Fighting Fear and Why I Crossed Lake Baikal on an Unmodified Motorbike Without a Tent or Satellite Phone

Located near Irkutsk, Lake Baikal is the world’s deepest lake at 1,642 meters. When I visited this part of Siberia in March 2017, it was around the time of the year when the lake is covered with ice. Why was I there? Simple - I wanted to cover 800 kilometers of this enormous lake using an largely-unmodified Yamaha motorcycle. I didn’t take a tent, and I didn’t take a satellite phone. Everything would be on me. No team, no backup crew, nothing. Just me.

The journey started on the lake’s frozen surface which cracked and bent under regularly. In temperatures as low as -29.5°C, I was forced to take a further step into the unknown by riding as far out as 15 kilometers from the short to get a solid grip level from the studded tyres.

One thing I learned is that you will never be fully prepared for such a trip, no matter how hard you try. Back at home in Lithuania, I tested the bike I used, a Yamaha XT600Z Tenere, a little bit before leaving but that was it. I had never experienced the feel of driving on studs and how this particular bike reacts to the cold. Similarly, I wasn’t sure how I would react to such cold temperatures, either.

“In the list of Karolis Mieliauskas’ trips before Baikal, there already were some impressive adventures. (…) However none of them prepared him for this journey alone, far from the shore of the deepest lake in the world”

– journalist and motorcyclist Bob Whitby, “ADV Pulse”.

I kept listening how the ice was cracking under the strain of the bike. It seemed sensible to use the heel of my boot to check if it would hold the weight of us. Partly frozen ice rifts on the surface of the lake were every 0.5 kilometers or so, and sometimes my foot went through and other times it didn’t. By using the boots to test how strong ice on a rift was, and if we’d go through it, I ended up carrying out my first ride across Lake Baikal with pretty wet feet during the winter.

Looking back, I wasn’t fully prepared for this first trip at all. However, I don’t see any reason to worry about this. I like to say that self confidence is not when you know exactly what will be IF will be. It is always impossible to predict everything that might happen, so why waste your time and energy thinking “coulda, woulda, shoulda.” I also think that if I started trusting that rational part of my brain too much, then who knows? Maybe I wouldn’t have come to Baikal at all.

The biggest motivation behind going to Baikal was a fascination with the place. It is the world’s deepest lake and during the time of year looks like a big white desert. I still don’t know why, but its mysterious nature and sheer size kept cropping up in my thoughts. It seemed the perfect time (as now is) to let life live me, instead of me trying to live life. I noticed that I was doing things that were moving me closer to going instead of thinking about it. In the end, I just gave in, selected a date, and then everything started.

Despite using what was essentially a standard road bike, most of my attention was taken up by a fear of damaging myself instead of worrying about technical issues. When you start your day by falling off your motorbike and onto the ice, you start worrying about whether it is you or the machine that will come of worse during the next crash. Ultimately, these moments are about you and no less important than any technical problem. Standing amidst the ice rifts and seeing just water was also a good indicator of the physical and mental effort that this first journey would take. It was staggering.

Being on Baikal and away from the bustle of a city was very special. Across each kilometer I was in awe, but not of the view only. The place’s sheer seclusion allowed me to really embrace inner processes, thoughts, and emotions. It was a time of - now.

I read a quote in Motorbike Rider and I think it sums things up nicely about the Baikal journey:

“For most travelers, driving in difficult conditions – in the heat, cold, strong wind or in rainfall – is misery. But to others it is a blissful experience.”