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Lake Baikal, Irkutsk, Russia

GPS: 53.143320946551, 107.98282036254

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Surrounded by mountains and large forest areas, Lake Baikal is located near the border with Mongolia, in the south of Eastern Siberia. Until the 17th century, this region was controlled by China before the Transbaikal Cossack Host occupied the area to quench the thirst for territorial expansion of the tsars under the Russian Empire. Representing 20% of the world’s frozen freshwater reserves, Lake Baikal is by far the largest freshwater lake on the planet. Its water reserve, estimated at nearly 24,000 km3, is greater than that of all the Great Lakes of North America combined.

With its impressive proportions, this “Pearl of Siberia” is 640 km long and 80 km wide in its middle part. These figures make Lake Baikal the sixth most important lake on Earth in terms of area (more than 30,000 km² which is the equivalent of the surface of a country like Belgium). Formed about 20 to 25 million years ago, it is not only the oldest lake in the world but also the deepest (700 meters deep on average with the highest point at nearly 1,650 meters). Due to the transparent nature of its waters, the visibility of the lake can carry up to 40 meters deep to the naked eye. Each season offers Lake Baikal its share of varied experiences through landscapes metamorphosed by nature between the sweetness of the summer period and the ice environment in winter (temperature can drop to -50 °C).

Many Buryat tribes, residing on the eastern part of Lake Baikal, still consider this crescent-shaped “sea” as sacred. Its limpid and clear-looking water extends over nearly 2,000 km of coastline and rubs shoulders with mountains, some of which peak at nearly 3,000 meters. Water from Lake Baikal is considered one of the purest on the planet. Fuelled by some 330 rivers, three of which are main (Selenga, Upper Angara and Barguzin), the lake is home to around 2,000 animal and plant species, more than half of which are unique in the world. This fabulous freshwater ecosystem has given Lake Baikal a new nickname since its registration for Unesco World Heritage: the Galapagos of Russia. Generous in nature, the lake is today threatened by the proliferation of green algae (spirogyra) obscuring its coastal waters. It has to face the gradual drop in the level of its waters, consequences of human activities (industrial pollution, illegal fishing, untreated wastewater, poaching, over-attendance, etc.) and global warming.

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  • The remarkable clarity and transparency of the waters of Lake Baikal several meters deep (geologically richer than any other lake on Earth); the feeling of loneliness in this natural immensity
  • Olkhon Island (including Shaman Rock, a sacred site among the Buryatians) and Ushkany Island (dauphins and freshwater seals), the peninsula of Svyatoy Nos, the small tourist resort of Listvyanka, the cities of Slyudyanka and Irkutsk (including the Znamensky Monastery)
  • The Cape Ryty, Cape Khoboy, Cape Burkhan, cliff Bogatyr, Arshan Hot Springs, Shumak Mineral Springs and Khakoussi Hot Springs; the Baikal-Lena Nature Reserve and Barguzin Nature Reserve; the large expanses of forest
  • Wildlife (brown bear, reindeer, elk, deer, roe deer, buckshot, wolverine, wolf, lynx, fox, sable, Baikal seal…) and flora (800 species of plants including cedar, rhododendron, pine, larch, blueberry tree, lichen, moss…) of exceptional value; the coexistence of thousand varieties of birds, around sixty species of fish (half of which are endemic) and the flourishing underwater life of the lake
  • In summer, the practice of fishing, swimming, boating, hiking, wild camping, rafting on the shores of Lake Baikal and the discovery of the Angara River in kayak; in winter, dog sled activities on the lake, hikes on the Siberian taiga, ice fishing and experience of traditional Russian banya (steam bath)
  • The Great Baikal Trail through the Siberian forests and along the shores of the lake (network of 1,800 km of trails); the experience of living in a log cabin in the lake environment
  • The Taltsy Architectural and Ethnographic Museum, an open-air museum near Irkutsk (local museum and historic wooden constructions); the Baikal Museum in Listvyanka (natural history museum focused on the fauna, flora and populations of Lake Baikal); isolated villages around the lake
  • The traditional way of life of the inhabitants; the total communion of the Buryats with the lake, its nature and environment; the old practice of horse fishing; shamanic rituals; the Khangai Mountains of Mongolia and the Buddhist shrines; the presence of petroglyphs on the south shore of the lake; the Lake Baikal Foundation which sets up environmental and lake preservation projects
  • The New Year’s party with the Buryat populations in January or February (Sagaalgan); the Ice Sculpture Festival on Baikal in February; the Baikal Ice Marathon in March (42 km running competition)
  • Since its formation, the lake has been based on an immense terrestrial fault (rift) and mini tremors or earthquakes are recorded by thousands each year. Its banks move away from each other at the rate of several millimetres per year.
  • Lake Baikal has been occupied by humans since the Neolithic. Very few inhabitants live today during the year around the natural site, making the majority of its banks completely wild.
  • Due to their curative and miraculous virtues, the Lake Baikal waters are regularly used by indigenous peoples of Siberia during traditional rituals linked to shamanism. These practices have existed since Prehistory near Olkhon Island and aim to pay tribute to the spirits that reign around the lake.
  • Like sand deserts, Lake Baikal is likely to create mirage situations of various forms reflected on the water with the complicity of the sun.
  • According to biologists, it is thanks to the presence of planktonic organisms endemic to the site such as the Epischurella baikalensis (small crustacean) and freshwater sponges (primitive animals) that Lake Baikal cultivates such purity. These elements make it possible to regulate and cleanse its waters naturally. In winter, the cracks visible on the upper part of the ice allow many animals to receive oxygen.
  • Lake Baikal is the only place in the world to accommodate freshwater seals (called Baikal seal).
  • Each year, around 4 tonnes of oil emerge from the lake abyss and serve as food for local microorganisms.
  • To colonize and populate the hostile lands of Lake Baikal and Siberia, the Russian tsars sent a large contingent of deportees from the 17th century. These exiles were mainly composed of religious minorities (Orthodox), Poles, dangerous criminals, heretical intellectuals or political adversaries. Sent to the prison 6,000 km far from Moscow, they founded several villages around the lake including Tarbagatay and greatly contributed to the scientific study of the region. Polish Jan Czerski, forcibly exiled in the second half of the 19th century, was notably the author of the first map of Lake Baikal in 1886. Many Siberian sites bear his name in honour of his research work (mountain range, summit, pass, valley, waterfall, volcano…).
  • In 2021, the Russian authorities deployed a giant space telescope in the depths of Lake Baikal to explore the distant galaxies, stars and planets of the universe through the study of cosmic particles (neutrinos).
  • The most picturesque way to reach Lake Baikal is to take the Trans-Siberian Railway between Moscow and Vladivostok. Allow three to four days of travel from Moscow to reach Irkutsk, on the west side of the lake, or Ulan-Ude, capital of the Russian Republic of Buryatia, to the east. The other possibility in the process is to choose the Baikal–Amur Mainline, a less known railway line, passing north of Lake Baikal.
  • If you plan to visit this region in the summer, it is advisable to reserve your train tickets and accommodation in advance.
  • The surface of Lake Baikal is frozen half a year. We must wait until May so that it returns to its liquid form with the arrival of the heyday.
  • In the middle of winter, this place is swept by Siberian winds. Also, pieces of vertical ice can form long barriers making parts of the lake impassable to vehicles (one meter of ice covers the surface of the lake in winter.
  • For your safety, stay only on the marked ice road if you drive on the lake by car (fatal accidents happen every year).

Where to eat

  • The Library Bar
    (trendy and original)
  • Kochevnik
    (Mongolian cuisine)
  • Okhotnikov
    (superior quality service)

Where to go out

  • Taltsy Museum
    (Siberian eco-museum)
  • Cherskogo
    (incryable view of the lake)
  • Zagursky theatre
    (musical theatre)

Where to sleep

  • Hi Loft Hostel
    (lovely hostel)
  • Galina's Homestay
    (friendly guest house)
  • Mergen Bator Hotel
    (modern and well-equipped)

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