Imagine the Grand Canyon filled to the rim with crystal clear water. Imagine the height of five Eiffel Towers put one onto another. If you are able to imagine this, you already understand the miraculous magnitude of Lake Baikal. Rioting colors in the summer, royal crystals of thick clear ice during the winter and spiritual greatness throughout the whole year — Lake Baikal has always been alluringly close to Irkutsk.
Close proximity becomes an obstacle for those who travel to Baikal during the peak of a tourist season. Your timing and desired destination points are interdependent. Don’t choose a place that is easily accessible by car if you’re traveling during the tourist-magnet summer months, long weekends or national holidays. Don’t buy the tickets for the last-in-the-day tour ship, either.
Traveling by car
This means of transportation might seem most convenient. However, the realities of car travel usually disagree with tourists’ expectations. The usual destinations for car travelers are Listvyanka Village (70 km, one-hour drive) and Olkhon Island (300 km, five-hour drive, ferry wait and travel not counted). If you’re traveling to Listvyanka, expect traffic jam and lack of parking space — especially on the weekends. If you chose Olkhon Island, be prepared for a long wait in a queue for a ferry to take you to the island. The roads leading to Olkhon are not easy, too.
Taking a bus
Most Irkutsk-to-Baikal buses depart from the main bus station. Buses to Listvyanka make six trips a day with one bus departing every two hours, usually from 8 AM to 6:30 PM. One ticket costs 103 rubles. The road to Listvyanka will take up about one hour of your time.
If you’re making a one-day visit, don’t forget to buy a return ticket to Irkutsk in advance, as returning back to the city might get difficult in the evening. If you forgot to get such a ticket, come to the Listvyanka ticket office — the one on the docks in front of “Mayak” hotel. Those who buy a ticket at a bus station can count on an assigned place. Board the bus in advance to avoid argument over the best bus seats. Many drivers allow the passengers without tickets to take up the “vacant” spots.
In addition to the municipal buses, the bus station in Irkutsk also has privately held minibuses going on the same route. Minibus tickets cost about 30–100 rubles more than bus tickets for the same routes, but the driver will hit the road as soon as all seats are taken. Minibuses have no trip schedules. This means of transportation is popular among the tourists, but it’s better suited for those who love spontaneity and improvisation.
Returning to Irkutsk on a minibus is easier than taking the municipal bus back, as most drivers are always willing to pick up the tourists they meet on the road. You can find a minibus to Listvyanka on a car station between the shopping complex on Oktyabrskoy revolutsiy Street near the bus station.
Taking a train
The Circum-Baikal Railway is magnificent in its beauty and engineering elegance with its coastal landscape view. Take the train to the southern coast of Lake Baikal to see how it runs around the rocky ledges, dives into dark tunnels and flies over a wrought viaduct.
Today, the Circum-Baikal Railway goes from Slyudyanka to Port Baikal. Parts of the road became dead ends after the old railway was flooded during the construction of Irkutsk hydroelectric station. There are four trains to Slydyanka, and the earliest takes off at 9:28 AM. The road to Slyudyanka takes three hours, and a one-way ticket costs 105 rubles.
After you get to Slyudyanka and stop for a minute to admire the train station building and its marble forecourt, go for a hike or take a sightseeing train to Port Baikal. The train will make stops in some of the most interesting places. One of these stops is Angasolka, a small settlement where you can stop by Roerich’s museum. The railroad follows the coastline, allowing the passengers to enjoy the view of Lake Baikal from the train windows.
You can return back to the city by either taking the same train back or by going around the lake through Listvyanka. Listvyanka and Port Baikal are connected by a ferry which crosses Angara River twice a day. “Circum-Baikal Express” tourist train goes from Irkutsk to Port Baikal and then to Irkutsk again. The road around the lake on this train will take one day, and one ticket will cost from 4000 to 4500 rubles.
Take the train if you want to get to the eastern side of Baikal, to the Barguzinsky or Chivyrkuisky bays, Svyatoy Nos peninsula or Ushkani Islands. You can buy tickets to Ulan-Ude on rzd.ru website. The overnight train Irkutsk-Naushki is the most comfortable, as it takes off at 10:02 PM and brings you to the capital of the Republic of Buryatia at 7 AM of the next day. The cheapest ticket costs around 1500 rubles. In Ulan-Ude, you can take a minibus to Maksimikha or Ust’-Barguzin. These settlements are the closest ones to the beautiful places you’ll want to visit.
When you’re taking this train, you can also stop at the Tankhoi station which lies in between Irkutsk and Ulan-Ude. You’ll see Baikal Nature Reserve, an amazing place that differs from all other landmarks and sightseeing spots. If you stay there for a day, you’ll also see one of the best eco-trails in the region.
Finally, the outskirts of another town, Severobaikalsk, are the best place for those who love the wilderness. Hot springs at Khakusy, Frolikha Lake, wild northern forests and mountains — all of these will be worth the two days spent getting there by train. Irkutsk-Severobaikalsk train departs on odd days. One ticket costs about 2 900 rubles.
Irkutsk Waterway service offers a variety of routes, all departing from the Irkutsk pier “Raketa”. “Raketa” is located in Solnetchni microdistrict of Irkutsk — see more at vsrp.ru. A waterway trip to the most beautiful places on Lake Baikal is an unforgettable experience, available from the end of June to the end of August. Sailing the waves of Baikal Lake is a unique adventure that saves a lot of time. Though far from cheap, waterway transport allows access to some areas that you wouldn’t reach taking a bus or a car.
Despite the variety of available transport, constant vigilance will not hurt you. Check the schedule beforehand, double-check your information at the reception desk in your hotel and ask around for details. Communication provides for a successful trip.