Amidst mountains and pine forests in a remote Siberian village in the far east of Russia, lies the deepest lake in the world: Lake Baikal.
This ancient lake is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is one of Russia’s most popular tourist destinations. In summer, it’s sapphire-blue water and 2000-kilometre-long shoreline make a perfect setting for picnics and leisurely lakeside strolls.
In winter, it transforms into a transparent ice rink that is so clear you can see up to 40 meters down, and strong enough to support a network of winter roads, complete with traffic signs laid on the ice surface.
Lake Baikal History
This ancient lake is estimated to be about 25 to 30 million years old, making it the oldest lake in the world. It is speculated that Lake Baikal was originally a riverbed that gradually increased its size due to the fractures and movements of the Earth’s crust.
There are several myths and legends surrounding the lake but the most famous one is a Buryat legend about a great earthquake that happened a long time ago. The ground came apart and everything was engulfed in flame.
In despair, people cried to the Gods, “Bay gal!” (Fire, stop!), which miraculously stopped the fire and filled the rift with clear water. That was how the lake got its name.
Lake Baikal Geography
Lake Baikal is a continental rift valley fed by more than 300 streams and rivers but drained by only one outlet — the Angara River near Listvyanka. Every year, up to 2,000 earthquake tremors are detected in Lake Baikal, each one increasing the depth and size of the lake.
Some geophysicists predict that Lake Baikal will one day turn into an ocean, as the shores drift further apart by 2 centimetres (0.78 inches) a year, which is the same rate at which Africa and South America drift apart. Like the ocean, Lake Baikal is also the only very deep lake that has oxygenated water at its lowest depth.
Due to the presence of plankton that eat floating debris, coupled with a lack of mineral salts in its water content, Lake Baikal is considered one of the clearest lakes in the world.
Lake Baikal Size
Lake Baikal has the shape of a banana, with a surface area of 31,727 square kilometres (12,250 square miles) that spreads 636 kilometres (395 miles) from north to south. That’s slightly bigger than the country of Belgium!
Lake Baikal Depth
Measuring up to 1,637 metres (5,370 feet) deep from the lakebed to the water surface, Lake Baikal is the deepest lake in the world and contains a fifth of the world’s freshwater supply.
Lake Baikal Ecosystem
Lake Baikal has been nicknamed the “Galapagos of Russia”, due to its exceptional biodiversity. The age, isolation, and high oxygen levels at great depths of the lake have resulted in one of the richest freshwater ecosystems in the world.
At least 80% of the more than 3,700 species found in and around Lake Baikal are endemic, which means that they do not exist anywhere else on Earth. These include the oily, scaleless golomyanka fish, the omul fish, and — probably the most famous of them — the nerpa (a.k.a. Baikal seal), which is the world’s only freshwater seal.
Scientists believe that the seals might have swum into Lake Baikal all the way from the Arctic through a prehistoric river.
In addition to these rare species, the lake is also home to more than 50 species of fish, and hundreds of aquatic invertebrate species that all help to purify the water.
In surrounding forests, there are bears, reindeer, elks, polecats, wild boars, Siberian roe deer, sables, ermines, and wolves, as well as dozens of tree species, including the native Angara pine tree.
Best Time to Visit Lake Baikal
Lake Baikal is open to visitors all year round, with each season offering its own charms. The best time to visit therefore depends on your weather preference and the kind of activities you plan to do at the lake.
As far as weather goes, summer is the most pleasant time to go, and is perfect for picnicking, swimming, and hiking. However, it also attracts the biggest crowds and tour groups.
Winter is when you get to experience the true beauty and uniqueness of Lake Baikal. To see the lake in its beautiful frozen state, go between October and April, although it may still be icy in May. The weather is manageable as long as you dress appropriately. Prices are also lower in winter.
How to Go to Lake Baikal
The nearest airport to Lake Baikal is in Irkutsk, which is a five-and-a-half-hour flight from Moscow.
You can either fly to Irkutsk or opt for the Trans-Siberian Railway (longest train ride in the world that connects Moscow and Vladivostok). This was what I did. Check out this video to learn more about my journey in the 3rd-class coach of the Trans-Siberian:
There’s also another route that makes a stop in Irkutsk: the Trans-Mongolian, which takes you from Beijing to Moscow via Mongolia, or the other way around.
From Irkutsk, take a bus or drive over to Listvyanka, a popular village located in the western shores of the lake. The buses depart around 4 times a day from the main bus terminal (avtovokzal) in Irkutsk city center (Oktyabrsky Revolutsii Street, #11). The first bus leaves at 7 a.m. and the last bus at around 6 p.m.
If you don’t want to explore independently, there are several tour operators that offer private and group tours. Prices vary depending on the length of the trip and the itinerary.
Top Things to Do at Lake Baikal
No matter what time of the year it is, Lake Baikal has plenty to offer its visitors, especially those who love outdoor activities. Here are some of the things you must do at Lake Baikal:
Most visitors to Lake Baikal will stop in Listvyanka, a popular village on the western edge of the lake that also serves as its main gateway and tourism center.
Most shops and tourist facilities are concentrated around this area, including the Baikal Museum, the Siberian Zoo, a food market selling local delicacies, souvenir shops, a tourist information center where you can get a free map, and an observatory at the south of the village.
The village itself is a treat for the eyes, with its quaint architecture, rich flora and fauna, and a laid-back vibe. Nightlife is said to be quite lively with bars and restaurants serving alcohol and playing music, but I didn’t stick around long enough to experience it.
Shopping at the Local Market
Listvyanka is also a good place to indulge in some shopping or mindless browsing. Fares on offer range from typical souvenirs like the matryoshka dolls and T-shirts, to the more unique finds, such as taiga herbs, teas, cedar nuts, and dried fish that can be packed nicely to bring home.
Don’t forget to try the smoked omul fish, a famous local delicacy.
Hiking the Great Baikal Trail
The Great Baikal Trail (GBT) is a circular trail surrounding the lake that originally began as a project to help promote ecotourism, voluntary work, and ecological education in the area.
It now attracts a large number of visitors every year owing to the spectacular scenery and unique flora and fauna along the route. The most popular section of the GBT is the 22-kilometre Listvyanka – Bolshie Koty that takes 5 – 8 hours to hike.
A permit is required to hike or camp along the trail.
Engaging in Water Sports
Many tourists go to Lake Baikal to take part in water sports, such as sailing, speed-boating, and water skiing. Scuba-diving is an especially popular activity due to the water clarity and rich underwater ecosystem.
Taking Part in Winter Activities
Its location in Siberia means that Lake Baikal gets a proper winter that promises a whole range of winter activities every year, including:
- Cross-country skiing, snow-shoeing, tubing, and freeride biking.
- Horse-riding across the lake and through the Siberian taiga to Bolshie Koty village.
- Ice-fishing (there are even championships held there every year).
- Riding on snowmobiles.
- An ice marathon on the frozen lake.
Visiting Olkhon Island
Can You Swim in Lake Baikal?
Yes, visitors are allowed to swim in Lake Baikal. Although it’s possible to do so near Listvyanka, the best place to go for a swim is Olkhon Island, which has the best beaches that are relatively shallow and have warmer temperatures.
How Long to Stay at Lake Baikal
Allow at least 2 – 3 days if you wish to see everything Lake Baikal has to offer, including the hiking trails and the island(s). But if you’re short of time, it’s also possible to make a day trip from Irkutsk and only explore Listvyanka.
Where to Stay Near Lake Baikal
There are a range of accommodation options available near Lake Baikal to suit all budgets, from cheap hostels to luxury resorts overlooking the lake. Most of them are concentrated around Listvyanka, with a few on Olkhon island. Here are some of them:
Belka Hostel – A cozy wooden house located in a quiet area, away from the main road and surrounded by nature. Owned by a friendly couple, the hostel is equipped with a communal kitchen, shared bathrooms, and a Russian steam bath. Rates start at RUB 700 per person per night.
Hotel Dauria – Set in the center of Listvyanka, 300 metres from the lakeside, this rustic-style hotel offers rooms with wooden interiors, private bathrooms, free Wi-Fi, and free toiletries. Barbecue facilities and a steam bath can also be found on site. Rates start from RUB 2,678 per night.
Baikal View Hotel – Located on the picturesque Olkhon Island, this hotel is only 700 metres away from the banks of Lake Baikal and features an outdoor pool, a seasonal sauna, and a restaurant offering regional and European dishes. Each room comes with a private bathroom and panoramic views of the lake. In summer, guests can use barbecue facilities and a bike rental service. Rates start from RUB 9,020 per night.
Additional Tips for Visiting Lake Baikal
When traveling to Lake Baikal, there are a few things to consider to make your visit an enjoyable one:
- Dress appropriately according to weather. In winter, ensure you have adequate coats, jackets, scarves, and gloves to keep yourself warm. In summer, it can still get cold in the evening, so bring some warm clothing in addition to your summer wear.
- There are no ATM machines, so make sure you bring enough cash to last you for your entire stay.
- English is not as widely spoken as in the big cities.
- In summer, there are kayaks, catamarans, quad bikes, and bicycles for rent. In winter, you can rent skates to ride on the frozen lake.
- Before going kayaking, it is wise to ask the locals about weather conditions, as there can sometimes be sudden strong winds that can push you out far from shore.
- Bring insect repellent or anti-mite sprays especially in the summer. Mite bites can bring on high fever, or in severe cases, encephalitis and Lyme disease.
Final Thoughts on Visiting Lake Baikal
Is Lake Baikal worth visiting?
Given the choice, I would have preferred visiting when it’s frozen solid as I don’t often get to see frozen lakes at home in Southeast Asia. The unique winter road system on the icy lake must be interesting to see and experience.
Still, I think Lake Baikal is worth visiting if you happen to be in Irkutsk — whatever the season may be. Its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the fact that it is the deepest, oldest, and one of the clearest lakes in the world easily warrant a visit.
Due to a time constraint, I only got to spend a day at Lake Baikal, but I managed to explore Listvyanka, enjoy a leisurely stroll along the lake shores, and try the smoked omul fish. And I get to brag that I dipped my hands in the deepest lake in the world.