Lake Baikal, Siberia

Between Yekaterinburg, where in 1918 Russia’s last tsar and his family were infamously slain by the Bolsheviks, and the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar, the tracks of the Trans Siberian Railway coil down to the shore of Lake Baikal, then skirt its southwestern edge for several hours almost as far as Ulan Ude. Mountains rise up on every side of the crescent-shaped lake, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which despite its incredible size freezes across its surface from winter until late spring.
Near the lake is the historic city of Irkutsk, which began life as a remote Cossack outpost frequented by tea and fur traders. It is now the gateway to Siberia, with its traditional log houses, 18th century churches and other cultural landmarks created by Russia’s former artistic and intellectual elite, who were exiled here in the late 19th century and earned Irkutsk its reputation as the ‘Paris of Siberia’. The lake itself makes regular appearances in Russian folklore.
Baikal, for its part, is sometimes referred to as ‘Russia’s Galapagos’. The lake provides habitat for thousands of plant and animal species, many of them endemic. Depending on the time of year you might see seals, wild boar, Eurasian brown bears, wolves, and red foxes. It is one of the constants on any Trans Siberian or Trans Mongolian journey, among the most scenic stretches of a route that is hardly short of them, and a place where many travelers opt to spend a few nights either in Irkutsk or on the lakeshore itself.

Baikal by the numbers

This is the world’s deepest lake, at 1,700m, and it contains almost a quarter of the surface water on the planet. It’s also reckoned to be the world’s oldest, formed by a rift in the Earth’s crust some 25 million years ago, explaining its long, thin shape. And, it’s one of the clearest lakes in the world too, because of low levels of mineral salts, with underwater visibility up to 40m in winter, if you have the nerve to look for yourself.

Lake Baikal is more than 600km long, and 80km wide, and it grows larger every year – some believe it’s an ocean in progress. Even though the climate here is quite mild compared with the rest of Siberia, Lake Baikal usually freezes over in winter, the ice two metres thick in places, broken up only by some 27 islands, most of which are uninhabited.

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Best time to visit Lake Baikal

Spring and autumn in Siberia are vanishingly short. For the most part the region is characterised by a pleasant though not especially warm summer – it can reach 11°C at Lake Baikal in August, and punishingly cold winters when the air temperatures drop to around -21°C. But despite that, winter can be a wonderful time to visit, a landscape frozen in time.
Between mid January and mid-April when the ice is most solid, people walk, bicycle, skate, even drive across the lake, perhaps pausing to drill a hole and do a little fishing, or to admire some of the beautiful formations in the ice sheet, which patterns with crystalised bubbles and waves. On the shore, in villages such as Listvyanka, you can take a traditional horse-drawn sleigh ride, a troika, with a bottle of vodka to share; admire the wooden churches and houses frosted with snow; thrill to travel by dog-sled or snowmobile, and warm your cockles in a steamy banya, perhaps working on your blood circulation with a light thrashing from a birch branch.
In the summer Trans Siberian travelers are joined by Russian families thronging the lakeshore, picnicking, hiking, swimming and taking boat rides. The water temperature can get to 10°C in summer, rarely over, but manageable for a refreshing dip and a lovely way to break up a long rail journey. Seals can be seen bobbing along too, but by late summer and early autumn, storms have a tendency to roil the waters, raising huge waves.
Lake Baikal is one of the definite must-sees on Trans Siberian and Trans Mongolian vacations. Don’t expect much in the way of modern infrastructure however. If you want luxurious accommodations and amenities, stay in Irkutsk and come for a day-trip.

Lake Baikal travel advice

Sasha Chesnokova from our vacation specialist Sundowners Overland on why everyone should pause for a few days at Lake Baikal:

A unique destination

“Like the Mongolian steppe, Lake Baikal is just a really unique, spectacular place that everyone should see. It’s so vast that it doesn’t freeze until at least late January, and when it does it’s absolutely beautiful, the ice so clear you can see really deep as you walk upon it. There is an interesting limnological museum in Listvyanka that tells you more about the lake’s history and wildlife, including the famous Baikal seals.”

Try a Russian banya

“After arriving in Irkutsk most people transfer to Lake Baikal, and stay in a village called Listvyanka. The wooden chalets here are set just back from the lake, a short walk away, but you can often see the water from your balcony. They’re very welcoming places, and some have banyas – our tour leaders will help you with your first experience of a Russian sauna, and reassure you that if you don’t want to jump into the lake afterwards you really don’t have to!”
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Sergey Pesterev] [Lake Baikal: Sergey Pesterev] [Frozen: Sergey Pesterev] [Wooden chalets: Victoria Abrosimova]
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