Tour Lake Baikal – the best thing to do in Irkutsk

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Lake Baikal has long been on my list of places to see. There are many options to tour the lake and many travelers recommended a train tour and/or a ferry trip to Olkhon Island.

Given my timely constraints and my reluctance to spend a whole day in the rough Siberian countryside, this wasn’t something I wanted to do. Instead, I booked a car at Irkutsk Airport and picked it up right after my flight from Novosibirsk. The Avis counter is right inside the arrivals hall. As with many airports in Russia, the airport is rife with bureaucratic policies (but then which airport isn’t).

The manager was present at the Avis counter (which seems to be the only Irkutsk Airport car rental company) and she spoke fluent English. She recognized my Avis First status and ran me through the rental in a couple of minutes and then upgraded me, free of charge, to a 4×4 rental – a great thing for the Lake Baikal tour and the rather broken roads in the area.

Minutes later, I was escorted to the car.

There are two ways to see Lake Baikal – drive to Listvyanka or Slavyanska. Listvyanka is closer – just about an hour out – but does not deliver much of a long coast line. The road goes parallel to the Angara River, which feeds Lake Baikal. Slavyanska is located along the M55 highway, which connects Irkutsk and Ulan-Ude – the next major town to the east (a mere 300 miles away!)

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I chose Slavyanska and the town after that (Baikalsk) for my trip. While drivers can be aggressive, it’s better than, say, Dubai or Tel Aviv. The M55 highway is largely two lanes, and in good shape considering the rough temperatures (in winter it drops to minus 40 Fahrenheit here). There are a number of bad bumps and it’s not a fun road at night, but it’s perfectly safe during the day. Watch your gas, though, since gas stations are few and far between once you leave Irkutsk.

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After about 2 hours driving, you start to see Lake Baikal – and what a magnificent sight it is. While the southern end is very industrial, once you start driving along the eastern shoreline, you become aware of how huge this lake is. It’s 49 miles wide and 395 miles long! That’s a lake from San Francisco all the way down into downtown Los Angeles! It’s also very deep and cold, and almost 5,000 feet deep.

The wind drags the cold onto the eastern shore and boy, the wind felt cold even on this warm spring day (around 75 degrees Fahrenheit).

The water is extremely clear, with up to 100 feet of visibility, though I could not really test that. The water is really cold, but jumps up to 70+ degrees Fahrenheit in late summer.

East and north of the lake are the Baikal Mountains, which stay snow-capped almost all year round, which makes for an awesome backdrop.

Baikalsk is a typical Siberian village with all the ingredients for some lovely picture opportunities. Things you would probably never otherwise see.

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The area also features a ski resort. Ski season had just ended when I visited and the snow was melting away. Interestingly, once you take the lift up, it gets warmer, since the air is less affected by he cold lake effect. What other ski lift has a base station that boasts that it’s cooler than the mountain station?

To see even more remote areas, you can continue further until the road turns eastward to Ulan-Ude or take the train, which goes further along the shoreline.

The whole trip can easily be done in a day – I spent about 11 hours there. There aren’t many restaurants along the way, so it is a good idea to take some food.

For me, Lake Baikal was both beyond my expectations and disappointing. I loved the wonderful views and the huge size of the lake, but I found the towns and human installations around the lake rather depressing. Life seemed so empty and rough (but given the harsh winters, that is probably understandable).

I feel very lucky to have finally had the chance to make my way out there, though.

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