This destination trip report will cover Lake Baikal in the midst of winter, featuring the sights in the town of Listvyanka, a dog sledding excursion and ice skating.
First steps onto the Lake Baikal ice sheet
After I settled down in my Listvyanka hotel room, which would be my home for the next two nights, it was time to explore the surrounding area. As I wrote earlier, I mainly chose Listvyanka over other Lake Baikal towns because it is the easiest to get to and because it offers the widest variety of (easy to arrange) winter activities.
Even though there are towns on Lake Baikal which are superior when it comes to scenic views, I was highly impressed when I walked out of the hotel and crossed the street towards the lakeside.
There is just something special when looking over the sheer emptiness and massive ice cover of wintertime Lake Baikal.
Lake Baikal is the 7th largest freshwater lake in the world in terms of surface area (bigger than all the North American Great Lakes combined), and the largest in the world when it comes to volume, containing just under a quarter of all fresh surface water on planet Earth. This is because of its depth – with the deepest point being measured at 1,642 metres (5,387 feet).
When looking over the vast ice sheet from the lakeshore I almost felt like I was walking outside some Antarctic research centre. This certainly was one of the most unique places I had ever visited. The first steps I took on the Baikal ice sheet is a travel memory which I will not easily forget.
Even though it should be equally impressive to see in summer, there is something special about the lake in wintertime. Each winter, the entire lake freezes over. The ice is so thick that locals even drive across it from one shore to the other. I was lucky that it was a lovely sunny day when I arrived in Listvyanka.
Even the temperatures were quite good at just -20 degrees Celsius. Weirdly, it did not feel all too cold when walking away from the lake, where I could easily walk for minutes in a row without gloves. In the sheltered valley away from the lake, the weather was actually rather pleasant due to the strong sun.
However, this was not the case when stepping on the lake’s ice sheet. Due to the vast surface area of Lake Baikal, the already cold wind can move unobstructed across the flat expanses of ice, making it even colder.
I barely managed to take off my gloves even for a few seconds to snap a quick picture while standing on the ice, even though I had no problems doing the exact same thing a few metres away inland. It just felt like my hands would freeze off instantly.
What to wear?
Needless to say, you are advised to dress up well for the cold before going outside. Wearing layered clothing is more important than the sheer thickness.
In general, I was absolutely comfortable being dressed in a special thermo shirt, a normal white t-shirt over it, a sweater, and a good winter jacket, as well as some normal jeans with underneath it some thermo pants. A good scarf and a warm hat to protect your ears and chin are also advisable.
Listvyanka basically exists out of a lakeside strip and a valley running inland from the lake. The buildings along the lakeside road are the most modern in town. You will find the main hotels here, as well as a small market, a bank, some shops and a few restaurants.
If you however walk away from the lake and head into the valley, you will find the older part of Listvyanka. As the valley is a natural shelter against the winter winds coming from the lake, this is where most locals prefer to live.
Many still do so in old wooden dachas, which looked adorable in the winter snow. This part of town, which includes the local church, is absolutely worth it to explore.
Dog sledding centre
One of the activities really high on my to-do list has always been dog sledding. According to my old Lonely Planet guidebook to Russia and Google Maps, there was a dog sledding centre somewhere in Listvyanka valley, so I decided to check it out.
The dog sledding centre is run by a very welcoming father and son. Even though they spoke limited English and I did not arrange any tour in advance through my hotel or a Lake Baikal tour agency, I was able to negotiate a short ride of about an hour through the nearby forest.
The centre also offers multiple-day tours through the Siberian wilderness, but do note that such tours do not come cheap. Even though prices will be a bit lower than you would find in Scandinavia or Canada, it is still an expensive activity due to the sheer costs the family needs to make to feed and shelter their pack of dogs. They were both passionate about their dogs and seem to take care of them very well.
Time to ride!
Dog sledding turned out to be as much fun as I thought. It might not seem very fast if you observe from a distance, but believe me, once you sit down on the sleigh and the dogs speed up it is fast. Also because you sit on the sleigh so close to the ground, the speed effect seems to increase.
At our halfway point inside the Siberian taiga, we switched places and I could steer the sleigh while standing while my guide sat down in the sleigh – yet another amazing experience. I can highly recommend it!
Do however note that you really need to dress up well before sitting down on the sleigh. When you ride at speed you are more exposed to the cold wind and being seated so low to the ground generally makes you feel much colder compared to just walking around town!
After the ride, the father invited me to have a look inside his shed. It turned out that he has his own armoury where he makes weapons in the same way as they did back in Medieval times!
It was fascinating to hear his stories and to see some of the objects he made, which ranged from Russian swords to Mongolian-style helmets. Apparently he also uses some of them in historical re-enactments!
Walking to the source of the Angara
Next up, my plan was to walk back to the lakeside and walk along the main road for a few kilometres in the direction of Irkutsk. Just a few miles out of Listvyanka is the source of the Angara river, which basically drains Lake Baikal. The Angara river itself flows eventually into the Yenisei river, which in turn runs all the way to the Arctic Ocean.
As the Angara never freezes, I though it might be a scenic spot to see the contrast between frozen Lake Baikal and the blue river waters. The walk to the source was highly scenic and there are some excellent spots along the way to take pictures of the frozen lake.
Angara River source
It took a while to arrive at the source of the Angara due to the fact that the pavement was covered in a big layer of snow which made walking difficult. Instead, I opted to walk on the main road, although I had to be careful for passing traffic.
Once I finally reached the source I was however happy to have walked here all the way as the views were indeed gorgeous. It is quite a contrast to see the frozen lake and the free-flowing river. Apparently, the Angara does not freeze because it is the unfrozen water at the bottom of the lake which drains out first into the river!
The way back to Listvyanka turned out to be much faster than my walk to the source of the Angara river as I got the brilliant idea to walk on the frozen lake instead of the snowy pavement at the side of the road. Why didn’t I think of this at an earlier stage!
Once back in Listvyanka the sun was slowly setting. Even though I was absolutely freezing by this time, I decided to stay out a bit longer. It turned out to be a great decision as the sunset was absolutely magnificent. Seeing the sun set on the frozen wasteland of Lake Baikal definitely makes my top five travel experiences to date so far. I literally had goosebumps all over my body – it was that spectacular.
There is just something special about the sheer remoteness and vastness of the place which plays a role in the way how I perceived the entire moment. It was just pure magic.
Caviar and fish
I opted for dinner out of the hotel and found a local restaurant nearby (Berg House Cafe Bar), which turned out to be completely empty. The host was very welcoming and provided me with an English-language menu. I opted for some caviar as a starter, followed by borscht (Russian beetroot soup) and grilled omul (a Lake Baikal fish).
It was by no means haute cuisine but rather the style of cooking you would find at your own grandmother’s house. Needless to say, that meant it all tasted great. The food and beers went down well after such a long day out in the cold!
As there isn’t really anything to do at night in Listvyanka – I just bought a few beers at a local shop and retreated back to my hotel room. After an entire day out in freezing temperatures, nothing really beats a warm bath while downing a cold one!
Second day in Listvyanka
We all have such moments during our travels that the entire schedule and general tiredness gets the better hand of us. This was unfortunately my situation on this second day at Lake Baikal. Originally, I planned to see some of the spectacular ice formations.
This would however require an arranged tour by car to a place further down the lake as due to the snowfall in the last few days much of the ice around Listvyanka was all covered with snow.
In the end, I just was too tired from the heavy travel schedule of the last few days to bother with this and preferred to sleep in for a while longer in the morning. When I finally left my room around noon, I only had some four hours left until sunset, which did not leave me with much time to do anything.
I opted for a casual stroll on the frozen lake and perhaps get a beer somewhere in town. Needless to say, the views over the lake were again amazing even though the sky was cloudy today and the temperatures much colder than the day before.
In the far distance I could see some parked cars on the ice and some people doing some work, so I decided to check it out. It turned out to be some locals cutting huge chunks of ice with chainsaws out of the frozen lake to create some massive ice blocks and some ice statues.
Ice skating on Lake Baikal
A few feet further away the locals had also created a large ice rink by blocking off an area of the lake with ice blocks and sweeping the snow away. As it has been quite some years the last time I skated, I asked around if I could rent some ice skates somewhere.
Just like cycling, ice skating is just something you never unlearn – and Lake Baikal is definitely a fun spot to skate for a while.
To the pub
I didn’t stay out on the ice for too long as it was absolutely freezing cold today due to the cloud cover and strong wind.
As the town of Listvyanka is quite spread out and I didn’t feel like walking around for too long, I checked Google Maps where I could find the nearest pub to warm up.
I managed to find an underground dive which seemed to be completely deserted except for some local teenagers – who turned out to be actually running the place.
Unfortunately, the beer came in plastic cups. On the plus side, it was dirt cheap (around 1 EUR) and the local boys were happy to practice their English and to serve me another pint after finishing my first.
A last Baikal sunset
An hour and two cold beers later I was fully warmed up again. As it was almost sunset I decided to walk back over the ice to the hotel, hoping that there might be a sunset as beautiful as the day before.
Even though it didn’t look too promising in the beginning due to the clouds, it soon turned out that I was wrong and I was in for yet another treat.
When I was nearing my hotel, it did became quite spectacular again. While the day before the sunset was more of a classical one with a clear blue sky which turned into all kinds or orange and red colours, today the cloud cover meant that the sunset did mainly exist out of purple and blue colours.
Naturally, most people would choose to visit Lake Baikal in summer as the weather is warm and pleasant at the time. Just the thought of spending winter in Siberia, let alone walking onto the frozen surface of Lake Baikal, might not be something which appeals to many people. I however think it is perhaps the best time to visit this natural wonder.
There is just something amazing to see the vast surface of Lake Baikal being completely frozen over. The entire sight does certainly rank among my own favourite travel memories. Sure, the weather is freezing cold, but it is not as bad as it sounds like. If you dress up smartly wearing multiple layers of clothing, you can easily spend almost the entire day outside enjoying all the sights and activities.
Listvyanka itself is a perfect spot for this. With frequent bus departures to and from Irkutsk, it is the easiest place on Lake Baikal to access. It is also the place which is most popular among local Russian tourists and which therefore offers the most winter activities.
From dog sledding to ice fishing to 4WD or hovercraft rides over the lake, there are many possibilities. I loved every single bit of my Lake Baikal experience and would gladly come back – whether it is in winter or in summer.
Trip report index
This article is part of the ‘Siberian Shuffle – A Crazy Winter Trip Around Eurasia‘ trip report, which consists of the following chapters:
1. Review: Wizz Air Bucharest to Oslo Sandefjord Torp (Airbus A321)
2. A Day in the Norwegian Capital of Oslo
3. Review: Norwegian Railways Night Train Oslo-Stavanger in a Private Sleeper
4. Review: Radisson Blu Royal Hotel, Stavanger
5. Stavanger – A Great Norwegian City Trip Surprise
6. Review: North Sea Lounge Stavanger Airport
7. Review: KLM Cityhopper Business Class Stavanger to Amsterdam (Embraer RJ-175)
8. Guide to the Carnival Celebrations in the Netherlands
9. Review: KLM Crown Lounge (Schengen) Amsterdam Airport
10. Review: Air France Business Class Amsterdam to Paris (Airbus A319)
11. Review: ‘Salon Paris’ Business Class Lounge Paris CDG Terminal 2C
12. Review: Aeroflot Business Class Paris to Moscow (Airbus A320)
13. Review: Aeroflot Domestic Business Class Lounge Moscow Sheremetyevo
14. Review: Aeroflot Domestic Business Class Moscow to Irkutsk (Boeing 737-800)
15. Review: Matreshka Hotel, Irkutsk
16. Irkutsk Trip Report: Exploring the ‘Paris of Siberia’ in Winter
17. Review: Mayak Hotel, Listvyanka (Lake Baikal)
18. A Winter Trip to the Frozen Wonderland of Lake Baikal (current chapter)
19. Review: Ibis Irkutsk Center Hotel, Irkutsk
20. Review: Domestic Business Class Lounge Irkutsk Airport
21. Review: Aeroflot Domestic Business Class Irkutsk to Moscow (Boeing 737-800)
22. Review: Pushkin Hotel, Moscow
23. A 24 Hour Stopover in the Russian Capital of Moscow
24. Review: ‘Moscow’ and ‘Jazz’ Business Lounges Moscow Sheremetyevo Terminal D
25. Review: Aeroflot Business Class Moscow to Paris (Airbus A320)
26. Review: TAROM Business Class Paris to Bucharest (Airbus A318)
27. Review: TAROM Business Lounge Bucharest Otopeni Airport
28. Review: Air France Business Class Bucharest to Paris (Airbus A320)
29. A Short Overnight Stopover in Paris
30. Review: Sheltair Business Lounge Paris CDG Terminal 2D
31. Review: Azerbaijan Airlines Business Class Paris to Baku (Airbus A320)
32. Review: Old City Hotel and Apartments, Baku, Azerbaijan
33. Destination Baku: An Intriguing Mix Between Old and New
34. Guide: Train Travel in Azerbaijan
35. Sheki: Azerbaijan’s Most Lovely Town and Springboard to the Caucasus
36. Must Be the Ganja! A Visit to the City of Ganja in Azerbaijan
37. Review: Shah Palace Hotel, Baku, Azerbaijan
38. Review: Azerbaijan Airlines Business Lounge Baku Airport
39. Review: Azerbaijan Airlines Business Class Baku to Paris (Airbus A320)
40. Review: Air France Business Lounge Paris CDG Terminal 2F
41. Review: KLM Business Class Paris to Amsterdam (Boeing 737)
42. Review: KLM Business Class Amsterdam to Bergen (Boeing 737)
43. Blissful Bergen – Is It Really Norway’s Most Beautiful City?
44. Review: Bergen to Oslo on a Norwegian Intercity Train (Bergensbanen Railway)
45. The Flamsbana Railway – From the Myrdal Mountains to the Fjord at Flam
46. Review: SAS Economy Class Oslo to Brussels (Boeing 737-600)
47. Review: Diamond Lounge Brussels Airport Pier B Non-Schengen
48. Review: TAROM Economy Class Brussels to Bucharest (Boeing 737-800)