What To Know Before You Go: Siberia’s Lake Baikal and Buryatia Region (VIDEO)
Siberia: The name conjures up images of Dr. Zhivago trudging across the frozen tundra with icicles hanging from his moustache, of ice-age mammoths dug out of glaciers, of harsh gulag labor camps. But Siberia is much too vast and varied to be described in such chilly terms. This is a region of massive proportions, encompassing unsurpassed wild beauty that includes green swathes of taiga forest, great blue lakes, gentle mountains and flourishing cites.
About Our Siberia Travel Expert: Douglas GrimesMIR founder and president Doug Grimes has been traveling here for nearly 30 years. Doug fell in love with Russia in 1986 on a volleyball exchange that he helped dream up and make a reality. Since then he’s been back more than a hundred times, scouting, building relationships, and orchestrating cultural encounters for his tour and travel company, MIR Corporation.
Doug and his hand-picked team design and support travel to unconventional destinations – not only Russia, but all its neighbors in Eastern Europe and along the Silk Road in Central Asia. He travels to Siberia frequently in all kinds of weather, touching base with the experts in his affiliate offices in Ulan Ude and Irkutsk, and scouting out new Siberian experiences.
Enjoy this video illustrating Doug’s expert recommendations and read the details below about how to make the most of your trip to Siberia’s heart and soul, the Baikal region.
Siberia’s Lake Baikal and Buryatia Region:
Where to Go and What to Do
Magnificent crescent-shaped Lake Baikal is Siberia’s biggest and best drawing card. Called the “Sacred Sea” by the indigenous people who have lived for millennia along its shores, UNESCO-listed Lake Baikal is the deepest and most ancient lake in the world. Formed in a rift in the earth’s surface nearly 25 million years ago, the lake basin is almost a mile deep in places, and holds about twenty percent of the world’s fresh unfrozen water.
The lake’s great age and isolation have produced one of the richest and most unusual ecosystems on earth. It’s home to over 1,500 species of aquatic life, and its endemic zooplankton filter the water to near-transparency. On a calm day, you can see an unbelievable 130 feet below the surface.
Some of its endemic species, found nowhere else, include the golomyanka, a transparent oil-rich fish, the omul, a salmon-like fish favored by home cooks and restaurant chefs, and the freshwater seal, the nerpa. Olkhon Island, sitting in the middle of the long curved lake, is a sacred place where the indigenous Buryats believed that the gods of Baikal lived. Shaman Cape – just off the sandy west coast of the island – has traditionally been a setting for shaman ceremonies.
If you come to Siberia, you must make a pilgrimage to beautiful Baikal. Here are some recommendations for what to do once there.
- Take a hike at Lake Baikal
- Ice-fish on a frozen Lake Baikal
- Indulge in a banya, a quintessential Russian experience
- Learn about the nerpa, the world’s only true freshwater seal
- Ride the rails around a part of the lake on the gorgeous Circumbaikal Railway, the original Trans-Siberian line used until the present-day route was completed. One of the most complicated rail lines in the world, the route hugs the rocky lake shore of Lake Baikal and passes through 33 tunnels along its length. On rail journeys by private train, the train stops along the shore for a barbecue.
- Get out on the water. There’s nothing quite like boating on Baikal – this deep and long body of water is more like a sea than a lake. You can take the scheduled hydrofoil service to Port Baikal, Ust Barguzin, and Olkhon Island – or let MIR hire you your own private boat for an afternoon or a multi-day charter.
- Or, get out on the ice on a winter trip.
- Learn about the indigenous people of this region, the Buryats. This is Buryatia – their land.
- Visit with a community of Orthodox Old Believers. In their isolated Siberian villages, they have preserved their 16th and 17th century traditions, clothing, architecture, language and style of singing. In 2001, UNESCO inscribed their cultural legacy on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
- Pay a visit to the huskies in Listvyanka; they are especially fabulous in winter. Raring to go, these guys love to pull their sleds over the frozen lake. Stand on the sled runners shouting “Mush!” or sit in the basket while someone else does the honors. Either way, it’s a wild ride.
- Hop a tram for a visit to the local market in Irkutsk, like everyday Siberians. Along the way, admire the hand-carved gingerbread trim on the old wooden houses, a Siberian trademark.
- Take a gander at the biggest Lenin head in the world, on Ulan Ude’s central square.
- Attend a shaman ceremony at Shaman Cape on Olkhon Island.
- Get some insight into the lives of the exiled Decembrists in Irkutsk.
- Hear a concert of Russian bells.
Siberia’s Lake Baikal and Buryatia Region:
The Inside Scoop
Oh, Snap: Best Photo Op
Head north from Irkutsk or Listvyanka to Olkhon Island in Lake Baikal, and drive or hike to Khoboi Cape, the northernmost cape on the island; it’s a sharp and narrow outcropping whose name means “tusk” or “fang.” If the weather is clear, you can see all the way north to the Ushkaniye Islands and the Holy Nose peninsula.
Souvenir Savvy: Local Treasures
- Charoite is a lavender gemstone found only in Siberia. You can find charoite jewelry in Listvyanka, Irkutsk and Ulan Ude.
- Beresta, or birch bark crafts are a specialty here where so many birch trees grow. The creamy paper-like bark is tooled with scalpel-sharp knives to show its dark inner layer, made into all manner of objects: cups, bowls, vases, even samovars.
- Pine nuts are a Siberian staple, for both animals and humans. You can purchase chocolate-covered pine nuts, pine nut candies sweetened with honey, or plain ones for snacking.
- Valenki, Russia’s signature felt boots, evolved from the steppe nomads’ footware – felted sheep’s wool formed into boots. You can buy the real thing, or doll-sized ones for key rings or kids.
To Everything There is a Season: When to Go
Summer and fall are both great times to be in Siberia, but winter is fantastic! The Lake Baikal ice freezes about eight feet thick in some places: you can walk on water, race teams of sled dogs, and try your luck at ice fishing. In the towns you can see elaborate ice sculptures and slide down slides made of enormous blocks of clear Baikal ice. Locals keep an ice road plowed out and drive all over the lake. This is a great place for young drivers to learn to drive on ice and snow!
As the ice begins to thaw, April weather can be a bit unpredictable, but you benefit from avoiding the crowds of summer. The Trans-Siberian Railway is at its best May-September.
Oops: Travel Bloopers
Make sure to arrange for your Trans-Siberian tickets to be ready for you when you arrive.
Hoping to buy your own tickets on the Trans-Siberian? It’s complicated. Tickets go on sale 45 days prior to the travel date, and since the train is the most reliable means of transportation, the tickets sell fast. Most travelers arrive in Russia only two or three days before they plan to board the train, and by then all the tickets are gone.
Take Note: Spiritual Practices
Buryatia embraces three main spiritual practices – Orthodox Christianity, Buddhism, and shamanism.
- Among the mainstream Orthodox Christian believers are communities of Old Believers who were exiled here for spurning the 17th century reforms of Patriarch Nikon.
- The Ivolginsk Datsan is an important Tibetan Buddhist monastery outside of Ulan Ude. It’s the Russian center of Buddhism, which made its way here with Mongolian and Tibetan lamas in the 17th century. Their teachings spread among the indigenous Buryat people, and either superseded or existed alongside the shamanism that had been prevalent earlier.
- Shamanism, the original religion of the Buryats, was repressed by the Soviets along with all forms of spiritual practice, but has been making a comeback since the end of the USSR.
Ideally, tip in dollars, and it’s best if the dollars are new and crisp – old and wrinkly bills, or those with ink marks, are frowned on in Russia.
- A 10% tip is about right in a Siberian restaurant. It’s best to tip in cash and to put it straight into the waiter’s hands.
- Porters usually get $2 per bag.
- If you are traveling independently with a private guide, $20 per person for a full day and $15 for a half-day is typical on a private journey for two travelers.
Don’t forget your mosquito repellent! Summer is mosquito season, and Siberia is mosquito heaven. If you want to discourage both mosquitoes and ticks, use a repellent with 20% DEET. If you are going to be outdoors a lot, you might consider some insect-repellent-infused clothing: bandannas, shirts, pants and socks treated with permethrin, an EPA-approved mosquito and tick repellent that is odor-free and advertised to last for 70 washings. They work!
Siberia’s Lake Baikal and Buryatia Region:
Where to Eat and Sleep
Best Big Hotels
- Irkutsk Courtyard Marriott – The centrally-located four-and-a-half star Marriott Courtyard features a smart restaurant serving European cuisine with a touch of Siberia, a cozy bar, nice fitness center, free parking, and WiFi in rooms and public places. It’s within walking distance of clubs, restaurants, the Angara River embankment and the Drama Theater.
- Sayen International Hotel – Located in the center of Irkutsk, the small four star Sayen International Hotel has quite a line-up of international eateries – a chic gourmet restaurant with panoramic views, a classic Japanese restaurant, a German bierhaus, Irish pub, British pub and American bar and grill. Spa services, free parking, complimentary WiFi and stylish guestrooms round out the amenities.
Best Small Hotels
For a nice small hotel on Lake Baikal I recommend Anastasia, a very small, private lodge directly on the lakeshore. It’s some five miles north of Listvyanka, the home base of most travelers who come to see the UNESCO-listed lake, so it’s off the beaten path, and MIR is able to arrange very personal attention for clients.
If you’d prefer to be directly in Listvyanka Village, I like Krestovoya Pad, a small log complex with bright guestrooms, a Russian banya and café. Ask for one of the larger rooms with a balcony facing the lake.
I’m also fond of a fairly new place on Olkhon Island called the Baikal View Hotel, a nicely crafted wooden lodge with modern amenities including a swimming pool and a good restaurant.
Or perhaps you’d like to get out into rural Siberia and stay with local people in their homes. Nothing introduces a traveler to the people and culture of a country like a homestay. Home cooked meals, warm hospitality and friendly conversations offer a rare glimpse into the lives of average people. I have a roster of carefully vetted families and individuals who open their homes to our travelers in Siberian cities and villages.
Grab a seat at the counter in a local buuznaya in Ulan Ude for a plate of posy, big pasta-wrapped dumplings of delicious ground meat that are a Buryat specialty. The proper way to eat these is with your hands – first bite off one end and drink the juice, so it won’t drip down your chin. A meal of posy is traditionally accompanied by Buryat tea – green tea with milk and lots of sugar.
We regularly arrange invitations for our travelers to join a Siberian family for a home-cooked meal. On the table, you might find home-pickled cucumbers, home grown tomatoes and potatoes (in summer you’ll see a big potato patch behind every house), fresh and/or pickled wild mushrooms, smoked omul, a staple freshwater fish found only in Lake Baikal, and fresh, frozen or jellied wild berries. Siberians have always been locavores.
Travel to Siberia with MIR
MIR has 30 years 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, 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 now.
(Top photo: The Circumbaikal train makes a stop at Lake Baikal, Russia. Photo credit: Martin Klimenta)
PUBLISHED: August 6, 2015