Cycling The Siberian Winter

April 28, 2015

Lake Baikal

To go on this tour, I had to survive 90h of confinement to a small room. Luckily it was not solitary confinement; no, instead I had the good company of several dozen Russians, none of which spoke any English, which did not diminish the merry attempts at communication with this curious stranger in their lands. They were a jolly bunch and very welcoming too, in our shared coffin-spaced beds on board this rattling prison. Truth be told, it was not that bad, but it was a very long ride on a very slow train from Moscow to Irkutsk, a town in the center of Siberia near lake Baikal.

Lake Baikal is a lake of superlatives. It’s the world’s largest lake by volume, the world’s deepest lake, clearest and oldest lake. It also holds about 20% of the world’s surface fresh water, so in short it’s a pretty big thing. I’ll keep the boring background information to a minimum, but if you are inclined to read up on it, all the juicy details are just a click away: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake_Baikal

The best part about this lake is, that it’s frozen solid in winter. The Russian winter is a little bit harsher than in most other areas of this world and with -25° Celsius at day and down to -50° Celsius at night, it’s truly not for the faint of heart. Few people travel on the lake, fewer still do it by bicycle. One can assume that it attracts only those that would otherwise be found on the Iditarod sled race or Yukon Arctic Ultra marathon. In fact, Lake Baikal has it’s own version of these, the Siberian Black Ice Race.

But I did not go there for any record attempts, racing or competitions. I’m just a tourist, who happens to like trying out new things, learning new skills and test new equipment. For this, the area is an immense playground; I couldn’t have asked for better. I recently got a new bike, a Carver Transalpin, a full suspension MTB and fitting frame bags by Apidura. An unusual choice for a touring bike since fitting a luggage rack or panniers is difficult on fullies. I did manage this trick by using a Thule Pack ‘n Pedal, although only for the winter stretch of my tour. I’m on a much larger trip and will get rid of both rack and pannier bags after crossing Siberia, but let’s shift the focus back to the lake.

The Challenges

My original plan was to cross lake Baikal from Irkutsk to Ulan Ude. The city of Irkutsk is actually over 100km away from the shore, offering two options of getting to the lake: Either following the river to the village of Port Baikal or taking the road to Sulyianka on the south-western end of the lake. Since this year was an usually mild winter in Siberia, at least for Russians, with temperatures only dropping to -15° Celsius at day and -25° at night near the lake area, I was faced with a problem: It was not cold enough. The river was moving, the bay around Port Baikal was unfrozen, the ice on the lake thinner than usual. It just froze over in the center a week before I arrived. I talked to the local rescue forces, who advised me against my route, out of fear of breaking through the ice; a grave danger indeed. The ice on the lake shifts, similar to tectonic plates, with fault lines being either crunched up with ice piling up, or being dragged slightly apart. These stretches proved treacherous, I did in fact manage once to break through with one leg while taking pictures. The result was a boot covered in ice and the need to change socks.

 

Speaking of socks: Doing sports and camping in temperatures as low as these forces you to learn a few new tricks. Which is perfect, since that is exactly the reason why I came here. One of these tricks is the use of vapor barriers, thin layers of waterproof clothing. Which, surprise, are worn inside, next to your base layer. A usual setup consists of four layers: A comfortable base layer; in my case merino wool. A vapor barrier; in my case a windbreaker and waterproof socks. An insulation layer, thick fleece, down, wool, you name it; I was using thick merino wool socks and fleece shirts. Finally, the water/windproof outer layer, a hardshell; I was using ski clothing. The outer layer keeps the elements away from you, the insulation traps the heat, the vapor barrier keeps sweat away from your insulation and the base layer keeps you comfy.

Otherwise you sweat into your clothing. Which is bad, because it freezes. And it won’t dry at temperatures lower than in your deep freezer. Every day your clothing and camping gear would get heavier with ice. For this you use this fancy vapor barrier, which can be anything from a plastic bag to designated VP clothing.

Other issues I faced that these low temperatures brought with them are a reduced or non-existing battery life; lithium ion batteries stop working under -22°, gas stoves stop working at -7°, gasoline for fuel stoves gets sluggish after around -30°, tire and shock air pressure changes drastically, food and water is frozen; and handling your equipment with two layers of gloves takes a lot longer than usually.

 

Why You Should Ride Here

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. It was awesome. I was in awe of the landscape surrounding me, the frozen desert of ice and snow. I’ve seen pictures of Lake Baikal in summer, a vast ocean with green hills, now reduced to an endless white flat, reminding me of my ride across the Salar de Uyuni, a salt flat/lake in Bolivia. The main difference was that crunchy sound of extremely dry snow below my spiked tires, for the ice was covered in hand width of snow.

Heaven for every fat bike owner, you hear me? Got ever here! The country is vast and ready to be explored by bike, the people are friendly and prices low. In fact I was couchsurfing (note: couchsurfing is a website offering a free accommodation exchange between travelers) with a Russian family in both Irkutsk and Sulyianka, going on a two-day hike into the mountains to a meteorological station with them.

I did not get to ride the route I picked out, limiting my forays onto the lake to only Kultuk bay in the south-western tip. I shot pictures left and right, glad for the almost still air and good visibility, but while taking pictures of a fault line I broke through the ice. No large damage done, only one boot and lower leg went under, but a shock nonetheless. It made clear that the warnings about a ‘mild’ winter and thin ice were not exaggerated. If I’d reacted a little bit slower or broken off a slightly larger piece of ice or lost my balance… I might not be writing these lines.

After that experience, I headed back to the warm home of my Russian hosts, continuing my trip which took me from Germany to Japan. On this note: Best regards from Fukuoka, Japan; may you always have air in your tires and the wind on your side.

 

About the author:

My name is Patrick Martin Schroeder; I’m a German cyclist who has been traveling round the world for 8 years. My goal is to reach every country in the world and so far I’ve cycled about two thirds. I tried six different bikes so far; Everything from full suspension MTB to carbon road bike. Lots of crazy adventures happened on the way; desert crossings, high passes in the mountains, freezing cold winters, boating through jungle rivers and negotiating insane traffic in the world’s biggest cities. You can find out more about my tours on www.worldbicyclist.com or follow me on Facebook or Twitter. I’m far from done and will cycle the Silkroad next, before heading into the Caribbean, hiking the Appalachian trail and crossing Canada next year.