World treasure – While Baikal is attracting an increasing number of international travelers, the lake's dramatic scenery has long captured Russian hearts and minds. "Most lakes are less than 20,000 years old -- Baikal is at least 25 million years old," explains Jack Sheremetoff, a local guide. "UNESCO referred to the lake as the 'Galapagos of Russia'."
Frozen wonderland – Lake Baikal is icebound for four to five months a year. The ice becomes so thick that locals use it as a highway. The ice starts to breaks up in the south of the lake in April, as late as early June in the north.
Time-honored track – A temporary railroad was laid over the lake's thick icy crust during the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War. When the Circum-Baikal Railway, a masterpiece of engineering known as "the golden buckle on Russia's steel belt," was completed soon after, it joined lines that ran from Moscow to the Pacific coast.
Riding the rails – The Trans-Siberian is the mother of all train rides. It spans 10,000 kilometers (seven-and-a-half-days and seven time zones) between Moscow and the Pacific port of Vladivostok, and about 8,000 kilometers (six days and five time zones) between Moscow and Beijing, via Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia. Visitors to Baikal should disembark at Irkutsk.
Gateway to the lake – The self-styled "capital of eastern Siberia," Irkutsk boasts a smattering of beautiful churches (Spasskaya Church pictured), neoclassical architecture and cozy cafes. Numerous travel agencies here organize Baikal-based itineraries.
Wooden wonders – Founded by Russian settlers at the confluence of the Irkut and Angara rivers, Irkutsk first appeared on the map in the middle of the 17th century. Today the city's home to Siberia's largest collection of wooden architecture.
Laid-back Listvyanka – Listvyanka is the lake's main tourist center. A proposed multi-billion-ruble investment project named Baikal City may or may not turn the town into a major business and leisure complex over the next 20 years, complete with presidential mansions, supermarkets, an aqua park and casinos. For now, Listvyanka remains a sleepy hamlet. In early morning horses forage for food, while hardy babushkas prepare omul (a whitefish species of the salmon family) on smoking, roadside grills.
Indigenous culture – Indigenous inhabitants of the Baikal region, today the Buryats are the largest minority in Russia, mainly concentrated in the Republic of Buryatia, which extends southward from Lake Baikal's eastern shoreline. Originally shamanists, many Buryats have gradually adopted the Buddhist faith of their Mongolian neighbors.
Sacred sites – Despite the predominance of Buddhism, many vestiges of shamanism remain across Buryatia. Shamanistic sites known as ovoos attract pilgrims, who adorn nearby trees with ribbons and scraps of cloth as offerings to the spirits.
Unique fauna – Few other lakes can rival the biodiversity of Baikal -- more than 80% of the animals found here are endemic. The most famous resident of Baikal is the nerpa, or Baikal seal, thought to have originated in the Arctic Ocean over 800,000 years ago. With no natural predators, this small, earless seal has been sustainably hunted by the Buryat people for centuries, although illegal hunting may be impacting the population, which is currently estimated at 80,000-100,000 animals. Nerpas in the wild can be difficult to spot, so many visitors choose to visit "nerpinariums" in either Irkutsk or Listvyanka.