Drive Across the Deepest Lake in the World

Lake Baikal is so big it makes its own horizon, one not always visible in winter when the snow and clouds can blend with the lake’s ice, eliminating all perspective from the landscape.

But what hope is there for proportion on a lake that holds 20 percent of the world’s (unfrozen) freshwater supply?

Never mind how hard it is to see anything through all the layers of clothing you’ll need to endure winter temperatures that regularly hit 15°F (-9°C)—and well below!

But winter is when you can travel Lake Baikal’s ice on a horse-drawn sleigh, hooves sure-footed and mouths steaming like trains, and best enjoy the mineral hot springs that dot parts of the lakeshore. Or you could take a hovercraft over the ice or drive out in an ice truck, with the heater on high.

Dinner comes out of holes drilled deep through the ice—often as clear as a magnifying glass—as fishermen pull up some of the lake’s grayling or omul, a kind of salmon.

And this is Russia, so the vodka flows easily, a useful medicine against the cold.

Dark comes early to the winter lake—reason enough to wear those ten layers of clothes. Or do as the locals do—have a couple more drinks and a long stay in a traditional banya steam house.

Lake Baikal is on the western edge of the Republic of Buryatia in Siberia, and for the local Buryats, the New Year celebration, Sagaalgan, is reason enough to be on the lake in the dead of winter.

Held in February, it’s the perfect time to visit relatives and consume curds, cream, sheep cheese, the alcoholic kurunga—white foods to mirror the white land.

Then it’s time to throw old clothes into a bonfire at Ivolginsky Datsan, the sacred Buddhist temple located here; the flames burn away sins. Not that another cup of kurunga would ever be called a sin.

How to get there: The lake is easily reached by flying into Ulan-Ude, or taking the Trans-Siberian Railway.

This article originally appeared in the National Geographic book Four Seasons of Travel.

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