Exploring Siberia’s epic lake – Ozero Baikal is one of the many reasons to visit Siberia, Russia. Irkutsk happens to be the halfway point on the Trans Siberian railway and the closest stop to Lake Baikal. Lake Baikal is the largest, deepest, and oldest freshwater lake in the world, so for two adventurous history buffs, it was a reason to visit Lake Baikal in itself.
Background and mystery of how to get to the Lake in winter
Even on paper Lake Baikal is impressive:
- UNESCO world heritage listed site,
- The largest fresh water by volume in the world,
- Contains nearly a quarter of the world’s fresh surface water,
- At 31,722 km2 ,slightly larger than Belgium,
- The deepest lake in the world at 1,642m, and
- The world’s oldest lake at 25 to 30 million years old.
So I thought it must be good to stop over. Now I had an even bigger question, how were we going to get there? It is about a 1 hours drive from Irkutsk. Irkutsk is one of the Trans Siberian railway stopovers, but how in the middle of winter.. not an easy task, especially when hardly anyone speaks English in Russia and at temperatures of minus 15 to 25 during the day. I did want us to come out of this experience alive, after all, we had no contact with our families while in Russia. We had left our satellite phone and PLB in the truck in Australia, as they are prohibited items. A hangover of the Soviet days, plus getting a mobile phone SIM was near impossible. The only contact we had with the outside world was in the hotel.
After a few internet searches with no luck, I thought I should turn to TripAdvisor after all I was a Top Contributor for them, and bingo I found a local guide who could pick us up, take us to Lake Baikal and back in one day. It turns out to be quite an adventure amid the first snow blizzard for the season.
In other words, we were on the road again driving the Baikal highway in the snow. It bought back so many childhood memories for me of my dad driving us in the snow blizzard in the Netherlands. It was one of the best days we had in Russia thanks to our local guide Andrew from Baikal Vision.
Lake Baikal is impressive on paper, but in real life too. There is quite a lot to do in and around Lake Baikal.
Why is Lake Baikal so special? Reasons to visit
For nature lovers, Lake Baikal is a zoologist’s and botanist’s dream–it is home to more than 1,700 species of plants and animals, 80% of them endemic to the area, which means these species are found nowhere else.
Lake Baikal has become such a popular tourist destination in recent years, attracting roughly 500,000 visitors annually, being most popular among Eco-tourists as well as those travelling the Trans-Siberian Railway. There are two main seasons for visiting Lake Baikal, with the winter ice and summer thaw marking two very distinct experiences.
During the winter period, generally mid-January till mid-April, the surface of the lake is iced over. This ice cover, despite being quite thick, up to 1.4m in places, is uniquely clear, revealing a stunning lattice of veins beneath the surface and makes for a dramatic photo opportunity. This ice begins to melt around May, with the southern half being the first to thaw.
It was starting to freeze over, by mid-November, when we visited. You could see the snow on the surface in the distance and as you drive into the adjoining village of Listvyanka you can see the frozen river feeding into the Lake already frozen. It was so cold on that day, as the lake lies in a valley. The lake is 636 km long and 79 km wide, as a result, the wind picks up fairly quickly. I now look back at the photos and see that I must have had 3 sets of gloves on that day to cope with the Siberian cold. I took my Australian ski gloves with me around the world and I think that Siberia was the only place I used them. It must have been minus 25 that day. The guide told us later, that everything comes to hold when it gets under minus 30. The schools, universities and workplaces stop because it is considered to be too cold for humans. We were 5 degrees off that temperature. So come prepared to Siberia.
Famous Ice Road
One of the other reasons we wanted to visit Lake Baikal was for the famous ice road to Olkhon Island as experienced overlanders. It is the only legal ice road on Lake Baikal. The route is prepared by specialists every year and it opens when the ice conditions allow it. On further research, it was not open for us as the ice road to Olkhon is open from 17 February to 23 March only. The thickness of the ice on the road is about 60 cm with a maximum capacity allowed – 10T; it is open to the public from 9 am to 6 pm. The road through the lake is 12 km and it goes from the village Kurkut on the mainland to Irkutskaya Guba on Olkhon Island.
In the summer months, generally from June till September, the area is a more pleasant temperature for local outdoor activities such as hiking, camping or horseback riding, it is also the ideal time of the year to spot some of the Lake’s endemic wildlife.
When to visit
Temperatures around Lake Baikal are generally warmer than the surrounding taiga (Siberian forests), however, the continental climate can still fluctuate widely throughout the year, with averages ranging from -25C in the winter to 25C in the Summer (-13 F to 76 F), so it’s best to pack accordingly.
Things to do in Listvyanka
On arrival into the village of Listvyanka, we visited the local fish market. The local shopkeepers were waiting for us. We got to talk to them thru our guide. They were finding the weather to be cold as well on that day, just unbelievable how people can survive in these temperatures.
We bought the local lake Baikal’s commercial fish called Baikal omul, a white fish belonging to the salmon family. It is sold smoked, a local delicacy and we sat down in the adjoining restaurant for lunch.
After lunch, we visited the Baikal Limnological Museum. It is the only museum entirely devoted to the history of Lake Baikal exploration, its flora and fauna. The only thing worth experiencing was a simulation of a deep dive to the bed of Lake Baikal. All exhibits are in Russian, English was very limited. Let us say it was not the highlight of the day for us both at RB370 each.
The total cost of this tour to Lake Baikal was RUB4,500 pp or NZD 100 pp for the day to experience the Pearl of Siberia.
Where to stay
Despite the popularity of Lake Baikal is growing from year to year, but there is no developed infrastructure in the area. For the quality of service and comfort from the visitor’s point of view, Lake Baikal still has a long way to go. It is still quite remote, for this reason, we decided to stay in Irkutsk.
From ice roads to snow blizzards and all in between.
Most agree that Siberia doesn’t get better than this.