Siberia’s Frozen Nothingness

Siberia – that word in itself sends a cold shrill down my spine. Known for being probably the world’s bleakest, inhabited, vast land of frozen nothingness. As I type this out, sitting in a train enroute to Mongolia, I look out of the window and see the frozen Lake Bikal – an expansive large white mass with distant snow covered mountains.

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Pro loves trains and ever since watching the movie Trans Siberian, he had wanted to do the world’s longest train journey. Something about whizzing past a vast land area with nothing, doing shots of vodka with strangers that don’t speak the same language appealed to him. So it made it to our bucket list.

The first big pre trip decision we had to make was whether to do the train journey in winter or in summer. Do we brave the sub zero temperatures (remember its always +30 degrees where we come from) or go in sunny summer when we can perhaps stay out for extended periods without the risk of frost bite. In the end, the decision was simple – we had to see Siberia the way we had heard it. The way my mum described it written in Doctor Zhivago, the way the movie Transsiberian showed it, the way we expected it to be when we walked into a cold room with a centrally controlled air con and said “jeez this feels like Siberia”. So winter it was.

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Close to midnight on a cold winter day, we hopped on Trans Siberian Train #4 from Moscow. Read all the logistical details about our trip here.

After settling into our cabin which looked straight out of a Wes Anderson movie (Thanks T for the apt reference) we journeyed through the center of Russia for 4 not so long days.

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I had expected to be bored, so my kindle was equipped with 6 new books, I was armed with my laptop to write and of course had my camera to snap every passing scene. But to my surprise the days on the train were pleasantly eventful. Time just whizzed past in us playing house – preparing our meals, tidying up, washing and cleaning dishes; making friends – having that occasional vodka shot with strangers, befriending the conductors who fed us with freshly made momos (YUM!); getting layered up to jump off the train in -20 degree weather when it make a couple of short stops each day.

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Siberia was pretty much exactly how we expected it to be – a vast landscape covered with snow, dotted with a few evergreens. With each passing day the landscape changed. We woke up to a misty mornings where everything was pretty much…white. The scene outside our windows seemed to be in the inspiration for Monet’s Magpie. As the hours passed and the winter sun rose, blue skies framed the landscape and the powdery snow glittered. The sun dipped early making everything almost monochrome in the early evening and after that, pitch black.

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Four days of gentle rocking on the train stopped when we got to Irkutsk, on the shores of Lake Bikal the world’s largest fresh water lake. It was half the size (without exaggeration) of Sri Lanka! Imagine that.

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This was the perfect place to finally experience the real Siberia, after seeing it outside our window for days. It was half past 7 when we jumped off the train, but it was still very dark and foggy in Irkutsk. We got off to a snow covered platform lit by 19th century lamp posts and watched our train engulfed in the mist, while the conductors were herding the moving passengers.

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From here we drove off to the complete wilderness of Siberia – Olkhon Island, in the middle of Lake Bikal. Given its geographical positioning, Olkhon was thankfully isolated from most of civilisation that had creeped in on Siberia. And given the extreme winter weather, we had the place almost to ourselves and the 1000+ locals who lived on the island. Olkhon was a mystical place of significance to the Shaman believers.

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But for us, the magic was in the lake. Around the island, the water is so pure that when it freezes in winter, the frozen lake is completely transparent. Imagine that you are standing on a glass on top of a 1500m depth – thats the feeling you get standing on the frozen Lake Bikal. The water is frozen solid for a good 2m and is completely strong. So much so that the only way in to the island from the mainland is to drive above the ice.

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At first I didn’t get this – I’ve seen frozen lakes before that resembled skating rinks and were white as snow (yes yes, because of the snow). But Bikal was different – partly because of how pure the water was and also because of the micro climate on the island, as cold as it got (way past -20) it doesn’t snow much! All of this made the lake so magically (and a tad bit scarily) transparent. Yes its all a bit confusing and hard to imagine, but look at these pictures..

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For the most part I was half expecting some white walkers and the ice breathing dragon Viserion to just come by. This landscape looked eerily like something north of the wall. Or maybe they had just been here and hence this scenery.

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We spent as much time on the ice as our tropical loving bodies would allow it. Peeping through the ice to see if we can spot any fish below the frozen surface (spoiler alert: we didn’t, we did however see the rock clad bottom of the lake it some shallow places), playing a game of ice foot ball (or ice foot block), exploring ice caves and munching on icicles (yes, Pro did do that).

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While the lake is for the most part frozen and safe to trod on, some parts, particularly whats known as the “big sea” can be a bit dangerous. The lake freezes in parts starting from the top. As the still liquid waves keep rippling up, massive slabs and blocks of ice forms one on top of the other. Some of these were about 10ft tall! This can also then create cracks and crevices in the ice curving along for a few kilometres!

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When we got to the “Big Sea”, Anatoli our driver sped right over the ice touching 100kmph and came to a screeching halt next to an area with massive and beautiful blue ice slabs (think colour of the White Walkers eyes) and a long crack.

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We jumped off the jeep and while I was capturing the breathtaking aqua blue scenery, Pro started playing with the ice slabs. Seeing that there was a thin layer of water on top of the long crevice surrounded by ice blocks, his curiosity got the better of him and he started throwing smaller blocks in an attempt to make a splash.

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Thats when we heard a heart wrenching sharp, thunderous crack sound emitting from the lake! At first I thought it was thunder, then I realised it was the ice, and the floor beneath me was vibrating ever so slightly. I wasn’t sure if I should run for my life, and if so in which direction or if I should cling on to the largest ice block I could find or just let my fate be decided by the great Shaman powers who possessed the lake. In the end I think I froze (no pun intended) while watching a mammoth ice plate move and change its resting position.

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As we rushed back to the jeep (to get the hell outta there) Anatoli was calm and implored for us to stay longer on the ice (no way in hell.) and as he did this, he told us the story of how his brother died when the frozen lake gave way and opened up, right here on the big see and pointed to a grave site on top of a mountain (was he for real?!) While we thought we escaped a near death experience, here he was calmly telling us of his loss, one that happened in a very similar situation to what we thought was unfolding then and there.

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In the end we of course made it out to live another day, enjoy the reflection of the setting sun on the legendary Lake Bikal ice and to later sit beside a warm fireplace eating honey cake.

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It was a good reminder that the lake specifically and mother nature in general was precious and jaw droopingly beautiful, but it needs to be handled with care.

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The Surreal Landscapes that Make Up Bolivia

We had to squeeze Bolivia into our South America itinerary, just because we were fascinated by the magical landscapes of Salar de Uyuni, but we soon discovered that there was so much more to this land locked South American nation than the world’s largest salt flat.

To start right from the top, we had a nail biting journey from Cusco (in Peru) to Uyuni. First the flight from Peru to Bolivia was delayed due to bad weather. They told us “the airport was shut” but it seemed like many other flights were landing and taking off. The flight we were on seemingly wasn’t able to manage the cloudy skies. So we waited and waited, with tempers soaring because we were likely going to miss our connection. We spoke to everyone we could, ground staff, security and even the flying staff later when we finally boarded. We had to make that connection or we were*^($@^.

Long story short we finally took off and landed in La Paz, midway point to get to Uyuni and our entry to Bolivia. More drama! We rushed to get to the front of the queue at immigration, begging and smiling at people and we made it. The visa officers of course took their own cool time. We were then asked to pay the visa fee in Boliviano (?!??!) sorry what? We just landed and haven’t even entered the country! Oh no problem, why don’t you go in and change some money. Err what? You are letting us enter the country with no stamp? Yup go ahead. Are you in a rush to get you luggage? Why don’t some of you go wait at the luggage carousel. Sure! Why not!!! Coolest immigration guy. ever. Of course if we were terrorists (like most countries think we are when they see our passports) we could have blown the airport to kingdom come. But we weren’t. We then ran one by one to get our next flight. Poor Sandi almost died running back and forth to help us with our luggage. La Paz is at an elevation of almost 3700m, us island folk can simply walk and pass out, let alone run multiple times with luggage! Some ladies even offered oxygen seeing that Sandi was nearly dying. But all was well, we made our flight (which was also delayed!!), Sandi remained conscious.

It was all worth it once we got to Uyuni.

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We all cramped up into one jeep and set off on a ride of our lives with Elvis our guide & Carlos our driver. Most people come here just to see the salt flats, but the area around it is as stunning! Given that we were late we drove straight to Villamar and spent the night there. It was a long long long drive, but the spectacular scenery and the amazing sunset which set the desert on fire made it more than bearable.

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The best thing about Uyuni was its ever changing landscape, one minute you were passing through dry dessert land, the next it was lush & green, you’ll then come across colourful mineral lakes, hot springs and geysers, all in one drive. Stunning.

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We drove through dramatic landscapes and came across a hot spring. And a nice pool to go with it. Of course we took a dip until we felt boiled by the water and roasted by the sun.

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Pro lost his hiking boots here, but that’s a sad story we don’t talk about. Key learning: don’t forget your belongings. 15 minutes later when we came back, the shoes were gone.

Our next stop was the most spectacular of the all, the red lagoon. I read some tours that have this as optional or charge extra to see this, make sure you do, because it really was the highlight. Like the name suggests the lagoon water was red and it was adorned with hundreds of flamboyant flamingos. Together with the green grassed shore and herds of llamas, the colour combination was mind blowing!

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I fell in love with llamas. They were the cutest creatures ever. Shy & cute! The locals jazz their ears with colourful wooly thread, llama earrings that only increased their charm. Such bohemian creatures, they fit so perfectly with the rest of the breathtaking landscape.

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We just passed through so many incredible sights, stopping to take pictures and breathing in Mother Nature’s creativity. We saw the stone tree, a geyser, the black lagoon before we called it a day.

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We were so impressed by Bolivia and we hadn’t even see Salar de Uyuni yet! But we did, read that here.

I’ve never been to such a tremendously diverse place that made me feel so keenly aware that I am on a weird floating space rock, just like those alien planets in sci fi movies. Huge red deserts with black rocks, thick green bushy grass, growing in porcupine shapes, mammoth boulders appearing in the middle of nowhere, fiery sunsets – all set against dazzling blue skies painted with dramatic clouds. It just doesn’t get better…

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As always, before I end, here are some useful things you need to know

  1. We actually found it quite a challenge to find a good tour operator. Most people didn’t respond to our emails, the others charged ridiculous amounts or had bad reviews. The one we finally picked, the only one who seemed reliable was La Torre Tours. We highly recommend Elvis & Carlos, who really took care of us.

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  2. You are bound to get altitude sickness. Unless you are a mountain goat or you are from high altitudes, be prepared. We weren’t and we suffered as a result – horrible headaches and nausea. Lovely Carlos gave me a pill, which may or may not have worked. But it’s a horrible feeling to have. We went from 3600m to about 4500m above sea level in one day. That’s a lot and your body will tell you.

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  3. We were a group of 6 plus the driver & guide. We managed to squeeze into one jeep. It’s not ideal, but it can be done, if we had used two, the cost would have doubled!

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  4. Most drivers do not speak English, so you are better off getting a guide. Not because there is a lot to explain in the surroundings, but you are literally in the middle of nowhere with zero facilities, you never know what might happen. So unless you speak Spanish, get a guide.
  5. Don’t expect luxury, you are in a ridiculously remote area. Meals and accommodation will be basic and expect to go to the loo in the wild. We stayed the night at Mallku Cueva, highly overpriced, but had all the basic necessities and was clean! They also provided food. If you are a vegetarian, you are going to suffer, as poor Lavi did. At one point she was eating boiled rice and boiled potatoes!! So I suggest you bring something from home. I don’t usually advice that when traveling, but in this case its about basic survival.

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  6. Be ready for things to go wrong. You are in a part of the world that thrives on chaos, so don’t expect things to be on time or for things to work perfectly. Just enjoy the ride, look out the window and let your jaw drop!

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