Okay, Siberia is steel-splinteringly, mind-shatteringly cold. But supernaturally cold?

What? The locals couldn't stand the cold? In Siberia? The news was enough, this time last year, to get me on the first plane to Irkutsk: destination, mid-winter. And it seemed to be true. This was no ordinary Siberian cold. From Novosibirsk to Vladivostok, last January, the talk was of nothing but unprecedented, steel-splintering cold. Of failing hot-water pumps, of destroyed machinery, of wolves in the streets, of men and women turning up as frozen meat in their own beds. It was as though this gentle but tortured land had not quite suffered enough already.

From Irkutsk, I was soon at Lake Baikal, the emotional heartland of Siberia. A sacred place, people said; sacred to the Buryats, the local indigenous people. I recall sitting in a giant quilted coat, with Russian friends, in the back of a van, heading through sunny snowfields in the direction of Olkhon island, asking the obvious question: "Why is it so bloody cold?" What kind of impiety had been committed (I might have added), to prompt Buryat gods to start freeze-drying an entire continent? A regal Russian friend called Natasha began to chuckle. "Well funny you should mention it ..."

Things did sound bad. Olkhon island, at the best of times, was parched, bitter and haunted by spirits of the past. It was surrounded by white shifting ice in winter, black storm-blasted waters in summer. Buryat shamans had regarded its rocks as holy since their formation, and geologically speaking, this meant something: at 25 million years old, Baikal was a thousand times older than the typical fresh-water lake. Old enough – I reckoned – to have spawned whole nations of fulminating spirits.

Natasha added: "The shamans wanted nothing built on Olkhon within sight of the shamanic rocks. So, of course, the Communists built the village of Khuzhir right there ..."

With our boxes of food and tins and bottles, we resembled hippies driving to an Arctic Glastonbury. In front sat Olga, a polar bear of a woman, who kept asking when I intended to pour my first vodka-libation to the gods of the lake, ie to have a drink. Beside me was Natasha who, along with her elf-like husband, Nikita, had taken on the responsibility (she laughed, sadly) of keeping Olkhon alive.

Which was another reason for me to be here. One of Natasha's big ideas was to bring in foreign tourists. "They can enjoy Siberian nature at its most beautiful. The island ... the lake ... the water ..."

"In this weather?"

"But the air on Olkhon is so pure. And when the temperature rises to minus 20, you know, it can feel like spring."

At petrol-pumps in the lakeside village of Yelantsy, talk, again, was of thermometers. The attendant, ear-flaps down, griped that his had registered 50 below in the morning. That sounded downright dangerous. In search of reassurance, before crossing the ice to the island, we dropped in at the home of the regional shaman: one Valentin Vladimirovich, locally celebrated for a birth-defect: an auspicious cleft thumb. What could he advise us of Siberia's current woes?

"Lots," Vladimir roared, stomping about his tiny home in giant boots. "See this thumb of mine? It means I am marked by the god! I can perform rituals! I help people who are in trouble with the spirits! If a family's sons have been drowned off Olkhon, it means they need to appease the spirits of the water! So I take them to Baikal, and offer milk and prayers ..."

Olkhon, I could already see, was a place that needed delicate handling. Directly to the east of the island, where the lake plunges to appalling depths, the waters are lashed by winds of 100mph or more. Buryat legend spoke of hostile gods residing there, whose sport was to drown fishermen. Foremost of these was Burkhan; then came Doshkin-noyon, god of storms, specialising in stealing the bodies of the dead ... Old superstitious nonsense, of course. Who really believed in shamanism these days, I asked?

"Everyone!" put in the shaman. "It is in our genes! We cannot imagine life without it! Hospitals need rituals, schools need rituals, families need rituals. Otherwise we get trouble! And bad dreams!"

What about bad weather, I wondered? But suddenly Natasha leapt up in alarm. It was almost dark! We needed to get going if we were to cross Baikal's ice in safety.

It was by moonlight that our van finally creaked a slippery path across the frozen lake. Faults and fissures loomed up in the headlights. Olga had insisted that we drink vodka before crossing, offering one glass to Baikal as we did so. Natasha now admitted that she was afraid. "The god of the lake isn't always so friendly," she half-gasped. Burkhan sends two or three cars plunging through the ice each year.

By the time we reached the island, the moon and the stars were setting the snow aglitter. An hour later ­ at the village of Khuzhir ­ I found myself in a jumble of wooden cottages, each with its chimney, each set in its silver cloud of smoke. The thermometer on the door stood at -40C as I entered Natasha's candle-lit kitchen.

Dinner had a Baikal theme to it: fish soup, fish dumplings and fish cutlets, eaten in a witch's kitchen of smoking stoves, bubbling cauldrons and unidentified wenches with pink cheeks and ice on their lashes. The only interruption came from two men in dark hats who briefly appeared at the door without knocking. "They want to sell us 7,000 fish," sighed Natasha. "What can we do with 7,000 more fish?"

Later, I slept under a sooty ceiling, beside a stove the size of a house, while dogs, or wolves, howled at the moon outside.

Could I have guessed which century this was, when I finally awoke, the next day, to a pale pink dawn? Outside the kitchen window, cocoons of fur enveloped in steam were wandering past. I breakfasted on kasha (buckwheat porridge), while Olga, commanding the table in a fur hat, was using brute force to chop frozen fish.

Over sweet tea, Natasha murmured anxiously: "Rural life is like this everywhere, no? Even in England?" A cat popped up on her lap, knocking over a candle. The Communists built Khuzhir in an age that cared less for appeasing the spirits of nature, than for extracting fish on an industrial scale. Now the village, like much of Siberia, has been marooned by history. Villagers comb hair from their dogs to spin into wool from which to knit their gloves. They have no phones and no running water. Electricity comes every second day only, for a few hours. But right now, full of porridge, I strolled out into bright sunshine, having forgotten, briefly, about the temperature. Within minutes, my hat and scarf were white with hoarfrost and my Italian walking boots had become £100 blocks of ice. I sprinted back to cadge a pair of £3 valenki, the huge Siberian boots of felt. Now I would look like a bear, but my feet were warm.

With mangy, fur-frosted dogs at my heels ("They can smell the good life," Natasha told me later), I walked to a perfect circular bay, defined on both sides by soaring crags. One of these was the shamanic rock: a holy spot for Buryat people since the beginning of time; the spot defiled by the building of Khujir. From beside a solitary pine tree, I stared out across the vastness of Baikal. For a few short weeks in summer, people would lie here on sandy beaches. Now, as I stepped onto the lake's frozen surface, a mysterious underwater twanging reached my ears: the voice of Burkhan, suggesting ­ I fancied ­ prudence.

It was hard to avoid the conclusion, at that place, that Siberia was dead or dying. Baikal, this divinity of such awesome power, seemed to have been caught in a sudden cataclysm. Its waves had been stilled in mid-motion. Its cliffs were clad in thick milky white ice, draped like rows of colossal teeth. A scientist. arriving from another planet, would declare that, yes, life had once existed here ­ millions of years ago.

I supposed it was this threat of extinction that kept Natasha dreaming. She wanted to save her community from petrification. "Yes, we distribute money locally on behalf of charities," she explained, as we crunched through the frost-stricken village later, in search of friends. "We try to create work here for the villagers, by bringing tourists. But it is difficult to change mentalities here. We have to supervise everything. Things always get a little bit lost, a little bit forgotten, a little bit broken. People are born pessimistic in these villages."

To me this urbane young mother with her self-deprecating laugh, towering over the village girls, resembled an old-fashioned aristocrat, giving cookery lessons to her villagers. Together we dropped in on a pretty, cheerful woman called Natalia, to taste her preserved mushrooms.

Natalia promptly showed me an underground cellar packed floor-to-ceiling with jars. "Since moving to Olkhon I've had time on my hands," she began gabbling. "So my daughter and I have joined a movement! It is a mix of science and religion. We don't drink, don't eat meat, don't smoke! But we swim in cold water! It's great! We live in harmony with the universe."

There she sat, smiling in her dressing gown, over mushrooms, quibbling with her daughter on theology: a perfect example of end-of-world, Olkhon-induced, spiritual otherness. "Will you come swimming with us tomorrow?" she now asked. "In a hole in the ice? It will help purify your soul."

There were some strange people in this village, but strangest of all were the normal ones. Natasha later led me to the house of the director of the local school, a quiet man with thick, silver hair, named Ivan Ivanovich. In darkness, over home-cooked doughnuts, he told me that the school at Khuzhir had no fewer than 300 pupils. Did these children know, I wondered, that they lived in the coldest inhabited place on earth? "We have no new books, no furniture, no equipment," said Ivan Ivanovich, in a gloomy voice. "The temperature in the sports hall sometimes drops to minus 20. Our electricity supply comes from the fish factory's generator. If that fails then the school pipes will burst and the damage will not be repaired."

Ivan Ivanovich was an educated man, but to survive he still had to go to the mountains to collect hay in summer, to feed his cows, to obtain milk for the children. "You see, if you can survive here," smiled Natasha, "you can survive anywhere."

But were people surviving? I was still not convinced. For the ultimate test, I set out the next morning over the ice of Baikal, in search of Olkhon's lifeblood: fish. Three local teenage boys would guide me. Having just spent 30 minutes on his back in impacted snow to fix his father's truck's radiator, the oldest, Sergei, looked as though he had escaped from the battle for Stalingrad, with uncombed hair and cheeks streaked with grease.

An hour later, standing on ghostly transparent ice beside the truck, miles from shore, I felt scared. A fearful wind was getting up. Burkhan was restless. How could this be safe? But now two of the boys were digging a one-metre-deep hole in the ice. Another was erecting a canvas tent, with what looked like a chimney attached. And yes, minutes later, we were all seated inside the tent, around a glowing, steaming blue hole in the ice, next to a roaring stove. What was more, we were soon pulling up netted omul (the local equivalent to trout) by the dozen. "All hungry?" shouted Sergei, cutting open a fish and sprinkling it with salt and pepper. I anticipated a fry-up.

Wrong! Sergei now threw the fish outside the tent, onto the ice. We would eat it raw - frozen solid - with vodka. The Russians called it raskalotka; I called it Siberian ice-cream. It was pure bounty, granted by the beneficence of the lake.

"For raskalotka, the colder the better," cackled Sergei. His schoolboy eyes refocused on the net, and, with a lump in my throat, I felt that I had glimpsed the true meaning of human resilience. Siberia, even in a winter like this one, would always survive with little heroes like these.

The Facts

Getting there

Jeremy Atiyah flew from Britain to Moscow as a guest of Austrian Airlines (0845 6010948; www.aua.com). Irkutsk is linked by both the Trans-Siberian railway (88 hours) and direct flights (four hours) to Moscow. Return flights from Moscow to Irkutsk with Aeroflot (020-7491 1764; www.aeroflot.com) cost about £120 each way, if booked in the UK, less if booked in Russia. Return air fares from the UK right through to Irkutsk via Moscow usually cost between £450 and £500.

Olkhon Island is about 350km (200 miles), and a five-hour drive, north of the city of Irkutsk. There is no regular transport but lifts can be arranged easily to and from the island. In winter, vehicles drive across the ice; in summer they go on a ferry. For short periods in spring and autumn, when the ice is too thin to carry cars but too thick to permit the ferry, the island is inaccessible.

In Irkutsk, ask about staying with Nikita and Natasha, through the Aqua-Eco travel agency (00 7 3952 201000; aqua@angara.ru). Nikita and Natasha also have an email which they check two or three times a month (Nikita@olkhon.irkutsk.ru).

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