We rolled out of Irkutsk several hours ago in a small, comfortable van. Kilometers of snow-covered pine forests meld together monotonously before our eyes, but the voyage is pleasant in the company of our driver Nikolai and his partner. They are enthusiastic about taking us on this tour of Baikal, as it also offers them a chance to escape the city. After a turn that marks the end of the asphalt road, we start our descent into a valley where the landscape of taiga is replaced by fields of snow. Our guides, pointing toward the bottom of the valley, exclaim “Baikal! Baikal!”
The lake is a vast, white expanse, because the ice is covered by a thin layer of snow. Only the presence of a boat, stuck in the ice, betrays the fact that we are actually driving across the lake. Long poles mark the way. There are even speed limit signs frozen in the ice. This time of year, cars, motorcycles and trucks all use the ice to get from one place to another, even preferring it to roads around the island. For several months, the lake becomes solid ground, and the island is demoted to mainland.
We drive some distance over the snow before Nikolai kills the engine. We exit the van into a vast icy plain where the snow has been swept away by the wind. Finally: the legendary ice of Baikal.
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Nikita Bencharov's Estate on Olkhon Island
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