Travels around Siberia in winter
‘’Welcome to Novosibirsk, the local time is 9 AM. The weather is good, minus five degrees’’. This announcement of an Aeroflot flight attendant made me realise Siberia has different standards when it comes to cold weather. It was February 2019, and unusually warm for this part of Russia. Still, the months of frost before my arrival had affected the landscape. My final goal was to drive across a frozen lake Baikal to Olkhon Island with my girlfriend Nicole. But first I would travel by myself, starting with Russia’s third largest city.
Novosibirsk was founded in 1893, and grew rapidly during the soviet era. This explains the soviet architecture that dominates the city centre. Nowadays 1.5 million people life there. I walked to the Opera and Ballet Theatre, the biggest theatre in Russia. After that I went to the Chapel of St. Nicholas, which is supposed to be one of the major landmarks of the city. The Chapel of St Nicholas was built in 1915 on what was at that time considered the centre of Russia. It is a small chapel in the middle of four busy driving lanes. Along the road are mostly dull grey buildings, including an even uglier glass shopping mall. I found it a sad sight. But fortunately I found some nice areas as well. I took a metro to the river side, where I visited a theme park made of ice. I liked the ice sculptures here. And I was impressed by a house that was completely made of ice, its furniture included. Most of the visitors were families with young children, who enjoyed the many ice-slides here.
I left from Novosibirsk’s big blue train station. Its waiting area is decorated by many plants. I had lunch at one of the stalls nearby, when a choir started singing. This was one of Russia’s more pleasant stations. My next destination was Krasnoyarsk.
Stolby National Park
The riverside city of Krasnoyarsk is famous for its nearby national park, called “Stolby National Park”. Stolby is the Russian word for pillars, and refers to the big rock formations scattered across the park. I took a cable car up and started walking. In a couple of hours I encountered only one other visitor. It was a sunny snowy day. The only sounds were my steps in the snow, the wind blowing through the trees, and occasional birds songs and the work of woodpeckers. The route I followed passed the stones, some of them as tall as flats. I climbed two of them, which gave me a view over the hilly forests and other rocks. At sunset I reached what is considered the main entrance of the park. Here I encountered visitors again, who probably got here by car. I took a bus back to the city, and got ready for my train to Irkutsk.
The old Siberian city of Irkutsk is a lot prettier than Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk. It has colorful historic buildings, a lot of them made of wood. I had already seen the historic centre in autumn, and went to museums instead: the “Regional Art Museum Soukatchev” and the “History Museum of the City”. I thought the latter one as odd but nice. Every room had an employee who showed me around the historic artifacts and photos, in Russian. One employee did her part of the tour in French. To my surprise the French speaking employee guided me into a room full of people. A man in uniform stood behind a pulpit, in front of him an audience of mostly Central Asians. He gave the word to a lady with a headscarf, who started reading a statement. The employee explained to me that these people were sworn in as new citizens of the Russian Federation. She insisted I should take a look at the photo collection in this room. I felt a bit awkward being a tourist in the middle of this ceremony, but people didn’t seem to mind.
Baikal, the world's biggest and deepest freshwater lake, was frozen this time of year. My girlfriend Nicole had landed in Irkutsk, and we took a bus to a famous island in the lake called “Olkhon Island”. A ferry wasn’t necessary, since we could drive on ice. We were told the ice on the lake was between half and one meter thick. Apparently this is enough to hold buses, but only half a meter ice between us and a lake with a depth up to 1600 meters still seemed a bit scary. The views were great though, especially when we approached the icy cliffs of the island.
We stayed in the major town of the island, called Khuzhir. It is a quiet, small town with dirt roads. Many buildings here are made of wood, including a school and sports hall. Along the shore, at walking distance from Khuzhir, is Shamanka rock. It is a sacred Shaman site, with prayer flag poles placed nearby.
The next day we joined a tour by minivan to the north point of the island. The van was a grey Soviet-made UAZ, one out of dozens driving on the ice. We drove on the lake with speeds of up to 90 kilometers per hour. We had stops along the shoreline, overlooking the spectacular icy cliffs of the island. The colour of the ice ranged from white to blue. At the second stop our driver showed off a bit, parking our van next to other vans by drifting sideways on the ice. Later our driver made a fire on the lake to make fish soup for everyone. For this he used wood and some fuel from the van. Looking back it wasn’t just the spectacular landscape that made a lasting impression. It was also the ice, strong enough to hold fires and drifting minivans.
Practical advice on traveling here
Finding ice sculptures in Novosibirsk: While visiting in February 2019, I found the ice sculptures along the river near the metro Rechnoy Vokzal (Речной Вокзал). It is a short ride by metro from Lenin Square (Площадь Ленина) in the centre, though you can never be sure whether the sculptures will be built at the same spot in the future. The ice sculptures were part of a theme park, so you need to pay an entrance fee to get in.
Visiting Stolby National Park: The National Park is not far from Krasnoyarsk. I took a taxi to the cable car at Sibirskaya street / Сибирская Улица. From the station at the top I walked to the right towards the park entrance. I then walked eight kilometers down to the main entrance, passing many big rocks. From the main entrance I walked another six kilometers further down to the bus stop, where I took a bus to the city centre. I found the trails and the rocks using maps.me.
Getting from Irkutsk to Khuzhir (Olkhon Island) and joining a tour on Olkhon Island: We booked bus tickets through en.avtovokzal-on-line.ru. We payed using a Russian card, so I can’t confirm whether they accept foreign cards. Staff at our bed and breakfast booked the tour for us. We stayed at B&B Gosti.