Whenever I consider the prospect of venturing out into a Russian winter, a conversation with a Yekaterinburg historian invariably comes to mind: “There are two Russias” he said; “Russia in the winter and in the summer. You won’t know Russia until you have seen both.” I can’t argue with that, nor would I try.
I get the feeling that there’s not a lot of point in discussing the latter Russia with folks here in the West. They’ll just look shocked at the prospect of me venturing there and mention something involving “freezing”, “dangerous” and other words to that effect. Yes, it will be THAT conversation again. Anyway, as I’ve mentioned previously: there is much to do in the cold; so much in fact that a whole sector of the Russian/Siberian tourist industry is built around it. Here are a couple of the treats on offer.
Assuming that you are not completely a cat person; then frankly what could be better than blasting across a brilliant, gleaming landscape under the bleached winter sun, propelled only by a team of excited canines who are having an absolute whale of a time? It’s going to be physically demanding, naturally; so we all have to be sensible about our capabilities. There is considerable flexibility on offer though, in order to fit a wide demographic of enthusiasts.
For the seriously hardcore; there are packages available that take up an entire week, with frequent sled runs across frozen land and river that can exceed 20 Km (approx.12.5 miles) at a time, with overnight stays in hotels, guest houses and even log cabins along the way. There’s essential training for safety and sled handling, setting up and checking the dog team, snowmobile (or other) support and even some ‘free’ time; driving the sled on your own. It’s the equivalent of taking the stabilisers off your bicycle and is done in an open area under the watchful eye of your temporary, surrogate, Siberian parents. (No they don’t just wave you off as you disappear into the distance).
If you are only dipping a frosty toe into the wintery outdoors then the other extreme is essentially a day-trip with a few hours of sledding time, after some essential preparatory work/training. This option is for those who just want to tick the box as “done” and move on to other activities. Either choice is fine of course. Specifics of a particular trip vary, depending on the sled team employed and the location in which they operate. Incidentally, they should include warm clothing hire as part of the deal. They know what it takes to survive in their version of “cold”, you (probably) don’t.
“One Russian motto is that ‘there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes’, and you’ll want to take that logic onboard.”
It’s something of an understatement though, because wearing “bad clothes” in a Siberian winter is easily fatal.
In researching this article, it quickly became apparent that the range of winter activities is broad and diverse, more so than we may immediately assume (never assume). A winter break is certainly not a ‘second best’ option if you can’t go in summer, though it’s all down to personal preference of course. Let’s look at another snowy pursuit.
Visiting frozen Baikal
Lake Baikal is one of the treasures of Siberia, with it’s own lunar tide, weather system and even it’s own unique wildlife. That’s over 1500 species of animals and in excess of 1000 varieties of plants, incidentally; with a surface area of 31,700 Sq, KM – roughly equivalent to Belgium. The quality of access to the Lake varies according to the time of year and the your point of ingress. Depending upon where you depart from; you may have a choice between iced-up tarmac or iced-up gravel and probably some semi-offroading (by our standards) into the bargain.
The drive doesn’t end there of course: how does a wheeled trek across the glassy ice to the frozen-in, sacred island of Olkhon sound? Pretty otherworldly, I think you’ll agree. The island is rich in locations of great importance to local (Buryat) Shamans and their followers who participate in rituals there throughout the year. Excursions around the the frozen lake are a must, if only to gaze open mouthed at the amazing frosted scenery, the ice formations, the white and distant mountains, the encroaching taiga forest and through the clear, window-like lake surface to the black depths beneath you. Most of the ice-bound excursions will feature initial conveyance via a relatively “serious” 4WD vehicle, driven by an experienced guide. Such driving is a skill in itself, -especially across a frozen lake whose surface may be deformed by large, jutting outcrops of compressed, buckling ice, and worse (?).
Away from the immediate natural wonders there are also inhabited, shoreline settlements to visit, where warm, local hospitality may be sampled to satisfaction, along with extended treks by foot around Baikal’s glazed, rocky coast. Frankly, it all sounds amazing!