We’re taught that first impressions are important, but once again, travel has shown us that things aren’t always as they seem.
At first glance, the town of Irkutsk was grim. Crumbling roads emerged from the melting cover of snow as beat up cars, trams and buses jostled around town in no tangible order. Our taxi driver delivered us to a tired wooden house that on first glance appeared to be sinking into the muddy earth surrounding it. He assured us that it was the spot, although the lack of conviction in his voice as he unloaded our entourage of bags left me doubting otherwise.

To our surprise the building did indeed house our accommodations for the next several days, and the interior was in much better shape than the exterior. We were greeted at the door by the owner, a tall and lanky young Russian named Maxim who spoke sufficient English with a typical Russian drawl. He’d been working on renovating the hostel over the past several months and had turned it into into a comfortable and cozy retreat from the outdoors. As we settled in and got our bearings, we began to realize how much Maxim’s hostel was a metaphor for his people; at once cold and unwelcoming on the outside, the longer you stayed the more the facade crumbled (or sank, if you will), leaving nothing but a warm invitation to stay on the inside.

It took us two days to convince Maxim we didn’t want to walk on a frozen lake or trek through the frozen tundra; we were here to ski the Siberian mountains! Some phone calls were made and the next day we found out that a group of locals were heading to the mountains in 3 days time; if we were able to feed ourselves and find some sleeping bags we were more than welcome to join them. We were overwhelmed by Maxim’s help and his friends’ willingness to let us tag along on their trip; Russian hospitality was definitely shaping up nicely, and we could only hope the snow proved to be just as good where ever the heck it was we were headed.

The following day Maxim put us in touch with the first of the many Serge’s we’d end up meeting throughout our travels through Russia. Through many rounds of Google translate Serge welcomed us into the fold of the Baikal backcountry ski community. It would be Serge’s cabin which we would be crashing at for the next four nights, and that night we went to dinner to meet up with his friend Stepan, who would be our guide while we navigated the slopes of the Siberian backcountry. Although Stepan wasn’t certified, he knew the area well and was happy to have more guests along on the trip, proud to show off the knowledge and skills he had acquired while exploring his regional mountain playground.

Situated three hours from Irkutsk by car, the mountains that sit on Lake Baikal’s southeastern shore form a natural boundary between the motherland and Mongolia. A unique microclimate from the lake allows cold air moving down from the north to pick up moisture and dump it on the opposing shores – creating a skiing paradise that begins in late fall and continues into the following new year. Ten years ago the recreational possibilities were realized and the first accommodation was built, which it turns out, meant a shipping container was hauled up to the bottom of an avalanche chute and fixed with a stove that vented to the outside. It was enough to house those hearty souls passionate for the sport however, and since then the area has only grown in popularity. Fortunately for us the container has long been abandoned (but still remains in place), and we were treated to stay in Sergey’s cabin, one of approximately twenty that are now used throughout the year.

Arriving at the cabin that afternoon after a quick snowmobile lift up (from a kind gentleman named Sergey nonetheless), we were soon introduced to the rest of our crew; Kes, a young pilot from Moscow, Sergey “kamikaze” from Sheregesh, Yannick from Chamonix and Aubrey and Marie from Quebec. With just enough time for two laps before dark set in we strapped on our skis. Spring conditions were setting in and the snow was soft and crumbly under our feet, and we skied it with grins on our faces, whopping and hollering the whole way down. Somehow, beyond our greatest expectations, we had made it into the backcountry of Siberia, and to our delight, by the time we pulled back up to the cabin, it had begun to snow.

The next morning we awoke to a foot of fresh power. Our motly crew enjoyed an excited breakfast knowing it was ours for the taking; such are the rewards of backcountry skiing. With only a small handful of other locals there during the week, we would have our pick of lines on the mountain all day long. After everyone was strapped in and a safety check was done, Sergey led the charge up the mountain, breaking a trail with the finesse and ease of someone who has spent the last ten years of his life exploring these hills. Later we would learn that it was only three years prior that someone had introduced the locals to ski touring equipment; before then they had simply strapped everything on their back and walked up the mountain in their boots, or if they were lucky enough to own a pair, snowshoes. Such was the way of the Russian though, and it was inspiring and infectious; like stories from our grandparents time, they didn’t wait for someone to come along and show them where to find adventure and explore; they took the lead and the risk and made the adventure their own; simply teaching themselves as they went.

As we wound our way up the valleys and onto the ridge line of the mountain, the sun broke through the clouds, highlighting beautiful alpine bowls that ran into long treed descents. The group excitedly switched over our gear and one by one enjoyed our first taste of Siberian powder as we descended to the valley bottom. We did three more runs on that day, stopping only briefly for lunch and tea in the warm sunshine of the valley bottom.

Over the next few days we enjoyed beautiful sunshine and warming temperatures. Although quickly changing spring conditions steered our decision making process we were still able to find fresh snow on the northern aspects, skiing hard all day and basking in the sun with a cold beer back at the cabin by late afternoon. As the weekend approached the locals started to trickle in, joining in on the turns when they could and stopping by the cabin at night to swap stories and drink. Although a little off the mark Alison was delighted when a group of four barged into the cabin one evening demanding to know which one of us was ‘Alice’. After deciding that it must be she they were looking for and declaring so, the group burst into song, serenading her with a full rendition of a popular Russian tune which revolves around the bearer’s name. It was heartwarming and hilarious all at the same time, and only stood to reaffirm our love of the Russian people. With open arms we were welcomed into a close knit community of friends and quickly became one of their own; with a shared passion for the outdoors we bonded, never having felt more at home.

As we packed our bags four days later plans were already in the works for the adventure to continue. Marie and Aubrey and Alison and I would end up renting a car and driving two days south to see Sergey (kamikaze) in Sheregesh, where a few more days of skiing awaited us on his local mountain. We bid farewell to the rest of the group after one last night of debauchery and dinner back in town, sad for the trip to end but looking forward already to everything that lay ahead. Russia was continuing to prove itself beyond expectation, and we couldn’t wait to see where else the road was going to take us.

Beijing To Baikal

Long before we ventured overseas, Byron and I had often discussed our shared desire to include train travel in our time abroad. Although the leading candidate at the time was India (we were still planning on going to Nepal at this point), the idea was quickly left on the table when our plans left us touring around Southeast Asia instead. While we were enjoying the light and fluffy in Japan though, Powder magazine published a story titled “The Great Siberian Traverse”; a full length feature that follows three prominent skiers as they trained across the vast expanse of Siberia, skiing wherever possible along the way. That was all the incentive we needed; if they could do it, why the heck couldn’t we? The plan was made and visas were secured; our route would take us by train from Beijing to Russia (via Mongolia), where our first stop would be the city of Irkutsk. With ten days in Beijing to kill before our train left for Russia, we had just enough time to explore one last corner of Asia before heading north into Siberia.
Our first day in Beijing was beautiful; the air was crisp and the skies were blue, while a chilly wind kept the skies clear of both cloud and Beijing’s infamous pollution. As the wind died off over the next day or two though and the smog began to settle back into the city, we quickly developed a desire to leave the city. By night cars illuminated the all-encompassing pollution which shone like fog in the headlights, and by day you could count those which had remained parked for the night as they became covered by a distinctive film by the next morning. If inanimate objects bore this coating of pollution on the outside after only a day, what on earth did the inside of our lungs look like after two?
Our escape came on the China Highspeed Railway. After a little research we set our sights on the Huangshan mountains, which sit 1300km south of Beijing, only a mere 6 hours away when transported by one of the country’s newest rail lines traveling at speeds of up to 300km/hr. Onboard the train the next day, we were afforded a unique (albeit quick) view of life in China’s rapidly expanding countryside. Much of it simply resembled one construction site after the other; although there were breaks in between where flocks of sheep and farmers still roamed through their rapidly shrinking pastures, everywhere we looked a new rail line, highway, or high rise was being built. The economic growth the country is experiencing thanks to its adoption of quasi-capitalist principles coupled with a commanding one party government has resulted in rapid expansion with little to no consultation; zipping through rural farming villages cut in half by a high speed rail, it was painfully obvious that this growth has come fast, and the rising tide hasn’t lifted all boats.
We arrived at our destination in time to catch the last bus of the day, and were delivered to our hotel in the small town of Tangkou under the cover of darkness. The next day we woke to clear skies (hooray!), surrounded by towering granite peaks. Excited to explore these peaks, we boarded the bus which would deliver us into the park and the start of the trails. Although still quite commercially developed (think paved stairs and garbage cans all the way up), it was wonderful to be outside experiencing another face of China. Quite similar to the landscape of California’s Yosemite National Park, Byron and I slowly made our way up the mountain where we would spend the night in one of the hotels perched on the side of the jagged peaks.
Due to cultural differences in dormitory and shared bathroom etiquette, what happened that night will unfortunately go down as the worst night in the history of our entire trip. Sleep deprived and disgusted, we threw on our clothes the next morning and set out to explore the remaining trails before making our way back down into the valley. The sun greeted us along with the weekend crowds as we descended the mountain, and I chuckled as Byron was stopped again and again for photos along the way with awe struck Chinese. I don’t know if it was his blue eyes, blonde hair or blue pants that won them over, but either way it was a photo op they weren’t going to miss. After a short tram ride down the mountain we were soon back on the bullet to Beijing, ready for the start of our next adventure. Skis and gear in tow we boarded the train a few days later, ready to see what Siberia had in store for us.


The true Trans-Siberian starts in Valadvostock On Russia’s far east coast, traversing 9000km across the word’s largest country to arrive in Moscow one week later. Rated as a more popular option however is the Trans-Mongolian route, which heads north through Mongolia from China before connecting with the Trans-Siberian rail line 50 hours later in Irkutsk, Russia. Once we had firmly wedged our skis and oversized bags into our sleeper berth we excitedly settled in to watch Beijing fade away. As we jostled and bumped through the countryside China soon faded away into the cold wilds of Inner Mongolia. We reached the border late that evening and took the stop as an opportunity to grab a breath of fresh air and stretch our legs. We laughed as a Malaysian couple whom we had made friends with earlier that day experienced their first breaths of cold air; newly married they had chosen the train trip to Russia’s capital for their honeymoon. We repeatedly assured them that even for seasoned Canadians, -20C is cold for anyone. Still sceptical they grabbed a few quick breathless photos and smartly retired to the warmth of the waiting train. The next day was spent comfortably traversing the Gobi desert, still deep in the grasp of winter. That evening we made one last midnight border crossing and sleepily smiled as the border official checked our visas and stamped our passports; we had just entered the Russian Federation.
Our first glimpse of Siberia was exciting; we awoke in the morning to beautiful sunshine and Lake Baikal on one side of the train, and spectacular snow capped mountains on the other. As we pulled into Irkutsk that afternoon and grabbed a taxi to our hostel, all we could think about were the chilly peaks we had passed by that morning and wondering just how the heck we were going to get back there to ski them.




Huangshan Mountains

Huangshan Mountains
  Huangshan Mountains 

Huangshan Mountains

Beijing metro on route to Siberia.

  Goodbye China

China Mongolia Border

Gobi desert
 Home on the rails

Leg stretch.  Ulaanbaatar, Monoglia

New locomotive. Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia



Lake Baikal