The harsh Siberian wind chill pierces the body like dozens of frozen needles. The air might be clear, but anyone unused to these brutal conditions is going to find themselves inhaling a cluster of tiny icicles every time they attempt to breathe, their subsequent exhalations misting in the frigid Russian air.
It’s the middle of January, and the temperature near the town of Irkutsk is a chilling minus 26 degree Celsius. While the city, which is home to more than 600,000 people, is lovely to visit during the warmer months, Omani national Laila Al Habsi went there precisely because she loves the cold.
To many, ‘Winter is coming’ is a phrase that helps us recall Game of Thrones, but for Laila, who hails from the capital of Muscat, it is time to plan her birthday gift to herself.
On January 24, 2019, three days after her birthday, amid freezing conditions and some rather inhospitable weather, Laila Al Habsi became the first woman from the Middle East to dive into Lake Baikal. Her fascination around the world’s largest and oldest freshwater lake grew shortly after she arrived in Russia as a student; a stay that lasted six years and culminated in her wanting to explore its millennia-old depths.
“I got so intrigued with the geology and mysticism surrounding the lake,” she says. “My obsession with the lake then grew to the point that I only started drinking Baikal water. I’ve never dived in a dry suit, let alone a frozen lake before, so this was different.”
To list diving into icy waters in the middle of winter as an ambition is sure to make many people express surprise, and in some cases, caution, but Laila had been building up to this. Her desire to see the natural wonders of the world has seen her witness many wonderful spectacles many of us only experience through books, or see on our screens.
“I have had my share of adventures, such as flying over Kamchatka’s volcanoes, and visiting the Kola Peninsula in the Arctic Ocean to watch the Aurora Borealis,” she says. “I’d like to return and visit the Valley of Geysers, the second largest concentration of geysers in the world."
It is, in a way, fortunate she loves the winters: the passages to Baikal are only accessible when the surface freezes over. The process begins in November or December, and signs are put up to let drivers know it is safe for them to cross the ice sheet…at their own risk.
Clad in clothing several layers thick to protect her from the biting cold, and wearing snow shoes (probably) bigger than her head, Laila arrived at her destination with her best friend, Russian Anna Lutkova – the duo have been best friends ever since they first met on a plane in 2014 – having taken a five-hour flight from Moscow to Irkutsk, and a two-hour drive to the lake. The most testing leg of her journey though, equal parts exciting and nerve-wracking, still lay in front of her.
Hearing Laila describe what it was like to take the plunge makes it feel like you’ve dived alongside her into the underwater realm. Away from the stresses of everyday life, Laila felt at one with nature, as she stood upside down and witnessed the surreal sights around her. At the forefront of all her thoughts, though, was one that was as crystal clear as the ice around her: “I felt happy and accomplished – I had just dived in Baikal.”
“I tend to be extremely calm in such settings, I did feel a hint of panic as the instructor led me to an opening and he proceeded to break the ice in front of me,” she added. “It was a shore dive, and we only went as deep as three to five metres. The water was cold – around one or two degrees.
“Baikal holds about 20 percent of the world’s fresh water, it was extremely clean and clear: looking up at the ice and watching the light shine through was magical,” she wistfully recalls.” Immediately afterwards, I got warm again very quickly as diving in a dry suit only allows your hands, feet and face to touch the water – depending on what you wear underneath you are sufficiently warm. We went for pancakes right after.”
Although her past journeys had gone some way in preparing her for the dive, it was still important for Laila to be both mentally and physically ready for her time in the near-freezing waters, particularly after her long journey and arduous conditions on land.
“The training consisted mostly of mental preparation; meditation and breathing exercises,” she says. “It was important for me to be able to regulate my breathing and control my oxygen intake. Regulating your breathing is a challenge when your body is in a slight state of shock due to extreme temperature change.”
There was something else within her that helped with the conditions underwater: “The hot chocolate I was asked to drink before the dive did keep me warm.”
In many ways, her journey to Baikal mirrors her experiences in Russia: although cold and unforgiving on the surface, there is much beauty and wonder just underneath. It is enough to shatter many stereotypes we might have about other parts of the world. As Laila herself puts it, her time there has been ‘life-changing’, in more ways than one.
“Russians are one of the most hard-working nationalities I’ve met,” she says. “Their culture and lifestyle had a great influence on me. I believe there is a misconception about Russians being cold, and I have to admit that was the first impression I had , but when you learn the language and live there you come to understand the saying ‘never judge a book by its cover’.
“They are some of my most loyal friends,” explained Laila. “Russians are very well educated on their history…this taught me the importance of valuing your culture. Russia has a long and rich history- What I loved most about Russia is the perfect balance between old and new. It can be seen in their paintings, architecture, literature and music. I can’t talk about Russia without mentioning its natural landscape. Travelling across that amazing land, I was always in awe witnessing how the landscape changes from one extreme to another. It truly is the largest country in the world.”
Laila may have bid dasvidaniya to Russia for now, but her experiences there to witness nature’s wondrous works have helped her appreciate life from a new perspective and break many preconceived notions we are likely to hold.
“If you are attempting something that people deem crazy, you really only need to convince your heart,” she says, the wisdom she spouts belying her young years. “Eventually, even your mind will follow. It truly is mind over matter.”
So what’s next for Laila in this big, vast world of ours? “I’d like to return and visit the Valley of Geysers, the second largest concentration of geysers in the world,” she reveals. “I also have my eyes on the Pacific Ring of Fire.
“This diving experience taught me that in order to properly appreciate the vast creations of this earth we must get comfortable with the idea of the unknown,” admits Laila. “This earth was created flawlessly and was made for everything to coexist harmoniously. Humans are a small part of this system, and the 25-million-year-old lake reminded me of that as soon I hit the water.” – [email protected]