Drive of a lifetime: Crossing the world’s largest lake…by car

Drive of a lifetime: Crossing the world’s largest lake…by car
Drive of a lifetime: Crossing the world’s largest lake…by car

Like me you’ll have become accustomed to the hashtag #beastfromtheeast over the last few weeks as the icy cold weather from Siberia travelled west. But while UK drivers, fearful of venturing out, hunkered down at home reacting to ‘red warnings’ communicated by ever-more serious-looking TV weather presenters, I found myself heading east to … yup, Siberia.

And eastern Siberia at that, just a hundred miles or so north of the border with Mongolia. It’s so far east that the next time zone takes in Japan.

To rather state the obvious, Russia is massive. After a three-and-a-half hour flight from Heathrow, 1,554 miles later we were in Moscow. That was followed by a six-and-half-hour flight to Irkutsk, 2,620 miles further east. An eight-hour time difference to home in Dundee.

Why travel 4,200 miles? To pioneer a new, unchartered crossing of the world’s largest, longest and deepest freshwater lake, Lake Baikal. At 25 million years. it’s also the world’s oldest.

Jim steps – carefully – out onto the ice. Picture: Dave Smith

And what was I going to drive? Some six-wheel behemoth capable of crossing the Antarctic? A slow-moving tracked vehicle which would rumble along at a snail’s pace?

Nope. A Mazda CX-5 all-wheel drive family SUV. Madness? Hmmm…the thought did cross my mind. Not so much when the initial invitation arrived, but certainly the night before the crossing as I peered out of the window overlooking the lake as the snow continued to fall heavily, driven by a 30mph wind.

Six hours earlier, the paths round the hotel had been dug clear by heavy machinery for our arrival. Now there was close to a foot of fresh fallen snow. This wasn’t looking good.

Morning dawned. The snow had thankfully stopped, but the biting, icy wind was still determined to whisk the fresh snow into ever-deepening drifts, while at the same time reminding you this was a hardcore environment: 7am and minus 22 degrees, even before factoring in the windchill.

Picture: Dave Smith

Driver safety briefing followed breakfast. We would establish a new 39-mile route across the frozen lake, leaving Listvyanka — the lake’s “most popular tourist destination” — arriving on the southern shore “in around four hours”.

There was a general, silent sniggering across the group: “Four hours, for 39 miles? Come on. We’ll never take that long.”

“Crevices open in the ice with a sharp, thunderous crack. Up to nine miles in length, they can open to a width of nearly 10 feet”

After landing, we’d then travel another 150 miles along the Trans-Siberian highway to the nearest main city, Ulan Ude. In total, the drive should take around seven hours.

I’ve driven the excellent CX-5 before, first at its launch last summer on a return drive from Inverness to Oldmeldrum, then three-up on a 1,200-mile round-trip from Oxford to Aberdeen and back. So I was already well acquainted with the family versatility, efficiency and fun driving delivered by the Mazda.

Picture: Dave Smith

The Russian-registered cars for our cross-lake adventure were standard CX-5s. Each was fitted with the SkyActiv-Drive six-speed auto ’box, but debuted the new 180bhp 2.5-litre petrol SkyActiv-G engine which will make its first UK appearance in the new Mazda6 this summer.

And while the cars were fitted with Russian-make studded tyres, the star of the show was intended to be Mazda’s new-generation i-Activ intelligent all-wheel drive system. Little did we realise before we set off just how severe the test would be.

Heated seats and steering wheel on, the first challenge was negotiating the steep ramp out of the hotel. Believe me, without four-wheel traction and studded tyres, I’d still be stuck in the car park.

Half a mile down the road, we drove on to the frozen lake.

Perhaps time for a bit of perspective. Siberia is five million square miles in area, with a population of 36 million people. The UK is less than 81,000 square miles, with a population of 60m. Lake Baikal — which can be seen from space — is 400 miles long, and in places 50 miles wide. It also has a maximum depth of more than one mile: and that’s not including the four-mile depth of silt accumulation at the bottom.

Lake Baikal. Picture: Dave Smith

It holds more than 5,500 cubic miles of freshwater. That’s equivalent to the whole of the Amazon basin. And it’s still growing. Because the rift is geologically active, the lake widens by an inch a year.

For almost five months of the year, Lake Baikal is covered in ice: usually to a thickness of between three and five feet. And thankfully, it’s at its thickest in March, having increased in depth by anything between two and eight inches a day.

It was quite surreal to drive past the holiday ferries, which sail the lake in the summer, tied to their moorings while I was on the lake 300 yards from shore.

The first half of the crossing went smoothly. Following the giant Russian six-wheel Trekol 39294 — which, despite weighting 2.2 tonnes, exerts less pressure on the snow and ice than a person walking — our biggest challenge was the odd deep snowdrift.

Picture: Dave Smith

However, that was all to change not long after we reached the midpoint of the lake. The ice essentially mirrors the tectonic plates which form the Earth, in so much as they are constantly moving. When they collide, they can create an impassable landscape of giant overlapping slabs and huge, crystal-like blocks up to 36 feet in height.

Occasionally, crevices will open in the ice with a sharp, thunderous crack. Anything between six and nine miles in length, they can open to a width of nearly 10 feet.

Not only did we come across one such crevice, but also a number of potentially suspension-shattering ‘rocky’ ice fields. While the Trekol glided its pioneering route across the surface, the CX-5 was left to carefully negotiate the near never-ending path of double breeze block-sized slabs of ice which peered threateningly from within their newly-formed snowdrift.

And what do you do when you’re faced by a 18-mile long, 10ft-wide crevice in the middle of a frozen lake. Well, you build a bridge, of course. Well, the Russian crew from Emercom did.

Picture: Dave Smith

Wielding their power saws, they first filled the gap with newly cut solid chunks of ice; they laid a blue, plastic tarpaulin over them; then laid two tracks of plywood for the cars to drive over. Easy really!

I asked: “Why bother with the blue tarpaulin?”

I was told: “It’s simply to hide the fact that beneath it, the surface is transparent and just watery sludge. Not really what you want to see.”

Right. Okay.

Waiting to cross the ‘bridge,’ my mind flashed back to the Mazda ‘Deed of Participation’ I’d signed before I committed to the trip, and the phrase contained in the section “Assumption of Risks”, which read: “I fully accept … full liability for every such risk … including death”.

So McGill: man or a mouse? Easy-peasy. Slowly forwards; ensure the wheels are aligned to the plywood, and drive across, not too fast and not too slow. My life trusted to a Mazda CX-5 AWD. Job done.

The second half of the crossing was more of the same, certainly in terms of deep snow, dangerously damaging ice blocks, and slow, slow, stop-start progress.

But finally, seven-and-a-half hours after rolling on to the ice, it was mission accomplished. The CX-5 AWD had delivered a world first route crossing of Lake Baikal.

Now all that remained was the final 150 miles to Ulan Ude. Fuelled by a mini Snickers, a Nutrigrain bar and a bag of cheese and onion crisps, we headed further east, bidding to beat darkness falling on one of Russia’s most dangerous roads.

Picture: Dave Smith

Almost 13 hours after leaving the hotel, we arrived at Ulan Ude, in the shadow of the giant 7.7-metre high, 42-ton bronze of Lenin’s head.

Despite everything that was thrown at it, Mazda CX-5 AWD not only survived, but conquered the severest tests the real Beast from the East could generate on frozen home soil…well, freshwater.
And if it can do that, rest assured it’ll cope with whatever you throw at it when you drive it out of your nearest showroom.

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