In the heart of Russia is Lake Baikal, one of the most surprising natural treasures on this earth. We can only describe this place in superlatives: the deepest lake in the world and one of the biggest ones, extremely transparent and clean, the planet’s largest freshwater reserve. There is a dearth of natural diversity: from arid steppe to impassable taiga, high mountains to floodplains and marshes. The 2,100-km shoreline is sparsely populated. Along the coast are natural parks and nature reserves. Baikal is not only for intrepid adventurers looking to test their strengths in the rigorous conditions of Siberia. For children, it is the most incredible open-air museum of biology, geography and natural history.
It’s true, it’s really cold in Siberia but the most extreme sub-zero temperatures are at night. During the day, the right equipment can make it perfectly comfortable for - 15°C and - 20°C. This is because hyper-continental and dry climates make the cold more bearable than humid locations. On a beautiful sunny day, you can walk on the ice in a pullover and even sunbathe. Don’t tell your friends that you are travelling to Siberia in the winter, they will surely believe you have lost your mind.
The ice of Lake Baikal is unique. Despite its depth, it is so transparent that you may feel apprehensive walking on the lake. You can see to a depth of 10 metres and more through the ice. These glacial formations come in all shapes and sizes with a name for each one. You will see pack ice that is several metres thick and ice piles, caves and cracks that look like frozen silk ribbons near the shore. When the sun shines, the lake puts on a show with dazzling examples of turquoise ice.
Travellers who visit Lake Baikal for the first time will not tire of the natural ice forms, which are uniquely practical for locals who make roads when the ice is thick enough. One road that leads to Olkhon Island across a detroit even has speed signs. Only experienced drivers, known as “ice captains” use the other zimniks (i.e., winter roads). With their unique ability to read the ice, these captains have been crossing Lake Baikal on UAZ, 4x4 vehicles, for decades. These experienced drivers use the colour of the ice, position of pack ice, direction of cracks and other signs to navigate safely across the frozen lake.
In the southern part of Baikal, strong winds whip snow off the lake’s surface, transforming vast ice shelves into a perfectly smooth and transparent ice rink. You can skate close to the village of Listvyanka or on Olkhon Island near the famous Chamanka Rock at Khuzhir, a renowned symbol of Baikal.
Huskies are impatient creatures when the temperatures drop to - 15°C and below because it’s the perfect weather for their favourite activity: running on sparkling snow with the sled of their musher. Dog-sledding can be organised from departure points deep in the taiga of the Pribaikalsky national park, climbing high peaks for the stunning views across the ice sea before settling into a meal of real Siberian pelmeni by the fire in the middle of the winter forest. This adventure will leave a lasting memory in the minds’ of children who are visiting Russia.
Ingenious Siberians invented travelling accommodation on skates for ice-fishing that can be moved with the help of a vehicle. These cabins are equipped with a stove and a hole in the ice where fishermen put their lines to catch the lake’s endemic fish: the Omul. The most passionate of fishermen live in Mongolian yurts in which you can fish, drink tea and taste one of the local specialities, “sugudai”, with a shot of vodka. “Sugudai” is a dish of freshly caught and tender Omul cooked with salt and snow. Are you ready for such an experience?
Getting To Baikal
Lake Baikal has two main entry points: the western city of Irkutsk and Ulan Ude in the East. These two cities are connected by regular flights and the historic Trans-Siberian. You can get there from Moscow or Saint Petersburg and then continue on to Vladivostok or even Beijing, through Mongolia.
By plane from Moscow to Irkutsk or Ulan Ude. There are regular 6-hour flights with a +5 hour time difference with Moscow. By leaving in the evening, you can get to Irkutsk or Ulan Ude by morning (local time).
By Trans-Siberian train from Moscow, it takes 75 hours to reach Irkutsk and 82 hours for Ulan Ude. Important! When the train gets to the Kultuk Pass, it follows the Baikal coast along the shore.
Neither of these two cities are located on Lake Baikal: there’s still some road to cover. The city of Irkutsk is near the lake, but you must go as far as Listvyanka (70 km) or Khuzhir (290 km) on Olkhon Island. From Ulan Ude, you will head to Ust-Barguzin (270 km).
February and March are the best months to visit Baikal in winter. It is the longest season and temperatures drop below zero towards the end of October. Even though temperatures may reach -30°C, Lake Baikal only starts to freeze in December – first in the bays then out in the depths of Great Baikal. The lake generally starts to freeze in the North and slowly creeps southwards. By mid-February, the whole lake is completely frozen with ice reaching depths of 1 metre in some places. During this period, strong winds and storms are less common while the days get longer and sunnier.