Situated on the River Angara, it soon took off as trading centre on
the busy route between Europe and the Orient, gaining notoriety for its
rough-around-the-edges reputation. As silk and tea headed west, Russian
furs and a steady stream of convicts headed for Siberian work camps
went east.

Into this heady mix a group of political prisoners known as the
Decembrists — exiled to Siberia for their part in an uprising against
Tsar Nicholas I — arrived in 1844. These aristocratic and educated men,
often joined by their wives and families, set about introducing law and
order and a degree of gentility to the fledgling city. By the time gold
was discovered in the 1880s, Irkutsk was known as the Paris of Siberia.

These days much of the city’s wealth has departed to the big smoke
of Moscow, but it retains an eclectic and cosmopolitan feel thanks to
the students of its 11 universities. In the chilly morning air, the
silhouetted skyline reveals a handsome city of surprising size and

The streets are lined with traditional wooden houses, lopsided and
ramshackle, rubbing shoulders with stark Soviet blocks, chichi
boutiques and grandiose squares. But, like most travellers who break
their Trans-Siberian journey here, I haven’t come to see Irkutsk.
Instead I’m bound for the village of Listvyanka, an hour’s drive away
through birch-scented taiga, on the shore of Lake Baikal.

If you didn’t know there was a very big lake in Siberia, Lake Baikal
comes as quite a surprise. At 640km long, 80km wide and 1620m deep, not
only is it the world’s biggest lake, it holds a massive 20 per cent of
the world’s fresh water. Put another way, that’s the entire contents of
all five of America’s Great Lakes

Formed 25-30 million years ago, Lake Baikal scars Russia’s
continental shelf like a knife wound. The opposite shores are still
pulling apart today, and dozens of tiny earthquakes shake the region
each week. The lake’s limpid waters are dizzyingly clear thanks to its
oxygen-rich ecosystem. Thermal springs bubbling up from the depths
support myriad aquatic life, including tiny crayfish that gobble up any
foreign matter so effectively that visibility is 40-50m.

Standing on a jetty gazing into the vertiginous depths is akin to a
chemically-enhanced experience. The water looks oily as it interrupts
your refracted vision. Back in the real world, the lake is home to an
astonishing array of wildlife, up to 80 per cent of which is endemic to
the region. Perhaps the most charming residents, are the nerpa — the
world’s only freshwater seals, delightfully bulbous creatures with huge
bottle-top eyes.

On dry land, the lake’s foreshore is dominated by rocky outcrops and
coniferous forest roamed by lemming, elk, wolverine and the brown bear.
Larch, birch and alder trees gradually give way to cedar, fir and
spruce forests, which in turn thin out to jagged mountain ranges fading
hazily into the horizon.

Visit in summer and the azure waters offer endless opportunities for
swimming and hiking amid astounding natural beauty. In winter the lake
freezes over, and the 1m-thick ice provides an epic playground for
skating, skiing and dog sledding, set against a pure white backdrop of
snow-capped mountains and silent forests.

It’s no surprise the indigenous Buryat people consider Lake Baikal
to be sacred — or that modern Russians flock here to their summer
houses, or dacha, in the holiday season. It certainly earns its
nickname, the Pearl of Siberia.

» Claire Goodall travelled with On The Go Tours (020-7371 1113; ). Trips on the Trans-Siberian railway, including time at Lake Baikal, start from £949.

A Slice of Siberia

Out and about

It’s all about the great outdoors at Lake Baikal. Listvyanka is a
charming fishing village strung out along the lake’s shore, and it’s
here most of the restaurants, accommodation and tourist activities are
based. A ferry runs from Listvyanka across the mouth of the Angara —
which, as the only river to drain Lake Baikal, never ices over — to
Port Baikal all year round.

From there the Circum-Baikal Railway runs scenically around the
south of the lake clinging to its shoreline. The 39 tunnels and 200
bridges make for a thrilling ride. Trains run every couple of days,
though the route also makes a pleasant hike.

Back in Listvyanka, the museum at the Limnological Institute is
worth a look. As well as maps illustrating the region’s geology there
are specimens of the lake’s many species and an aquarium fed by water
from the lake itself, which is home to two rescued nerpa seals.

Also on the museum trail, the open-air Taltsy Museum of Wooden
Architecture, located between Irkutsk and Listvyanka, has a collection
of traditional Siberian buildings. There you can see examples of the
wooden homesteads built by Siberia’s first settlers, and how the
indigenous Buryat people — nomads like their Mongolian neighbours —
lived in circular wooden ‘yurts’.

Fun in the sun

Given the lack of infrastructure in the region and the temperamental
weather, it’s easy to get ‘trapped’ in Listvyanka sauntering along the
lakeside promenade and hiking the forest trails. The summertime ferry
and hydrofoil services operate from here, so there’s no excuse not to
see a bit more of the area, perhaps up towards Olkhon Island.

More determined adventurers should make tracks for the national
parks on the lake’s eastern shore, or the taiga in the north, just
aching to be explored. Alternatively, spend a pleasant day sailing or
kayaking on the lake — perhaps spot a nerpa seal or two and check out
Olkhon Island, sacred to the local shamans.

Swimming in the lake is an awesome experience thanks to the water’s
astonishing transparency (be warned it’s chilly). Some swimmers even
experience vertigo. With the visibility in the lake 40-50m, it’s an
ideal spot for scuba diving. Several diving outfits operate out of
Listvyanka, offering the chance to see the underwater topography and a
menagerie of aquatic life. In theory, you can do this all year round, with holes in the ice kept open for divers throughout winter.

Sold on the cold

Don’t fancy dipping a toe in 3˚C water? There are plenty of other
activities geared up for the harsh winter weather. When the lake is
frozen it’s perfectly safe to walk on — even drive across — and several
slipways lead down from the lakefront at Listvyanka.

A small area is cleared to make an ice-skating rink, and adrenaline
junkies can hire snowmobiles to zip across the ice at breakneck speeds.
Ice fishing expeditions are also popular, if only to stand on the edge
of the ice and stare into the depths of the crystal clear lake. Even if all you do is slip-slide onto the surface for an amble as
the sun sets, there are intricate wave formations and shards of ice
etched into the frozen lake providing endless opportunities for
ethereal photography.

Away from the lake, the snow-silent taiga provides a Narnia
landscape to be explored, whether on skis, behind a team of huskies or
from the back of a troika (horse-drawn sled). There’s a ski slope
behind Listvyanka, though cross-country or alpine skiing is a more
popular choice.

A dog sledding company operates out of the village. With all that
activity to get you chilled to the marrow of your soul, thank heaven
for the banya — a Russian sauna. This Siberian treat involves a lengthy
session steam roasting, a good belting with birch twigs to purge your
skin, and cups of sweet black tea.