Slicing a north-south swathe through the mountains and coniferous snow forests of Siberia, visiting Russia’s Lake Baikal (Ozero Baikal) is a world-beating experience - and that’s no exaggeration. At over 1.6 km deep, Lake Baikal is the world’s deepest freshwater lake, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an undeniable sparkling jewel in Siberia’s crown. From finding out what you need to know before you go to Baikal, to discovering what makes it special, read on for your Lake Baikal travel guide.
Alongside being blessed with staggering biodiversity (more on that below), Lake Baikal is also known as the Sacred Sea, with its voluminous crystalline waters sparking many myths. Among the lake’s local legends is that of a water beast named Lusud-Khan (Water Dragon Master) by the region’s indigenous Buryat people. Said to resemble a giant sturgeon, with a protruding snout and armour festooning its back, sightings have been reported for hundreds of years, with some suggesting this legendary lake monster is represented in the Stone Age petroglyphs located along the Baikal cliffs.
Watch wildlife wonders: with over 80 percent of its 3700+ species found nowhere else on Earth, it’s little wonder that Lake Baikal is often called “The Galapagos of Russia”. The most famous of these endemic species is the slinky silver-grey nerpa, the world’s only exclusively freshwater seal. Believed to have become trapped here when the last Ice Age retreated, nerpa are now a protected species. To spot them, your best bet is to visit Olkhon Island, the Svyatoy Nos Peninsula, and the remote northern shores of Lake Baikal.
The gleaming waters of Lake Baikal are also home to over fifty species of fish, among them the endemic scaleless golomyanka fish, and the omul, a member of the salmon family and local speciality that looms large on menus. Then there’s the highly prized Baikal sturgeon that can produce up to nine kg of caviar on reaching maturity. As for land-based animals, the jagged forests around Lake Baikal offer opportunities to experience a veritable Siberian safari that might afford sightings of brown bears, reindeer, elk, moose, wild boar, Siberian roe deer, polecats, ermine, sable, lynx and wolverine. Oh, and actual wolves inhabit the wooded steppes.
Enjoy outdoor adventures: during the summer months, when hydrofoils and ferries make regular journeys to lakeside settlements, horse-riding, hiking and fishing are among the activities travellers enjoy during visits to Lake Baikal. Come winter, when the lake is frozen solid, ice roads criss-cross its expanse, and attention shifts to sledding, skiing and skating. For the truly adventurous, taking a trip to the Khamar-Daban Mountains south of Baikal offers arguably the most exhilarating opportunities of any Lake Baikal travel experience. It’s a draw for cross-country skiers and hikers who can handle untamed nature, replete with jaw-droppingly jagged ridges.
Experience Shamanism in epic surroundings: Lake Baikal’s awe-inspiring Olkhon Island - the third largest lake island in the world - is home to the shamanistic Buryat, whose spirituality is centred on the sacred Shaman Rock formation, and visible island-wide in the vivid prayer ribbons and flags entwined around trees and poles.
Large enough to have lakes of its own, Olkhon Island’s landscape is an extraordinary mix of taiga, grassland and forests - it even has a small desert. Best explored on foot, by bike or on horseback, it’s a heavenly haven for tranquillity-seekers who also enjoy getting active outdoors, with dozens of archaeological monuments to explore along the way, and herds of wild horses to watch out for.
Uncover Baikal culture: certainly the most tourist-oriented town in the area, Listvyanka makes a great base from which to launch your Lake Baikal adventures, and has plenty to keep you there for longer too - it has an excellent market (think fresh food and funky gifts) and a scattering of museums.
The Baikal Museum, for example, offers a virtual dive down to Lake Baikal’s depths, while the open-air Architectural and Ethnographic Museum Taltsy (20km from Listvyanka, and accessible via public transport) is a highlight of Lake Baikal tourism for confirmed culture vultures. Exhibits include reconstructions of traditional Buryat dwellings and 17th-century Cossack era buildings, with an area devoted to the indigenous nomadic Evenk people. It offers plenty of fun hands-on activities too - from clay doll-making and birch bark weaving, to stilt-walking.
From Irkutsk, you could look into booking an expert-guided day tour to Listvyanka. And if you fancy overnighting, Dream of Baikal Hotel is an elegant option, and a mere hop, skip and jump from Lake Baikal.
Summer: mid June - mid August
With low rainfall and an average temperature of 18°C in July, summer is by far the busiest season around Lake Baikal, especially on Olkhon Island. This is when its waters are at their warmest, sunsets are their most to-die-for, and the area is primed for walking, swimming, or general chilling in the Siberian sunshine.
Autumn: mid August - mid November
Come late August, the crowds have thinned, but it can get pretty rainy. And, while the temperature is still pretty clement in September, the waters of Lake Baikal might be too cold to swim. Through October and November, the weather takes a decidedly dodgy turn - rain and storms are frequent.
Winter: mid November - mid April
As the temperature dips (averaging -18°C through the winter months) so too do visitor numbers. All of which means visiting Lake Baikal between November and April allows you to experience its wintry majesty in relative solitude. By January Lake Baikal freezes to a depth of up two metres, its water transformed to a deep shade of solid sapphire that gives the feeling you're walking on glass. With snowfall (prohibitively) heavy through February, March is the best time to visit Lake Baikal to enjoy winter sports.
Spring: mid April - mid June
With the weather somewhat unstable in April and early May, late May and early June is ideal for travellers seeking a spot of solitude in stunning surroundings. You’re unlikely to get a tan, but it’s relatively mild and you’ll have Lake Baikal to yourself (almost).
When visiting Lake Baikal during the summer months, you’ll want to come armed with bug protection, and bear in mind too that temperatures drop a fair bit at dusk, so don’t forget to bring clothes to layer up with. And it goes without saying that you’ll need serious cold weather garb to keep out the frost during winter.
By plane: fly to Moscow, and then take the 5.5-hour flight to Irkutsk - gateway to exploring Lake Baikal. Served by Aeroflot Airlines and Sibir Airlines, there are usually a few flights a day. From Irkutsk, you'll be in Listvyanka after a 2.5-hour car or bus journey, while Olkhon Island is around seven hours away.
Meanwhile, on Olkhon Island, travellers on a budget might want to check-out Baza Otdykha Pervaya Expeditsiya - pretty basic, but a stone’s throw from a beautiful beach. At the other end of the scale (though still good value), Villa Malina Olkhon Baikal is super-close to the island’s Sacred Shaman Rock, with a great restaurant, and a smattering of pretty beachfront bungalows in addition to its main building.
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Top image: Sacred Shamamka Rock on Olkhon Island, Lake Baikal © gans33/Shutterstock