Despite appearing incredibly serene, the lake has seen its fair share of action over the course of history. In 1920, during the Russian Civil War, the White Army under Vladimir Kappel attempted to flee across the frozen lake southward towards China. However, the effect of the Arctic winds blasting freely across the flat surface served to plummet temperatures below -40°C. This led to huge losses, and many of the bodies being lost forever to the lake when it thawed the following spring.
As this might suggest, there’s certainly some periods of the year that are better to visit than others. For five months over winter, the lake is covered in ice thick enough to walk on and take snowmobiles over. In fact, it was even strong enough for a railway line to be laid over it during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05.
Probably the biggest attraction of Lake Baikal is its remarkable uniqueness. About 1,200 of its 2,000 animal and plant species can be found nowhere else in the world. Baikal seals are the planet’s only completely freshwater seal, and scientists still aren’t entirely sure exactly how they ended up there. It’s most likely they arrived from the Arctic, having swum up a river in prehistoric times. However, nowadays the population of 60,000 seals live over one thousand miles from the nearest sea.
There are 27 islands dotted around the lake, although most of them are uninhabited. Of the ones you can stay on, the most popular is Olkhon, on which there are several villages.
What to do during your stay
On the shore, one of the best tourist destinations is the village of Listvyanka, found less than two hours from the city of Irkutsk. Near this village is the Baikal Dog Sledding Centre, which during winter provides a great opportunity to explore the lake and surrounding forests, from sleds pulled along the ice by husky dogs. Rates vary from 1500 rubles (just under $50) per person for a 5km trek, to 15,000 rubles (just under $500) for a 40-50 km trek which takes 5-6 hours and includes a picnic lunch in the forest.
The local Buryat population believe in a form of shamanism. They think the material world is alive with spirits and the boundary between the living and the dead is fluid. During Stalin’s purges in the 1930s, the authorities tied weights to the shamans’ feet and dropped them underneath the ice, although since Communism collapsed shamanism has been resurgent.
If you’re visiting during the warmer summer months, a great way to get up close and personal with these fascinating beliefs is through camping on the beach next to the “shamanka” rock. For shamans this is the most sacred site in Siberia, and it also possesses remarkable natural beauty.
Throughout summer the water is warm enough to swim in, and even better, it’s so clean and clear that you can drink it as you swim. Whilst the remoteness of Lake Baikal is what puts many tourists off visiting, it’s also a big part of what makes the trip so undoubtedly worth the effort.
The nearest airport is Irkutsk, which serves a variety of international and domestic carriers. There are several flights coming to and from Moscow on a daily basis throughout all seasons. It’s also accessible by the Trans-Siberian Railway, and with many buses coming to and from Irkutsk.