For Russians in a pandemic, Lake Baikal is the place to see and be seen

Usually, it is the foreigners who frolic in the deepest lake in the world in winter. But with many borders closed, Russians are coming in droves to make TikTok videos and take Instagram photos.

ON LAKE BAIKAL, Russia – He drove 2,000 miles by now: hanging from the sunroof of his white Lexus SUV gleaming in the blinding sun, the selfie camera on his smartphone in front of the camera, the sound of bass, the tires screeching, slicing donuts on blue-black, white-streaked ice.

“It’s for Instagram and TikTok,” said Gulnara Mikhailova, who drove two days and two nights to reach Lake Baikal with four friends from the remote Siberian city of Yakutsk.

It was about zero degrees Fahrenheit when Ms Mikhailova, who works in real estate, changed into a bathing suit, climbed onto the roof of her car and, leaning back, posed for photos.

This is the winter in the deepest lake in the world, pandemic edition of 2021.

Tour guides call it Russian season. Typically, it is foreigners, many from nearby China, who flock to Siberia’s Lake Baikal at this time of year to skate, bike, walk, run, drive, float and ski on an expanse of ice and snow, while the Russians escape the cold to Turkey or Thailand.

But Russia’s borders are still closed due to the pandemic, and to the surprise of locals, crowds of Russian tourists have swapped tropical beaches for the icicle-covered shores of Baikal.

“This season is like no other, no one expected that there would be so much crowding, such a tourist boom,” said Yulia Mushinskaya, director of the history museum on the popular Baikal island of Olkhon.

People who work with tourists, he said, “are in shock.”

If you catch a moment of stillness in the crescent-shaped lake, 400 miles long and a mile deep, the assault on the senses is otherworldly. You stand on three feet of ice so solid it is safe for heavy trucks to traverse it, but you feel fragile, fleeting, and small.

The silence around you is interrupted every few seconds by the creaking below: moans, explosions and strange techno-musical sounds. Look down and the imperfections of the crystalline ice emerge as pale, gleaming curtains.

However, stillness is hard to come by.

While Western governments have been discouraging travel during the pandemic, in Russia, as is often the case, things are different. The Kremlin has turned coronavirus-related border closures into an opportunity for Russians, who have spent the past 30 years exploring the world beyond the old Iron Curtain, to get hooked on holidays at home.

A state-funded program that began last August offers rebates of $ 270 on domestic leisure travel, including flights and hotel stays. It’s an example of how Russia, which had one of the highest coronavirus death rates in the world last year, has often prioritized the economy over public health during the pandemic.

“Our people are used to traveling abroad to a great extent,” President Vladimir V. Putin said in December. “The development of national tourism is no less important.”

In recent months, a large number of tourists have been seen on the beaches of the Black Sea and the ski resorts of the Caucasus. This winter, during what some call the “gender vacation” travel period around Defender of the Fatherland Day on February 23 (when Russia celebrates men) and March 8 (International Women’s Day ), Lake Baikal has been the place to be.

It is a distillation of tourism in the age of Instagram.

Some visitors bring their own smartphone tripods, jumping up and down repeatedly to get a perfect snapshot of themselves in midair in front of a wall of ice. Others pilot drones or detonate brightly colored smoke bombs.

Recently, at sunset, a line of tourists lay on the frozen lake face down inside a natural grotto in the cliffs of the coast, taking pictures of the icicles that glittered like roses that hung from the ceiling.

“Salt!” some screamed when another group arrived. “Go for a walk, all of you! You are blocking the sun! “

“Social media has led to all of this,” said a guide to the grotto, Elvira Dorzhiyeva. “There are these main locations, and it’s like, ‘All that matters to me is that I want what I saw online.’

The most requested photos involve clear ice, which is why some guides carry brushes to sweep up the snow.

Nikita Bencharov, who learned English by competing in international table tennis tournaments in the Soviet era, runs a sprawling hotel complex in Olkhon and estimates that in a normal year, more than 70 percent of winter visitors are foreigners.

This year, almost all of your guests are Russian, which has presented a small problem. Russians who go on vacation abroad are used to cheap and comfortable accommodations, which are difficult to find in the confines of their own country. At Olkhon hotels this season, single double rooms cost up to $ 200 a night; in some cafes, the bathrooms are unheated open-air pit toilets.

“Foreigners are already a little prepared and thank the Lord that there is a normal bed here, at least, and that they are not sleeping on a bearskin,” Bencharov said. “They understand better than the Russians where they are traveling and why.”

Many operators geared towards foreign tourists have been quick to adapt. In Olkhon, the once Chinese restaurant now serves borscht.

At the north end of the island, where orange cliffs rise above a blue-white maze of ice formations, fleets of tourist vans deposit hundreds of people to slide and climb, and then to sip fish soup heated by fires directly on ice.

A Moscow couple, two engineers in their 30s, said they were visiting Siberia for the first time. One said he was excited by the scenery but shocked by the poverty of the region and felt sorry for the people and how they have to live.

About 50 miles away, at a fishing camp across the lake, three men took refuge in a metal shack on the ice, the indoor air tinged with the scent of cured fish, damp bedding, and moonshine from pine nuts in a plastic bottle on the floor. Two of the men, firefighters, said they made about $ 300 a month and took several weeks off in the fall to supplement their income by harvesting pine nuts in the forest.

“We do the bare minimum and we complain and complain, and that’s it,” said one of the firefighters, Andrei, 39. “So what, we hear Putin on TV …”

He let his voice trail off, with a nervous laugh. He refused to give his last name, concerned about retaliation in his government work.

Baikal’s alien landscape offers a temporary and perhaps deceptive escape from hardship and crisis. The coronavirus, for example, appears to be non-existent, without a mask in sight on visitors packing tourist vans and restaurants. His dismissive attitude reflected an independent poll this month that found that less than half of Russians were concerned about contracting the virus and that only 30 percent were interested in receiving the Russian coronavirus vaccine.

“It’s psychosis,” Elena Zelenkina, a park ranger, said of the global fear of the virus as she served tea and homemade donuts at a gift shop next to the hot springs on the lake’s quieter east shore.

A group of music fans from the nearby city of Irkutsk even went ahead with their annual covered winter music festival. One of the spectators, Artyom Nazarov, was from Belarus, one of the few countries whose citizens can now easily enter Russia.

Belarus, like Russia, has been rocked by anti-government protests. But like Putin, President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus has stood his ground, displaying an overwhelming show of force to quell the unrest. Nazarov said he had supported the protesters, but as it appeared his victory was neither imminent nor assured, he was moving forward.

He had spent an exciting week walking and skating around Olkhon. He expected more tourism outdoors, on the Russian peninsula of Kamchatka or in Iceland if the borders were opened.

“We all have our dreams and our goals that we want to achieve,” Nazarov said. “Life goes on.”

Oleg Matsnev contributed research from Moscow.

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