhere on the planet, this Siberian specialty would be an international culinary marvel.
Did you get to go dog sledding?
I did, and the experience helped me to understand why our clients rave about it: the dogs are hilariously entertaining and impressive.
We met a local sled dog owner a few miles down the shore from Shaman Rock. We were introduced to the dogs and then given a few brief pointers: hold on to this (the tether) and make sure the brakes stay on the sleigh. The pooches were eager to get going, so we did not delay.
For the first half of our jaunt, I rode on the sled and held tightly to the reigns. The dogs required little encouragement or guidance, and they pulled us from the shore to the main road with surprising speed. There was not a cloud in the sky, so even though I was seated in the open air, the sun managed to keep me nice and toasty.
When we encountered other travelers on our way, the dogs displayed a mischievous commitment to maintaining their course and forcing on-lookers to step aside. Parents who were focused on snapping the perfect shot of their child in front of the sled were forced to abandon this attempt as the dogs pushed forward with reckless abandon.
My turn at the helm was equally enjoyable, even if my feet managed to slip off the skis from time to time and slow us down. Shouting, “mush,” did nothing, but a quick “Yip! Yip! Yip!” managed to get me a burst of extra speed right before we decided to finish for the day. The pooches were tired, but happy, and I showed my appreciation by playing with all of them before heading to Listvyanka.
How was Race Day? Did you run?
No, unfortunately. We didn’t receive word from BIM’s organizers while on Olkhon, so I was pessimistic about my chances as race day approached. In an attempt to brighten my spirits, Vlad made a show of wrapping my ice skates in black, snow-resistant trash bags and strapping them to the back of our sled, just in case we found a patch of clear ice along the way.
Excluding a few brave ice fishermen, we were the only people out on the lake the morning of the marathon. A thick layer of fog kept the sun from visibly rising, and the temperature was well below freezing. We were among the first to arrive at the starting line. We parked our snowmobiles off to the side and set off to explore a bit before the race began.
Something I hadn’t realized was that the marathon coincided with the 100th anniversary of the establishment of Russia’s national park system. To mark its centenary, the Russian government declared 2017 the Year of Ecology and Protected Areas.
Due to BIM’s high profile status, the Russian parks system took full advantage of the event to promote its centennial and to show support for the race’s cause. Anniversary banners surrounded the staging area and volunteers passed out buttons with the national park system’s logo. When racers began to arrive via hovercraft, the organization’s director gave a speech wishing the runners well and discussing the important work of his association.
When the race was finally ready to began, I was among the crowd of spectators, rather than competitors, as about twenty minutes before the start we had received confirmation that no spaces were available. I was disappointed, but I still felt lucky to be able to see some of the race in person.
The weather was absolutely perfect. The fog had cleared to bathe the course in brilliant sunlight and there was a light breeze to keep the competitors and spectators from overheating. The temperature remained cold, but everyone, runners, volunteers, and fans alike, was buzzing with excitement.
Once the gun sounded and the racers were off at a steady pace for 26.2 miles on the ice, we returned to our snowmobiles and set a course for the lake’s center. Upon arrival we were welcomed with zakuski (snacks) and vodka. Some of our greeters were organizers of the race. They commiserated with me that I had been unable to run that day, but reassured me I was not alone – many others were left on the waitlist as well.
Having toasted the spirits of the lake and thanked our hosts, we continued along the course in hopes of finding a clear path for skating. This proved more difficult than anticipated – snow cover was inconsistent on the ice, but still much thicker than what we experienced near Olkhon.
When we did find a spot to skate, drifts of snow appeared in my path without warning and caused me to fall spectacularly on several occasions. The experience was ridiculous, but honestly quite fun – it’s not every day that you get to belly flop into a mound of fresh snow while skating on Lake Baikal!
Would you recommend that others visit Siberia in the winter?
Yes! Although I was not able to run in the Baikal Ice Marathon, I was extremely pleased with all I was able to do while in Siberia. I met Vlad and other local people, all of whom impressed me with their hospitality, kindness, and congeniality. I skated on the frozen lake and explored sacred Olkhon Island.
The day after the race, I toured Irkutsk and the outdoor ethnographic museum, an expansive collection of authentic Russian houses and community buildings from the 17th to the 20th century.
I sampled a significant portion of the local cuisine, experienced a bit of the region’s famed cold, and saw just how spectacularly beautiful the lake looks in winter.
March 7, 2018, the date for next year’s race, is already circled on my calendar.
Travel to Siberia with MIR, in Winter
MIR is your Siberia travel expert – with more than 30 years of travel experience to Russia and with affiliate offices in Ulan Ude and Irkutsk (both in Siberia), as well as in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
MIR’s full service, dedication, commitment to quality, and destination expertise have twice earned us a place on National Geographic Adventure’s list of “Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth.”
Why end might winter in Siberia with MIR on these itineraries:
- Siberian Winter Escapade
- The Trans-Siberian Winter Wonder Land Route – Eastbound and Westbound
- Essential Siberia– travel at on your own dates, pace and interests on a handcrafted private tour
Want to travel independently?
30 years of travel expertise means that the specialists at MIR know how to get there, what to do while you’re there, and how to enhance your trip in each of our destinations. For more information about what to know before you go, check out MIR’s insider’s guide into travel to Siberia’s Lake Baikal and Buryatia Region.
Top photo: Cross it off the Bucket List: Willis Hughes skates on Lake Baikal in Siberia. Photo: Vlad Kvashnin
PUBLISHED: October 18, 2017