Located in the Eastern Siberia close to the Mongolian border, within the Irkutsk Oblast (Western shore) and Buryatia (Eastern Shore), the glimmering blue pearl of Russia, Lake Baikal, is rightfully upheld as Siberia’s most famous attraction. Read on as this Lake Baikal travel guide will take you on an adventure you might just make a reality some day.
Its clear-as-a-mirror waters are a reflection of Siberia’s wildness, its vastness and its beauty. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the crescent-shaped lake extends for 636km from north to south and is up to 1,637m deep, making it the deepest lake in the world. In fact, 20% of the world’s fresh water is contained within Lake Baikal.
Intersected by the Trans-Siberian Railway, the Baikal region is an easily accessible and fabulously scenic place to get acquainted with a world of uniquely Siberian thrills. This guide will introduce you the must-see Lake Baikal attractions and will advise on the best time for travelling around the region. You can embark on your Baikal tour either from the western part in Irkutsk Oblast or from the eastern part – Buryatia. Let’s start the Lake Baikal’s list of attractions with the most popular among tourists – the western part.
1. Irkutsk city
The unofficial capital of the region, also known as the “Paris of Siberia” makes a great starting point for planning your excursions in the region. Take an Irkutsk city tour and explore the stunning architecture and warm hospitality of the locals. Make a photo-stop at the beautiful Russian Orthodox church and a Polish Cathedral (the only Siberian Gothic-style building), and stroll along the embankment of River Angara.
One of the most charming parts of Irkutsk is the city centre with its green boulevards and the ensemble of the central square. You will see many small one- and two-stored wooden houses or cabins that are decorated with “wooden laces” (hand-made carvings) as well as modern constructions of the 20th century. Take a pause and try Siberian dishes at one of the cosy cafes at 130th Quarter, nonetheless a pleasant place to stroll, packed with restaurants, cafes and commercial museums.
For the in-depth history of the region, visit the Irkutsk Museum of Regional Studies, which features fascinating exhibits on the indigenous cultures of the Baikal region, or take an excursion inside the Decembrists’ House – Russian aristocrats, who were exiled to Irkutsk after trying to prevent the coronation of Nicholas I.
2. Listvyanka village
Just in the 70-km drive from Irkutsk, nestled between the western shore of the lake and the mouth of the Angara River, Listvyanka is the most widely visited village in the Baikal region, with a good selection of hotels, restaurants and the opportunity to experience a Russian banya (sauna) right on the shore. This tiny fishermen village is the place to sample smoked omul (Baikal whitefish) while you take in the views. Take a ride on a chairlift to enjoy a panorama views of Angara River and Lake Baikal from the Cherskogo Rock viewpoint. And don’t forget to visit the Baikal Limnological Museum with 11 aquariums, containing the Lake Baikal fauna and trained Baikal freshwater seals. Visit the Taltsy open-air museum of wooden architecture and ethnography, which allows visitors to step into the everyday life and culture of Siberians from past centuries.
Most of the sightseeing tours to the attractions of Lake Baikal start basically from here. From Listvyanka you can travel either to the south of the region, closer to the Mongolian border, or to the north to explore the Lake Baikal’s islands, bays and beaches.
3. The Great Baikal Trail
The ever-growing trail network links Listvyanka with Bolshiye Koty, another of the stunning fishing villages along the shore. The 24km of the trail along the shore can be finished within 5-8 hours. The longest section of the trail runs from Listvyanka via Bolshiye Koty to Bolshoye Goloustnoye. The hike usually takes 2-3 days and is characterized by swift transitions between steep coastal bluffs, sandy beach and deep forest. There are guesthouses or homestays available at little villages in the evenings, and you can even get back to Irkutsk by boat or bus from trail’s end in Bolshoye Goloustnoye.
Since 2003, some 5,000 volunteers from more than 30 countries have built or improved some trails during hundreds of two-week work projects. Siberian officials hope to circle the entire lake with trails, but until then enjoy the exclusivity and seclusion as you go it alone.
4. Circum-Baikal Railroad
An extraordinarily scenic stretch of rail beginning in Port Baikal, where you can get by a ferry from Listvyanka village. The Circum-Baikal Railway is undoubtedly one of the most picturesque sections of the Trans-Siberian Railway. An extraordinary achievement in engineering, known as the ‘gold belt’ of Siberia, it was one of the grand projects of Tsarist times. Built between 1896 and 1900 and designed by architects and engineers summoned from all over Europe, the rail was laid along the edge of the coast through the dramatic slopes of the Primorsky Range.
Spend a fantastic day trip on a train, it’s possible to hop on and off the train at some of the most scenic points along the railway, or join a group for a 6-hour cruise along the most beautiful parts of the railroad with a picnic organised on the shores. If travelling by train, your final destination can be either Irkutsk or Slyudyanka village – a getaway for hiking tours in the Sayan Mountains.
The train tours are operated just 2 days a week for Irkutsk – Slyudyanka – Listvyanka route, and 2 days for the reverse route. Every year the itinerary changes, so you need to double check the schedule in order to plan your tour in Lake Baikal.
5. Arshan village
Hot springs and mineral water origins are dotted all around the Baikal region. One of the more accessible places to enjoy their steamy delights is the village of Arshan, a two-hour scenic drive from the western coast of Lake Baikal and about 200 km south from Slyudyanka, it’s located in the foothills of the thickly forested Sayan Mountains on the bank of Kyngyrga river.
On the main street, you’ll find the Arshan Spa, a once-grand 1920s resort, which still attracts a steady stream of locals to its soothing mineral pools and mud baths. Water temperatures range from 11 to 45°C, with each pool said to possess different healing properties. Take a short drive to the nearby village of Zhemchug to plunge in the hot springs right under the sky.
Around Arshan you can escape to peaceful walks in the forest and the “Badkirkharma Datsan”, a quaint Buddhist temple with a stunning mountain backdrop. Or visit the Mongolian market, which sells a variety of health products and herbals, as well as clothing made of yak, goat and camel wool.
Another popular tourist activity here is hiking – short treks up to the waterfalls and 6-hour-long climb to the Peak of Love (2,400m). Hard to imagine but true: traces of volcanic activity from the end of the Ice Age can be found near Arshan. The place is cold “the valley of extinct volcanoes” or just Volcanoes Valley.
This fold is a water gap between the rivers Khi-Gol and Zhombolok, filled with lava from the volcanoes Kropotkin’s and Peretolchin’s, which were active just a few thousand years ago. The thickness of the lava layer in the valley reaches 150 meters, and nothing grows on its grey surface, in spite of the volcanic necks.
6. Peschanaya Bay
Located 80-km from Listvyanka, within the Pribaikalsky National Park, Peschanaya Bay (Sandy Bay), also known as “Siberian Riviera”, is a famous place in Baikal among locals and travellers. The Bay is guarded by two rocks-giants located on both sides of it, Big and Small Belfries, they protect Peshanaya Bay by their steep rocky slopes from strong winds.
The bay is lighted by golden sands and bright summer sun. Sand dunes are changed by centuries-old pine trees, behind them hidden natural architectural creatures — granite rocks. The trees-walkers are the masterpieces themselves, ancient larch-trees that are shaped into unpredictable forms by the time and strong Baikal winds.
You can get to Peschanaya Bay by a passenger hydrofoil from Irkutsk or Listvyanka (about 4 hours en route) or join the short Lake Baikal cruise, which goes along the western shore to Olkhon Island. A hydrofoil operates only several days a week, so check the exact schedule before planning to visit this site.
7. Olkhon Island
Located in the centre of the lake and about 250 km north-east from Irkutsk, Olkhon is a symbol of Baikal and it’s the biggest island. 72 km long and 20 km wide, with the population about 1,500 people, it is also a part of Pribaikalsky National Park. With its endless beaches, bays, forests and mini-lakes, it’s definitely most beautiful part of Lake Baikal.
Olkhon is reachable overland or by the “sea”. Board a passenger hydrofoil from Irkutsk or Listvyanka which will take you on a 4-5-hour cruise along the western shore of Baikal. It operates just several days a week, so check the schedule before planning the trip to Olkhon. The driving route from Irkutsk will take about 3-4 hours, on which you may stop at the road cafe to try the traditional Buryat food: buzy and spicy tea, or visit the traditional Buryat village of Ust-Orda, where you can meet a shaman and learn about Buryat way of life. The route from Irkutsk will end at the village of Skhurta, located at the Maloye More (Small Sea) strait, from where you will need to take a ferry to Khuzhir village, main settlement, located in the middle of the island.
Olkhon Island is considered to be one of the world’s most important shamanistic centres by the Buryat people, the native inhabitants of the island. Locals often refer to a shaman for various consultations. It is believed that spirits of the Buryat pantheon live in cliffs of the island. Spirits reside in trees, posts, and rocks, referred to as obos, and are often draped in colourful rags. It is customary to place coins, cigarettes, and vodka on the ground, as gifts. A lot of legends about Olkhon and its sacred places are passed down from generation to generation. One of the legend says that Gengis Khan was buried here.
Also called Burkhan Cape, Shaman Rock, a sacred place in Khuzhir, is believed to have supernatural powers by shamans and is one of the main tourist attractions on the island. It especially mesmerising at the sunrise or sunset. Another beautiful spot on Olkhon is Khoboy Cape. It is the most northern point of Olkhon island, a very beautiful spot where you can see the panorama view of the lake, cliffs, seagulls, and sometimes, if youíre lucky, even Baikal seals. The scenic bus-tour from Khuzhir to the cape and back with many stops and walks will take almost all day, though the road is unsealed and bumpy, the experience is definitely worth it.
Plan 3-4 days of staying at Olkhon for different activities such as kayaking, biking, hiking, or just strolling around the island and enjoying its special energy. Or join the group tour with guaranteed departures to explore the Olkhon Island and other attractions around Baikal.
8. Ogoy Island
A small island with an eight-metre-hight Buddhist stupa of Enlightenment was raised at the highest point. A Buddhist stupa and an object of worship that means “support for gifts”. There are only two stupas in Russia – on Lake Baikal and in Kalmykia Republic. It is believed that if you go around the stupa three times expressing your respect to it and make a wish, it will come true. There is only one condition: the thoughts of the person who makes a wish should be pure.
Embark on a boat trip to Ogoy in Summer or visit this small island by 4wd car crossing the ice in Winter. During this trip you will cross the Maloye Morye passing close by its islands and see amazing scenery of Lake Baikal.
9. Ulan-Ude city
The appealing capital of Buryatia, ‘UU’ is 456km east of Irkutsk by rail and makes a sensible staging post for visiting Mongolia or eastern Lake Baikal. The city prospered as a major stop on the tea-caravan route from China, Ulan means ‘Red’ in Buryat, yet Ulan-Ude is pleasantly green, cradled attractively in rolling hills. The main attractions in Ulan-Ude are the two museums (of history and of nature), villages of old-believers and the Ivolginsky Buddhist Datsan.
The home to the epicentre of Buddhism in Russia the mysterious Ivolginksy Datsan; along with the awe of the elaborately decorated temples is the phenomenon that is the preserved body of Khambo Lama, formally Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov. His education into the Buddhist teachings and conviction enabled Itigilov to pursue the greatest constituent of his faith, becoming Khambo Lama, the head of Buddhism in Russia. The monastery attracts visitors year-round allowing the public to be enlightened by the Buddhist history, Meditation and the Buddhist faith.
10. The frozen Baikal
The real fun starts between late January and mid-April when the surface of Lake Baikal is frozen. Hovercrafts, ice bikes, dog sleds, ice-golf and pretty much anything else you can imagine. Don’t forget to take a dip in the healing waters offshore, reputed to be Siberia’s own fountain of youth.
It’s also the best time for landscape photography. Summer sees the bulk of tourist activity in the area, but it’s in winter that the most devoted photographers make the pilgrimage, hoping to capture once-in-a-lifetime images of the natural world at its most powerful and surreal. Exploring the lake’s numerous islands will reveal hidden grottoes and frozen caves where intricate ice formations make for otherworldly photo subjects
How to get to Lake Baikal
The closest airport to the western shore of Baikal is Irkutsk. There are regular flights from the major Russian cities to Irkutsk, including from Moscow, St Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk and Vladivostok. There are also several flights a week to Irkutsk from Beijing and occasional flights from Bangkok, Hong Kong and seasonally, twice a week from Seoul. For the western shore of Lake Baikal, the closest airport is Ulan-Ude. It’s a smaller airport, serviced by flights from Moscow and the larger Siberian airports, as well as flights from Beijing.
Most travellers arriving in Lake Baikal overland get to the region via the famous Trans-Siberian Railway, typically departing from Moscow, Vladivostok or Beijing.
Best time to go
Baikal’s climate is much milder than that of the surrounding territory. Winter air temperatures average −21 °C, and August temperatures average +15 °C. Summer months from June to August is the most popular time for visiting Lake Baikal, with July being the busiest one, and sometimes overcrowded. September brings beautiful autumn colours to the Taiga forest, which make this stunning region even more beautiful, however, most group tours have last departures just in the beginning of Setpenerb, so if you’d like to join these organised tours, plan your trip not later than 10 September.
The ice freezes the 20 km distance to shore between January and April simultaneously isolating the island from boat traffic while paving the way for one of the most amazing ice treks imaginable. From mid-February till the end of April, there are several departures for the Lake Baikal Ice adventure, which is the most popular tour to join in winter and enjoy the unbelievable beauty of this frozen natural wonder.
In May, the ice melting and the forests start blooming. While this month is still a bit chilly, it’s a wonderful time to explore the beauty of Lake Baikal, while there are no many tourists around.
Shoulder season months of October and November are not recommended for travelling. While lake starts freezing in December, together with January they are the coldest winter months, also, the ice is not thick enough for traversing, so if you’d like to enjoy the winter holiday, consider the end of February – mid-April.
Hope you enjoyed this article, and this travel guide will help you plan your tour in Lake Baikal. For more information regarding group tour departures, custom tour itineraries or travelling to Russia in general, contact us on [email protected]