08 March 2019 21:27
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But before we begin, how about a quick quiz question? We're sitting in a warm living room in Novosibirsk and are looking forward to some food. But what will be served? Raclette – a piece of home right in the middle of Siberia! Our host is called Mikhail and owns a Unimog, with which he ploughs snow and mud in the forests of his home town. But above all, he's been writing to us for months of Instagram and invited us to meet him and his family. Yet another unimaginable story!
We've now rounded off our expedition to Lake Baikal. The body of water is a Unesco natural heritage site and according to Unesco, it is also the oldest and deepest freshwater lake on the planet. From the town of Ulan-Ude, where we stopped off to visit our fellow countryman Lukas, we continued driving along the eastern side of this immense body of water. There was so much snow around that the banks were, for the most part, inaccessible. So with that in mind, we spent our first night in the Zaybaykalsky National Park – which we had all to ourselves. We always get funny looks because we're travelling around in winter and not in the warmer months.
On the next day, we made it to the lake shore. The lake here wasn't completely frozen but we were still able to walk on the ice and enjoy the outdoors. The rangers at the park's entrance has warned us that it might not be a good idea to drive the truck on the ice. That said, we wouldn't even have dreamed of doing that; although some Russians are a little less afraid in that domain. They just try it out and drive over the ice with their doors open. That way, should the worst happen, they can just jump out. We've heard some pretty hair-raising stories along those lines.
After driving along the south-west bank of Lake Baikal, we reached the Siberian capital Irkutsk. Our tour of the town was done in record time. Whereas in Oymyakon, the Pole of Cold, we had experienced a "warm" week, here there was a cold spell. At night, the mercury dropped down to minus 40 degrees. During the day, the biting wind meant that it wasn't much better either.
After two nights, we set off in the direction of the west bank of the lake. There, we wanted to see the beautifully shimmering blue ice in a bay near to Chernorud – and we weren't to be disappointed. Thanks to the constant wind there, the ice was perfectly polished. In view of this sight, we didn't think twice about grabbing our winter jackets and going to take a look. Although cars and hovercrafts drive over the ice here, it's a strange feeling to walk on it, with just black visible under your feet. Things do start feeling a little better when you stand over a deep crack in the ice and see just how thick the ice really is.
For the night, we moved away from the bank of the lake. After just being parked there an hour in the cold wind, the power steering fluid had already turned gooey. We had to steer carefully, otherwise the oil would have overflowed. Accordingly, we needed a camp away from the wind. The landscape on the west side of Lake Baikal reminded us of Mongolia: rolling hills and very little vegetation. With a dusting of snow on the top, it looked just like a painting.
In the morning, we headed back out to the ice to get some photos. It was again brutally cold, at minus 37 degrees. As soon as we moved away from the bay and pass around the peninsula to the open lake, the gusts were so strong that we had to walk backwards to protect our faces from the wind. After taking a few photos, we set off back to base. We'd spared Aimée this tour on the bare ice.
Then it was time to make tracks – our visa for Russia was only valid for another 15 days at this point of our trip. From Irkutsk, we headed west along the M55 which crosses the country. The distance to the border with Kazakhstan: around 3500 kilometres, roughly the same as the distance from Zurich to the North Cape.
On the third day on the road, we had an unfortunate incident: short of Oymyakon, a piece of plastic in the lock on the passenger side broke off which meant the door could only be locked from inside. The plan was to have that repaired in "Axor-Land" Turkey. But when we stopped for a break and Mike turned the key in the driver's side door, there was a cracking noise. Now this lock was broken and we were locked out. Thankfully, we could still get into the living area.
On the following morning, we needed a good hour to break back into our own truck. We dismantled the passenger-side door so far that I – Andrea – could get my hand through the gap and use my special "MacGyver tool" – a broomstick and a piece of my tripod bound together with sticky tape – to open the door.
Mike then had to grab it as fast as he could. And all that at minus 35 degrees! In between our attempts, we went back into the living area to warm up our fingers which were frozen stiff. As both doors of the cab can now no longer be locked, each evening, we took our most important things with us into the living area.
Along the M55 there are plenty of filling stations so we no longer needed to stock up on fuel. But that doesn't mean that you're safe from surprises: we filled up at a household name only to find out on the next morning that it wasn't winter diesel.
Although it wasn't colder than minus 30 degrees over night, the diesel had become so waxy that the auxiliary heating wouldn't start. We were saved by our trusty hair-dryer. We used it to warm up the diesel filter and lines for as long as it took the auxiliary heating to wake up and subsequently pre-warm the engine for us.
In the meantime, the cold snap is over and we'll probably need to switch our own freezer back on. In a few days, we will cross the border into Kazakhstan.
Well... as long as we manage to manoeuvre the Axor out of host Mikhail's parking space, that is. It took us half an hour to get it into the space. But we'll deal with that when the time is right. First, it's time for that Raclette.
4-Xtremes – the tour of superlatives.