When travelling with the Trans Siberian Express, a visit to the Lake Baikal is mandatory, even if you don’t have more than a few days to spend at this stop. The best option to do this is to hop off the train at Irkutsk.
Unless you want to spend days exploring Irkutsk, a perfect itinerary would be to head towards Listvyanka with a bus the same day you have arrived in Irkutsk, and spend the night by the Lake Baikal.
Getting to Listvyanka from Irkutsk takes a bit longer than one hour, and you have multiple options to do this. The most expensive one is taking a taxi directly from the train station (there are a lot of taxi drivers offering transfer in front of the train station), or you can go with a commercial shuttle bus which usually only departs when the bus gets filled (also leaving from the train station). But if you’re on a budget like me, and want to have a stroll in Irkutsk first, the cheapest option is to use the public bus service, which departs from the main bus station (“Avtovokzal”, it can be found at the northern end of Timiryazeva street in Irkutsk).
When you have arrived in Listvyanka, dare yourself and take a dip in the ice cold Baikal lake (of course this is only possible in the summertime), which is the largest freshwater lake by volume in the world, containing 22% of the world’s fresh surface water, home to the Nerpa, the only fresh water seal species in the world.
Depending on when you have arrived, you might want to spend the night in Listvyanka. There are a plethora of apartments and rooms around – almost every house offers some kind of accommodation – but because of the popularity of the place among local Russians, you must book in advance!
Hike to Bolshie Koty on the amazing Great Baikal Hiking Trail. Getting to Bolshie Koty from Listvyanka takes around 5 hours, so you have to start early in the morning if you want to return the same day, but there are buses departing from Bolshie Koty back to Irkutsk as well. You can find perfect camping spots quite frequently along the trail if you have a tent and wish to spend the night under the starry sky of Siberia.
Be cautious, especially if you are travelling alone, as you are in bear country. Although the chances of encountering a bear around this area is really low because of the surrounding settlements, but better be safe than sorry, try to make some noise, like clapping, whistling or singing every now and then. Bears are generally timid animals that try to avoid contact with humans, unless being approached unnoticeably.
If you want to spend more than one day hiking around the lake and go further than Bolshie Koty up North, I recommend to check the official site of the Great Baikal Hiking Trail for more information.
The hiking trail starts in Listvyanka, at the end of the town. It has two parallel routes, one which goes next to the lake and one higher above in the forest.
The lower trail is much more picturesque, but on the other hand it can be alarmingly steep and dangerous at some parts, where the trail is extremely narrow with a deep drop off side, so I only recommend this for more experienced hikers in a relatively good condition.
Villages around the Baikal lake are famous for their delicious smoked fish.
Listvyanka also has a small market where old babushkas are selling the locally smoked fresh fish, bread and pickled cucumbers which make up a perfect meal.
My recommendation would be to try to avoid staying in Listvyanka on the weekends in the summer time, as it turns into a super busy, noisy tourist trap swarmed by families and tipsy youngsters from Irkutsk.
Apart from the natural beauty of the misty landscape and the lake, don’t expect a high-end experience in Listvyanka, it is a small and simple holiday town where mainly locals from Irkutsk come to have a break and a breathe of the cold fresh Baikal breeze, but it is a perfect starting point for a shorter or longer adventurous hike along the lake.