There’s no better way to get your unexpected Russian experience than a trip to Baikal.
Lake Baikal is the deepest and oldest lake in the world. Roughly the size of Belgium, it covers 32,000 sq km (12,352 sq miles) and contains 20% of all the fresh water on our planet, more than the five Great Lakes of North America combined.
The Russian center of Buddhism. A sacred place for shamanists in an unexampled biosphere. Lake Baikal gives an incomparable opportunity to enjoy the wild and discover a unique culture. Though not completely devoid of human life, Baikal is one of the world's most beautiful me-time fixes. Tourists often say they experience a certain aeriality in the proximity of the lake, both physically and mentally. The locals call Baikal “sea” and believe it indeed feels to be one. Esoterics say the lake has a vibe like few other places in the world. Scientists narrow this down to its special microclimate.
Surrounded by age-old pine forests, steppes, mountains and colorful plains covered with wildflowers, Baikal is an ideal destination for those who love outdoor activities. Hiking, horseback riding, biking, diving, skiing, skating or dog sledding are only a small part of what one can do there depending on the season. If you are after true adventure why not try camping? We know all the right places to pitch up. But don’t worry! If camping sounds a bit “too outdoorsy” then there are plenty of options for sleeping indoors, keeping you active during the day and well rested at night.
At a glance
Baikal lies in between two Russian regions – the Republic of Buryatia to the southeast and Irkutsk oblast to the northwest.
Time Zone: GMT +8
Territory: 351 334 km²
Population: 982 284 people
Density: 3.11 p/km²
Time Zone: GMT +8
Territory: 767 900 km²
Population: 2 412 800 people
Density: 2.8 p/km²
When to go
There is no best season to visit Baikal, each season has its own charm.
Summer at Baikal is perfect for those who are after swimming, sailing and sunbathing. You will enjoy exceptionally warm and even hot weather from mid June to mid August. This time of the year, you will see beautiful sunrises and sunsets – nature in its heyday.
Autumn starts in mid August and lasts until late September. Days are usually sunny and warm as Baikal releases the heat accumulated during the summer, and nights are usually chilly. It is an ideal period for those who are looking for solitary and meditation in the middle of forests colored in bright yellow and red. Your stay will be varnished by fishing, hunting, hiking, berry and mushroom picking, and cedar cones.
Winters at Baikal are frosty and extremely sunny. The lake is covered with blue transparent ice from January to March. And what an ice it is! During the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-05, it was so thick that a railway was laid across the lake to transport supplies to the front. A modern traveler can cross the lake by car - driving regulations are in force there with a full set of road signs. Baikal in winter is an ideal place for ice-diving and dog sledding. It is also has the biggest skating rink in the world. However, the best thing about Baikal in winter is the privacy you get in the absence swarms of people.
April and May is the time of nature’s revival and the melting ice is a sight not to be missed. It takes the lake a month to be free of ice. Like the icebergs in the Arctic ocean, huge ice floes start to move. They take on a vertical position and you can look right through their crystal clear ice as though you were looking through glass! The shores get covered with fresh grass and multicolored flowers and are then visited by wild animals.
Baikal culture has a mix of traditions and customs from many peoples, among which three stand apart –Buryats, Evenks and Russians. It is also a mix of three main religions of the region – Buddhism, Shamanism and orthodox Christianity.
Lake Baikal’s clear water, rich fish resources, forests full of game, and prolific climate have during centuries attracted many peoples and tribes. They alternated with one another until, in the 6th century, Baikal lakeside was colonized by the Kurykans. Kurykans were semi-settled nomads raising camels, goats and excellent horses highly praised at the Chinese imperial court. In the 10th century Kurykans suffered from Mongolian tribal invasions. Some Kurykans fled north and formed the Yakut culture, some stayed and assimilated with Mongolians becoming ancestors of Western Buryats and giving birth to the culture you will find in the Baikal region nowadays. Originally shamanists, in 17th century Buryats started adopting Buddhism. Gradually Buryatia became the Russian center of Tibetan Buddhism with over 30 temples including the main one in Ivolga around 30 km away from Ulan-Ude.
Another ethnic group living in the area are Evenks. Reindeer skin tent, a light leather or birchbark boat and a riding reindeer saddle were once inseparable parts of the Evenk culture. Sedentary life was introduced only during the Soviet Union, but even now these peoples work in three traditional occupations – fishing, hunting and cattle raising. Respect for nature has always been a hallmark of this nation, no wonder Evenks believe in animism and practice shamanism.
Around four centuries ago Russians started exploring the vast lands of Siberia. Not really welcomed on the shores of Baikal, they persistently reclaimed the territory. A group of people called Old Believers, have preserved the traditional culture almost intact. Descendants of Russian Christians who refused to accept the reforms of the Russian Orthodox Church in the 1660’s have inherited a culture rich in religious and folk tradition, whose expression takes form in chants and folksongs, in the calligraphy of ancient liturgical books, in handiwork—the richly embroidered curtains of icon corners, prayer mats, woven belts, and colorful dress – and in language.
According to UNESCO, Baikal’s “age and isolation have produced one of the world's richest and most unusual freshwater faunas, which is of exceptional value to evolutionary science”. More than 2500 fauna species and more than 1000 flora species inhabit the lake and its shores. A significant part of these animals (85%) and plants (40%) can’t be found anywhere else on our planet.
Some animals stand apart even from the long list of extraordinary inhabitants of the lake. Baikal nerpa is for example the only freshwater seal in the world. It presumably has lived in Baikal since the lake was part of the ocean. According to another theory, nerpa travelled to Baikal through Siberia’s rivers. The same theories exist considering Baikal omul, a distant relative of salmon and the most popular fish among the local population.
While some species keep scientists guessing where they came from, others surprise us with their existence. The Golomyanka fish (Comephorus) lives 1.5 km (1 mi) below the surface. It has a transparent body without any scales and almost 40% of its weight is oil. This fish can move throughout the entire water column of Baikal without much regard to changes of pressure. The Golomyanka is the favorite dish in the nerpas’ diet.
Severe climate, herding origins of Buryat people, hunting origins of Evenks and proximity of Lake Baikal are the key factors that influenced the cuisine of the Baikal region, making meat and milk the major components of the local diet. You will find milk in the traditional tea, sour milk in the alcoholic drink Tarasun, and in different dishes. Salamat, for example, is one of the favorite dairy dishes of Buryats. It is made from rich sour cream, salt and black rye flour.
Buryats cook more than 50 lamb dishes, and eat a lot of beef, horse meat and game.
The preferred meat is lamb. The most famous meat dish of Buryats is Buuzy (Pozy in Russian) - steamed dumplings, filled with minced lamb, nowadays sometimes replaced by beef or pork. Pozy are traditionally eaten by hand. To get the full experience you should first bite a small hole in the doughy shell and drink the tasty juice before eating the dumpling. If you don’t drink the juice on the first bite then you risk staining your shirt!
The best fish dishes of the Baikal region are made from Omul. Whether it is consumed hot-smoked, cold-smoked, salted, fried or in a soup, it stays a must of the local cuisine.
Even if you travel to the lake in summer, pay attention to the local climate. Nights can be as cold as those on an ocean coast. Make sure you have warm clothes with you (including a hat and gloves) and clothes for wet weather.
If you plan on visiting the Buryat Buddhism monastery ‘Ivolginsky Datsan,’ dress respectfully. Avoid mini-skirts and short tops. Put on clothes that cover your arms and legs and remove all headwear (NB: in Orthodox Christian Churches, women have to put on a head scarf).
We also recommend you to look through the answers to FAQs when getting ready for your trip.