The ice-cold Lake Baikal in the south of Siberia is not only worth protecting because of its incredible freshwater resources, but also has breathtaking nature to offer.
The gigantic Lake Baikal is located in Russia in the north of Mongolia on the border of the Irkutsk oblast. With a depth of 1,642 metres and an age of 25 million years, it is the deepest and oldest lake, as well as the largest freshwater reservoir in the world - a symbol of Russia's endless expanses and fascinating nature.
Lake Baikal and its surroundings have been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996. The mighty lake is also on our list of the top 10 sights of Russia.
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PICTURES: Lake Baikal
The region around Lake Baikal is relatively sparsely populated, with only a few roads leading to the lake itself. The northern end of the lake is served by the Baikal-Amur Highway and the southern end by the Trans-Siberian Railway; the cities of Irkutsk and Ulan-Ude can also be reached by plane.
Incredible volume of Lake Baikal
With an area of 630 by 80 kilometres and a shore length of 2,125 kilometres, Lake Baikal is about as big as the whole of Belgium. Its capacity of 23,000 cubic kilometres even exceeds that of the Baltic Sea.
It is also called the "Holy Sea" or "Fountain of the Earth" by the local population, the Buryats. Even though the surface area of the five Great Lakes of North America is over seven times larger, the water masses of all the lakes together add up to about the volume of Lake Baikal.
It contains 20% of the world's fresh water, the entire human race could live on its water supply for 50 years. Lake Baikal is fed by over 300 rivers and has only one outlet - the Angara, one of the largest rivers in Siberia. It would take 400 years to empty Lake Baikal completely.
The lake lies on two continental plates that are constantly shifting. The many small earth tremors make Lake Baikal even wider and deeper over the centuries.
Best time to visit Lake Baikal
If you want to visit Lake Baikal, you have to dress warmly! From the beginning of November to the end of March there is a permanent frost around Lake Baikal, the average temperatures do not rise above -20°C and cold snaps of up to -50°C are not uncommon. The lake is completely frozen from November to May.
At the beginning of April, snow and ice slowly give way so that the thermometer can climb to over 20°C in the two-month summer. However, the water temperature of Lake Baikal never rises much above 10°C, so bathing is only possible in very few shallow places.
Frosty nights are possible until June, and by September snow and ice are already moving into the country. Since Lake Baikal gives off heat in winter, the climate around the lake is still more pleasant than in the rest of Siberia, where the temperature differences between summer and winter can be up to 100°C.
The peak holiday season at Lake Baikal is from mid-May to mid-September. Before and after that, the winter cold paints a frosty picture of Lake Baikal, but it is just as worth seeing.
Diversity despite freezing cold
Despite the icy conditions, Lake Baikal and its surroundings have a unique flora and fauna. 1,500 of the 2,000 species found here are found only around Lake Baikal. Thanks to billions of tiny amphipods that eat dead organisms and bacteria, the lake is of drinking water quality in many places. This, combined with the cold, results in breathtaking water clarity and visibility of up to 40 metres in the water and up to 20 metres in the ice.
Since Lake Baikal is constantly dropping, its inhabitants have been able to slowly adapt to the depths and many species live almost entirely at the bottom of Lake Baikal, such as the golomyanka, the almost transparent freshwater fish that lives the deepest in the world. Otherwise, Baikal seals, black storks, ospreys, moose, lynx, deer, wolves, bears and millions of migratory birds cavort in and around the lake.
The mighty Lake Baikal is dotted with 22 larger islands and a multitude of small islets and rocky hills rising from the water. The largest island is Olkhon, whose craggy mountain peak rises over 800 metres above the lake. In winter, the islands can be reached by car via the ice tracks called "Tsimnik" on a layer of ice up to over a metre thick. The lake then becomes the main traffic route with marked roads and no-parking signs.
Industry and tourism united against Lake Baikal
Since the end of the Second World War, industrialisation around Lake Baikal has developed strongly, mainly due to the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway and the Baikal-Amur-Magistrale (BAM) railway line.
Pulp and fish factories around Lake Baikal also caused cities to grow, discharging their wastewater into the lake and polluting the air. To stop the destruction of the environment around Lake Baikal, nature reserves and national parks were established, as well as a general coastal protection zone.
With the beautification of the area, tourism also entered the country. The visitor centre is the village of Listvyanka, which is best equipped for the influx of visitors with restaurants, hotels and infrastructure. Incidentally, 20% of the tourists come from Germany. Other villages are still being developed. However, no serious damage to the ecosystem of the huge Lake Baikal can be detected (yet).
Tip: In the high season from mid-May to mid-September, accommodation should be booked at least two months in advance due to the large number of visitors.
The most popular activities at Lake Baikal have to do with discovering the breathtaking nature. The 100-kilometre Frolikha Adventure Coastline Track on the north-eastern shore of the "Pearl of Siberia", as Lake Baikal is also called, takes experienced hikers along the lakeshore and along hidden game trails through a breathtaking panorama of snow-capped 2000-metre peaks from the mouth of the Upper Angara to the hot springs at Chakussy.