Baikal: The oldest and deepest freshwater lake in the world!
So large that it is often mistaken for a sea, Russia’s Lake Baikal is the deepest and oldest lake in the world, and the largest freshwater lake by volume. Famous for its crystal clear waters and unique wildlife, the lake is under threat by pollution, poaching and development..
More than 5,000 feet deep (1637m) at its most profound, with another four-mile-thick layer of sediment further down, the lake’s cold, oxygen-rich waters teem with bizarre life-forms.
One of those is the seals’ favourite food, the golomyanka, a pink, partly transparent fish which gives birth to live young. Geologists estimate that Lake Baikal formed somewhere 20-25 million years ago, during the Mesozoic.
Surrounded by mile-high snowcapped mountains, Lake Baikal still offers vistas of unmatched beauty. The mountains are still a haven for wild animals, and the small villages are still outposts of tranquillity and self-reliance in the remote Siberian taiga, as the forest is called.
The lake is located in Eastern Siberia, between Irkutsk Oblast to the northwest and Buryatia to the southeast. It is the planet’s deepest (1637m) and oldest lake, as well as its largest body of freshwater, containing over one fifth of the world’s supply. The origins of the name are unknown, but several hypotheses are these : deep water (Yakut), rich lake (Turkic), rich fire (Mongolian), northern sea (Chinese). Russians sometimes call the lake Baikal sea because of its size.
The lake’s geological formation started around 20-25 million years ago, making it one of the oldest lakes in geological history and even nowadays its rift is continuing to widen 2cm a year. The first mention of its name appeared in Chinese writings in 110 year B.C. as “Beihai” (Northern Sea). Several cultures have appeared on its shores, including the Buryat.
Baikal mountains surrounding the valley and the lake consist of a few ranges. In the west there are the Baikal Mountains, in the east the Zabaikalskie Mountains. The Angara River is the only outflow of Lake Baikal. The ranges, rivers and valleys are tourist attractions of their own.
Lake Baikal Fauna and Flora
Lake Baikal, formed 25 million years ago, provides a haven for 1,200 animal species, 600 types of plants, and the world’s only freshwater seals.
Of these plants and animals, 75 percent are found only in the Lake Baikal region, making its preservation crucial.
Some of Baikal’s fish can survive more than one mile beneath the surface, despite the incredible water pressure at that depth.
They are so well-adapted to these pressures that they will literally explode if brought to the surface, where the pressure is dramatically different.
Out of all the animals living in the Lake Baikal, the most interesting are the fresh water seals.
Scientists still have not determined how the seals got to Lake Baikal, although it is supposed that they travelled here in prehistoric times from the Arctic through a river.
The nerpas – how they are often called – differ in many aspects from the Arctic seals as they have adapted to the Baikal climate.
For example they have more blood, which makes it possible to them to swim for more than 70 minutes. They can also travel at great depths, sometimes reaching depths of 300 meters under the surface.
One of the most bizarre fish that lives in Lake Baikal is the golomyanka (oil-fish). The golomyanka has no scale and a translucent body. It can swim at depths of more than 1000 metres.
The omul is the most popular fish in Lake Baikal and you will find it in most tourist towns as it is the main food supply of the locals.Lake
Baikal Rivers and Island
Half the water flowing into the lake comes down the Selenga River in the southeast.
The rest comes from more than 330 other rivers and streams, many of them flowing from the surrounding mountains.
Lake Baikal’s only outlet is the Angara River, which flows westward from the lake’s southwestern end.
Lake Baikal has about 45 islands and islets, of which the two biggest are Olkhon, about 270 square miles (700 square kilometers) in area, and Great Ushkany, which covers only about 3.6 square miles (9.4 square kilometers).
Olkhon is a region of forests and grasslands that supports deer, brown bears, and a wide range of birds.
Great Ushkany is rocky, the site of the largest rookery of Baikal seals. Many of the other islands are little more than rocks, used as roosts by water birds.
Lake Baikal’s water is very clear because it contains very few mineral salts.
From the surface it is possible to see objects 130 feet (40 meters) below!
This clarity is maintained by large numbers of planktonic animals eating floating debris. In spite of its great depth the water in the lake is well mixed, and oxygen is plentiful even in the bottom waters.
The water mass is a key factor to the climate of the lake’s banks. Winters are often milder, summers are chillier. Spring-time is late 10-15 days than the outer regions and fall is rather long. The area is distinctive for sunshine longevity which is record-high for the whole of Russia. Specific traits are added to the climate of the Baikal by winds: barguzin, sarma, verkhovik, kultuk. It is a common thinking that the Baikal is best for visit in July, when temperatures and winds reach favorable condition. The water in summer is cold, normally +8..+9C and can reach +15C in bays. It’s so pellucid that one can see the bottom 40m down.
The nearest airport is in Irkutsk, which can be reached from either Domodedovo or Sheremetyevo 1 in Moscow. The furthest airport lies in Ulan-Ude in Republic of Buryatia from where the right shore of Lake Baikal is more easily accessible.
Other international options include Seoul, Ulan-Bator, Beijing. The charters from Bangkok are very often operated. Domestic flights are taken in from Khabarovsk, Vladivostok, Krasnoyarsk, Novosibirsk, Magadan, Yakutsk, Yekaterinburg, Saint Petersburg, Sochi.
The Baikal-Amur Mainline and the Trans-Siberian Railway both reach Lake Baikal. The closest miles to Irkutsk follow serpantine pattern as the train curves around the shoreline, which is scenic and worth riding in day light.
Buses leave from Irkutsk station and from Ulan-Ude station throughout the day.
Riding from Irkutsk lasts about an hour and a half, with several stops along the way, and ends in the small town of Listvyanka.
The right bank (marked by sandy shores) of lake Baikal is more easily accessible from Ulan-Ude.
Zabaykalsky National Park: 50 RUB (~8 EUR) per person per day.
From Listvyanka you can go by ferry to the Bolshoie Koty, in the hearth of Baykal national park. One way costs 180 rubles, but you cannot buy tickets in advance (only in Irkutsk). First ferry goes from Listvyanka at 10, last at 16 o’clock. From there you can get by boat at 18.00 or by foot by Baykal tourist trail. It is around 18 kilometres and the most of the path goes around the shore of a lake. From Bolshoie Koty you can go to the Irkutsk by the same boat. It costs 360 RUB(~51 EUR)
In the winter, Bolshoie Koty is connected by ice road from Listvyanka.
From Listvyanka you can go to the Port Baykal that lies on the opposite side of river Angara. Boat costs 56 rubles (~8 EUR)(summer 2015) and goes from the place just under the Baykal limnological museum. It takes around 5 minutes to get there. However it is recommended to go the other way, from Port Baykal to Listvyanka.
To Port Baykal you can go by train as well. Remaining part of old Circum-Baikal Railway line goes from Sludyanka at the southern corner of the lake. It takes around 4 to 6 hours, since the train is really slow. But you have time to look around, because the railway is going by the shore of the lake. It costs 46 rubles (~7 EUR). It is so slow because it is the old Baykal railroad was built around 100 years ago.
The right sandy shores of Baikal and Zabaykalsky National Park are more easily accessible from Ulan-Ude. The only transportation is by car or bus from Ulan-Ude. Driving to Zabaykalsky National Park takes 5-7 hours.
Olkhon. The largest island on the lake.
In Irkutsk Oblast (west of the lake)
- Vitimsky Nature Reserve
- Baikalo-Lensky Reserve
In Buryatia (east of the lake)
- Baikalsky Nature Reserve
- Zabaykalsky National Park
- Barguzinsky Nature Reserve
- Dzherginsky Nature Reserve
Take part in yearly cross-country six-day race TransBaikal-20xx in July. Hovering 465km and the dislevello 10,060m it starts in Buguldeyka village takes two-days turn to Olkhon and ends in Yelantsy down south. In 2011 the competition begins on 16, July. Registration of cycle teams until 31, May.
Recreation on Baikal’s most picturesque beaches at the Sandy Bay, trekking along the Baikal coast, river rafting, fishing, cruises on Baikal “
Souvenirs are sold near the omul sellers (see below), and tend to be cheaper than in other Russian cities. There are several boats at the main dock who take on tourists when not fishing. The prices are negotiable, try to find other tourists who want to ride and get cheaper prices by being in a large group. Sometimes a local young person with a broken English would act as an intermediary for the price haggling.
The smoked Omul sold by several fish sellers on the edge of the lake is wonderful, and there is a restaurant on the lake’s edge with good fish, along with several bars and small groceries. Everything in Listvyanka, is within walking distance, including a small post office.
Riding towards Baikal, one will find local food restaurants where the most selled cusine are Buuzi/Pozi (steamed minced balls in dough).
Baikal water is drinkable and almost distilled as the amount of mineral salts is infinitesimal.
You may stay in Irkutsk or Ulan-Ude, make a day trip to the lake and get back. In case of longer trips, contact local tourist agents to look for accomidation in Rest Bases (see below). Alternatively, one can set up tents at the beaches of lake Baikal. Golden rule to remember, which is strictly implemented by the local communities: do not leave any non-organic trash or waste behind!
- Listvyanka, Irkutsk Oblast, the most popular destination with a number of hotels.
- Barguzin, Buryatia, eastern town located near Barguzin National Park.
- Severobaykalsk, Buryatia, the city in the north with a number of hotels.
- Slyudyanka, the southmost village.
- The Svyatoy Nos peninsula (Святой Ноc)
‘Rest bases’ of the Baikal are Russian type of countryside wooden houses with facilities offering excursions to the local sights. They often are located in villages around lake Baikal.
- Yurt in Enkheluk village, 170km from Ulan-Ude.
- Barguzin bay (Баргузинский залив) and Saint Nose Cape (Мыс Святой Нос)
- Chivyrkuisky bay (Чивыркуйский залив)
- Maksimikha village (Максимиха)
- Sukhaya village (деревня Сухая)
- Zabaykalsky National Park (Забайкальский национальный парк):
- The Svyatoy Nos peninsula (Святой Ноc)
- The Ushkany Islands (Ушканьи острова)
- Barguzin Nature Reserve (Баргузинский заповедник)
- Maloe Sea (Малое море)
- MRS (МРС)
- Krestovsky Cape (Мыс Крестовский)
- Bol’shoye Goloustnoye(Большое Голоустное)
- Bol’shiye Koty (Большие Коты)
If you are looking for accomodation near Lake Baikal there are a few options – Please follow the link bellow to find the best deal:
It’s a small risk to travel alone without a guide. Travelling with at least two Phone reception in the national parks can prove to be weak or not existing.
See also our Baykal Lake partners