From the majesty of its mountains to the devastation left in the wake of forest fires, Siberia’s landscapes are unlike anything else in the world.
Stretching from the Ural Mountains to the Arctic Ocean in the north and to the Pacific Ocean in the east, Siberia is a mesmerizing wilderness. Taiga is reaching towards the horizon all around and mountain ranges are cutting through the land. Lake Baikal—the deepest lake on earth—and the great rivers Lena, Ob, and Yenisey with their vast watersheds provide the region with plenty of water. While home to bustling cities such as Vladivostok, Irkutsk, and Novosibirsk, Siberia is better known for the nomadic reindeer people who live on the northern tundra and the thousands of villages where people live an agricultural life.
Siberia invites adventure travelers to come and explore, to traverse it on the Trans-Siberian Railway or to hike or climb in the Altai Mountains. Winter has its own charm: drive or cycle across Lake Baikal or go cross-country skiing anywhere you fancy. What does Siberia look like throughout the rest of the year? Let’s find out.
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A mere five miles south of Vladivostok’s downtown area, the Amur and Golden Horn Bays meet at Cape Tokarevsky. It’s late March and a large section of the water surface is still frozen over. In some areas, the ice is strong enough to hold the cars of the people that come to ice fish. Closer to the city area, however, the ice is breaking up in chunks, creating enough open water for locals to go paddle-boarding, which has grown into a popular winter activity.
The Tokarevskaya Koshka lighthouse stands as a solitary beacon at the end of the artificially elevated sandspit (“koshka”). In 1876, when navigation around Vladivostok began, they built a lighthouse, which was replaced in 1910 and is now fully automated.
The border stretches some 155 miles from Vladivostok down to the North Korean border. Arguably one of the most gorgeous areas of the Primorsky Krai region, it is popular with local visitors during the warm summer months. For a day, a weekend, or a vacation they camp along the shores, go snorkeling or swimming in the translucent water, and hike the trails across hills and through forests.
In early April, however, summer is still far away. Amidst a bare, red-brownish forested area that still shows no hints of spring, the turquoise and aquamarine waters of Vizay Bay color the surroundings.
Late April and, like every year, forest fires are raging all across the Siberian taiga, scarring the landscape and taking wooden houses down as the wind pushes them onward. This is partly a natural phenomenon in boreal forests as, during the dry spring and autumn months, a burning cigarette or an empty bottle thrown is enough to raze vast expanses of forest. Sometimes fires are started on purpose as no permit is required to cut down damaged forests.
When driving the Amur Highway the heat of the fires penetrates the open car windows, but only aerial shots really show the enormity of the devastation.
A solitary reminder of the fire that has just raged across the area rises from the blackened soil: one leafless, white tree, its shadow betraying how tall it is. The authorities are alert throughout the season. Along the road fire trucks are waiting for instructions telling them where to go. Most of the trails leading into the forests are closed off and making campfires is prohibited during this time of the year.
Lake Baikal is roaring and a closer inspection reveals that the ice is causing the noise. It’s the middle of May and the last strip of ice, some thirty-feet-wide along the shore, is working hard to melt. The frozen surface is breaking up into floes that peacefully move back and forth in the world’s deepest lake, which holds twenty percent of the world’s fresh surface water.
The blocks of ice break against each other into billions of shards, causing the cacophony until the last bit of ice has melted and the white surface has made way for blue, translucent water. It’s the middle of May—winters last long in this part of the world.
Svyatoy Nos Peninsula
Lake Baikal’s eastern end runs along a twelve-mile sandbank that ends at a headland where a mountain range (the highest peak is 6,158 feet) rises. While the peninsula’s northern bay is rough and wild, still covered with thick ice, this image of the meandering river gives a sense of gentleness, promising spring.
Below the protection of dried grass are fresh green blades and on the trees the first tiny buds of spring leaves and flowers are visible. Along the edges of the peninsula, people are setting up camp, enjoying one of the first truly warm days of spring. It’s late May.
East of Lake Baikal runs the Barguzin Valley with one main road going in and out. The few people that inhabit the small villages, which date back to the 17th century, live off the land. The road, partly unpaved and partly asphalted, follows the meandering Barguzin River.
In the countryside are places of sacrifice where locals hang blue scarves in the trees; people combine Buddhism with animistic beliefs. The grassy lands are hemmed in by mountains on either side. The western side is particularly wild looking and demanding of respect.
One moment the sky is clear, the next clouds are ferociously racing across the sky. Leaves are ripped from the birches, the yellow pine trees shudder and shed their needles. The evergreens stand undisturbed and will continue to do so. Soon they will be blanketed in snow. It’s late September and winter is on its way. Ten minutes of rain, and the storm has passed. Peace and silence return to the taiga.
It is early October when the first snow covers the mountain tops while the lower parts of the range still show a marvelous display of bright yellow and red autumn colors. Winters start early here, in the south of the Primosky Krai region.
Mount Falaza is part of the Livadia range, east of Vladivostok and can easily be visited from the city for a day or weekend trip. Locals like to come here to hike—there are dedicated trails—and to ski.
Starting west of Lake Baikal, in the Baikal Mountains, the Lena River cuts through Siberia’s boreal forests, finding its way north to the Arctic Ocean 2,736 miles later. Wide and imposing, it is believed the word Lena derives from “Elye-Ene” meaning “The Large River” in the language of the indigenous Even-Evenk people.
During the winter months the Lena River serves as the local road, and because there are hardly any regular roads (only one road bridge crosses it, in Ust-Kut), the river is plied by cargo boats in summer. It’s early October, the autumn foliage is at its best. The last boats ply the river; winter is setting in.