A long time ago, photographer and explorer Vijesh Kumar Raju came across a picture of a frozen lake of pristine blue ice, with frozen pearls of trapped air bubbles suspended within. Never in his wildest dreams had he imagined that he would find himself there one day, on a 600 km journey on the ice with nothing but a Russian UAZ Vehicle, a rented bike, and his own two feet.
“I guess a part of growing up is about reaching places where you thought you never could and doing things which you thought you never would,” says Vijesh.
Located in the Southern part of Eastern Siberia, the Irktusk Oblast province of Russia is home to the oldest existing freshwater lake on Earth, dating back to 20-25 million years. The deepest continental body of water in existence, the lake has a maximum depth of 5,315 feet.
The largest freshwater lake by volume, Lake Baikal is an ancient wonder which houses about one-fifth of all the freshwater on the Earth’s surface. The lake remains frozen in a state of timelessness from the months of late January to the end of April. Home to an approximate of 1,800 endemic plant and animal species, the lake lies in a cleft where the Asian subcontinent is literally splitting into two- the beginnings of a future ocean.
The Siberian Baikal region is home to a number of hot mineral springs, produced by natural breaks in the Earth’s crust. This is where Vijesh began his journey, on a quest to reach the hot springs on the shores of his dream destination: the stunning Baikal lake.
Beginning his travels to the island of Okolohon, Vijesh describes his breathtaking first encounter with the ice. “It was pure and crystal clear,” he explains, “It was absolutely surreal to stand on ice for the first time, and I looked as deep as I could into the ice below my feet.”
Once they had arrived on the island, Vijesh and his team set out to watch the sunset over the sacred Shamanka Rock, one of the nine holy places of Asia. It is said that the Shamanic cave is the most spiritually hallowed ground on the lake, where those of shamanistic beliefs would gather in ritualistic practice, to make sacrifices and vows. As the ideals of Tibetan Buddhism began to spread through the Buryat people, a Mongolic people and the largest indigenous group in Siberia, the cave became a holy gathering spot for Buryat Buddhists as well.
The following morning brought with it a taste of adventure on ice. With Russian UAZ vehicles commandeered by self-proclaimed ‘ICE Drivers’, Vijesh set off on a perilous journey driving across the ice, stopping every now and then when the ice below them ran too thin, or a crack became visible.
However, the long journey was more than worth the perils of thin ice. Along the way, Vijesh came across a number of ice-fishing camps, grottoes made from ice, frozen bubbles of trapped air that glistened like ethereal pearls in the sunlight, waves of water frozen in motion, and crystalline ice blocks that towered over 6 feet tall. “There was every form of ice that one could imagine!” he exclaims.
The expedition saw Vijesh and the crew living in weather stations and small, wooden cabins scattered along the Russian Taiga, with Russian Banyas (Saunas) serving as their only respite from the long, cold journey.
“A dip in a hot spring alongside a frozen lake- it’s one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had,” he says.
A One-Man Adventure
After fulfilling his quest to visit the hot springs of Baikal, Vijesh set off upon a rental bike, complete with spiked tires, for a journey cycling upon the ice, which had begun to melt with the arrival of Spring. Cycling for 15km through slushy ice, Vijesh found himself without water and chased by dogs on his journey back to his rooms, where he took a few days of much-needed rest before his next big adventure.
The following adventure saw the photographer hiking the 18km between Listvyanka and Bolshie Koty village, a hike that involved climbing through the ice for over 5 hours. A village of fewer than 100 people, the settlement is inaccessible by road, and can only be accessed via hiking or the daily hydrofoil boat. The little settlement has historical ties with the 1842 gold mining expeditions of the Baikal region and was Vijesh’s final destination on his daring solo-hike.
As he began his journey, Vijesh found himself alone on the trail, with not another soul to be seen on the ice. However, he wasn’t as alone as he might have initially imagined. “During the hike, I heard a loud scream from an ice crack that was close by,” he explains, “It was likely a Baikal Nerpa Seal that was swimming beneath the ice that I was walking on!”
On his arrival to the village, Vijesh found Bolshie Koty to be a silent spectacle, with nary a soul in sight. It was not until he stumbled upon a small wooden hut, where an old woman sold groceries, alternatively using the space as a makeshift café. Vijesh enjoyed a cup of warm tea alongside his newfound friend within the confines of her cozy wooden hut- a welcome respite from the hours of hiking that had brought his journey to its end.
With a final goodbye to the Bolshie Koty village, Vijesh set off on the hydrofoil back to Listvyanka, marking the end of his spectacular expedition into the frozen wonder of Baikal Lake.
Have you ever visited Lake Baikal? Let us know!
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