Baikal Lake is the most beautiful place I have seen so far!
Baikal is the deepest lake in the world, the biggest reservoir with potable water. It has more waters than the 5 great lakes in the USA! When it comes to the depth of Baikal, the latest data show that it is 1,642 meters deep!
It had been a dream of mine for a couple of years to travel to Baikal. I knew that it is a fantastically beautiful place, but, honestly, I did not expect it to be that beautiful. The waters of Baikal are super clean, I could clearly see every stone, but the surrounding landscapes… they can easily rival Norwegian fjords and win here (well, in my opinion). Just imagine rugged rocky shores, sandy beaches, taiga forest, hills and mountains covered with grass and snow, and fields where cattle graze freely. The landscapes are so varied that it is hard to believe your eyes. So, my advice: just take your backpack and go there!
A bit about the location of Baikal: it is in the center of Asia, in Siberia. It is very close to Mongolia, and it takes less time to get there from Beijing and Seoul than from Moscow. Just for you to understand the distances involved: it is more than 5,000 kilometers from Moscow to Baikal, and less than 2,000 kilometers from Beijing.
Before we go further, some info about me: I am a native Russian speaker, and I travelled to Baikal solo from mid-June till the beginning of July. I visited Irkutsk (with 1-day trips to Taltsy, Tazheran Steppe and Circum-Baikal Railway), Olkhon Island and Listvyanka. As Moldova, my home country, was a part of the USSR, we do not need visas for visits to Russia.
1. How to get to Baikal Lake
Baikal Lake is territorially located in Irkutsk Oblast and Buryatia, which are two federal subjects of Russia. Irkutsk is the main city of Irkutsk Oblast, and Ulan-Ude – of Buryatia.
There are a couple of ways to get to Baikal.
By plane: Both cities have airports, and it means that the easiest way to get to Baikal is to fly there. I took the flight to Irkutsk from Moscow, the duration was about 6 hours. For those who live in Europe the best way is to get to Moscow, and from there take a direct flight to Irkutsk offered by S7 and Aeroflot. The planes from Saint Petersburg usually have a layover in Moscow.
As Baikal is in Asia, there are flights to Irkutsk from many Chinese cities including Beijing, Hong Kong, Shenyang and Guangzhou, Bangkok in Thailand, Seoul in South Korea, Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia.
By train: Irkutsk and Ulan-Ude are connected to Moscow by train. The ride takes less than 4 days, I have just checked it and the slowest train arrives in Irkutsk in 3 days and 14 hours. Well, I have never used trains in Russia, so I can’t say anything about facilities, but I would definitely not expect much of them. I have read reviews from people complaining that there was no air conditioning, which can be terrible when it is hot outside. And you will have to entertain yourself these 4 days 😊 But yes, trains are cheaper than plane.
By car: Yeah, I know what I have told about the distances, and you might think that I am crazy if I am mentioning this option. Russians do it 😊 They come by cars from Moscow and Saint Petersburg, so it is totally doable. Well, you have to consider that it is going to take more than a couple of days, maybe 5 or 6 depending on the route, and some parts of the road will not be in good condition. Well, when I think about it, maybe, it is better to opt for plane or train, but that depends on how adventurous you are 😊
2. The best time to travel to Baikal Lake
Let’s take it by season.
Summer. I went to Baikal in the second half of June, and I loved it. It was a perfect timing, just before July which is considered high season. The weather was nice, around 17 degrees close to the lake, which I preferred to 38 degrees in my home country. It rained occasionally, but it was not critical. Field flowers were blooming creating vibrant beds. It was not windy, so the waters of Baikal were calm, but cold. Frankly, the temperature of Baikal waters rarely becomes comfortable: in the southern bays it can be around 20 degrees, but usually it happens in July and lasts till mid-August. In other parts it is about 10 degrees. But everything is green around, colorful and warm. I liked Baikal in June additionally for the fact that it was not crowded.
Autumn. In the early autumn the colors change from green to yellow and red. Considering that there are areas with taiga around Baikal, the views must be amazing! Autumn means less tourists, colder Baikal waters, crispier air and fantastic pictures. But keep in mind that it is better to visit Baikal in September.
Winter. Well, as far as I know the lake is simply spectacular in wintertime. Imagine thick ice lit by morning and evening sun, while everything is white around. Icicles in caves form fantastic structures, and ice is strong enough to hold cars (usually in January). This is the period loved very much by photographers as the pictures are truly amazing, so there are photo tours organized. I should add that March is perfect for photos as well. Just google for pictures, and you will want to go there in winter.
Of course, it is extremely cold, so if you decide to visit Baikal in winter, you better be prepared. Get thermal underwear, thick coat and winter boots.
Spring. In March the ice is still strong, and it is a good time for ice fishing and diving. The temperatures are milder than in winter, but it is still cold, around 10-15 degrees below zero. In early spring people come to Baikal for snowboarding, skiing and fishing. At the end of April the ice starts melting and the process is over in May. This is the time when the nature wakes up, and first flowers appear shyly. And this is the time for slow walks with no crowds.
I can speak only about summer from my personal experience and I think June is perfect for a visit. And I have seen pictures of Baikal in winter, when it is frozen over, and it is a spectacular sight. So, I can wholeheartedly recommend summer and the second half of winter with March for visits.
3. What to do at Baikal
Oh, the possibilities here are endless! The whole region is a natural reserve with stunning landscapes and waterscapes. Even two weeks will not be enough to see everything Baikal offers. So, in addition to exploring for a couple of days Irkutsk and Ulan-Ude, the cities that you will most likely arrive in first, here are some other places that you can visit.
From Irkutsk it is convenient to get to Tazheran Steppe, a place with fantastic landscapes and mountains overlooking Baikal, Olkhon Island, the biggest island on Baikal with hilly valleys, rocky shores and sandy beaches, Peschanaya (Sandy) Bay, Tunkin Depression, a volcanic field, Listvyanka where a part of the Great Baikal Trail starts, Ethnographic Museum in Taltsy and Circum-Baikal Railway, a train ride along Baikal.
Ulan-Ude is convenient for getting to stunning and picturesque Chivyrkuisky and Barguzinsky Bays, Holy Nose Peninsula, the biggest in Baikal, Ushkan Islands that are famous for rookeries of Baikal seals, endemic to the region, Ivolginsky Datsan, a Buddhist temple known for Lama Itigelov story (his body shows no signs of decomposition despite the fact that he died in 1927), Buryat villages.
4. Which city, Irkutsk or Ulan-Ude?
Actually, when you think about all the places to visit around Baikal, you realize that this question is pretty difficult. Some places are more accessible from Irkutsk, others – from Ulan-Ude. For example, as far as I know Circum-Baikal Railway tour is possible from Irkutsk only. To get to Olkhon Island buses from Ulan-Ude will go via Irkutsk anyway. Again, this is according to my knowledge.
I wanted to visit Tazheran Steppe, Olkhon Island and do the Circum-Baikal Railway tour, so, naturally, I opted for Irkutsk. These places are easily accessible from Irkutsk and, in addition to that, there are more flights available to Irkutsk than to Ulan-Ude. I am not going to lie, I wanted to go to Ushkan Islands very much, but Irkutsk was a more reasonable option. So, this is what I did. If I had had more time, I would have gone to Ulan-Ude for the island tour.
So, the answer to the question: if you can afford going to both cities, do it. I should mention that Irkutsk and Ulan-Ude are well connected by bus, train and plane, so it is doable. Otherwise, just select what places you want to visit and choose the city closest to them.
5. Can I plan the trip myself?
I organized this trip myself. I bought tickets, booked hotels and hostels, read heaps of information about ways of moving around in the region, things to do and places to visit. I made a plan, and I have to admit it was pretty easy to do. I spent 15 days at Baikal, and this is what I did:
– I spent 4 days in Irkutsk
– I had one-day trips to Taltsy Museum, Tazheran Steppe and went on a day Circum-Baikal Railway tour.
– I had 4 full days on Olkhon Island, and I consider I could spend more time there.
– I spend 2 full days in Listvyanka, a village right at Baikal shore which is famous for its museum and is a starting point for Great Baikal Trail.
There were two things that required a thorough research: places to visit and how to get to those places. Russian is my mother tongue, so it was pretty easy to do (I am here to help you if you do not speak Russian, just follow my posts). And I opted for organized tours to the places I could not get to independently, and namely Tazheran Steppe and tours on Olkhon Island.
Now, as someone who organized the trip without any help, I can say that it is totally doable and there is no need to pay a travel agency for that. Frankly, I am not sure there are many agencies outside Russia and some Asian countries that organize tours to Baikal.
6. Should you visit Olkhon?
So, with so many places to see and things to do in the mainland, should you really bother with spending some time on Olkhon? My answer is: ‘Yes, definitely’! The island itself has stunning landscapes and offers amazing views of the mainland.
Olkhon is the biggest and only inhabited island in Baikal. It is about 72 kilometers long and you would be surprised to see forests, rocky and sandy shores, hills and vast fields. In Khuzhir, the biggest village on Olkhon, there is a sandy beach, more than a kilometer long, and the waters of Baikal are super clean and clear. Frankly, the temperature of water is rarely comfortable for swimming, but people are not afraid to dive in anyway.
The island is famous for its capes, with Khoboi (fang from Buryat language) being the most famous. And every cape has a legend associated with it. There is a forked one, called the Cape of Love. As the legend has it, people who want to have kids should make their wishes on the specific side of the cape as one side is reserved for those who want boys, and the other one for those who want a girl.
I would advise to spend more than 3 days on the island. I had four full days, it rained during one of them, and, trust me, it is not the best time to be outside as its muddy and slippery. But I regret that I had 4 days only, I would have loved to stay for another couple of days to explore the serene landscapes of the island. My full guide on Olkhon is here.
7. Roads on Olkhon
Now to explain why you can’t really do anything on Olkhon when it rains. There are no asphalted roads on the island. Instead, they are clayey or sandy and stony. It means that if you want to go outside during rain you will need to wear wellingtons, but it is very likely that the island will be covered in fog.
And remember that when you are in a car, the roads are extremely bumpy. I did not expect anything like that considering that the roads are quite flat. But I could feel every stone, every bump below the wheels. And it is quite an interesting experience when one has to spend hours in a car because exploring the island on foot will take days, so tourists travel in a car from one point of interest to another.
8. Distances are not a joke
Well, when it comes to Russia, people, including me, rarely understand how vast this country is. So, when you are around Baikal, just know that it might take hours to get to a place.
Tazheran Steppe is more than 200 kilometers away from Irkutsk, and Olkhon Island is about 300 kilometers away. It takes about 6 hours to get to Khuzhir from Irkutsk. Slyudyanka is 100 kilometers away, and Tunkin Depression – 200 kilometers. The distance from Ulan-Ude to Barguzinsky Bay is more than 260 kilometers. Just be ready to spend some time on the road.
9. Buy tickets in advance
Here I am talking about the tickets for interurban routes. I took buses, or better say, marshrutkas, to Khuzhir, Listvyanka and Taltsy.
I know that many people just show up at the bus station not long before departure, but, being a control freak, I buy everything in advance. And I am glad I did it in Baikal!
As I spent some days in Irkutsk first, immediately after arrival I went to the bus station and bought tickets for Khuzhir, Taltsy and Listvyanka. And here is what I noticed: the buses departing from Irkutsk were always full! So, buy tickets in advance, especially for Khuzhir, especially if you travel during high season.
Now, about Taltsy. I strongly recommend going there, it is an incredible museum with wooden houses brought from Siberian villages, with authentic objects inside. This is an opportunity to get a glimpse of how people used to live before. Taltsy is not far from Irkutsk, about 50 kilometers away, and the bus to Listvyanka stops there on its way. Now, you have to know that the bus fills in really quickly. I have read somewhere that it is not necessary to buy a ticket back from Taltsy to Irkutsk as you can always wave the bus to stop. I did not listen to this advice and it turned out I was right. When I got back to the station after visiting the museum, there were another 6 people waiting for the bus. And the marshrutkas did not stop when waved, because they were full! I had a ticket, so I got the seat, and they had to either hitchhike or hope for a marshrutka with enough seats.
I did not buy a ticket for marshrutka from Listvyanka as I saw them leaving the village half empty. But they filled in till they got to the other side of the village. Interestingly so, there were plenty of seats from Khuzhir to Irkutsk.
If you can’t do it in person at the bus station, here is the official website to buy tickets. And you can check timetables and consult prices there.
10. Local transport
Let’s talk a bit about prices for the interurban routes. They are dirt cheap! It costs about 9 EUR to get from Irkutsk to Khuzhir on Olkhon Island, around 2 EUR to get to Listvyanka or Taltsy. I am telling you, I did not expect the prices to be so low! In Europe people pay 2 EUR for a bus ride inside the city!
Some info about long rides: the road to Khuzhir takes about 6 hours, so drivers stop at certain roadside cafes for a break, usually for 20-30 minutes. The cafes are cheap, and there is enough time for a grab.
Now about the transport in Irkutsk. There are buses, trams, trolleybuses and marshrutkas covering the whole city. Google Maps was pretty good in planning the routes whenever I needed to use local transport, so don’t be afraid to use it. I do not think you will use the transport often – I didn’t, I prefer to walk – as the tourist attractions are pretty close to each other. The cost is either 15 or 20 RUB (0,20-0,30 eurocents) per ride and there is no need to buy tickets: passengers pay directly to the driver, usually on exit.
Do not expect any local buses in villages. I guess it is true not for Russia only 😊 There was nothing available both in Khuzhir and Listvyanka, only tour or interurban buses.
When I was planning my trip to Baikal, I read almost everywhere that the queues for ferries are endless. Like, people had to wait for hours for their turn. Naturally, that was very discouraging, but only before I found info that local interurban buses have a priority. It means they are always the first ones to get on ferries. Of course, it still meant queues, but it did not sound so terrible anymore.
Now, to the reality, or, at least, to the reality in the second half of June. There were no queues! All cars and people waiting to be transported fit in one ferry. I guess the situation is different in July and August, but I do not think it is that dramatic.
While there, I took ferries three times: to and from Olkhon Island, and from Baikal Port to Listvyanka. When it comes to Olkhon Island, the ferry price was already included in the bus ticket. The ferry ride from Baikal Port to Listvyanka was a part of Circum-Baikal Railway tour, so my train ticket paid for it. What I am trying to say is that I have not paid for ferries separately.
If you travel by car and want to use ferry, I was told that you will have to pay aboard for the car and passengers. I am not sure card payments are accepted, so make sure you have cash. For Baikal Port-Listvyanka the prices are 71 RUB (1 EUR) per passenger and 420 RUB (6 EUR) for a car. Unfortunately, I do not have any info on Olkhon ferry, but I think there should not be big difference.
12. Spray against ticks and mosquitoes
If you travel to Baikal in May and summer, then make sure to have a spray against ticks. These are the months when ticks are active, with May being the worst. I sprayed myself every time possible as the last thing I wanted was to be bitten by a tick and then dealing with the consequences. Ticks are dangerous as they are carriers of encephalitis and Lyme disease. Just spray yourself: better safe than sorry. Usually, residential areas are disinfested, but as locals told me there is still no guarantee no tick will bite you. Luckily, I have never seen a tick during my trip. If it is possible, get vaccinated before your trip to Baikal.
13. Languages spoken
Luckily, I speak Russian, which is a good thing in Russia 😊 Despite Baikal being a popular tourist destination, not so many people speak English here. Of course, some young people, hotel staff and some waiters in central cafes and restaurants speak English, but I would not expect it from others.
Many restaurants have menus in English, information in some museums in Irkutsk is translated into English. Bus drivers and supermarket assistants most likely don’t speak English.
As the region is close to China, there are many Chinese tourists, so locals told me that their kids tend to study Chinese more often than English. I guess one day it will be a paradise for the Chinese 😊
It is always nice and useful to know at least some words and phrases in Russian. Use Google Translate, they have an offline version app. And you can always meet Russian-speaking tourists who will happily translate the info for you, like I did on Olkhon.
14. Can you swim in Baikal Lake?
Yes, you definitely can! The thing is that you might not like the temperature of Baikal waters as it is pretty low, around 10 degrees in summer. Like I said before, it gets warmer in some bays, but I still consider it cold.
I personally saw people swimming on Olkhon Island. It was on a very warm June day, so I suppose there are many people at beaches in July. The only thing I did was wetting my feet so that I can say that I have done it 😊 But I have to say that the waters of Baikal are so clean and inviting that it is hard to resist the temptation to have a swim 😊
15. Money: cash or cards
Frankly, I was surprised by the fact that there are so many places accepting cards. Even small roadside cafes do that. Frankly, I think it is a preferable payment method as in many places they did not have change for cash. Obviously, restaurants and supermarkets accept cards, for smaller museums I would have cash.
But everything is different on Olkhon Island. As far as I know there are no ATMs on Olkhon, so have cash with you. This might be true for smaller villages as well.
So, my advice is to have cash and cards with you, just to be on the safe side 😊
Almost every place around Baikal is a protected area, and it means that if you want to explore it, you will need a permit. Every time you book a tour via an agency, they take care of everything. If you want to do it on your own, you will have to seek a permit and pay for it. There are forestry units in many tourist places around Baikal. In Khuzhir it is in 50 Baikalskaya Street, in Irkutsk – 291B Baikalskaya Street, in Listvyanka – 2 Gorky Street, in Ust-Barguzin – 71 Lenin Street.
Be ready to present your ID/passport and the plan of your route.
17. Left- and right-hand drive cars
Russia, as many other countries around the world, has right-hand traffic. Now, why am I saying this? Because when it comes to Baikal region and some other places in the east of Russia, many people have right-hand drive cars in addition to left-hand ones. So, just don’t be surprised, you are not in Britain 😊
The reason why there are right-hand drive cars is quite simple: the European market is far, while Japan that has left-hand traffic, is much closer. So, after the collapse of the Soviet Union locals started bringing cheap used cars from Japan, and this tradition still continues today.
18. Additional charges in restaurants
I have not seen this happen often, only in Listvyanka. Some places charge 10% service fee and include it to the bill. In one restaurant I actually saw a warning about these 10% before I ordered. Anyway, I do not leave any tips if this fee is included. And it’s a pity that you can’t really refuse to pay it, if you did not like the service.
19. Kolchak’s gold
Now let’s delve into something really interesting 😊 Especially considering that you will come across this story anyway.
There are many legends about Baikal, and all of them are old. But there is one which is only 100 years old and appeared in the Soviet times.
If you know anything about the history of Russia, then it must be the revolutions of 1917 when Bolsheviks gained the power. But after the World War I a civil war broke in Russia, and the White Army (yes, there was a white army) fought against the Red Army. Many officers of Emperor Nicholas II joined the White Army, and one of them was Admiral Alexander Kolchak who later became their leader. Kolchak is an extremely interesting historical figure, so if you have time, read about him.
So, Kolchak came into possession of the czar’s gold reserve. And it was tons of gold, part of which was used to provide for the needs of the army. So, it is believed that while being transported by train, part of that gold sank to the bottom of Baikal, so there have always been people keen to find it.
I think many historians agree that this story is just a legend, but you never know 😊
As for the admiral himself, in 1920 he was betrayed and executed in Irkutsk. There is a statue to Kolchak in Irkutsk at Znamensky Monastery where it is believed that he was shot.
20. How much it costs
I guess, this is one of the most important questions 😊 As people in many places around Baikal rely on tourism, I have to say that the region is pretty expensive. And considering the distance from Moscow to Baikal, tickets are not cheap either. Local transport, on the contrary, is very affordable, especially compared to prices in Europe.
So, here is my budget breakdown:
– Plane tickets: 500 EUR (I flew from Moldova to Moscow, and from Moscow to Irkutsk)
– Accommodation: 330 EUR
– Local transport: 45 EUR
– Food: 150 EUR
– Entrance fees and tours: 230 EUR
So, my total is 1.255 EUR. Excluding plane tickets, it is 755 EUR for 15 days, or 50 EUR per day on average. Pretty expensive, I would say 😊 But I am ready to pay it again, as I truly loved the place.
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