Lake Baikal (in central Siberia, not far from Mongolia) is the world's oldest, deepest and largest lake in terms of volume. Sometimes called the "Pearl of Siberia" or the "Sacred Sea," this crescent-shaped lake is 636 kilometers (395 miles) long, three to 74 kilometers (two to 46 miles) wide, 5,371 feet deep at its deepest point and occupies 5,500 cubic miles, more than Lake Superior, which has the largest surface area of any lake (31,800 square miles, 80,290 square kilometers). [Source: Don Belt, National Geographic, June 1992]

Lake Baikal (pronounced buy-KAL) contains one fifth of the world fresh water (more than all the Great Lakes combined). The water is so clear, pure and mineral-free, waters samples taken from the middle of the lake become tainted by the glass beakers in the laboratory. In some places the visibility in the water is over 600 feet. With binoculars from cliffs it is possible to watch fish swimming at floor of the lake. Chekhov wrote: "You can see through the waters of Lake Baikal as you can see through the air." In the winter ice up to 10 meters thick is so transparent you can see fish swimming below. The deepest parts of the lake are near the western shore.

A total of 336 rivers empty into Lake Baikal. Only one flows out: the Upper Angara, which flows into the Lena River and eventually into the Arctic Ocean. Lake Baikal is so large that if its tributaries dried up tomorrow its volume— 23,000 cubic meters—could keep the Angara River flowing for 400 years.

Lake Baikal is one of the most beautiful places in all of Russia. Gazing across it has been compared to viewing the Grand Canyon. Picturesque cliffs line the western shore, muskrat marches are found in the north and mountains surround nearly the entire lake. The southwestern corner of the lake around the city of Irkutsk and the River Angara is inhabited mostly by Russians.

Steven Lee Myers wrote in the New York Times: “Baikal is one of Russia’s natural wonders, a crescent moon setting in the vast forest of southern Siberia. The lake is a chasm just over a mile deep, formed by a crack in the earth’s crust... Despite a long history of Soviet and Russian environmental indifference in the region, the lake is almost entirely unspoiled...Its flora and its fauna are so unusual that... Unesco’s citation referred to the lake as the “Galápagos of Russia.” [Source: Steven Lee Myers, New York Times, July 8, 2007]

Lake Baikal was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. According to UNESCO: “Situated in southeast Siberia, the 3.15-million-ha Lake Baikal is the oldest (25 million years) and deepest (1,700 meters) lake in the world. It contains 20 percent of the world's total unfrozen freshwater reserve. Known as the 'Galapagos of Russia', its age and isolation have produced one of the world's richest and most unusual freshwater faunas, which is of exceptional value to evolutionary science. The Committee inscribed Lake Baikal as the most outstanding example of a freshwater ecosystem on the basis of natrual criteria... The lake contains an outstanding variety of endemic flora and fauna, which is of exceptional value to evolutionary science. It is also surrounded by a system of protected areas that have high scenic and other natural values. [Source: UNESCO]

Lake Baikal World Heritage Site including the the “necklace of reserves: Barguzin Nature Reserve, Baikal Biosphere Reserve, Baikal-Lena Nature Reserves and the Trans-Baikal National Park. The lake covers 31,080 square kilometers (12,000 square miles) and is located at an elevation of almost 500 meters above sea level, The site of numerous scientific expeditions, it is 636 kilometers long and from to 80 kilometers wide.

Lake Baikal, was selected in 1990 as one of the Seven Underwater Wonders of the World by the conservation group CEDAM along with the Galápagos Islands, the Republic of Belau (Palau) in Micronesia, the Ras Muhammad reef in the northern Red Sea, the Belize Barrier Reef, the northern Great Barrier Reef, and the deep ocean vents found in the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans.

Lake Baikal Climate

Many people say that Lake Baikal is at is most beautiful in the winter. The first snows begin in November when the marshes in the north begin freezing. Between February and April the entire lake is frozen to a thickness of between one and six meters, thick enough to support fully loaded truck convoys to remote villages that can't be reached any other way. During the Russo-Japanese War in 1904, railroad tracks were laid down on the ice. There are warm currents that create thin patches of ice. The first rain to cross the lake disappeared under the ice as have many cars and trucks.

Lake Baikal is known for its strong winds and unpredictable weather. Fisherman on the lake speak of going out to sea in the spring when winds of up to 100 miles per hour sweep down from the west and build waves large enough to capsize boats. In the fall, storms with strong winds are frequent. During the summer temperatures vary from warm to brisk and mosquitos may be a problem. You will often see Russians going for a swim even though the water temperature rarely rises above 15 degrees C (59 degrees F) even in the middle of the summer.

The area around Lake Baikal is warmer than other parts of Siberia. Warmth absorbed by the lake in the summer is slowly released through the ice in winter and the spring. Spring comes early to areas within 300 kilometers of Lake Baikal than in places outside this zone. The number of days in which Lake Baikal freezes has shrunk from 128 days in 1873 to 105 in 1992. Global warming has been blamed.

Lake Baikal freezes over only in the second half of January and is completely free of ice only in May. Baikal ice, like its water, is surprisingly clear, forming enormous, transparent fields; in shallow areas the bottom and underwater inhabitants can be seen.

The climate of the lake and the mountains in the northeast is sharply continental (down to to - 40°C in winter and up to 40°C in summer), in the highlands hot cloudless days are not as common as down by the lake. Partly cloudy, cool and overcast is the norm. Drizzling rain can last for several days. The greatest amount of precipitation occurs in July and August. The weather is often unstable, and can change several times during the day. Snowfall starts in September and ends in June (in the mountains it occurs all year round). The snow in the forest often reaches a height 1.3-1.4 meters. In the mountains and on the coasts it is 0.7-0.9 meters. Avalanche danger is great, Snow piles in the mountains can be stored, as well as numerous glaciers, all summer.

Baikal softens the climate at the ridge bases: Summer on the coast is cooler and winters are much milder than in the mountains. Evaporation from the waters is blown by north-westerly winds towards the ridge, producing rains there, The warming effect of the enormous mass of water of Lake Baikal is manifested in a relatively warm late autumn and the first half of the winter. As a result of the late melting of ice in the waters of lake Baikal spring comes late. Average winter temperatures of the coast -20.8 ° C. The average in the summer is +14.3°C. In the mountains, the temperature are on average 10-15°C lower. The rainfall on the coast of 1.5 to two times higher than in mountains.

Lake Baikal Geology

The Lake Baikal area is one of the most complicated and least understood geological regions on earth. The lake is situated on the world deepest land depression, a five-mile deep rift produced by the interaction of three tectonic plates.

Nearly all the world's lakes were formed less than a million years ago by volcanos, ice age glaciation or the damming of valleys, and last only a few hundred thousand years before they fill with sediment. Lake Baikal, however, was formed at least 20 million years ago in a rift zone where the earth is being pulled apart by tectonic forces. In the mud sedimenst of Lake Baikal there are traces of magnolia pollen that were deposited when the area around the lake had a subtropical climate.

Lake Baikal is nearly a mile deep but the sediment-filled rift it lies in is over five miles deep. The lake continues to grow. The rifts widens every year and the water level rises by about a millimeter. The region is still very geologically active. In 1861 a huge earthquake sank 310 square kilometers of the Selenga Delta into Lake Baikal.

Lake Baikal Water

The water is so pure and clear that a white disk 30 centimeters in diameter can be seen through the Baikal water even at a depth of 40 meters. In 1890, Anton Chekhov visited Lake Baikal and was astounded at how clear the water was: “People say that in the deepest places you can see down almost as far as a mile, and indeed I myself saw rocks and mountains drowning in the turquoise water that sent shivers down my spine.”

Ian Frazier wrote in The New Yorker: ““I knew that it’s the largest body of fresh water in the world, that it contains about twenty per cent of the world’s fresh water, that it’s 1,637 meters (more than a mile) deep at its deepest, that it was created by continental landmasses moving apart, that it has species of animals found only here. But, beyond its facts, Baikal really does have a magic to it. Travellers who wrote ecstatically about it in the past were not exaggerating. Most of Russia’s inland water is sluggish, swampy, inert; Baikal’s is quick. For sparklingness and clarity it’s the opposite of swamp water. The surrounding hills and cliffs that funnel winds along it keep it jumping. It reflects like an optical instrument and responds to changes in the weather so sensitively that it seems like a part of the sky rather than of the land. [Source: Ian Frazier, The New Yorker, August 10 and 17, 2009, Frazier is author of “Travels in Siberia” (2010) ]

“When a wave rolls in on Baikal, and it curls to break, you can see stones on the bottom refracted in the vertical face of the wave. This glimpse, offered for just a moment in the wave’s motion, is like seeing into the window of an apartment as you go by it on an elevated train. The moon happened to be full that night, and after it rose the stones on the bottom of the lake lay spookily illuminated in the moonlight. The glitter of the moon on the surface of the lake—the “moon road,” Sergei called it—fluctuated constantly in its individual points of sparkling, with a much higher definition than any murky water could achieve. Light glitters differently on water this clear. I understood that I had never really seen the moon reflected on water before.”

Ecology of Lake Baikal

Lake Baikal is also one the planet's most unique ecosystems. About 60 percent of the lake’s life forms—about 1,100 plants and 1,500 animals—are found nowhere else on the planet. Among these are translucent oil fish, the world's only fresh water seal, fresh water sponges and a pinkish, large-eyed, jellyfish-like fish called “golomyanka” that lives in the deepest parts of the lake and turns in a spot of grease when brought to the surface. This greases is prized as a fuel for lamps and rheumatism cure.

Lake Baikal is also the only one lake with geothermal vents that supports creatures such as sponges, worms that generally only associated with similar vents in the sea. The vents, found at depths of 1,350 feet, also provide evidence that the lake is slowly spreading apart.

Among the 250 species of freshwater shrimp is the “Epischura baicalenis”, a tiny crustacean that helps to purify the water by filtering out algae and bacteria. This creature amass by the millions in summer. When they are through the cleaning the water, the water is clear that when it is placed in a laboratory beaker it becomes tainted by the glass.

Among the 52 species of fish are grayling, pike, perch and “omul”. The latter, an arctic whitefish related to salmon and trout. It accounts for two thirds of the lake’s annual commercial catch. Lake Baikal sturgeon reach seven feet in length, weigh 200 kilograms and produce 10 kilos of caviar.

Wildlife in Lake Baikal

Lake Baikal and its shores are home to 1,850 species of animals and 850 species of plants, many of which can only be found there. There are 848 species of unique animals and 133 species of unique plants. The most famous Baikal fish are the sturgeon, grayling, cisco, and live-bearing oilfish. However, the most valuable of them all is the omul, revered for its exquisite, tender taste.

Wildlife seen on the shores of Lake Baikal include wolves, bears, deer, beavers, imperial eagles and red-breasted mergansers. The concentrations of these animals is low and many travelers never see them. Moreover the places you are mostly likely to find them are in reserves that no people except researchers are allowed into.

Lake Baikal’s most famous creature is a freshwater seal known as the “nerpa”. It grows to a length of almost six feet, weighs up to 286 pounds and changes from yellow-green to white to grey in the first months of its life. Nerpas live to an average age of 52. Baby nerpas weigh 22 pounds when they are born. Scientists estimate that there are 60,000 of these seals in the lake, a number they arrived at by counting air holes in the winter ice. No one is sure how the nerpa originally found its way to Lake Baikal (the nearest sea is 2000 miles away).

Commercial hunters are permitted to take 6,000 seals a year. Poachers take seals to supply the Chinese medicine trade. Their penises are highly prized. The seal hunters drive across the melting April ice. Before they set out an offering of vodka is given to the ancient shamanist god of the lake. One mother lost her eldest son when a truck plunged through the ice. To cure colic residents around Lake Baikal pick the "grass of God" from meadows near the lake.

Nerpa hang out around Ushkani Islands, an archipelago of four white marble outcrops near the center of the lake. The best seal watching spot is a cliff on the north side of Tonkiy Island where dozens of the silver-furred animals gather to sun themselves.

People of Lake Baikal

Living among the rugged mountains on the eastern side of the lake are the Buryat, a Mongolian people that have occupied the land around the lake before Genghis Khan swept across the Central Asia in the 13th century.

The first Russians to arrive were fur traders who came in the 1640s. Many of them live around Irkutsk, Mant those who don’t live in the north where they or family members worked on the Baikal-Amur Railroad, a 2000 mile railroad which skirts the northern shore of he lake and parallels the Trans-Siberian railway to the Pacific. Many of these workers live in abandoned railroad cars and shacks near the town of Severobaikalsk.

Many of the residents of the 40 towns, scattered along the lake's 1,300 mile shoreline, are fisherman. Logging used to be a major industry but the there is now a logging ban in the forests that surround the lake. Many of the towns and village are charming places made up mostly of wooden buildings.

Since food has traditionally been hard to come by in the stores it is almost a necessity for residents around Lake Baikal to fish for food. Commercial fishermen carry their nets on horse-drawn sleighs and recreational fisherman often engage in ice fishing. They drive onto the lake with their cars, cut holes in the ice and fish inside tents or shacks they erect around the hole.

National Geographic writer Don Belt traveled around Lake Baikal on a Soviet research vessel in the early 1990s. The crew stopped in every town along the way to try and get staples like eggs, milk and meat with no luck. They finally secured these items in a town but the task took all day. First they had to visit the offices of several bureaucrats to collect the signatures they needed for each thing on the grocery list. Potatoes and eggs were picked from the back door of cafeteria; they bought several sausages and some fatty beef at the loading dock of a warehouse and got the milk inside a "special" food store next to the warehouse.

You walk the 400 mile length of the lake in winter or take a sleigh from Irkutsk to Bahaiyarischka. Newlyweds customarily are driven to the mouth of Angara River, where they are photographed by the river while opening a bottle of champagne.

Pollution, Dams and Lake Baikal

The Baykalsk Paper and Pulp Mills was a major source of pollution of Lake Baikal until it was closed in 2013, putting 3,500 people out of work. Located on the southern shore of Lake Baikal, it was constructed in the 1950s to make "super" cellulose for airplane tires, an idea that was made obsolete when synthetics were developed. Before it was shut down the mill churned out thick clouds of smoke and dumped industrial waste into the lake 24 hours a day.

In 1989 the plant discharged 26,000 tons of minerals, 200 tons of suspended materials and 2,500 tons of organic byproducts into the lakes, which believe it or not is remarkably little for pulp mill it size. Another large paper mill—the Selenginsk Pulp & Cardboard Mill—lies on the Selenga River, which feeds into Lake Baikal. It uses a chlorine treatment to turn wood into cellulose, which is used to make paper, cardboard and other products.

Pollution from the mills has been blamed for reducing fish populations and reducing the clarity of the water and producing dioxin that build up in he bodies of seals and other animals. The Selenga River also carries in pollutants from Ulan Ude and three Mongolian industrial cities. The lake have been overfished. Gold mining and logging and building foreigner hunting trips have been banned.

Most everyone hated the Baykalsk paper mill, except those with jobs that depended on it. A clerk in Moscow called it "our national disgrace" and a conductor on the Trans-Siberian offered to personally level it with a sledgehammer. The Soviet environmental movement began with a protest of the paper mill, which responded by installing a "closed loop" pollution-reduction systems and stopped using bleach.

Lake Baikal area towns such as Baykalsk, Irkutsk and Ulan Ude are heavily industrialized and are blamed with producing acid rain and other pollutants that foul the lake. Laws have been placed on the books to reduce coal burning but these laws are only lightly enforced. There are plans to install more pollution-reducing technology but there isn't enough money for it.

There is a large dam on the Angara River neat Irkutsk. This dam is blamed of reducing the omul population by raising the water to levels that damage the fish's breeding grounds. Where the lake empties into the lake there is a huge rock, called Shaman Rock. Local say it was hurled there by Old Man Baikal after one of his 337 daughter fell in love the Yenisey River. Because of the high water only a small portion of the rock is visible.

Cruises on Lake Baikal

A number of cruises that explore the shores of the lake are available in the 65-foot “Professor Morozov”, which carries about half dozen people paying around $200 each per day. Meals on the ship include vodka, cucumber salad, raw “omul”, tomatoes, bread, “blini” (Russian pancakes) and cheese.

The trip usually begins with the tossing of vodka over one's shoulders to appease the gods and proceeds at a relaxed pace and includes stops at fishing villages, cliffs, excursion to ice flows with nerpas, and hikes on mountains and through forests in Baikalo-Lensky Nature Reserve.

The biggest concern are “sarna”, dangerous and unpredictable storms that stir up quickly and have powerful winds powerful enough to uproot trees. One a sarna sent a ferryboat crashing into a cliff, killing all 72 people on board.

Every other day from June to late September hydrofoils make the 10-hour trip between Irkutsk and the towns Severobaikalsk and Nizhneangarsk on the lake's north shore (this has been described as a pleasant trip like traveling on a Norwegian fjord.

There is a also a twice-weekly hydrofoil service between Irkutsk and Ust-Barguzin on the eastern shore. Boats go four times a day between Irkutsk and Listvyanka on the western shore. Regular ferry and shipping services is often disrupted by poor maintenance, weather and other reasons.


The main tourism season at Lake Baikal is between June 15 and August 15. Some tourists make Lake Baikal only one of several stops along the Trans-Siberian Railway, hopping off at Irkutsk. Where one can head to a number of Lake Baikal destinations. The most accessible and place is Listviyanka (located 65 kilometers miles from Irkutsk), a resort at the mouth of the Angara River with many hotels and Japanese and European visitors. Lake Baikal is not without its cultural attraction. Ethnic groups such as the Buryats and Evenks live around the lake and Tibetan Buddhism and shamanism are widely practiced and visitors witness Siberian shaman rituals and circumambulate around the grounds of a Buddhist monastery.

Nicholas Schmidle wrote in The Atlantic: “The locals refer to Lake Baikal as the “Sacred Sea.” Its shores are sparsely populated, but laden with sites considered hallowed by local shamans. Environmentalists fear that rapacious Russian businessmen are itching to transform the pristine wilderness into a Slavic Atlantic City, but development like that is a long, long way off. Although the shoreline is lengthy — unfurled into a straight line, it would stretch a distance comparable to that between Washington, D.C., and Dallas — it has only a few towns of any significance. In a region short on restaurants and clubs and cafés, nightlife — such that it is — revolves around the bathhouse, or banya. Saunas like these are a staple of Russian life, but on Lake Baikal, the banya is the primary attraction.” [Source: Nicholas Schmidle, The Atlantic, December, 2011]

Steven Lee Myers wrote in the New York Times: “Although seemingly remote in faraway, forbidding Siberia, Lake Baikal has long been fairly accessible, especially in the south, when it was a Soviet tourist stop even in the days of restricted travel. These days, its shore is a short day trip along the Angara River from the regional capital Irkutsk, which has daily flights to and from Moscow. The Trans-Siberian Railroad wraps around its southern tip, as does a road with beautiful vistas from points along its mountainous shoreline. [Source: Steven Lee Myers, New York Times, July 8, 2007]

“Even Olkhon, the largest of the lake’s islands, roughly in the midsection, is accessible by car or bus from Irkutsk, in the summer by a short ferry ride (in the winter, one can drive over the ice). We spent only a day on Olkhon, though, seeing some of its spiritual sites, most importantly the Shaman’s, or Burkhan’s, Rock, a twin-peaked outcropping near the village of Khuzhir that is considered one of the holiest places in Asia....From Irkutsk, the lake can be easily reached by taking a bus (70 rubles) or taxi (for 1,000 to 1,600 rubles; 7-3952-222-222) to Listvyanka, a port that caters to tourists, with several hotels, ferries and boats for hire.”

Activities and Food at Lake Baikal

In the summer at Lake Baikal, visitors can enjoy trekking, biking, camping, kayaking, fishing, rafting, horse-riding or staying staying on the shore of the lake in comfortable yurt, tents or Siberian-style cottage or log cabin. In late July and early August, the water near the shores heats up and you see a fair amount of Russians swimming in the southern tourists areas on the lake but it seemed to cold to me — and most other foreign tourists. In the winter, you can go sledding or crss-country skiing, try ice fishing or look for nerpa air holes. The freezes over completely from around December to April. The Lake Baikal Marathon, run completely on the ice is held in February.

The best way to see the lake if from a boat — either a small boat or live-board vessel like those used in scuba diving trips. If you are based in one area, in many ways it It is best to travel about the lake on a small rental boat, being able to change the route at one's discretion, entering picturesque harbors, exploring islands and fishing and sunbathing when and where you please. Favorite activities include feasting on freshly caught omul (fish) and taking a traditional "banya," a Russian-style sauna with its own culture and rituals. The boating season on Lake Baikal begins with the breakup of ice in May or June and lasts through August and even into September, keeping in mind that nasty storms can kick up in the fall.

Steven Lee Myers wrote in the New York Times: “In Russia, Baikal is famous for its omul, a small whitefish that is sold, usually smoked, from stands along the lake’s populated stretches. Omul are caught using nets and deep lines, so we fished instead for kharius, or grayling, which live near the shore and at the mouths of the more than 300 rivers and streams that flow into Baikal. Having nosed the Burmeister to the bottom of Olkhon’s eastern cliffs, rising hundreds of feet above the lake, Sergei idled the boat’s engines and let its propellers churn a prop wash that lured in the fish, which we pulled out of the water one after the other.We did this whenever the mood struck us, which was often. We ate the fish either baked onboard by the crew’s cook, Yulia, roasted on open fires we built on the shore or simply salted and pressed in a pan overnight according to a recipe belonging to Sergei’s grandfather.”

Log Cabin and a Russian Friend at Lake Baikal

Nicholas Schmidle wrote in The Atlantic: “One recent autumn evening, in the bosom of Siberia, I stood outside a modest log cabin perched on the shore of Lake Baikal and prepared to lose my clothes. The mercury hovered in the low 40s, and a chill, foreboding breeze kicked up off the lake. Aspens, Siberian firs, and yellowing birches cloaked the surrounding hills. My friend Sergey Bikkinaev and I leaned against the railing on the cabin’s front porch and peered, through the dusk, across an inlet of the world’s deepest lake. [Source: Nicholas Schmidle, The Atlantic, December, 2011]

“From where we stood, at Lake Baikal’s southernmost end, the distance to the northern tip was roughly the same as the distance between Baltimore and Boston. Containing about a fifth of the world’s unfrozen fresh water, the banana-shaped lake covers a surface area bigger than Belgium — or any of about a hundred other nations. Not long ago, the film director James Cameron, taken with the lake’s scale and purity, explored it in a submarine. Sergey had apologized for not arranging a sub, vowing instead to help me discover the mystique above the water’s surface.

“A few days earlier, Sergey had greeted me at the airport in Irkutsk, the gateway city for lake visitors. Irkutsk sits halfway between Moscow and the Aleutian Islands; I had crossed five time zones overnight on the red-eye flight from the capital. “Ah-lo, Nee-ko-las!” he hollered across the terminal. Sergey is a 40-year-old yachtsman with tousled brown hair and a wide, if sheepish, smile. In the summer months, he runs boating trips for tourists (mostly Russian). In the winter months, he repairs the vessels and takes the odd construction job. He downplays the severity of the winters, but folks, this is Siberia: the season is long and raw. Sergey and his ilk are a hardy bunch. When the lake freezes over, around January, boats on the water are replaced by minivans that tear across thick ice with inner-tube riders in tow.”

Camping at Lake Baikal

Ian Frazier wrote in The New Yorker: “The afternoon had got late, and Sergei, as usual, was in a sweat to escape the city limits and find a good camping spot. He said he knew of an ideal place on the shores of Lake Baikal, fifty or sixty kilometers away. Before we set out for it, I stipulated that we return to Irkutsk the following morning; there was more here I wanted to see.

“Sergei’s camping spot was in a little regional park above the fishing town of Nikola. Centuries ago, eastbound travellers used to stop there and pray at the chapel dedicated to St. Nicholas for safe passage across the lake. The park is on a hillside, and as Sergei navigated the van up its incline he made a sharp turn that came within a breath of tipping the vehicle onto its side. He then stopped, backed down, found a less steep route, drove to the campsite, and set up the tents without comment. This was the first “improved” campsite we had been in. Each site had a fire circle surrounded by stones, an iron grate for cooking, and two benches made of wood.

“Sergei and Volodya spent the next morning climbing the cliffs above Baikal. Sergei said that these cliffs were so beautiful I must see them immediately. After lunch he led me there. We climbed past the camp and well beyond the village to a point where pale, columnar cliffs rose spirelike above. Single file, we started up. The rock had interstices and eroded places through which a handbreadth of trail snaked, mostly along the side closest to the water. I admired Sergei’s quick footwork; mine was more uncertain, and at one or two places I got down on all fours. Lake Baikal, immensely blue, occupied the entire space on our right-hand side clear to the horizon. At the top of a spire, we stopped, and there, directly below us, maybe fifteen stories down, a naked couple was swimming in water of a clear, almost tropical greenish-blue. We could hear the woman laugh; her figure was Rubensian. In another moment, they ducked into a grotto, maybe realizing we were there.”

Lake Baikal Banya

Nicholas Schmidle wrote in The Atlantic: “Sergey had promised me two things: a delightful evening of sweat, nudity, and beer; and a refreshing dip. He had in mind his cousin’s banya, which he boasted was the finest around. My initial thought, when we parked in front, was that the cabin looked innocuous and bucolic, like something made of Lincoln Logs. Smoke billowed from the chimney. The porch faced the lake, which spread out below, in the darkness, like a gigantic tub of blueberry juice. A wooden staircase led to the water’s edge and onto a short dock with a half-submerged ladder at the end. [Source: Nicholas Schmidle, The Atlantic, December, 2011]

“Inside a kind of unheated antechamber, Sergey cracked open a beer for himself, one for me, and one for a fisherman friend of his, also named Sergey. He then told me to strip down. Sergey handed me a thin cotton loincloth to wrap around my waist, along with an ear-flapped wool cap that was emblazoned with a red star on the forehead. “I think you are the first American boy in this banya,” he said. Being a rookie, I was to get the full treatment. That meant sweating, cooling, sweating, and cooling again — with stints of masochism thrown in for fun.

“We passed into a second, purgatory-like room and then quickly into a third chamber, called the parilka. Here, Sergey instructed me to lie flat, facedown, across a pine bench. He ladled scalding water onto a pile of rocks that covered a wood-fired stove, kicking up a nasty steam (the wool cap was to protect my ears and head from being burned). Then the lashing began.

“Brandishing bouquets of eucalyptus and birch twigs, the Sergeys thrashed my back and legs. A crude aromatherapy, exfoliation, and massage wrapped into one, the experience was euphoric one moment and torturous the next. After five minutes, unable to stand the heat or the punishing twigs any longer, I jumped up and ran out the front door, onto the porch, down the stairs, to the end of the dock, and, in a single motion, untied the loincloth and leaped into the dark air. I formed a cannonball and clenched my teeth before splashing into the giant Siberian lake. My heart seized. After treading water for a second, I climbed the ladder in a frenzy and grabbed a towel. Then, like a junkie chasing his first high, I spent the next three hours repeating the process. Eventually, with my fingertips shriveled, my head light, and my body covered in eucalyptus leaves, I called it quits.

““What? We are just getting started,” Sergey scolded. But I was on the verge of passing out. It seemed Sergey was right after all. He had told me when I first arrived that a week in Siberia was long enough to study a Siberian man, but not long enough to make one. For that, I would have to come back — though maybe not until after the winter.”

Circum-Baikal Railway

The Circum-Baikal Railway is historic railroad in Irkutsk Oblast, formerly a part of the Trans-Siberian Railway, that operates off the southwestern shore of Lake Baikal. Formerly known as the gold buckle of the steel belt of Russia, it is 89 kilometers long and now serves as a rideable a museum of railroad culture, with 806 cultural historic objects and 582 engineering monuments, including 38 tunnels, and over 200 bridges.

The Circum-Baikal runs along the Northern shore of the Southern extremity of the lake from the town of Slyudyanka to the Baikal settlement. A testimony of Russian persistence and engineering skill, in which mountains were literally moved, the rail line contains tunnels cut into a mountain ridge. Each kilometer of the rail required about a wagonful of explosives and monumental manpower, Until the middle of the 20th century the Circum-Baikal railway was part of the main line of Trans-Siberian Railway, but fell out of use when a duplicate section of the railway was built.

Nowadays comfortable excursion trains operate on this line, with a trip lasting for about 10 hours. There are the beautiful views of Baikal, the taiga, the tunnels and the bridges. A journey costs RUB 4,000 per person on the retro train and RUB 3,600 for the 1st class electric train. Full board including breakfast, lunch and dinner can be added at RUB 1,850 and RUB 1,200, respectively. The most popular tour is taking the Circum-Baikal Express from Irkutsk to Slyudyanka and then onward to Port Baikal. You can also take a hike along the Railway, as there are modern hostels all along the route. There is a year-round ferry to Port Baikal through the never-freezing Angara headwaters.

Four stations are currently in operation: Kultuk, Maritui, Ulanovo, and Baikal, with one section of double track. The Circum-Baikal contains 38 tunnels with a total length of 9063 meter (the longest of them, a tunnel through cape Polovinnyj, is 777.5 m long). There are also 15 stone galleries with a total length of 295 meters and three ferro-concrete galleries with apertures, 248 bridges and viaducts, and 268 retaining walls. The Circum-Baikal has no equal in Russia as to the richness of engineering constructions. The tunnels and stone galleries of the Circum-Baikal are unique in that they were constructed atypically and have not been reconstructed since, conserving the initial plan of architects and engineers of the beginning of the century.

In the 1980s and 1990s, measures were begun to reconstruct and strengthen the railway. Currently, normally one train a day (a diesel locomotive and two cars) runs on the railway. The duration of the trip from Slyudyanka to the Baikal station is four hours and forty minutes. The inhabitants of the trackside settlements call the train a "transfer", reflecting the value of this transport for the supply of necessary articles such as bread, salt, matches, vodka, and tobacco. In addition, tourist trains periodically pass along the Cicum-Baikal, including steam locomotives and retro-style cars. Tourists can also rent handcars.

Boat and Hydrofoils at Lake Baikal

The best way to see the lake if from a boat — either a small boat or live-board vessel like those used in scuba diving trips. If you are based in one area, in many ways it It is best to travel about the lake on a small rental boat, being able to change the route at one's discretion, entering picturesque harbors, exploring islands and fishing and sunbathing when and where you please. Favorite activities include feasting on freshly caught omul (fish) and taking a traditional "banya," a Russian-style sauna with its own culture and rituals. The boating season on Lake Baikal begins with the breakup of ice in May or June and lasts through August and even into September, keeping in mind that nasty storms can kick up in the fall.

You can travel around Lake Baikal on hydrofoils that stop in Irkutsk, Olkhon, Severobaikalsk and Nizhneangarsk. Other Baikal services are limited to short hops: 1) between Irkutsk and Listvyanka and 2) from Sakhyurta to Olkhon. According to Lonely Planet: “Beware that boat schedules can change radically from year to year and are only published infuriatingly near to the first sailing of each season.”You can also charter a boat, which is most conveniently done in Listvyanka, Nizhneangarsk, Severobaikalsk or Ust-Barguzin. Travel agencies Irkutsk can help you make arrangements..

Boats go several times a day on the Angara River between Irkutsk and Listvyanka on the western shore of Lake Baikal. From June to late September hydrofoils make the 10-hour trip between Irkutsk and the towns Severobaikalsk and Nizhneangarsk on the lake's north shore. This has been described as a pleasant trip like traveling on a Norwegian fjord. This hydrofoil used to go — and maybe still does — every other day. There is (or was) a also a hydrofoil service between Irkutsk and Ust-Barguzin on the eastern shore. This Regular ferry and shipping services is often disrupted by poor maintenance, weather and other reasons.

Cruises on Lake Baikal

Cruises, lasting from a few days to a couple of weeks, that explore the shores of the lake are available in vessels like the 65-foot “Professor Morozov,” which carries about half dozen people paying around US$300 each per day. Meals on the ship include vodka, cucumber salad, raw omul, tomatoes, bread, blini (Russian pancakes) and cheese. The trips usually begins with the tossing of vodka over one's shoulders to appease the gods and proceeds at a relaxed pace and includes stops at fishing villages, beaches and cliffs; excursions to ice flows with nerpas; and hikes on mountains and through forests in Baikalo-Lensky Nature Reserve. The biggest concern are sarna, dangerous and unpredictable storms that stir up quickly and have powerful winds powerful enough to uproot trees. One a sarna sent a ferryboat crashing into a cliff, killing all 72 people on board.

Steven Lee Myers of the New York Times cruised around Lake Baikal in the “Burmeister,” an old shallow-draft Volga River gunboat that can land relatively easily and discharge passengers directly on the shore to explore bays, lagoons and rivers on foot. Myers wrote in the New York Times: “Several tourist companies in Irkutsk and, to a lesser extent, in Buryatiya, the region on the eastern side, offer boat tours on Baikal, ranging from day cruises to circumnavigations of the entire lake that can last two weeks. We chose Baikal Explorer, based in Irkutsk, which is run by Leonid Batorov, a pleasant, English-speaking native of Siberia, who explained that he had never left the region, even to visit Moscow. He has an abiding appreciation of the lake, its lore and its fish, which we proceeded to catch shortly after we boarded the boat and met its crew of four, captained by Sergei Burmeister, the nephew of the boat’s owner, Aleksandr, a filmmaker and free spirit, who named it after his father.” [Source: Steven Lee Myers, New York Times, July 8, 2007]

On getting to boat Myers wrote: “The old Soviet ambulance lurched along a dirt road that would have been impassable to most vehicles. It carried us down from the heights of Olkhon Island’s northernmost cape — a site called Three Brothers that is sacred to two faiths practiced here, Buddhism and Shamanism — and finally into a grassy valley that led to the edge of the world’s deepest, most voluminous body of fresh water, Lake Baikal in Siberia. On the stony shore where we jerked to a halt, there was only a meteorological station and some campers. Then we spotted the Burmeister, a battered old Volga River gunboat sitting in a small bay. For the next six days, it would provide our room and board and our own private transportation to parts of the lake that can be reached only by water. The boat nosed ashore near a narrow outcropping; we climbed over the rocks and up a wooden plank ladder, and headed out on a glorious summer day.

“The Burmeister is a Yaroslavets-class boat, the most common on Lake Baikal because its durability and low draft, which allows it, effectively, to run aground to discharge passengers on the lake’s shore. This proved essential, since for the bulk of our trip we explored vast unspoiled stretches of lake and shore — with bays, lagoons and rivers at the foot of mountains that reached 7,200 feet. It is not inexpensive. Leonid said that this year the cost to hire the Burmeister had risen to 30,000 rubles a day, or about US$1,140 at 26.3 rubles to the dollar. The Burmeister, though, can comfortably sleep eight visitors, making it no more expensive per person than a hotel in many places.

“Leonid Batorov, an English teacher by education, runs Baikal Explorer (; 7-3952-742-440 or 7-3952-357-199). The cost of renting a boat, with room for eight or more in two cabins, is 30,000 rubles a day. He recommends cruises on the more sparsely populated northern part of Baikal and offers ground transport from Irkutsk to Olkhon Island (2,500 rubles) and lodging in the main village, Khuzhir (600 rubles a night including meals), before boarding. Another agency is Baikaler (; 7-3952-336-240 or 7-9085-439-686). Its owner, Jack Sheremetoff, organizes cruises for 24,000 to 28,000 rubles a day for 8-to-10 passengers, with meals.”

Traveling Around Lake Baikal By Car

Ian Frazier wrote in The New Yorker: “That night, we again slept near the shores of Baikal. This time, owing to bad planning, we camped on the grounds of what was billed as a resort. It had a gate, cabins, picnic shelters, and washroom conveniences best left undiscussed. Its strewn heaps of trash were extreme, even for Russia. Somebody who saw this campground without context or explanation might come to the conclusion that a group of confused people had mistakenly gone on vacation at the town dump. We met a woman who “provided touristic services” at the resort, and she had been driven to a near-frenzy by how awful it was. This became evident when Sergei invited her to have tea with us after supper, and she told us, with great drama and forcefulness and scorching irony, about the difficulties of her job. [Source: Ian Frazier, The New Yorker, August 10 and 17, 2009, Frazier is author of “Travels in Siberia” (2010) ]

“By one o’clock, her monologue had worn me out and I retired to my tent. Sergei had to evict her bodily at two-thirty. At an even later hour than that, when he and Volodya were again off somewhere, I came awake to a loud conversation between two passing drunks who were debating whether to do something or other—I did not recognize the verb—to our tents. Fortunately, the milder of the drunks prevailed after a while, and they went away. Cars then blasted up and down the resort’s dirt lanes for an hour or so, blowing their horns. Just after dawn, the Big Brother-like speakers of the public-address system wired to nearby trees began playing bad music from many different cultures while exhorting everyone to get up and exercise.

“Sergei assured me that he would find us a better place on Baikal, and the next day he did. We drove around the southern end of the lake and then followed the railroad tracks that ran between the road and the shore. At a place where a creek went under a railroad bridge, there was enough dry ground on one side for the van to squeak through, and we emerged onto a beach of small, smooth rocks with no sign of people anywhere for three or four kilometers. Sitting on the beach with nothing to do but look at the lake, I finally got the point about Baikal.

“This camping spot was so great we decided to stay another day. True, trains did go by almost constantly just the other side of some shoreline trees; but the sound was not bad for sleeping at all. In the morning, a fisherman who put his boat in at the mouth of the creek brought us some omul’ he had just caught. (The omul’ is Baikal’s tastiest fish.) To reciprocate, I opened a stash of presents I had brought along and got out a New York City snow globe, some Beanie Baby stuffed animals, and two folding pocket mirrors to give to him. He liked the snow globe and he accepted the Beanie Babies, but he gave me back the mirrors, saying he had no use for them. This made Sergei indignant and he scolded the guy for being a rude person who didn’t know how to behave with foreigners. Chastened, the guy took the mirrors. I remembered I had a baseball cap with the logo of the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society on it—the logo shows a leaping bass, in bright green—and I gave him that cap, too. He put it on and examined it in the mirror, and above his broad face and brown bib overalls it looked exactly right. I liked the idea that I had successfully launched a B.A.S.S. hat on the waters of Baikal.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Federal Agency for Tourism of the Russian Federation (official Russia tourism website ), Russian government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in September 2020

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.