After baking on the train from Moscow, it was discouraging to step off the platform in Irkutsk and find Another Russian City. Sputtering Ladas and overloaded buses lump over the ice in -14 degree weather, and we were prepared for another 48 hours of blank faces and museums.
We were very pleased to get off the bus at Lake Baikal. You can pick your favourite Baikal statistic and it will almost certainly be eye-popping. It holds a fifth of the world’s fresh water. It is over a kilometre and a half deep. If the rest of the world’s drinking water shot into space tomorrow, Lake Baikal would keep us going for years. Alternatively, if Lake Baikal’s water shot into space, it would take all the rivers in the world more than a year to refill it.
It's an area of astonishing scientific interest. Over 3,000 different species live in its depths; more than 2,000 of them are not found anywhere else. Its water is astonishingly pure.
The lake is completely frozen over in February; between January and May it is literally becomes a highway, although around a dozen cars and lorries per year wave goodbye to their friends with a cheery “back for supper!”, only to end up vanishing through the ice.
There’s even a ski-run overlooking everything. We stood and looked out over the harbour, which was the only unfrozen part of the lake we could see. Gradually, the sky turned a furious orange and the sun dropped below the hills, and so it was that Lake Baikal became our favourite place in Russia so far.