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The Best Way to Enjoy Lake Baikal in Siberia, Russia
When you look at a map of Russia, Lake Baikal in Siberia is hard to miss. By volume, it’s the largest freshwater lake in the world, and also the world’s deepest and oldest lake.
It holds nearly a quarter of Earth’s fresh water. Most people who travel to this region just visit the lake on a short day trip from Irkutsk, from where several companies run Lake Baikal tours.
Nick and I wanted to immerse ourselves in this beautiful landscape as much as possible, though. So, when we heard there was a hike called the Great Baikal Trail, we jumped at the chance to walk it.
Actually, the “Greak Baikal Trail” is not just a hiking trail, it’s also the name of a non-profit organization that works to build trails around the lake and promote sustainable eco-tourism in the region.
The trail and the organization are the brainchildren of Oleg K. Gusev, a Russian writer, photographer and scientist who took inspiration from the Appalachian Trail in the United States.
The main idea behind the Great Baikal Trail, according to the group’s website, is to “build the first system of environmentally sensitive trails in all of Russia”.
Their ultimate goal is to construct a trail that makes a complete loop around the lake. With a perimeter of 2,100 kilometers, they still have a long way to go.
The Listvyanka to Bolshiye Koty Section
So far, the main completed section runs from the village of Listvyanka (Листвя́нка) to an even smaller village called Bolshiye Koty (Большие Коты), with a population of less than 100 people. It’s sometimes written as “Bolshie Koty” in English.
The distance between the two villages is somewhere between 22 and 25 kilometers, depending on which source you believe.
This is the part of the Great Baikal Trail that we hiked. It was an awesome experience and one I highly recommend. However, there are a few things we would have done differently if we’d had more information about the hike beforehand. There’s not much info online about the trail, which is why I’m writing this article.
In this post, I’ll share everything you need to know to successfully hike the Listvyanka — Bolshiye Koty section of the trail, including wayfinding tips, how to get a permit, where to buy supplies, and where to sleep.
Other Sections of the Trail
From Bolshiye Koty, it’s possible to continue another 30 kilometers or so to Bolshoye Goloustnoye (Большое Голоустное), a village with a population of about 700 people.
This section can be dangerous though, and parts of the trail have collapsed, requiring hikers to detour down to the pebbly shore of the lake.
We chose to go only as far as Cape Skriper, a headland with great views about 1.5 hours past Bolshiye Koty. But if you’re braver than us, you can find more information about continuing to Bolshoye Goloustnoye on the Great Baikal Trail website.
In addition to the main trail running along the shore of the lake, there are a few other offshoot trails as well. For example, once you reach Bolshoye Goloustnoye, you could then climb up to the Holy Mountain, which takes about 1.5 hours each way. Here’s a map that shows all the trails created thus far:
Every summer, volunteers not just from Russia but from other countries around the world join work projects where they help to build and maintain the trails.
Getting a Permit for the Great Baikal Trail
Much of the trail runs through Pribaikalsky National Park, and you need a permit to hike or camp inside the park.
You can get this from the Zapovednoe Pribaikalie office in Irkutsk, located at 291b Baikalskaya St. Alternatively, go to the ranger station on the main road in Listvyanka, which is housed in a two-story old wooden building that’s easy to spot.
The address is No. 2 Gorkogo Street, and the office is open from 8 am to 5 pm Monday through Thursday and 8 am to 4 pm on Fridays (closed weekends).
A permit costs just 100 rubles (about US$ 1.50), and when we went it was quick and easy to issue. All we had to do was show our passports to the person at the office, and they took care of the rest.
Afterwards, I read on the government website (available only in Russian) that pre-registration with the Ministry of Emergency Situations is also required before you can obtain a permit. No one ever asked us for this, though.
To be honest, no one ever checked our permits either, and it seems unlikely that you would be asked to show yours.
But breaking the law in Russia is generally not a good idea, so I suggest contacting the folks at Lesnaya 7 Hostel in Bolshiye Koty to ask about the latest requirements. The owners of the hostel speak good English and are very helpful.
Getting to the Great Baikal Trailhead
Minibus or Ferry to Listvyanka
The Siberian city of Irkutsk is known as the gateway to Lake Baikal, but it’s actually about 70 kilometers away from the lake itself. From Irkutsk, most people head to Listvyanka, the closest village on the shores of Baikal.
Listvyanka is a rather unattractive place that’s largely devoted to tourism, but it’s also where you’ll find one of the trailheads for the Great Baikal Trail.
You can walk the trail between Listvyanka and Bolshiye Koty in either direction. Minibuses run fairly regularly between Irkutsk and Listvyanka, while Bolshiye Koty is accessible only by ferry from either Irkutsk or Listvyanka. There are no roads that go there, only the hiking trail.
We took a minibus from Irkutsk to Listvyanka and spent one night there. We then took the ferry from Listvyanka to Bolshiye Koty the next day, spent another night there, and walked back to Listvyanka.
Ferries run from the end of May to the end of September. In July and August they run daily, while in June and September they run every day except Mondays and Thursdays. Check the ferry company’s website for the latest schedule.
How to Get Ferry Tickets
A one-way ferry ticket from Listvyanka to Bolshiye Koty costs 500 rubles in the low season and 550 in the high season. There is no office that sells ferry tickets in Listvyanka, which we didn’t realize until we arrived there. Oops!
It’s best to buy your tickets in Irkutsk before you set out. In theory, you should be able to buy them online through the ferry company’s website, but that wasn’t working for us. In the end, the boat captain took our money and let us on board, so all was well.
There weren’t many seats left, though, so showing up at the dock without a ticket could be risky.
It also seemed a bit dodgy, since the captain didn’t give us any kind of ticket or proof of payment.
Another thing to keep in mind is that the boat leaves from a barge three kilometers outside the center of Listvyanka. So, give yourself plenty of time to walk there from town. The ferry ride takes about 25 minutes.
Ferry to Bolshiye Koty
Alternatively, you could take the ferry directly from Irkutsk and skip Listvyanka altogether, which I would probably recommend. Listvyanka does not have the end-of-the-world feel that Bolshiye Koty has and is not a must-see sight.
To be honest, the main strip is a rather tacky tourist trap. It doesn’t have great facilities either (restaurants, grocery stores, etc.), so there’s no real reason to go there.
For many people, this is all they see of Lake Baikal. If I had only experienced the lake from Listvyanka, I definitely would have been disappointed and would have wondered what all the hype was about.
Lake Baikal is the biggest lake in the world, but that doesn’t make it the most beautiful. On the contrary, bigger is not always better when it comes to landscapes and nature spots.
Case in point: Lake Khuvsgul, the biggest lake in Mongolia and the sister lake of Baikal. We visited this lake a couple of weeks after Baikal, but it turned out to be a huge disappointment.
And at first, I was afraid that Baikal might disappoint us too.
It wasn’t until I got out on the trail that I really appreciated its beauty. With that in mind, instead of spending a total of five nights in the Baikal region like we did, you could achieve essentially the same thing in just three nights. Here’s how it would work:
Spend your first night in Irkutsk, then on your second day take the ferry directly from Irkutsk to Bolshiye Koty, walk to Cape Skriper and back, and stay overnight in Bolshiye Koty. On day three, walk from Bolshiye Koty to Listvyanka and then take a minibus back to Irkutsk.
If you skip Listvyanka, don’t forget to get your hiking permit in Irkutsk before you set out.
Where to Stay in Listvyanka
If you do end up staying in Listvyanka, I recommend the Baykal’skiy Domik Guest House. The rooms are simple but comfortable, and the owners are very welcoming. It’s essentially a homestay with a local Siberian family in a typical old wooden house.
The side street where the guesthouse is located also feels much more authentic than Listvyanka’s main drag and has some attractive Siberian wooden architecture. If you don't make it out to the Talsty Museum, walking these backstreets is a reasonable alternative.
Sergei, the owner, doesn’t speak English but is great at non-verbal communication. Guests have access to the family kitchen, which was very handy for us in a village with few vegan dining options. More about that in the “Where to Eat at Lake Baikal” section below.
Where to Stay in Bolshiye Koty
I highly recommend staying at Lesnaya 7 Hostel when you’re in Bolshiye Koty. It’s a lovely place with a welcoming, slightly hippie vibe. In addition to dorms, they also have double rooms in log cabins and communal kitchen facilities.
The owner, Alexei, speaks fluent English and is well-traveled. He and his wife are vegetarian and can make veggie meals for guests with advance notice.
Bolshiye Koty is a tiny, remote village that really feels cut off from the rest of the world. If you’re looking to relax and unplug for a while, this is the perfect place for a digital detox. You won’t get phone service out here, and Alexei has intentionally chosen not to provide WiFi at the hostel.
There’s even a seasonal Vipassana Meditation Center in the village that opens in June and July. Other than that, there’s not much to do here except read a book or watch the cows and horses grazing.
What to Eat at Lake Baikal
For most of our 30-day trip across Russia on the Trans-Mongolian train, eating out as vegans was pretty easy.
That being said, we stayed mostly in cities. The two places in Russia where we resorted to self-catering were the Golden Ring town of Suzdal and Lake Baikal.
Lake Baikal was the one place where we really had to plan in advance and do a lot of self-catering. If you’re vegan, I recommend bringing all your food from Irkutsk, as you won’t find many options on the lake.
You can stock up at the Slata supermarket, which has at least two locations in Irkutsk. One is inside the fancy shopping mall in the 130 Kvartal district, and there’s another one closer to the train station. They even have hummus!
In Listvyanka, you’ll find a few small grocery shops, but they only stock the very basics. Also, everything is kept behind the counter, so you won’t be able to check ingredient labels.
There is one store in Bolshiye Koty, but it has even less to offer than Listvyanka, and its opening hours are sporadic. Even bread can be hard to come by here. They do at least carry cold beer, cider and other drinks to relax with at the end of a long day’s hike, though.
As mentioned above, Alexei at Lesnaya 7 Hostel in Bolshiye Koty can provide vegetarian meals on request. We didn’t ask for this, but it might be a good idea if you don’t want to carry so much food with you.
And if you're planning to camp overnight in the national park, here are some simple vegan meal ideas for camping.
Wayfinding on the Great Baikal Trail
The trail is marked on theapp. I recommend downloading this before you start out, as you will not have phone service while on the trail. Google Maps is not very useful at Lake Baikal, nor anywhere else in Russia.
Between Listvyanka and Bolshiye Koty the trail is reasonably well signposted, so you shouldn’t get lost. From Listvyanka, the first few kilometers head inland through the forest, first climbing up to about 400 meters above lake level and then back down to the shoreline.
The rest of the trail to Bolshiye Koty and beyond to Cape Skriper hugs the coastline along the cliffs that surround Lake Baikal.
Is the Trail Dangerous?
The night before we set out, I watched a YouTube video made by a couple who turned back before reaching Bolshiye Koty because they thought the trail was too dangerous. This freaked me out a bit.
When we walked the trail, though, I didn’t find it very scary at all, and I get scared pretty easily. That being said, if you suffer from vertigo then this is probably not the right hike for you.
It’s quite narrow in some sections, with a steep drop-off on the lake side. It’s also more difficult if you’re carrying a large backpack, which we saw several campers doing.
In addition to the risk of falling, other possible dangers to be aware of include snakes and ticks, though we never saw either of these. Vipers and mocassins are the two moderately venomous snakes that live in the area. Ticks can transmit encephalitis and Lyme disease and are most active between April and June.
When to Hike the Great Baikal Trail
The best hiking weather is in the summer, but even then it sometimes rains. So, you just have to hope for good weather, or have the time to wait it out.
When we walked the trail in late July, high temperatures were in the high teens, and lows were in the low teens. The lake stays frozen until May, and even in July and August the water temperature rarely gets higher than 16 degrees Celsius. I did see some hardy Russians swimming in the lake, but it was way too cold for me.
Having spent most of our time in Russia in cities, it was great to get out into nature and see some of the vast, wild landscapes of the country. I’m very glad we walked the trail and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys hiking.
I would love to go back in winter and see Lake Baikal when it’s frozen over!
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