This is the Siberia we have traveled for. So many people dissed us for coming here in winter, but we stuck to our guns, and it's been one of life's most memorable experiences.
The absolute highlight was dog sledding.
Helen was crying with joy during and afterwards. Shane and the kids were all just blown away. Tommy said 'best day ever!' And Lee...?
Her sled took off like the bullet out of the proverbial gun (they estimate 50kmh). Holy crap, is she going to be OK? Have we done the right thing?
She was outwardly shocked by the rapid acceleration, her body language said it all! We had both just done this, we knew what she was attempting (although immediately we finished our circuit we requested Lee's lap be reduced to 5km). We waited. The sled flew back in. Is she OK?
"It was the most exhilarating experience in my whole life!" Tears of joy, euphoria.
She is absolutely inspirational. For someone that has undertaken few physical adventures in her life, she has enormous capacity to be consumed by these activities. Perhaps all the O'Brien children have been blessed with a little of that?
There were only three 'mushers' on staff so Shane and Helen headed out first for their 10km lap. Shane was given around 20 seconds of driver tips (in Russian - absolutely no English was spoken) and was sent off as 'musher'. Helen (being a lowly female) was sat down in the sled but took over as musher after 5 minutes. Lee, Rosie and Tom went next, all sat in their sleds with staff as mushers.
The trail wound through forested, largely flat terrain (although Helen's trail included a remarkably steep short descent which caused a few four letter words to be uttered) - the quintessential Siberian landscape. There were plenty of trees to weave between and many bumps and dips to survive. As mushers, Helen and Shane stood on 3cm wide shafts covered with grippy (thank The Lord) strips of bike tyre. The seated Russians issued instructions to the dogs (left, right, good, straight on) while Helen and Shane, standing behind, leaned the sledge left or right and slammed the footbrake on for 'Stop! Stop! Stop!'
Silence, simplicity, dogs grabbing mouthfuls of snow (and pooing!) as they ran. Snow kicking up from the dogs. Shane came back with a cold cold cold face.
Lake Baikal is in an area of the world that is classified as sub-arctic and it holds one fifth of the world's fresh water supply.
Although we can see only a small portion of its length, we are in awe of its rawness and beauty. We witnessed folk scuba diving, fishing, playing football, cycle touring, quad biking, playing golf and driving on its one metre thick surface.
We walked out onto it and were dazzled by the beauty of the ice.
Being here at the end of winter, we feel we are experiencing the essence of Russia. The people don't smile (even the well meaning folk speak brusquely). The climate is very harsh. But, wow!
We're staying at the sister hostel to the one we stayed at in Irkutsk, the Baikaler Eco-Hostel. We've been blessed to have taken over an eight bed room, with our own kitchen and common room. It's given us the chance to nestle a little, cook our own meals, be a family. Lee's so at home she's even asking asking whether we want our onions caramelised...
Outside Lee is less comfortable. There's a lot of ice and annoyingly the hostel is 1km from the lake up a reasonably steep icy lane. We're all being very careful and Lee is obliged to use taxis a lot. We have no idea how the locals can walk easily in a pair of sneakers down the same road that we slip and slide on (Shane has a bump on the back of his head as evidence!) - and driving a regular car with regular tyres and a mobile phone in one hand is clearly no problem. (Although the minibus driver who brought us here was pushing that assumption to the max... until we drove past a car with its entire roof ripped off... that slowed him down. A bit.)
Day 2 we all woke late (aka 10.30 for Rosie). Mind you she didn't get to sleep till 11, after watching The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel on the iPad. We didn't set any records today. The temperature was around -10 with substantial wind chill. Lee was very glad to have gotten back after our walk along the lake. Helen and the kids stayed on for a couple of hours, making their best effort to re-build with some ice blocks.
Shane, Helen, Rosie, Tom and Lee