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Visit Lake Baikal and fall in love with Siberia

Konstantin Sheiko
March 21, 2018

One of the world’s oldest geographical features, formed 25 to 30 million years ago, magnificent Lake Baikal is the highlight of Eastern Siberia, and a magnet for tourists from all over the world. Baikal Lake is situated along the Trans-Siberian route, so if you take that route - which is a fascinating journey on its own, you absolutely have to stop at Baikal. There is no excuse not to, because traveling 5000 km with a train and bypassing this beautiful lake would be something you would regret for the rest of your life.

It is stretched 636km from north to south. Baikal lake is also geologically active - the water gets churned up and the oxygen travels much deeper than in any other lake on Earth. Hot springs are scattered along the coastline and some of them are used for medical treatment. Baikal is so special and unique that there is even a special word made up by the Russian scientists - “Baikalogy”. 

Lake Baikal is one of the oldest lakes on Earth - it is considered to be around 25 to 30 million years old. A normal lake exists for about 15.000 years, and then it disappears. However, Baikal is growing with an average speed of 2 cm (0.8 inches) a year. There is number of researches arguing that Baikal will serve as a starting point for a new ocean in the future. At the moment the lake is often described as the fresh water inland sea.  

There are two main means of transport to get to Baikal lake, by plane or by train. If you are traveling from a nearby town, such as Irkutsk or Ulan-Ude, you can also get to Baikal lake by bus or by car. The three main points of access to Baikal are Irkutsk and Ulan-Ude cities and Slyudyanka settlement. You can get to Irkutsk and Ulan-Ude by plane, Trans-Siberian express train, or bus. Slyudyanka is a stop along the Trans-Siberian also, and you get get there by bus from Irkutsk too. 

The original inhabitants of this area were Eskimo, who live now on Alaska. In the 9th century Mongols came from the south, mixed with Eskimos and formed the Buryat people that belongs to Mongolian language group. They practice traditional beliefs and Buddhism. Buryats believe that there are Spirits who live near them, and every mountain and river has its own one. Humans cannot survive without the help of a spirit. Local people respect the spirits, showing your respect by leaving coins and cigarettes, or attaching cloth to the trees in places that they consider as ‘holy’. 

One of the customs is to drop coins to the road when driving in a forests. If you are drinking alcohol, you should give several drops to the spirit of that place. The idea of freedom from serfdom and the lure of free lands had driven many Russians to Siberia between the 17th and the end of the 19th centuries. Baikal lake was discovered by Russians in 1643. The forts on the lake became an important link in the trade route between Russia and China. The traditions and customs of the lake people today is a complex mix of traditional beliefs, Buddhism and Orthodox Christian customs.

Baikal is a great tourist destination all year round. Summer travellers enjoy gobsmacking vistas across waters of the deepest blue to soaring mountain ranges on the opposite shore, incredible hiking routes and fishing tours. Rarer winter visitors marvel at Baikal’s powder-white surface, frozen steel-hard and scored with ice roads. Whether they swim in it, drink its water, skirt its southern tip by train, cycle or dog sled over it in winter, or just admire it from 2000km of shoreline, most agree that Siberia does not get any better than this.

Baikal offers a range of sightseeing tours, including such destinations as Irkutsk, Ulan-Ude, Baikal Lake, Circum-Baikal, or Arshan. Their length varies from 1 to 14 days, and the best period to do them is from May to October. Recommended price starts from $20 per day per person, everything included. The tours are quite easy (you do not have to be a very fit person in terms of physique), and the activities include a lot of sightseeing of various cultural, natural, and ethnographic sights, light hiking, swimming, Russian sauna, birdwatching, fishing, and boat-sailing.

Circum Baikal is a great place from where you can start your own exploration. It is a picturesque railway along the Southern Baikal shore, built about a century ago. It offers beautiful views, and it is great for trekking and camping since Baikal is right next to it. You will meet local Russian backpackers and enjoy authentic villages along the way. Watch out for the snakes in summer time, and the trains might get overcrowded. 

Other places of interest include the Olkhon island, which is complete wilderness, yet offering all the comforts. Olkhon is a beautiful rocky island that seems to have emerged from the fresh waters of Baikal. The surface of the island is green and smooth like meadows, and crumbles down in Baikal in rocky cliffs on the edges. Olkhon is covered by grass and aromatic plants on the shore facing the coast (steppe), and by small pine trees (taiga) on the shore facing the middle of the lake. It is about 70 km long and 15 km wide, and you can either hike, or rent cars, mountain bikes, and kayaks in order to explore the beauty of this island. The island is also one of the local centres of shamanism. 

The Buryatian side of Baikal Lake, or the Eastern shore, is famous for its sunny bays and sandy beaches. It is highly recommended to visit the town go Gremiachinsk, where you stay with the local family if you wish to do so, and then move on to Goryachinsk to enjoy great beaches. The site is perfect for camping, there is also a spa resort, and you can get a room for about $5/night - if there is one available. If you ever thought about going to the end of the world, then continue your way from Ust-Barguzin to Svyatoy Nos peninsula, which is a wild tourists’ mecca. There are buses along all the way up to Ust-Barguzin. 

The remarkable flora and fauna of the lake is unique. There were found around 2600 species and almost 70% of it are endemic and can be found in the area of Baikal only. There are bears, foxes, eagles just to name a few, and all other typical forest inhabitants. The “stars” of the lake are the Nerpa and Omul. Nerpa is the world’s unique freshwater seal, which can be found near the Ushkanye islands and the northern parts of Baikal. Omul is Baikal’s most popular fish, a far relative of Salmon. Both Nerpa and Omul are very special in the sense that this sort of creatures only exist in the oceans.

Even though there are probably as many destinations on the eastern Buryat shore of Baikal as there are on the western Irkutsk side, there are fewer touristic hotspots here, so the stay feels very relaxing, quiet and more authentic. 

Photo via Wikipedia Commons / Octagon