Journeys by hovercraft all the year!

Экспедиция: "Хивус-10" на север Байкала
(18-26 марта 2005)

The most difficult and far ranging tour of the season – a 7 day expedition over Baikal ice by “Khivous” – is over. It was the first time a hovercraft reached the northern end of the lake.

The group of travellers consisted of famous Moscow and Irkutsk art-photographers. The overall goal of the expedition was taking pictures of the fabulous ice decorations of Baikal coastal rocks for the future photo album about the Siberian Lake (locally called the Glorious Sea”). The Moscow press photographers and businessmen decided to involve famed art-photographers into photo session of Baikal in different seasons. The best pictures would be published in an edition de luxe of album about Baikal. Besides the March photo safari on the ice of Baikal, there are plans of tours in chase of Baikal ice and involvement of 16 photographers for an autumn cruise and photo session at Baikal. March expedition by the hovercraft has shown promising perspectives for using such a kind of vehicle at Baikal in winter.

Up to now, an ice tour from Listvjanka to the Ushkani isles has been considered to be an extraordinary event, full of rigours of harsh traveller’s life and has been associated with extreme adventures. The hovercraft “Khivous-10” has successfully covered the rout and again proved that in the near future such vehicles will be predominant type of winter transport on Baikal ice.

At the dawn by the road lit by the automobile lights we came up to Listvjanka to see our “Khivous”, frozen and sunken on flat skegs. For a week the hovercraft will serve us as the main transport on the ice and resting place for warm overnight in case of emergency. As it usually happens, instead of planned early departure we had to get down to a long term repair of punctured air skegs (“perhaps, they would endure”, the owners of the vehicle might have thought in the previous evening). We also had to dismantle the back seats to provide space for travelling outfit. The designers of the boat got their share of unflattering criticism. The technology of replacing the middle punctured skeg doesn’t allow to do it while lying with your back on the snow under the boat. At last the operation was carried out only with the help of deck crane from boat “Valeria”, but at the same time the steering wheels of another hovercraft standing nearby were damaged. Finally, everything was OK, the things were packed, and off we went.

The gangway was completely blocked, although there were certain advantages: very soon the belongings in the gangway will serve us as an improvised camp table. Each photographer has an impressively large luggage with him which includes all the equipment, a tripod. Moreover, modern digital technologies require regular recharging – one needs an alternator, a lap-top. In addition, there are mats, down sleeping bags, a spare tent, fur boots and fur coats. To crown it all, one needs to put closer the food-containers with products for seven persons for a week, gas containers with a burner, camp-tins, ice-crowbar, GPS for satellite navigation and so on. It would be a real “mission impossible” to cram all the things into a car. But here in the hovercraft there is still quite enough space for 7 passengers in thick winter clothes.

We hoped to reach Olkhon Island within the first day of the expedition and spend the night in a small settlement Khuzhir. But everything turned out to be not so simple in reality. Late departure and hummocks didn’t allow us to reach bay Peschanaya earlier than 15:00, with 5 hours being on the way. Last year it took us 5 hours to go both there and back. This time our way was regularly crossed with vast ice fields with razor sharp blocks of ice. An encounter with such an obstacle may be fatal for rubber skegs of the hovercraft. A several meters cut can’t possibly be repaired in field conditions. Taking into account this danger our amphibious vehicle tried to avoid the hummock fields and it had taken really a lot of time before we managed to find a relatively smooth way.

Gliding over ice by hovercraft has advantages of driving by car. First, it’s safe, there’s no risk of getting into a fissure. Hovercraft conquers any fissure even such which would be an insurmountable barrier for a car. The air cushion vehicle can venture down even a one meter high ice-block, crawling down like a duck. For a car such a high jump is fraught with danger of destroying suspension. And still we crossed each fissure with great caution. All the protruding small ice blocks were removed with the help of crowbar and moved away lest they should destroy the skegs. As a result our average speed was only 16 – 18 km/h. Such a low speed made our Moscow guests doubt whether they had chosen the right kind of transport. They decided to change for 2 cars in the nearest settlement. But after a day of heroic hovercraft conquering the high ice-blocks and fissures, completely insurmountable for a car, the Muscovites changed their mind and conceded that “Khivous” is the only vehicle capable of escaping Baikal ice-traps in winter. A story about a car which broke down the ice into abyssal depth of icy waters told near the ice-bound windlass used for lifting this car, was the final blow to make them sure they had made the right choice. On the smooth ice “Khivous” speeded up and moved up to 60 km/h. Near the mouth of the river Anga we encountered a dilemma: either to continue our trip to Olkhon hoping that the coming twilight would bring with it a smoother way and we would go faster, or not taking risks find warm shelter on the shore. Common sense made us choose the second alternative and we headed for the bay Aya, where we found a dwelling house. We didn’t reserve a room there, but to stay in the house was much better than to spend a night among ice-hummocks with strong wind blowing from the North.

At 20:00 our boat stopped near a transverse fissure with high hummock, which blocked the entrance to the bay. With the help of field glasses we managed to discern a flickering electrical light – it meant there were people living on the shore. At the sunset the wind was so strong that outside the hovercraft even in a thick fur coat one could feel the icy breath of Baikal. That is why the light drew us to it as it meant warmth and electricity. Using crowbar we smashed one more passage through the ice. The hovercraft with its lights on looked strikingly effective in the last reflections of twilight among the chaotic ice-blocks, but in such a wind there was not a slightest wish to take any pictures.

In complete darkness cut by our boat lights we approached the shore with all the local dogs scared away by the mysterious vehicle. The hosts of the house cordially welcomed us and offered us the biggest room for the overnight stay. For supper they treated us with the so called “raskolotka” (fresh frozen fish, not cooked afterwards; originally Siberian dish) and fresh salted omule.

Through the Hummocks to Ushkani Isles

Every morning we got up at 5 a.m. to take pictures of ice before the dawn. The boiling water in thermoses for morning coffee we used to prepare overnight. We packed our things very quickly and had our breakfast already in the hovercraft on the move. Such a procedure saved a lot of precious time, when we left our shore shelter before the dawn with the headlights on to catch the sunrise in the most favourable position, for example, near cape Khoboy, where the interchange of numerous cracks and thrusts of ice created the desirable background for pictures.

Small Sea has lots of interesting places to see, but in winter the most attractive are the so called splash ice decorations on the capes Kobylya Golova (Mare’s Head), Sagan Khushun, Khoboy. Everyday when the photographers made the pictures of the scenery, the hovercraft crew spent 2-3 hours repairing the rubber skegs, damaged the previous day by the ice. The procedure was worked out to the last detail: they had one skeg done flat completely, the other, on the contrary, was pumped up, some tins were put underneath it additionally, which enabled the mechanic to observe the skegs from the inner side. Then was the turn of gas burner which warmed up the joint, a layer of warmed-up glue and a patch was put onto it. It took about an hour to repair one skeg.

When every participant of the expedition is carried away by taking pictures, it’s difficult to hold yourself aloof. Everyone was hunting for an unusual setting and for the sake of it we crawled into icy grottoes, crept under the overhanging ice-blocks. With the foreshortening being not at all a common place one, we managed to catch not only the originality of the picture, but also some interesting details. Thus, if you lie down on the ice near the head of the cape Kobylya Golova, you can distinctly hear the bubbling of gases coming to the surface: exactly at this place every winter a thawed patch appears. Inside a grotto on the cape Sagan Khushun I heard strange sounds: first, it was rumbling, then the water fountaining, the sound of breaking ice echoed by the grotto vaulted walls, which made a virtual illusion of approaching tsunami.

Translucent, sparkling in the sun Baikal ice presents a rather wilful model for photographing. One doesn’t always succeed in reproducing its enchanting sparkling.

The splash ice can be either crystal clear or milky; sometimes it forms fancy figures resembling mythical creatures, at times it moulds into imposing cylindrical colonnades. The cape Khorin-Irgy is separated from the peninsula Kobylya Golova by a steep cleft, which is 4 m wide with walls up to 10 meters high. If looked from far away the cape resembles a mare’s head.

In winter the rocks of the cape are beautifully decorated by sokuys – ice-splashes, which appear when the lake begins to freeze over. If there is a severe storm in such a time – the windward rocks can get a coat of splash ice about 10-20 meters high and up to 15 cm thick. One should approach the rocks very cautiously if he drives a car, because near the cape there are a lot of thawed patches. The rocks of the northern side are covered with splash ice up to dozens of meters and the cleft becomes overgrown with fancy ice decorations. There are only two such places at the Small Sea which are famed for the numerous strikingly beautiful ice decorations on the shore rocks. They are cape Kobylya Golova and Sagan Khushun rocks on the northern end of Olkhon. Sagan Khushun (“White Cape”) is an astoundingly picturesque rocky cape about 1 km long, made up of light tinted marble, covered with red-brownish patches of lichen. It’s situated 4 km from the northern end of the island and 35 km from Khuzhir settlement. There is a winter road connecting cape Sagan Khushun (also called “the Rock of 3 Brothers”) with Khuzhir. So one can get easily to the cape by car. From far away one can observe the pyramidal brown rocks with high white splashes of ice at the foot. In winter the grotto makes a wonderful picture at the sunset, when the gleams of the setting sun reach the inner part of the cave and impart the golden shimmer to the icicles. There is also a small bay among the cliffs, where one can see amazing branchy splash ice shapes of milky colour.

Cape Khoboy (in Buryat language “khoboy” means “canine or molar tooth”) is the northernmost cape of Olkhon island. An effectively looking pillar-shaped rock which resembles a sharp canine, if looked from the sea is very much like a woman’s profile. Like those which ancient Greeks used to have on the nose of their galleys. The rock is locally called a Virgin. It’s not always possible to get close to the cape by car. Every year here appears a complicated net of fissures dangerous for cars, that is why the local fishermen prefer to keep away from the rocks. By “Khivous” we approach the cape and notice 2 fresh fissures. Further along the eastern coast up to the fold Uzuri there is so much of the so called “torn ice” (with lots of fissures), that it would be virtually impossible to pass here by car. By the way, now in Uzuri tourists have the possibility to stay for a night. Near the meteorological station there is a small guest house for 7 persons, which has rather moderate prices.

From the cape Khoboy our way runs through the unfrequented virgin land to the famous Ushkani Isles. There are no automobile roads leading in this direction. It’s the widest and deepest place of Lake Baikal, so the fishermen prefer the places closer to western shore. Gliding over the snowy virgin land among the hummock fields which stretch to the horizon, soon we got to the dead end, then after a while another dead end awaited us, then – the third one. It appeared to be very difficult to find a way out among the hummocks on absolutely even terrain without any elevations, which would give the possibility to outline the right rout with the help of field glasses. The field with ice-bound protruding ice-blocks are so vast that it seems completely impossible to break through. The only way out is simply no to give up and keep looking for the passages in needed direction.

Suddenly we hear an unpleasant vibrating grinding sound and the pilot immediately turns the engine off.

A serious break-down we feared would happen while driving only 1 hovercraft, still occurred and exactly at the place which wouldn’t be possibly visited by a fisherman car. There exists an unwritten law for off-road expeditions: there should be at least 2 vehicles, to be able in case of breakdown to leave on the second one.

A cursory inspection and examining the engine reveals the cause of the breakdown – the bearing of the drive of the traction screw is destroyed. First it’s not quite clear whether it will be possible to replace the detail without special removers, and what’s more, whether we’ll find the necessary size of bearing among the spare parts. To our joy we found the necessary bearing. And then – folk quick wits, pilot’s experience, axe and screw-driver instead of special tools, 3 hours of work – and here it is, the victory of Russian ingenious thought: the new bearing is put into the needed place and we can continue. While we were repairing the vehicle, someone came up with the supposition that our industry produces the machines of low quality especially for Russian craftsmen not to lose their skills so that they could repair and gadget any time and in any circumstances.

There was nothing but endless snow virgin land for the photographers to take pictures of, so they got down to arithmetical calculations on the map and soon unanimously decided that we had stopped 5 meters from the geographical centre of Baikal.

To highlight this fact we put at the appropriate place the national flag of Russian Federation and uncorked a bottle of French cognac. In sum, even in such a critical situation everyone found an occupation for himself.

Along the Shore of Baikal-Lena Nature Reserve

As usual we leave Ushkani Isles early in the morning before the dawn. The sunrise catches us on the transverse of cape Sagan-Moryan. The scenery is worth to be painted. In this place Baikal mountain range borders with the lake and the snowy ridge of pointed mountain peaks, bathing in pinky light of sunrise, makes a fascinating picture. A piercing strong wind is blowing like it was on the first day of the expedition. Wrapped up in scarves photographers, sitting by their tripods, complement picturesquely the overall panorama.

We haven’t seen either any tourists or cars for the time of our expedition. There is dead silence in the realm of winter; it’s difficult to believe that there are puddles in Irkutsk at the moment.

Days spent with camera, non-stop taking pictures of enchanting ice is so emotive that once you close your eyes you clearly see the pictures of ice.

Near the bay the search light detects the green of pine and cedar, dry ears of yellow last year grass between the patches of snow on the gravel shore. The shore line of Baikal in this place presents a sharp contrast to the scenery of Small Sea: high mountains with alpine peaks. From the bay Zavorotnaya up to cape Muzhinai high steep slopes of Baikal mountain range come close to the lake shore. It’s the most imposing place at Baikal – there is no such a place where the mountains are so close to water edge and are so high. On the shoreline there are huge tracts of thick cedar forest and forest of mountain pine. The river Molokhon has cut a deep canyon through the Baikal mountain range. It’s one of the most grandiose rocky gorges on the shore of the lake. One of winter places of interest in this area is a 5 km long river Ledjanaya (Icy). It flows into Baikal via a canyon, which is almost never lit by sunshine and winter ice sometimes doesn’t melt even in summer. The name of the river is associated with the ice mounds and snow which can be seen in its delta and on the banks even in summer. Ice and snow at the mouth of the river can be easily observed from the lake. The ice at the mouth can be up to 4 meters thick. The ice on the banks of the river resembles frozen waterfall, which is difficult to climb without special climbing irons attached to the boots or ice axe.

The cape Solnechni (Sunny) houses the central office of Baikal-Lena nature reserve, which was established in 1986. It’s 659 919 hectares large. It’s the biggest nature conservative area at Baikal. The nature reserve comprises 110 km of shoreline from Kheyrema River to the cape Yelokhin, almost impassable region of Baikal mountain range and the upper Lena with its tributaries. The nature of the reserve – wild and thick taiga, home of bears. These, in a way significant for us, places are our final destination. I wish we could go farther to Severobaikalsk and come back along the eastern shore of Barguzin nature reserve, but it will take 3-4 additional days. Many tourists are pressed for time to visit the North of the lake. May be it is for the better, because the nature in this area is cleaner and is preserved in a more pristine condition if compared to that of the southern part of Baikal.

There is a smooth road from the bay Zavorotnaya. As a rule, people make a stop near the cape Rytyi – one of the sacred places at Baikal, which is associated with lots of legends and traditions. The weather is favourably disposed to us: it’s sunny; bright blue sky and soft wind make up a good background for a dinner near the camp fire. For our halt we choose a wild shore line with large amount of dead wood. We smash the ice and fill our camp tin with it and taiga camp-fire flares up in several minutes. The warmth of the fire makes us feel relaxed. The forgotten cameras lie nearby; the wood in the fire is cracking. There are no signs of people presence around us – only wild Baikal nature. There is nothing more in the Universe but our “Khivous” and the camp fire on the shore. It will take 2 days to get back to Listvjanka from this place, but exactly here, sitting by the camp fire I want to put a full stop, because here you realise – the life is wonderful because you can travel! The pictures which were taken during these 7 days will much better narrate about our unforgettable expedition.

Sergey Volkov

664028, Irkutsk Lermontov St.63a-23

tel.: (3952) 388-414


Тel. in Moscow:

(095) 632-24-80

(095) 263-05-76

(095) 220-38-41

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