Introducing Lake Baikal
One of the world’s oldest geographical features (formed 25 to 30 million years ago), magnificent Lake Baikal (Озеро Байкал) is the highlight of Eastern Siberia for many. Summer travellers enjoy gob-smacking vistas across waters of the deepest blue to soaring mountain ranges on the opposite shore; rarer winter visitors marvel at its powder-white surface, frozen steel-hard and scored with ice roads. Whether they swim in it, drink its water, skirt its southern tip by train, cycle or dog sled over it in winter or just admire it from 2000km of shoreline, most agree that Siberia doesn’t get better than this.
Banana-shaped Baikal is 636km from north to south and up to 1637m deep, making it the world’s deepest lake. In fact it’s not a lake at all, but the world’s future fifth ocean containing nearly one-fifth of the planet’s unfrozen fresh water (more than North America’s five Great Lakes combined). Despite some environmental concerns, it’s pure enough to drink in most places but use common sense. Fed by 300 rivers, it’s drained by just one, the Angara near Listvyanka.
Foreign tourists typically visit Baikal from Listvyanka via Irkutsk, but approaching via Ulan-Ude (for eastern Baikal) produces more beach fun and Severobaikalsk (on the BAM railway) is best for accessing wilderness trekking routes. Choosing well is important as there’s no round-lake road and the northern reaches are in effect cut off by land from the southern shores. Not even the Great Baikal Trail will create a complete loop as some stretches of shoreline are just too remote. Hydrofoil connections are limited to summer services in the south plus the Irkutsk–Olkhon–Nizhneangarsk run. Inexplicably, there are virtually no scheduled boat services linking the east and west shores.
Note that this section also includes the beautiful inland Tunka and Barguzin Valleys as they’re accessed via Baikal towns.