Why you should care
Lake Baikal is a wonder of nature, and still close to pristine.
On a hot, sunny day in August, I descended through the rocky shores of Olkhon Island, in the middle of Lake Baikal, deep into Russian Siberia. Hot? All of about 75 degrees, but the sun warmed the protected cove enough that I could cross one item off my bucket list: plunging into the cold, clear waters of the lake, at least for a few minutes. To the north, atop a mountainous bluff, the lake receded hundreds of miles over the horizon, the eastern shore barely visible.
The lake is a wonder of nature, unique at the center of its own vast watershed, isolated from the outside by geography and the harsh winter weather. It’s a monster: 400 miles long, 60 miles wide and a mile deep — in a slowly widening rift in the Earth’s crust — holding 20 percent of the world’s fresh water, more than all the Great Lakes combined. The water is crystal clear and its isolated ecosystem hosts nearly 12,000 species found nowhere else on the planet.
The lake is subject to sudden storms and big waves.
“It’s visually stunning,” says Elena Agarkova, a program officer at the World Wildlife Fund who spent several years living in the gateway city of Irkutsk and researching the area, with its unspoiled and uninhabited shores, and forest, land and water “that haven’t been touched by civilization.” I can confirm that. A few years ago, Agarkova accompanied my wife and me as we explored just a bit of the lake’s vastness. You need weeks, if not months, to do it justice. The lake is subject to sudden storms and big waves, and it’s best enjoyed while you can still trek up the surrounding mountains and plunge into the frigid waters (it’s possible to drive, skate or ski across the lake until the ice melts in May).
Getting there takes a long, long time. From Moscow it’s a nearly six-hour flight to Irkutsk, the historic destination for Tsarist political exiles, and still charming. Irkutsk is worth a day or two by itself, with its museums and historic wooden houses, and its big public market. And there are nice hotels. Elsewhere it’s hostels or homestays of variable comfort. In the summer, a hydrofoil runs from Irkutsk to Olkhon Island, roughly a third of the way up the lake. But be warned: The weather can be fickle. Hotels can also arrange for minibus-and-ferry transportation. There’s lots of accommodation, including the ever-popular Nikita’s Homestead, which feels vaguely like a hippie hangout for travelers. There’s hiking and camping all around the lake.
Visiting this stunning wilderness lake is an undeniably Russian experience. Simple English will suffice in many places, but a local guide, easily found in the cities, comes in handy. The food will not exactly be gourmet and will definitely be Russian. “You can find oatmeal anywhere,” Agarkova jokes. The costs? Nothing’s expensive by itself, but the cost of a trip, when added up, will likely be thousands of dollars. But worth it, regardless, to visit a place that remains as pristine as almost anything can be these days.