We are about 4300 km as the crow flies from Moscow. Over 5000 km of railway behind us.
The stop in Irkutsk is probably one of the Trans-Siberian Railway musts. Many tourists even skip all other stops and travel 2-3 days in a row, from the Russian capital direct to Lake Baikal.
Staying here for at least a couple of days is the bare minimum for exploring the place and seeing something. We are indeed talking about impressive distances and dimensions.
Lake Baikal is over 600 km long and contains about 20% of the freshwater of our planet.
It is a good half hour’s journey from Irkutsk, and if you want to reach the village of Khuzhir on the island of Olkhon (in the middle of the lake), you need to plan at least another 4-5 hours travel.
Lake Baikal in a nutshell
The following is an interactive map. Some of the main points of interest are marked with brown pins, and the black pin marks the ferry terminal. Here you can take the ferry to Olkhon Island.
Things to do around Lake Baikal
As already mentioned, given the distances to be covered and the size of the lake, it does not make sense to stop here only for a few hours. Why visit Lake Baikal? First of all, because it is a natural wonder and one of the seven wonders of Russia.
Furthermore, here you can witness a different and unique landscape, made up of many endemic species.
The lake freezes in winter so that cars and trucks are allowed to drive over it, while in summer, the water seldom reaches more than 14 – 15 degrees.
Those who have the chance to stay here for a few days can choose between different tours, for example:
Excursion to Listvjanka and/or Bolshiye Koty
These are rural or semi-urban settlements on the shores of the lake. Some commonly call them fishing villages.
It is the historical railway that runs along the shore of the lake.
One, two or three days tour to Olkhon Island
Olkhon is the only currently inhabited lake island. Here you can stay overnight in a traditional house or a tent, make different types of excursions (bike, canoe), etc.
Doing it yourself means arriving by train in Irkutsk, then taking a rental car and organizing tours and overnight stays. You certainly save money, but you waste more time planning everything.
Relying on an agency is, in my opinion, the most comfortable way to visit this area. It certainly costs something more, but you use your time efficiently, and there is no need to worry about transportation, accommodation, meals, etc.
I booked my two-day tour to Olkhon Island with this agency that I strongly recommend.
Lida, our tour guide, picked us up at Irkutsk station as soon as we arrived, and we spent the next two days with her.
After about 5 hours by car, we reached the ferry terminal. I was surprised to see that there are no roads on Olkhon Island, only furrows in the sand. The island is marvelous, with a colorful and mixed landscape.
Leaving Irkutsk in the morning means arriving in Olkhon in the early afternoon. Just in time to take a tour of the Chuzir village, and reach the most famous place in the area: Cape Burkhan, also known as Shamanka or Shaman’s Rock.
On the island, there are small all-wheel-drive buses that move over the paths in the sand, ups and downs sometimes worse than a roller coaster.
The island is a sacred place for shamanism and Buddhism. For each cape or rock, there is, for example, a legend that explains its shape and rhetorical meanings.
Shamans regularly meet here to perform their rituals and then tie traditional colored ribbons on totem poles.
After two days on Olkhon Island, it’s time to go back to Irkutsk and visit the city.
Trans-Siberian and Trans-Mongolian Railway – All you need to know
Travel arrangements: General Information
Departure station: Moscow
First stop: Nizhny Novgorod
Second stop: Kazan
Third stop: Yekaterinburg
Fourth Stop: Novosibirsk
Fifth stop: Krasnoyarsk and Stolby Nature Sanctuary
Sixth stop: Lake Baikal
Seventh stop: Irkutsk
Eighth stop: Ulan-Ude
Ninth stop: Ulaanbaatar
Tenth stop: Datong
Arrival station: Beijing