Whiteout: A Journey Across Lake Baikal (Film)
Whiteout is a meditative new film from Bombtrack that follows 23-year-old bikepacker Gaëlle Bojko on a 900-kilometer solo journey across the vast expanse of Siberia’s Lake Baikal in the depths of winter. Find the film and an interview with Gaëlle about her time riding and camping on the ice here…
We’ve been in awe of French cyclist Gaëlle Bojko (@biketotheblocks) since we first started following her 25,000-kilometer ride around Europe back in 2019. Then just 22 years old, she quickly earned a place as one of our most inspiring bikepackers of the year in our 2020 Bikepacking Awards. Beyond being an intrepid traveler, she’s established herself as a talented young filmmaker, writer, and photographer. And she also happens to have a beautiful eye for bikepacking bag design.
Released in partnership with Bombtrack Bikes, Whiteout is Gaëlle’s latest creative project. It’s a slow and reflective short film that captures her audacious solo ride across frozen Lake Baikal and unpacks some of what the experience meant to her. You can watch Whiteout below, then read on for a short interview with Gaëlle that digs a bit deeper into some of the topics the film touches on, plus a handful of her photos of the spectacular Siberian landscapes.
“Beyond the aesthetic side, there is also a more intimate meaning to these trips, where I feel alive.”
You mention your attraction to snowy environments in the film, but how’d you end up at Lake Baikal, of all places?
Lake Baikal is incredible for its biodiversity, its sheer volume of water, and its location. It’s the largest freshwater lake in the world by volume and I find it very impressive. I was thinking of a place to go cycling last winter as I had a few free months and it seemed like the perfect choice, especially after having read Les Forêts de Sibérie (Consolations of the Forest) by Sylvain Tesson, who lived six months in a cabin on the shore of the lake in 2010.
Can you talk a little about the riding conditions? Was it reasonably smooth rolling or tough going? Were you pushing your bike a lot?
There was a decent amount of pushing, especially through the snow. I managed to ride my bike most of the time, even if the surface wasn’t always very smooth because of the cracks in the ice. Some sections were as smooth and shiny as glass and others were closer to washboard roads.
Was the constant cracking and shuffling of the ice beneath your tires something you got used to or was it always a cause for concern?
The sounds of the ice cracking were always worrying, especially at night. I usually find the sound of waves, rivers, or the sea terribly frightening, so sleeping over rumbling water and cracking ice over the deepest lake in the world was a real challenge for my mind and nerves.
There are some stunning shots in Whiteout. What were a few of the challenges of filming this yourself in the dead of winter?
Thanks! Some plastic parts on my tripod broke on the very first day because of the cold, so that made filming more difficult. The biggest challenge was keeping all of my batteries warm so they wouldn’t lose their power too quickly. My pockets were full of batteries of all sorts, plus power banks and my headlamp.
The light on the lake is amazing and reflects beautifully on the ice. It was especially impressive at dusk when the sky and the frozen water turned pink. Because the days were short, I would pedal almost until nightfall so I was able to experience riding amid the incredible scenery.
The film gives a strong sense of isolation and aloneness. Is that something you were intentionally seeking on this part of your trip?
I knew it was going to be a solitary trip, but I didn’t feel alone. I met a few fishermen, tourists, and residents, and even two fellow bike tourers on the lake and these encounters were always very rich and enjoyable. I don’t mind being on my own so I didn’t worry about it too much while preparing for the journey.
How were you received by the people you met out on the lake?
I felt extremely welcomed by the people I met. Most of them were fishermen who were very surprised to see a person alone, especially a woman, on a bike, camping on the lake. They would inspect my studded tyres, offer a couple of fish, a cup of tea, or a lift. As I was starting to set up my tent one night, one of them spotted the red fabric and drove towards me to show me a cabin that was situated a few meters further up the shore. He lit up the fire and offered two omul, a species of fish endemic to Lake Baikal. I’ve been vegetarian for 10 years and have no idea how to prepare fish, but managed to cook them in the wood stove… eventually.
When you look back at the trip now, what’s your most vivid memory?
I have very happy memories of all the interactions I had on the lake as well as and on the train to get there and back. It made me eager to go back to Siberia and learn more about it.
The scenery is unforgettable but it wouldn’t be complete without the people, and their kindness and thoughtfulness. I thought a lot about the hard times and physical struggles for a few months when I was first back, but now that a year has passed, I mostly recall the positive moments.
A few nights after the fish cooking experiment, I spotted an old wagon by the side of the lake. I arranged my “bed” in it and started preparing dinner. A man who lived just a few meters away stopped by and invited me to his house to have some tea and dinner, then offered that I came back in the morning for breakfast. Many of the people I met were alone and seemed to be enjoying their time on their own. I felt very fortunate to connect with them, try to communicate, and learn a little more about the lake and the people who live around it.
Lastly, on a more practical note, what’s one piece of advice you have for anyone considering their first winter bikepacking trip?
There are many details that can make a winter bikepacking trip enjoyable or not. One of the main concerns is to keep warm. I found that a hot water bottle—ideally a thermos so you can use the water in the morning for breakfast—can save your feet overnight and keep your spirits high!
In case you missed it last year, be sure to check out Gaelle’s written account of her trip by the same name, which includes a larger gallery of images from her time on Lake Baikal. Looking for more weekend watching? We love Bombtrack’s previous film from Matty Waudby and Clare Nattress, Lost Captures.
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