Doug’s Travel Picks: 13 Favorite Things to Do at Siberia’s Lake Baikal
MIR co-founder and president Doug Grimes is quite fond of Siberia, in any season and any weather. He and his hand-picked team of specialists at MIR design and support imaginative small group tours and independent travel to the wilds and the not-so-wilds of Siberia.
We asked Doug to tell us about some of his favorite activities on Siberia’s UNESCO-listed Lake Baikal, the deepest and oldest lake in the world.
I first made it to Siberia’s Lake Baikal in the 1980s, when it was even more of a sparsely-populated backwater than it is today. I’ve seen it in all seasons, and I enjoy finding fun and challenging things to do whenever I touch down on either side of the deepest, oldest lake on earth.
With a list that includes dog-sledding, ice-fishing, hiking the Great Baikal Trail, and barbecuing on the lake shore, my favorite things can be duplicated by any MIR traveler who wants to experience the best of Siberia.
Hospitality, friendship and warmth have been with me in my travels to Siberia since my very first visit, back when I felt like an explorer discovering new lands and new peoples. I still feel that way today.
The ice on Baikal can get as thick as six feet up north, and is usually two to three feet thick around Listvyanka. From December to March in a typical year you can drive nearly all over the lake.
Canny fishermen auger out a hole through the thick ice, then put an insulated cover over it to keep it clear. That is, if they don’t haul a fishing shack out to the spot on a sled or skis. You can sometimes see a Mongolian ger guarding someone’s special fishing hole and sheltering the anglers.
The Great Baikal Trail (GBT) Project has been using volunteers to build ecologically sensitive trails all around the lake since 2003. In 2018, there are 10 international projects planned for July and August. In this way, GBT has been able to open more than 500 km of trails.
Olkhon Island has been a sacred place for millennia, the place where the indigenous Buryats believed that the gods of Baikal lived. Shaman Cape – just off the sandy west coast near the island’s largest town, Khuzhir – has traditionally been used for many years by shamans, and later Buddhists, for ceremonies.
Shamanism is based on a spiritual belief that used to be an integral part of indigenous Siberian life, and to some extent, still is. Shamans intercede for people with the spirit world, the unseen world that pervades the environment. Everything in the natural world – rock, tree, river, animal and star – has a spirit that may be angered by a clumsy word, or soothed by a shaman’s rituals. A sick or unhappy person may ask a shaman to perform a ritual to help him or her.
The popularity of the banya, or Russian bathhouse, has not diminished with the advent of universal running water. From the rustic log-cabin banya in the villages to the huge old communal banyas of the cities, the traditional Russian bath is viewed as the epitome of a healthful experience.
A typical banya includes a changing room or vestibule, a room for washing and a sauna with a wood-fired stove. The bather adjusts the amount of steam by ladling water onto hot rocks. Urban banyas might include a cold plunge pool, but in rural banyas, the bathers are happy if they can jump into a nearby lake to cool off. It’s customary in Russian banyas to beat oneself or one’s neighbor with a branch of birch leaves soaked in water, to stimulate blood flow and release toxins.
Baikal’s southern shore consists of rocky cliffs that plunge into the lake, and the Trans-Siberian engineers knew a rail line here would be a major undertaking. They began in 1899 and proceeded slowly and laboriously, while ice-breaker ferries carried the train cars and passengers across the lake, an inefficient system fraught with problems.
As the 1904 Russo-Japanese war heated up, Czar Nicholas II hired Italian and Armenian master stonemasons and ordered 10,00 laborers to the site, where they eventually dug more than 30 tunnels through the rock, and built some 300 bridges and viaducts. Every two miles of track required a wagonload of explosives. The beautifully built bridges and tunnels are still in use today, though the Circumbaikal line operates solely for the delight of sightseers.
Omul, the endemic Baikal salmon-like fish, is a favorite around here. There are several places in lakeside Listvyanka where fresh Baikal omul is prepared for smoking. The gutted fish are first salted and then propped open with shaved sticks and smoked over alder twigs. Vendors wrap the smoked omul in newspaper for visitors to take home if they haven’t caught their own.
Photos, Videos, and More!
More photos, travel tips, and articles about Doug’s adventures in Siberia:
- Why You Should Visit Siberia in the Winter (Seriously) in Conde Nast Traveler
- 5 Favorite Sites on Olkhon Island, Lake Baikal’s Biggest Island
Travel to Lake Baikal with MIR
MIR has 30 years of travel experience to Russia, with Siberian affiliate offices in Irkutsk and Ulan Ude offering on-the-ground support, and tour managers that clients rave about. MIR’s full service, dedication, commitment to quality, and destination expertise have twice earned us a place on National Geographic Adventure’s list of “Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth.”
You can visit Lake Baikal and Buryatia in Siberia with MIR a number of ways, from a deluxe rail journey by private train, to an adventurous small group tour or an independent trip put together just the way you want it.
Not sure what season best suits you? Read our guide: Winter, Spring, Summer or Fall – Siberia Has It All.
Chat with one of our destination specialists by email or by phone at 1-800-424-7289 to start planning your next trip.
(Top Photo: View of Shaman Cape, Lake Baikal. Photo credit: Vladimir Kvashnin)
PUBLISHED: May 31, 2018