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Introducing Lake Baikal

Crystal-clear Lake Baikal is a vast body of the bluest water, surrounded by rocky or tree-covered foreshores behind which mountains float like phantoms at indeterminable distances. Baikal's meteorological mood swings are transfixing spectacles, whole weather systems dancing for your delectation over Siberia's 'climatic kitchen'.

Shaped like a banana, Baikal is 636km from north to south and up to 1637m deep, making it the world's deepest lake. Incredibly, it contains nearly one-fifth of the planet's unfrozen fresh water, more than North America's five Great Lakes combined, and despite some environmental worries it's drinkably pure.

In the past, foreign tourists have typically visited Baikal from Listvyanka via Irkutsk, but options are rapidly expanding and it's now equally feasible to approach via Ulan-Ude (for eastern Baikal) or Severobaikalsk (on the BAM railway). Choosing well is important as there's no round-lake road nor even a trekking path, at least not until the Great Baikal Trail (www.greatbaikaltrail.org) is completed. Hydrofoil-ferry connections are limited to local services plus the Irkutsk-Olkhon-Severobaikalsk-Nizhneangarsk run. Round-Baikal cruises can be fiercely expensive: Irkutsk agencies quote between US$600 and US$850 per day for liveaboards (where you sleep on board during the trip) holding between eight and 12 people, though you can pay vastly less by starting in Nizhneangarsk. March is arguably one of the best times to visit the region: the scenery is pristine white and there's no need to charter expensive excursion boats as (in places) you can hop in a taxi and drive across the world's deepest lake - a thrilling proposition. Other adventurous if potentially foolhardy crossing methods include kayaking (www.chargelife.com), motor-biking (www.iceride.com) and skating (www.transbaikal.nl).