Lake Baikal is the pearl of Eastern Siberia. It is the world’s deepest and oldest lake – an estimated 25 million years old. Approximately 25% of all of the fresh water on Earth is contained in Lake Baikal. A white disk with a diameter of 30 centimetres can be seen through the clear waters of Baikal to a depth of 40 metres. The area of the lake is about 31,500 square kilometers, making it the world’s eighth largest lake. Its width varies between 20 to 80 kilometres, and its length from north to south exceeds 636 kilometres. The length of Lake Baikal’s coastline exceeds 2,000 kilometres and it is located almost 500 metres above sea level.
Over 1,850 types of mammal, bird, fish and insect species, as well as 850 sorts of plants, can be met in the Baikal area; many of them are not found anywhere else on the planet. The most well known Baikal inhabitants are sturgeon, grayling, whitefish, but the most tasty and sought after delicacy is the omul, a sea fish of the salmon family, prized for its unique flavour.
There are more sunny days per year on Lake Baikal than in any of the resorts in the south of Russia. In autumn, one can expect severe winds, but the lake only freezes as late as in the second half of January, and the ice fully melts in May. Like the water, the ice of Lake Baikal is amazingly clear, forming vast fields through which one can see the more shallow parts of the lake and its underwater inhabitants.
Over 300 rivers flow into Lake Baikal, with the Angara being the only one that takes its source from the Lake. At the place of Angara’s source, near the village of Listvyanka in the Irkutsk Region, a stone can be seen rising out of the water. Legend has it that Father Baikal threw this piece of rock in anger after his beautiful daughter Angara disobeyed him and parted the surrounding hills to follow her bridegroom Yenisei.
Baikal is a real magnet for tourists. Summer is peak season here because it is quite warm, and by the end of July and beginning of August, the coastal waters are perfect for swimming. The best way to travel on Lake Baikal is on a small ship which makes it easier to change the route as you see fit and to enter many picturesque nooks and straits which are perfect for fishing and sun-bathing. More and more people are making the journey to see this treasure in the heart of Russia.
The Olkhon Island is considered to be Lake Baikal’s “energy centre.” It is also called the “heart of the Baikal,” may be because it is shaped much like the lake itself. Olkhon is the largest island on Lake Baikal, with a maximum length of 71 kilometres, a width of 12 kilometres, and a total area of 730 square kilometers. The island is situated near the deepest point of the lake, some 1,637 metres. From the island, the entire variety of beautiful Baikal landscapes are visible, including the steppe with bays that stay warm all summer, sandy beaches with dunes, hills and larch woods along the shore, a lush forest with fir-trees, severe marble-like crags covered with various mosses and lichens. The local people believe that Genghis Khan himself is buried in the marble rock cave of Burkhan.
The Round-Baikal Railway (RBR) follows Lake Baikal’s wondrous southern shore. This unique engineering system became operational in 1905, and due to the complexity and cost of the railway construction, it came to be named the “golden buckle” of Russia’s steel belt. The RBR once connected two parts of the Trans Siberian Railroad which was separated by Baikal (earlier, the railway cars had to be rafted across the lake). Due to the construction of the Irkutsk hydroelectric power plant in the middle of the last century, the Angara source became a reservoir which then flooded part of the RBR. After this, a longer indirect railway route was constructed from Irkutsk to the city of Slyudyanka. Today, the RBR is a monument of history and architecture: it is one-track railroad line with numerous tunnels, elegant portals and protective walls, all leading to a dead end. An old diesel goes from Slyudyanka station o the Baikal port several times a week, providing hamlets scattered along the lake shore with necessary provisions.