Mention Siberia and there are immediate thoughts of a kingdom of ice with bone-rattling wind and unrelenting snow. Yet, in this toughest of tough terrains, Lake Baikal, the deepest and oldest lake in the world, is a beautiful contradiction to Siberia’s stereotypes.
Often mistaken for a sea, “the Pearl of Siberia” holds roughly 20 percent of the world’s fresh water, meaning this Russian giant has more water than all of the North American Great Lakes combined.
Surrounded by lofty mountains, mixed forests, and wind-eroded rocks, Lake Baikal has the most transparent water in the world—in some areas of the lake, tourists can see its bottom at a depth of 131 feet. Bigger than Belgium, Haiti, Israel, and Qatar, the banana-shaped lake is home to approximately 1,800 endemic plant and animal species.
At Lake Baikal, the sun shines roughly 317 days a year. So, whether you’re diving underneath its surface to see floating snowflakes, gobsmacking through its 70-degree water in the summertime, or learning about Mongolian Shamanism and Tibetan Buddhism, we think you’ll agree Siberia doesn’t get better than this.
Wander Through Khoboy Cape
The northernmost point of Olkhon, the fourth-largest, lake-bound island in the world, Khoboy Cape resembles a“fang” or “molar” when viewed from Lake Baikal. According to local legend, a dragon flew over the sacred body of water and dropped its fang, which plummeted into the earth like a meteorite and turned into rock. A cataclysmic event, it unleashed a powerful output of astral energy.
Residents claim that they can see the souls of their dead ancestors, their past-life incarnations, and the White Shaman, a famous water ghost that’s believed to bring good fortune. If you want to ward off things that go bump in the night, locals suggest finding a serghe (a pole that symbolizes the tree of life with colorful ribbons tied around it) and appeasing the spirits by sprinkling it with a White Russian or cow’s milk.
Try Baikal Omul
From pressed omul, that’s made of layers of salt and slightly-fishy, light-gray meat that’s stacked lasagna-style, to sweet omul, that’s spread open on skewers like a flasher in a trench coat—you can’t say you’ve been to Siberia if you haven’t tried Omul. One of the major gastronomic attractions of Lake Baikal, locals love this melt-in-your-mouth fish fried, dried, smoked, baked, grilled, salted, or stuffed.
Usually smoked on wood shavings of alder and aspen until its cellophane skin turns golden, they’ll eat it with and without internals, with and without scales, and even slightly decayed with “an odor”. To a tourist, the whitefish’s main selling point isn’t its taste but its price—two pounds costs roughly 200 rubles, which is about $3. “[A juicy and delicious fish], you can take it anywhere,” one merchant said. “It’ll basically last forever.”
Hike the Listvyanka-Bolshie Koty Trail
The ever-growing Great Baikal Trail links Listvyanka, a winter wonderland with ice castles, sculptures, and slides, to Bolshiye Koty, a secluded town where less than 100 people live in cozy log cabins and Buryat-type yurts. Located in the Pribaikalsky National Park, which covers more than one million acres, the Listvyanka-Bolshie Koty Trail is a 14-mile hike that can be completed within five to eight hours. A world heritage site, its trailhead goes uphill for almost three miles (the most physically-challenging part of the course) before descending to the shoreline.
A living cathedral of larch and pines, you’ll be able to see Caspian deer, polecats, and nerpas: earless, freshwater seals endemic to Lake Baikal. “There are several stretches where the trail traverses steep cliffs,” says Elena Chubakova, a local ecologist and biologist. “Travelers should be prepared for encounters with Lyme disease-carrying ticks and the moderately venomous snakes that live in this region: vipers and moccasins.”
Visit Russia’s Largest Buddhist Temple
Possibly the last person that you’d expect to back the building of a Buddhist Temple was Joseph Stalin—in the 1930s, he launched a campaign to completely eradicate religion— but in 1946, permission came from the Kremlin to erect Ivolginsk Datsan, the epicenter of Russian Buddhism. “I do not understand how it could happen,” Dalai Lama ХIV said, “but this fact has helped me to realize that spirituality is deeply rooted in the human mind, and it is very difficult, if not impossible, to uproot it.”
Nestled in snow-capped mountains, Ivolginsk Datsan is a monastery complex that includes seven temples, monks’ quarters, a museum, a library, a hotel, and even a greenhouse. Before entering Ivolginsk Datsan, pilgrims usually walk around it clockwise, placing coins in collection boxes, listening to prayer drums, and spinning mounted prayer wheels. At 9 a.m., they flock to the main temple, Sogchen. A riot of color with dragons spiraling up columns and painted tigers leaping from its walls, it holds more than a thousand Buddhas. It’s also home to a number of national treasures: including a rare collection of Tibetan Buddhist silk manuscripts, a holy Bodskhva tree, and the preserved body of the 12th Khambo Lama, Dashi-Dorzhi Itigelov.
Believed to be the reincarnation of the first Khambo Lama, Itigelov was exhumed in 2002. Though he died in 1927 at the age of 75, he was found sitting in lotus position, miraculously preserved as if he only died yesterday. Dressed in bright orange and gold robes, many locals believe that his body has healing powers. They press their foreheads near his scarf, leaving their crutches and wheelchairs behind as signs of healing.
Explore Frozen Lake Baikal
From late-January to late-April, Lake Baikal sleeps under five feet of ice. Its ice is crystal-clear and sprinkled with sparkling blue or blindingly white air bubbles. As mammoth blocks of ice form on its surface, the legendary Siberian lake becomes like a prehistoric beast who’s fallen asleep but from time to time sighs, emitting sounds that are reminiscent of thunder.
While it’s uneven and covered in two-to-three mile-wide cracks, it’s still possible to tame Lake Baikal. You can dive beneath its surface for an opportunity to see underwater winter architecture. You can also play a round of ice golf, participate in the world’s only ice marathon, or race an ice boat—driven by sarma, the coldest and the strongest winds in Baikal region, motorless boats are attached to skates, speeding up to 62 miles per hour.