After another day on train, which pretty much merged into the former three, we reached our stop in Irkutsk. Minus nine degrees celcius, not too shabby for 5am in the morning. The capital of Siberia, Irkutsk is the nearest city to Lake Baikal, the Pearl of Siberia.
Baikal is the world's deepest lake (1637m) and getting deeper every year as the rifting tectonic plates that formed it, gradually separate. Eventually it will become the earth's fifth ocean, splitting the Asian continent. Today it contains nearly one fifth of the world's fresh, unfrozen water - more than the Great Lakes combined. In January the lake freezes, such that during February and March the ice averages 1m in thickness, and cars can drive across it.
After sleeping the morning through at the hotel, our guide Sasha (no Pasha yet) met us and took us for some sightseeing. Listvyanka, the closest lakeside village to Irkutsk, is a small beautiful winter wonderland, pretty sleepy in winter, but by all accounts the playground of the nouveau riche Moscovites in summer. We first stopped at the oddly interesting “Taltsy” museum village which has a collection of old wooden Siberian houses, generously dipped, like everything else, in perfect powdery snow. Much more impressive, however, were the impressive views from a ski chairlift to the highest point in the town (the slope had all of about 20 skiers and snowboarders) and the Baikal aquarium which is home to two nerpa seals.
As the sun began to fall, we headed to our final stop of the day, the Baikal Dog Sledding Centre. Eight working dogs took us on a crazy ride through the Taiga - amazing, but of course not without some drama. Half way into our ride, we took a sharp turn up a bank of snow and Casey was catapulted off the sledge in a fashion that would make most stunt men jealous. Sadly I did not catch the moment on camera for laughing too much.
Yesterday another snowday filled with excitement: a snow mobiling safari through the Taiga forest and across the ice of Baikal with local guide Daniel. Of course, ten minutes in and Casey was already off the snowmobile. Since Daniel and I didn't actually see the incident unfold he claims he didn't fall, but will admit to ramming into a bank of snow. Luckily Daniel was on hand to heave it out of the snow. It can't of been more than an hour later when we reached the steepest and most difficult section of the trail. The instruction was clear. Maintain a constant speed uphill because if you slow down you will get stuck. So off we go, Daniel setting the pace, me, maintaing the pace, and Casey, after some jibe about my snowmobiling speed and ability, nowhere to be seen. We reach the top, and five minutes pass and still no sign. Daniel made preparations for the worse. Armed with a gps, phone, ropes, and a bag of other essentials, he powered back down the hill to rescue grandpa Casey. He claims, again, he didn't fall, but got stuck, so took the opportunity, while I was panicking up the top that he was laying half dead in the forest, for a cigarette break.
After a morning through the forest trails we stopped for lunch in a wooden house, before speeding out where the forested land met the lake edge and then onto the ice itself. A sight beyond words. We covered more than 60 fun filled kilometres with some of the most amazing scenery imaginable. Craziest of all was standing out on the metre thick ice, looking down, way down, into the deepest body of fresh water on earth.