Russia: Visiting Vast Lake Baikal in Siberia

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lake baikal
Vast Lake Baikal, one of the deepest lakes in the world, in Siberia.

Lake Baikal: Visiting the World’s Largest Freshwater Lake in the Heart of Siberia

By Arie Helderman

Around Lake Baikal you see a lot of these little towers made from little stones.
Around Lake Baikal you see a lot of these little towers made from little stones.

If you are looking for a unique travel experience, consider visiting lake Baikal in Russia.

It’s the world’s largest freshwater lake, and it’s located in the middle of Siberia. Because of that, it’s a place where nature is still unharmed by loads of tourists.

My girlfriend and I went to lake Baikal at the end of July 2019, as we were invited to a wedding in Irkutsk.

We stayed for four nights at a base on the east shores of the lake and spent much of our time swimming, hiking and enjoying the beautiful views and unkept nature the lake has to offer.

Traveling to Baikal

Baikal is located in the heart of Siberia. Getting there can be a little tricky, as there are few direct flights to Irkutsk, the largest town close to the lake.

We first flew from Amsterdam to Moscow and stayed there for a couple of days with the family of my girlfriend. In total, we spent around 600 euros to fly to Irkutsk from Amsterdam, including our stay in Moscow.

Houses along vast Lake Baikal in Siberia.
Houses along vast Lake Baikal in Siberia.

Since our plans were to go to Baikal, I asked many Moscovites if they’d ever visited the lake. The most common answer:

“Nah, but I’d love to visit it. It must be incredibly beautiful!”

Literally no Russian I met in Moscow had ever flown to Baikal. And these were people that could afford a plane ticket if they would’ve wanted to. The main reason it turned out:

“Well, if it’s summer, and you can choose to fly to either Baikal or to the long white beaches of Barcelona for the same amount of money… it’s a pretty easy choice!”

Logic that’s hard to argue with. After a couple of days in Moscow, we continued our journey and took the plane to Irkutsk.

Irkutsk

Russian is a large country. When you fly away from Moscow airport and look out of the window, you see forests, fields, and large living complexes. When you arrive in Irkutsk you see… forests, fields, and large living complexes.

It’s a 6-hour flight, and Irkutsk has a time difference of +5 hours with Moscow. So be prepared for a small jet lag.

Irkutsk itself is also considered “the Paris of Siberia”, so it makes sense to stay here for 1 or 2 days. Since our travel itinerary was packed, we only quickly ate breakfast at a friend’s place, before they dropped us off at the Irkutsk stadium.  From there the Marshrutka (little Russian bus) left for Baikal.

Getting to Baikal

They say the road is more important than the destination. And in this case, the road to baikal was definitely as interesting an experience as being at the lake. We were with around 10 tourists (mainly Russians), crammed in a small bus. It seemed extra chairs had been added to have more passengers than usual on the bus.

The drive started off going through the suburbs of Irkutsk on normal roads. But once we left Irkutsk and were out on the Taiga the road quickly changed.

Since the bus was overcrowded, the road was sagging a bit, and the driver wanted to get to our camp fast, it seemed more like a rollercoaster than a regular drive. If you’re used to bad roads, this may seem like a normal thing to you. But I’m from the Netherlands, and our roads are among the smoothest in the world.

The view was nice though. Endless stretches of grass, filled with the occasional small village.

View from the restaurant down at the base’s swimming pool. We didn’t swim there, as swimming in the lake was better.
View from the restaurant down at the base’s swimming pool. We didn’t swim there, as swimming in the lake was better.

Real Siberian taiga.

We had a little stop at a road restaurant, where a Siberian wedding was going on, and continued our road. The last 1.5 hour of the journey was on a nonhardened road. The driver still drove as fast as on the hardened roads.

If you have a sensitive back, it’s better to take a personal or more high-end transport to the lake.

Cows are walking around freely in Siberia Lake Baikal. Sometimes they stay on the road, and you need to wait till they pass.
Cows are walking around freely. Sometimes they stay on the road, and you need to wait till they pass.

Smog in Baikal

Once we finally started coming closer to Baikal, a weird smell started entering the car. Turned out there were heavy forest fires going on on the other side of the lake, and this caused the entire air to be filled with smog. You can see the smog in this picture.

Day 1: lots of smog and the smell of fire was everywhere.

Day 2: Getting better! We can start to see Olhon island in the middle of the lake.

Day 3: Wow. This is what we came here for.

We were there for 4 days, and luckily the smog started becoming less every day. And the last 2 days we could enjoy the sun again. This was also great news for the Siberian forests.

At Lake Baikal

At the lake itself there are hundreds of different activities you can do. Since I was there with my girlfriend for my birthday, we mainly enjoyed spending time with each other, and the nature around us.

Still, if you’re interested in going on a guided tour, or doing different activities, here are some common options:

  • rent a boat
  • go on a cruise
  • rent a quad
  • go fishing
  • go hunting
  • see nerpa’s (Baikal seals)
  • follow a traditional Siberian Shaman ritual
  • relax in the hot springs in the north of the lake

Baikal is a true wonder of nature, so many people go here to enjoy nature.

This is the little grass beach at the lake. You can see our base in the upper right. The little van is a store to buy ice cream and drinks.

Accommodations

The most common way people stay at lake Baikal is at bases. They’re basically complexes with houses or apartments.  The reason why this form is so popular is that Baikal is huge, and there are few supermarkets or restaurants around. Most bases have their own restaurants and some places where you can get some supplies.

It’s, of course, possible to go camping somewhere along the shores far away from civilization, but be sure to bring enough food and products. For example, we forgot to bring toothpaste. We expected it would be possible to get it somewhere.

Turned out to not be the case! Luckily, chewing gum and rinsing with water was effective too.

If you prefer to stay in a town, that’s possible too. Though the prices are going to be quite high for Russian standards. Especially if you stay in some of the more touristic parts, such as on Olkhon island.

We stayed on the base Altan, for around 80 euro per night for two people. Breakfast was included.

We told them it was my birthday, while we were there, so they prepared a birthday room for us including balloons, champagne and some fruits.

Our wooden apartment on Lake Baikal in Siberia.
Our wooden apartment on Lake Baikal in Siberia.

Here you can see some of the views from our apartment:

VIDEO

This video was made while there were forest fires in Siberia, so the view isn’t too good. It does give an overview of how the base looked like.

Swimming in the Maloe More

We stayed on the east side of the lake. It’s a popular place for tourists to go to.  Especially in summer.

Why?

Because in this part the water is much warmer than in the other parts. That’s because Baikal’s water comes from melted snow. So especially early summer it’s not suited for swimming. Added to that is the fact that the lake is deep. The deepest part is 1647 meters deep (5387 feet).

Now, if you’ve been to those lakes before, you know that they don’t warm up fast. One way around this is to go to Maloe More. It’s a strait in the east of the lake that is less deep than the rest.  So the water heats up fast, and you’re perfectly able to go swim.

It’s a weird experience, laying in the sun with a cold drink after just having taken a swim – and realizing you’re in the middle of Siberia, and not on a beach in Spain.

Hiking Baikal

You can walk for hours without meeting anyone. Another reason to go to Baikal is to hike around the lake. Now, hiking around the lake is going to be a difficult undertaking. As that would take you more than a month. But wherever you are, you will be able to have breathtaking views along the shore.

Especially on a sunny day, you can see tens of kilometers far away. It’s difficult to understand that this is still a lake, completely surrounded by vast areas of land since you can often not see the other side.

Do be aware that if anything goes wrong while hiking, you’re far away from civilization. Better to not take too many risks, and stay on the beaten path.

Visit Shaman Rock

If you’re on the east of Baikal, going to Shaman Rock is definitely a place worth visiting.  It’s the place you see when you Google for pictures of Baikal. Unfortunately, we didn’t go here, as we didn’t have a car and only limited time on the lake.

But if you do have your own transport, or you have the time to go on a guided tour there, it’s worth the effort. Close by you can also see the Baikal seals sometimes relaxing in the warm sun.

The part of the lake where the author went swimming.
The part of the lake where the author went swimming.

Other things about Lake Baikal

Since Baikal is not too well known outside Russia as a touristic place, there isn’t that much information out there about the lake if you’re an English-speaking tourist. Here’s my answer to two common questions:

Do you need to know Russian?

If you don’t know Russian, you need to be staying in the larger cities around the lake. Or take a specific tour that has English speakers. If you’re just going to go camping along the shore, or to a small base, you simply need to have some knowledge of Russian.

That’s because the level of English in Russia isn’t too high. And outside the Moscow and Saint Petersburg centers, you’re likely not going to find many people speaking English.

Younger people do speak better than older people, because many of them follow English-speaking media, though often it might not be enough to communicate well. If you’re serious about visiting Baikal I’d recommend one of the following options:

Learn Basic Russian

Learn basic Russian – on my site Learn the Russian Language I give free advice on how to get started learning Russian. If all you learn is the 100 most common words and basic Russian grammar, you will already be able to go much further away from the tourist places.

Go with a person who speaks Russian – if you may have a colleague or friend who speaks Russian, why not ask them to join you to travel to Baikal. If they’re Russian and living abroad, chances are high they’ve also never been there. But likely they would love to travel there.

Join a specific tour where there’s an English-speaking guide – every year more English-speaking tourists want to visit Baikal, so it’s becoming easier to find specifically organized tours that you can join.

Should you visit Baikal in summer or winter?

This is an individual choice. It may sound obvious, but if you prefer good weather, hiking and swimming, summer is the better choice. Even though people associate Siberia with cold, it has a regular land climate. Which means cold winters – and hot summers.

I went in the summer and did not regret it. It was the beginning of August and the weather was nice with around 25 – 30 degrees celsius (77 – 85 degrees Fahrenheit). Winter on the other hand offers many activities and views that are difficult to experience anywhere else in the world.

Some winter activities are:

  • Ice skating
  • Dog sledding
  • Ice kiting
  • Camping on the ice

In winter the ice can get as deep as 2 meters (almost 6 feet). The sun also shines often in winter, so it won’t be as cold as expected. Average temperatures in January and February are -15 to -20 degrees celsius (5 to -4 degrees Fahrenheit).

I’ve even heard locals say that the sun shines so often, that it’s easy to get a tan on your face in mid-winter.

Arie Helderman

 

Arie Helderman is a Dutch guy who started learning Russian in 2016. He helps others learn Russian on his site Learntherussianlanguage.com and runs his youtube channel in Russian: Ари говорит по-Русски.