Irkutsk: Gateway to Lake Baikal
The de facto capital of eastern Siberia, Irkutsk is by far the most popular stop on the Trans-Siberian Railway between Moscow and all points east. The main reason to stop in Irkutsk is to visit beautiful Lake Baikal, spending at least one night by the shore of Lake Baikal, either in the main township of Listvyanka (70km from Irkutsk) or the more traditional Siberian village of Bolshoe Goloustnoe (110km from Irkutsk), or strike out further and spend a couple of days exploring Olkhon Island.
Apart from the lake, it is worth spending at least a couple of hours exploring the city of Irkutsk for the beautiful traditional wooden architecture. An overnight offers a chance to enjoy a city tour and a dinner at one of the many restaurants in town. With extra time, visit one of the Decemberists museums and learn more about this important junction of the Trans-Siberian.
In recent years Irkutsk has seen something of a tourist boom, spawning a municipally funded information center, detailed city maps planted at strategic points and a handful of freshly conceived museums, as well as the popular 130th District (130 Kvartal) project, an entire neighbourhood given over to typical Siberian timber buildings housing new restaurants, bars, cafes and the odd museum. The lovely Marussia Hotel located there is our favourite.
Lake Baikal: The Pearl of Siberia
Lake Baikal is the world’s largest freshwater lake by volume (7th largest by surface area), also one of the oldest lakes, and, at a depth of one mile, it is the deepest lake on the planet. The lake holds approximately 20% of earth’s fresh water, and its rich biodiversity is home to around 1,000 species of plants and a diverse marine life of up to 2,500 animals, 80% of which are endemic to the region. Lake Baikal was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1996.
Listvyanka is located 70km from Irkutsk and is the main township on the shore of Lake Baikal, making it an ideal stop for visitors with time only for one or two days by the lake. The village sits is found where the Angara River flows from the lake and begins its long journey, its close proximity to Irkutsk making it a popular destination for locals and tourists alike.
The village is reasonably picturesque, though it lacks the more spectacular ecology and scenery of Olkhon Island or the more tranquil setting at Bolshoue Goloustnoe, visitors will still take delight in the many wooden homes with their colorful window frames and picket fences and vibrant flowering gardens.
The small port provides the opportunity for visitors to enjoy a short boat cruise on the lake. Ferries also connect Listvyanka to Port Baikal on the opposite bank of the Angara River, where visitors pick up the Circum-Baikal train that traces a scenic journey along the shoreline to Slyudyanka.
There is plenty of interest in Listvyanka to keep visitors busy for two days. A small market sells local crafts and is a good place to pick up some tasty local omul fish for a picnic lunch on the lake shore. A trip to Listvyanka should certainly include a visit to the Limnological Museum, which provides a very good overview of the flora, fauna endemic to Lake Baikal.
There are good hiking trails in the forested hills and along the cliffs overlooking the lake, though it definitely helps to arrange a guided hike as the trails can be hard to find and the hiking is moderately difficult in parts. In winter, the focus shifts from hiking to cross-country skiing, snowmobiling or dog-sledging. There are a number of good restaurants for visitors to enjoy the local cuisine and relax after a day exploring the area.
Bolshoe Goloustnoe (BG) is a traditional village on the shore of the lake, located 110km from Irkutsk in the Pribaikalsky National Park. Originally settled in the late 17th century, and built in the classic wooden style, BG is great if you are looking for a quieter, and an authentic local Siberian experience removed from the more tourist-friendly Listvyanka.
Our local partners host visitors in a comfortable guesthouse, rather than the former homestay set-up, which adds to the privacy while still offering the intimate chance to experience a small traditional Siberian village. Being a more traditional village, there is little in the way of shops of tourist restaurants, and less English spoken.
To help with the communication and assist our guests in getting the most out of their experience at Bolshoe Goloustnoe, our local guide stays in the village for the duration of the one or two night stays, providing the opportunity for visitors to learn about the local Buryat culture, enjoy walking in the larch and pine tree forest and on the steppe slopes, or relaxing beside gorgeous lakeside views.
Olkhon Island is located 300 km from Irkutsk. At 72 km long, with an area of 730 square kilometers, Olkhon Island is the largest island on Lake Baikal and home to some of the most beautiful landscapes in the region. It is unique as it has three different climate zones of steppe, forest and desert.
Olkhon Island is wonderful place for hiking, biking and horse-riding tours, and the Maloye Sea is one of the best places on Lake Baikal for aquatic activities. At Hoboi cape, the most northerly tip of the island, there are some of the best views of Lake Baikal, which show the immensity and powerful beauty of the lake. By late summer, Sandy Bay is one the few spots where the water is warm enough to swim comfortably.
Feel free to insert or substitute tour programs into any itinerary with a stopover in Irkutsk / Lake Baikal, adding or subtracting days to coordinate with your interests and budget. Take a look at the Trains and Scheduling for the specific details regarding onward travel.
Our Polny trips add an overnight at the boutique Marussia Hotel in Irkutsk, or for guests on a limited time frame, there are daily departures onward to Moscow and other destinations in Russia. Travelling east, you’ll need to coordinate with the limited departures from Irkutsk to Ulaanbaatar and further on to Beijing.
2 night Listvyanka program (2UD List Guesthouse)
Day 1: Arrival ___ Meet your guide on station platform or at hotel.
Enjoy a guided city tour of Irkutsk (2 hrs – by car). Transfer to Listvyanka (approx. 70km from Irkutsk), staying two nights at the comfortable UD Guesthouse.
Guided tour of Listvyanka Village and Limnological Museum.
Day 2: An activity of your choice is included in the program.
Choose from the following (check detailed descriptions further below):
- a moderate 5-6 hour hike or a ferry to Port Baikal;
- short boat ride and moderate hike;
- a ferry to Port Baikal and gentle walking excursion;
- visit the Taltsi Museum of architecture and ethnography.
Day 3: Free morning in Listvyanka before return transfer to Irkutsk.
Program includes: all transfers, 2 nights UD Guesthouse: private room with ensuite (incl. breakfast), English speaking guide (1 day), guided tour of Listvyanka Village and Lake Baikal Museum.
- Upgrade: substitute the guesthouse for a hotel in Listvyanka.
- Budget: downgrade to a the budget quarters of the guesthouse, with shared bathrooms.
- Time constraints: spend one night in Listvyanka and one night in Irkutsk.
2 night Bolshoe Goloustnoe program (Guesthouse)
Day 1: Arrival ___ Meet your guide on station platform or at hotel. Transfer to the small traditional village of Bolshoe Golousnote (approx. 110km from Irkutsk), staying two nights at a comfortable guesthouse. Settle in before a guided orientation tour of the village. Enjoy home-cooked meals during your stay at the guesthouse.
Day 2: As Bolshoe Goloustnoe is a more traditional (less touristy) village, your guide will be on hand during your two day stay to help with the basic translations needed for a comfortable stay at the guesthouse. The guide will also provide you with suggestions and assistance in exploring the surrounding area and making the most of your time by the shore of Lake Baikal.
Day 3: Free morning at your leisure before your transfer return to Irkutsk. Enjoy a guided city walking tour of Irkutsk.
- Stay overnight in Irkutsk or depart onward to your next destination.
3 night Olkhon Island tour program (3 OLH)
Day 1: Meet guide on station platform or hotel in Irkutsk. Transfer to bus station for the minibus drive (and ferry) to Olkhon Island. Staying at Lada Guesthouse during your 3-night stay on the island.
After breakfast, you will head off to explore the island with your guide. The island is renowned for its archaeological landmarks and diverse ecology, including taiga forest, steppe and a small desert.
Day 3: Join a group excursion to Khoboi Cape at the north end of the island near the settlement of Khuzhir, visiting Shaman Rock.
Day 4: Return to Irkutsk by local minibus with guide.
Note: guest will need to stay overnight in Irkutsk, as the late return from Olkhon Island does not allow same day onward departure.
Program includes: all transfers (minibus and ferry), English speaking guide 4 days, Lake Baikal National Park entrance fee, shared trip to the northern part of the island, 3 nights Lada Resort (full board).
Activities and excursion
Irkutsk city tour (2 hrs)
Available year round
Visiting the main sites in the city center, including Karl Marx Street, the Church of the Transfiguration, the Epiphany Cathedral and the former Polish Cathedral. At the end of the tour your guide can leave your downtown, or recommend a local restaurant or market to visit. It is a good idea to stock up on fresh food items in Irkutsk before your onward train journey, especially if continuing on the train all the way through to Moscow.
Listvyanka hike (5-6 hrs)
A moderate hiking excursion that takes you into the hills surrounding Listvyanka and along the cliffs overlooking Lake Baikal. The hiking is quite strenuous in parts with a particularly tricky start on a steep ascent up loose rocky ground, before the trail eases along an undulating trail through the hilly forest. Following a picnic lunch, the return follows a narrow trail for around 4km perched on a reasonably steep cliffy shoreline. The path is for the most part stable, however, the steepness of the trail overlooking the lake below can be a little intimidating. The path trails off for the last 1 1/2 km through the less-attractive outskirts of Listvyanka, before finishing along the flat shoreline of Listvyanka.
The hike is normally conducted by Sasha or one of his guides, who speak basic English and have developed many tracks as self-appointed park managers of the area. They will instruct you on the different fauna, flora and habitats in the forest surrounding Listvyanka and the shore of Lake Baikal. Be prepared with good hiking shoes (or trainers in fine weather), sun hat, insect repellent and drinking water.
Includes: approx. 5-6-hour hike + picnic lunch, local guide (with basic English).
Listvyanka short boat trip and hike (4-5 hrs)
An excursion that combines a short boat trip on Lake Baikal and a moderate hiking excursion along the mountainous shoreline overlooking the lake. The short boat trip allows guests to skip the more strenuous sections of the hike, while capturing the best of the views on the path returning from the picnic spot to Listvyanka. Returning from the picnic spot, the trail follows a narrow path perched on the steep cliff shoreline for around 4km. The path is for the most part stable, however, the steepness of the trail can be intimidating and footing can be slippery at times on the loose dirt or stone path. The path proper finishes on the less-attractive outskirts of town, before finishing with an easy walk around 1.5km along the shoreline in front of town, passing the market and port.
The excursion is normally conducted by Sasha or one of his guides, who speak basic English. Altogether, a fantastic way to experience the natural beauty of Listvyanka and Lake Baikal. Be prepared with good hiking shoes (or trainers in fine weather), sun hat, insect repellent and drinking water.
Includes: 2-3 hour hike, picnic lunch, and boat trip, local guide (with basic English).
Port Baikal nature walk (5-6 hrs)
Begin the tour with a ferry to Port Baikal (11:15 ferry). Walk (around 40 mins) along the old Circum-Baikal rail line to a beach on the shore of the lake and relax while your guide prepares a picnic lunch. You can explore the area further with an optional walk from the beach to the nearest tunnel (15 min each way). They stay on the shore and relax for some time. In the afternoon you will walk back to Port Baikal and the ferry over to Listvyanka (~15:45 ferry). The whole trip takes almost a day from 11:00 till 16:30.
Includes: Return ferry, guide, picnic lunch.
Taltsi museum of wooden architecture and ethnography (4-5 hrs)
Available year round
The Taltsi (or Taltsy) Museum of Architecture and Ethnography is a highly valuable object of cultural heritage of the peoples of Russia. Founded in 1969, the Taltsi museum is conveniently situated on the road between Irkutsk and Listvyanka. Covering 67 hectares, there are over 40 monuments of architectural heritage and 8,000 exhibits of high historical value, depicting two architectural-ethnographical areas – Russian and Buryat – showing a large variety of housing and the life of the Siberians. The most valuable monuments in Taltsy are the Savior’s gate tower of the ostrog (fort) of Ilimsk (1667) and an active Kazan Chapel (1679).
Includes: Transfers, English speaking guide, entrance.
Circum-Baikal train excursion
Available year round
Port Baikal – Irkutsk (Thursday, Saturday, Monday); Irkutsk to Port Baikal (Wednesday, Friday, Sunday)
The pictoresque Circum-Baikal Railway is an historical railway line travelling along the shore of Lake Baikal from Port Baikal to Kultuk village, 8 km before the town of Slyudyanka. The railway and surrounding area includes countless significant monuments of engineering and technical art, such as tunnels and galleries, bridges, viaducts and breast walls, along with various interesting and noteworthy sites relating to geology, mineralogy, zoology and biology.
Begin the excursion with a short ferry ride across the mouth of the Angara River to Port Baikal and visit the Port Baikal Museum before boarding the memorable and picturesque train trip along the old Circum-Baikal railroad (Port Baikal – Kultuk / Sludyanka – Irkutsk) with several tunnels and bridges and picturesque ‘tourist’ stops along the way. Lunch and dinner boxes included. Arrival in Irkutsk late in the evening and transfer to your accommodation. The train takes around 8 hrs with the total trip around 12 hours.
Includes: Ferry, Port Baikal Museum, Circum-Baikal Museum entrance and train ticket, lunch and dinner box on board, Arrival transfer in Irkutsk, Russian guide only on board.
Dog Sledging (20-30 mins)
Available January to March (weather dependent)
Dog sledding through the forest with a guide. The distance is 10 km (about 20-30 min). You will have one sledge per person. Note: This activity is dependent on local weather conditions.
Snowmobiling (2 hrs)
Available December to March (weather dependent)
Snowmobiling either through the forest or on the frozen lake for 2 hours.
Cross-country skiing (3 hrs)
Available December to March (weather dependent)
Meet your guide for transfer to the ski hire place and set up with the necessary equipment and a quick lesson. Cross-country skiing through the forest with a guide for 3 hours with a stop for a picnic lunch cooked on the campfire. Enjoy the beauty of Baikal National Park in the winter wonderland.
Included: guide, ski equipment, lunch.
‘Flying Home today after one month of travel that you arranged. Everything as arranged by you went perfectly. Every train was met by waiting driver. Every ticket was delivered on time. We especially appreciated the extra man you sent in Ulaanbaatar to help with the luggage. All the guides and drivers were great. I can only give the highest praises for your services. Thanks again for a great trip. Please don’t hesitate to give out my email to anyone that needs a reference.’Stephen, June 2018