For a sample of Siberia’s stunning scenery, culinary diversity and haunting beauty, look no further than Lake Baikal. As breathtaking as it is deep and as enchanting as it is old, the world’s deepest and oldest lake, at 1,600m and 25 million years respectively, is a breathtakingly enchanting body of water. Sweltering in summer and freezing in winter, the time of year will drastically change your impression of the place.
Lake Baikal slices into the Siberian plains just north of Mongolia. From Irkutsk, a city on the Trans-Siberian railway line, one can access the small fishing village of Listvyanka, the most popular tourist destination. However, the village rarely feels crowded with foreigners and retains its secluded authenticity, even during the high-season summer months. In fact, it is usually Russians who populate the shores of the lake, plunging themselves into the icy waters.
Of course, the mass of water is so vast that even the scorching Siberian summer sun does little to alter the temperature. In winter, the cold can extend well below -40°C and the surface of the lake regularly freezes, to such an extent that armies throughout history managed to cross the lake on foot. Summer activities, such as recreational boating and mountain biking in the forests are put on hold for the freezing winter, but one activity that is not beholden to the temperature is fishing. The market in Listvyanka is the bustling hub of the village and has an ample selection of fish on offer, many of which are exclusive to the icy waters of Lake Baikal. Arguably the most popular delicacy is ‘omul’, best served smoked, alongside some onion.
In summer, Lake Baikal is an outdoor holiday resort, where mosquitoes and sunburn pose the greatest threat. Meanwhile, a winter tourist’s toughest adversary is undoubtedly the cold. While a foolhardy Briton may insist on braving the cold weather, the Russian sensibly chooses to remain indoors, rather than incur the wrath of these punishing conditions. Unfortunately, it is these very conditions that create some of the most spectacular sights. For that majestic sunset snap, sharp-shooting skills are required to avoid frostbite; for the reward of untouched snow, you may have to wander slightly off the beaten track; and for a photograph that screams “cold”, then you may want to consider taking the short boat trip across the Angara River to see this frozen train.
Waiting in the gloom for that boat to arrive was one of the few times I have ever panicked. The cold was almost unbearable and the relief of seeing headlights emerging through the fog was sensational. Never underestimate the elements and ensure that your winter gear can cope with the most ludicrous of sub-zero temperatures. While the summer months allow visitors to delight in the rich biodiversity on offer and explore the sights on Baikal’s Olkhon Island without fear of frostbite, the captivating wonder of the lake and the lifestyle of the locals come alive in winter. Lake Baikal: a dish best served cold.