Lake Baikal, Siberia, Russia "Suggestion for Best Winter Trips"
Photograph by Bruno Morandi / Getty Images
Called the "sacred sea" by locals, Lake Baikal is the world's deepest and oldest (20 million to 25 million years) existing freshwater lake. For intrepid adventurers equipped for a Siberian deep freeze (air temperatures can plunge to minus 40ºF) Baikal is in midwinter is a roughly 12,200-square-mile ice rink crystals. Local outfitters like Baikal Explorer and Green Express lead Jeep, dog-sled, and snowmobiling tours across the glassy surface. There's also ice diving, rafting (in sections that do not freeze), skating and fishing, plus opportunities to volunteer with the Great Baikal Trail , a local conservation group. Environmental threats, including industrial pollution, prompted the World Heritage designation for the site in 1996. A Baikal pulp-and-paper mill built near the lake in 1966 permanently closed in 2013, but remain significant ecological threats.
When to Go: February and March are typically when the ice is thickest and most ice-related tours are offered.
How to Get Around: Irkutsk is the closest airport to Lake Baikal's more developed western shore. The most scenic, albeit slower, route to Irkutsk is via a private or regularly scheduled Trans-Siberian train. Book passage on a reputable tour operator like MIR Corporation or Lernidee Trains & Cruises . From Irkutsk, it's about an hour and a half by marshrutka (fixed-route minibus) to Listvyanka, the lake's western shore main tourist village.
Where to Stay: Hotel in simple, locally owned homestays and hostels like Baikaler Eco-Hostel . Located on a wooded hillside in Listvyanka about a 20- to 30-minute walk from the lake, the hostel features four bright and airy guest rooms and one dorm room (sleeps eight). The property's two wood, chalet-style buildings include eco-friendly features like solar panels.
What to Eat: Proshly Vek (Last Century) Cafe in Listvyanka Siberian dishes out traditional fare. Order the local whitefish, Baikal omul, smoked, dried, fresh, or in a creamy soup. The café is on the ground floor, while the dining room and the best view of the lake are upstairs. For snacking, try the Siberian pine nuts and larch-tree tar chewing gum sold at local markets.
What to Buy: In Irkutsk and Listvyanka, shop for handmade soaps and clay whistles; Russian souvenirs, including birch bark art and wooden matryoshka nesting dolls; and traditional Buryat (indigenous Mongol) items like ongons . These shamanist dolls (small or masks) are commonly made from wood, leather, felt, or straw, and are displayed in homes to protect the inhabitants from harm.
Cultural Tip: English is not widely spoken in local villages, and information is provided in Russian only and Baikal Limnological Museum (The freshwater science museum and aquarium). For day trips, including the museum tour, consider hiring a local, English-speaking guide service.
What to Read Before You Go: Anton Chekhov's About Love and Other Stories includes works like "The House With the Mezzanine," inspired by the author's 1890 visit to Lake Baikal.
Fun Fact: About two-thirds of the estimated 1,500 animal species living in and around Lake Baikal are found nowhere else on Earth. The best known resident is NERPA, the world's only exclusively freshwater seal.