Lake Baikal –the oldest and deepest freshwater lake in the world is located in the south of Siberia, between Irkutsk to the northwest and the Buryat Republic to the southeast. A region of breathtaking beauty and harsh climate it attracts thousands of visitors from around the world –from those who want a guided tour in relative comfort organized by a travel agency to those who take a backpack and set out on an unforgettable adventure.
Marek Šimíček, a 37-year old fire-fighter falls into the latter category. In March of 2011 he crossed Baikal lake on foot – on a 7-week expedition that entailed a 15 000 long kilometre journey, a fortnight spent on a train and 700 kilometres walking or skating in minus 22 degrees Celsius. He says it took him fifteen years to realize that particular dream.
“I first considered the idea a long time ago –it must have been 1994 or 1995. I was in the library with a friend studying a National Geographic atlas when it occurred to us it would be great to make a trip on foot around Baikal Lake or maybe cross it on foot in the winter. It was just an idea, but I carried it around in my mind for a long time. Then, in 2010, I was watching TV and they reported that two Czechs had crossed the lake on foot – the first Czechs to do so – and I sat there with tears in my eyes thinking - that was my plan, I should have been there. That’s what kicked me into action. I thought if they can do it then so can I.”
So the very next spring –in March when temperatures are mild enough to make the crossing, but the ice is still hard enough to be safe - Marek packed his backpack and set off carrying rations of food for 15 days, a gas cooker, a tent and a compass. He made the journey from the north to the south walking not in the middle of the lake, but about 7 kilometres from its bank so that he was not totally cut off from civilization –occasionally meeting a truck on the ice or coming upon one of the locals ice-fishing. This allowed him to occasionally sleep on land in one of the wooden huts that are there for anyone who wants to use them –or accept an invitation from the locals.
“I packed enough food to last me a fortnight I knew that I had to cover 300 kilometres in 15 days in order to get to the point where there was civilization and I could acquire more rations. But as it turned out I did not even consume all I packed, because the locals were incredibly hospitable. There are isolated dwellings there that are completely cut off from the world for several weeks each spring and autumn. In the summer their inhabitants sail a boat on the lake –in winter they drive a car on the ice, but in the interim periods when there is floating ice on the river they can’t do either. These people stock up on food and willingly share their rations – not just feeding me, but giving me food for the road.”
Marek Šimíček, who speaks Russian, says that the locals are very communicative and very curious about foreigners who make the arduous crossing. He says that on one occasion he happened to come upon the hut of a man who knew exactly where the Czech Republic was located. He was sent to Czechoslovakia as part of the invasive Russian army that crushed the Prague Spring in 1968.
“It was a most bizarre meeting. I spent the night in the house of a man who drove a tank into Prague in 1968 to liberate Czechoslovakia. So of course we got talking and he said the troops were first told they were going on a training mission to Kazachstan. When they arrived here they were fed a different story which the guy believes to this day. He said they came to save us because there were German and American forces on the western border getting ready to invade the country and kill us all. The propaganda is such that he still believes it to this day – there’s nothing you can do with that.”
Whenever he was too tired to head for the shore, Marek simply pitched a tent wherever darkness fell and slept on the lake. He says that the coldest it got is minus 28 degrees Celsius, but usually it was around minus 22 which he claims is warmer than one might expect due to the very low humidity. His worst moment came when he could not light his gas cooker –which meant he could not have melted ice to drink. In the end he managed to light it and could carry on. He says that despite this and other tough moments the discomfort is nothing compared to the incredible experience a trip across the lake affords.
“You know the beauty of it is practically impossible to convey. I have these amazing pictures and I give presentations and tell people about the change of light on the lake and the beauty of the surrounding mountains and the fact that it is so clear you can see a hundred kilometres ahead of you. I try to tell them what it feels like to be standing in darkness under a starry sky and hear the ice cracking. But it is really something you have to experience. There are a few people I’d like to take out there, friends who would make it even better because we would share the experience.“
At the end of the trip Marek says he hated the idea of leaving –counting the steps that would take him to dry land and the train that would take him out of Siberia. This spring he was back on another journey across Lake Baikal. He says that half way across the lake he met a Czech going in the opposite direction.
“There were actually three Czechs crossing the lake this year. One was Pavel Blažek, one of the two Czechs who made the first crossing in 2010. This year he wanted to cross the lake there and back but had to give up on the idea after a few hundred kilometres for health reasons. And then there was this other guy - Dalibor Beneš from Usti. He called me for advice when he planned the trip so we knew we’d both be going but we made no closer plans to meet. And then one day I was skating along, when I see this dot on the horizon. The dot got bigger and bigger until I saw it was a man with a sled – and closer up I suddenly realized it was Blazek. I was the first human being he had seen in 10 or 12 days.”
Dalibor Beneš was crossing the lake from the south to the north. He is one of very few people who crossed the lake without any assistance –having spent a year and a half preparing for the journey. He lost 9 kilos in the 3 weeks it took him to cover the 700 kilometres. Marek Šimíček has high praise for him.
“This guy has what it takes. He crossed the lake without any assistance without once setting foot on dry land to sleep or stock up on rations. He’s 55 and he managed to make the crossing in 21 days. The two Czechs who made it in 2010 did so in 24 days and that’s the third best time on record. So I have to give it to this guy –he’s a champion.“
Although Marek Šimíček recently got back from his second crossing he is determined to return to Lake Baikal again next year. And he says that he will be happy to make the third trip with a group of people who would share the experience. However he’s not promising any concessions – anyone up for it would have to have training, be able to sleep in the rough at minus 28 degrees Celsius and weather whatever problems the trip may bring. Anyone who wants to give it a try can contact him via his web page bajkal700.cz. Those who fear the hardship can look forward to a book about crossing Lake Baikal on foot that Marek Šimíček is currently writing.
Photo: archive of Marek Šimíček