Focus on...Lake Baikal, Russia
Ice in it's purest form.
Lake Baikal February 2019.
I have wanted to visit Lake Baikal in the winter ever since I saw some stunning photos of a frozen lake with black ice full of cracks and beautiful rock formations in the background. This is a location that is very hard to visit on your own, and therefore, after some online research, I decided to go for a seven-day photo trip organized by Dmitry Arkhapov.
The journey to Lake Baikal is definitely doable but it’s very time consuming. The most common way to get to Lake Baikal is to connect in Moscow to a five-and-a-half-hour domestic flight to Irkutsk, followed by a five-and-a-half-hour trip by road to Khuzir on Olkhon Island, which was our base for the week.
Lake Baikal is located in southern Siberia near the Mongolian border, north of Ulan Baator. It is the largest freshwater lake in the world by volume and is about 635 km long, 79 km wide and more than 1600 m deep. Lake Baikal is a Unesco World Heritage site and is often described as the one of the clearest lakes in the world.
Olkhon Island is the largest in Lake Baikal. It is about 70 km by 20 km and is a nature reserve with only a few small villages, of which Khuzir is the largest. There are no paved roads on Olkhon, and the unpaved roads are very bumpy, sometimes even causing problems for very sturdy Soviet-style minivans.
So, whenever possible, we drove on the ice – more than one metre thick and the main road in the winter – to our shooting locations. Even the ice had some bumpy patches, where ice shelves had broken into smaller pieces and refrozen as one, but it was still much better than driving on land. We only covered small part of this amazing place during this trip.
Khuzir is well known throughout Asia as the location of Shamanka Rock on the Burkhan Cape, which was (is) considered to be one of the nine most sacred places in Asia. This was a centre of shamanism for the indigenous Buryats.
Our accommodations were comfortable, with warm rooms and patchy but free Wi-Fi. The hotel’s restaurant served breakfast following a set menu, and there was an extensive menu for lunch and dinner.
It can be very cold in this part of Siberia–the week before our trip the temperature hovered around -40° centigrade. Fortunately, during our week there it was much ‘warmer’, at around -15° early in the morning and -4° during the day. Because the air is extremely dry, the cold was very bearable, as long as you clothed yourself properly.
After our arrival in the late afternoon we went for a quick shoot at our first location. There were quite a few Chinese tourists around, but after sunset they disappeared, and we had the place to ourselves to shoot the beautiful orange and pastel colours before darkness set in.
Here I discovered why Dmitry had recommended bringing knee pads, advice I ignored, which I paid dearly for. Kneeling on the uneven ice in the ice cave was like kneeling on sharp bare rocks, but was the only way to get a decent photo in this location, so with clenched teeth I persisted.
Everyday we went out the morning and afternoon to get the best possible light. Some of the locations were only a couple of minutes away from the hotel; others we reached after more than an hour, but they were so diverse and unique that they were well worth the drive.
The condition of the ice sheet varies considerably due to the influence of the wind and differences in temperature. In some places the ice is completely transparent with very large photogenic cracks.
In others, the ice sheet is covered by large shards of thin, transparent ice.
Other features good for shooting are the ice roses, which consist of large ice crystals in the shape of flowers, and the small cracks and mini sculptures in the ice that look like abstract drawings. There are also places where gas bubbles are caught in the ice itself–although difficult to shoot, they look amazing.
Ice caves are also found around the coast featuring icicles of every shape and size growing in every direction. Most of the ice caves were created by water spray at the beginning of the winter, when, even though the temperatures were already below zero, the water had not yet frozen. Some of the caves are large enough to accommodate two people at the same time, but others were barely large enough for one person with equipment to crawl into.
We were very lucky with the light conditions during our week at Lake Baikal. We enjoyed some fantastic sunrises and even better sunsets with gorgeous blue hours to match. Even when the afternoon sky was grey and dull, and we didn’t think there was any hope of a bit of colour at sunset, the clouds opened up to reveal epic sunsets.
Lake Baikal should definitely be considered for a winter photography trip as a great alternative to the usual suspects of Iceland, Lofoten, Finland and Greenland. Here you can shoot winter landscapes from a unique perspective–from the ice towards the land, something that’s hard to accomplish in any other location.
All images © 2019 Marco Duyves