Lake Baikal in Russia has 25 percent of the freshwater resources of the world. Sixty-five percent of the Russian ecosystems are in danger. So let’s preserve what we have, and let’s take good care of nature.
— Mikhail Gorbachev —

The Siberian capital city Irkutsk

Arriving in Irkutsk

… by train

Irkutsk is a popular spot along the Trans-Siberian Railway and gateway to Lake Baikal. My journey along the Trans-Mongolian route joined the Trans-Siberian route from Ulan-Ude to Irkutsk. I described my first impressions of Lake Baikal, which I gained through the train windows, within my article on the Trans-Mongolian journey (part 2). Back then, I arrived at the train station of Irkutsk, located in a historical building from 1897 on the side of the river Angara. There are mini-buses available to get to different places within the city.

If you take these buses, try to have the appropriate change for the ticket. Back when I was traveling, the price had to be paid to the driver directly and in cash. Buses are a considerably cheaper but, of course, slower option than taxis. Moreover, try to get used to Cyrillic letters and remember the Cyrillic pronunciation and spelling of your stop. For my travel preparation, I requested some information on the closest bus stops and mini-bus line numbers from my hostel, the Rolling Stones Hostel. I recommend you doing the same kind of preparation, since bus numbers and routes might change over time, and I couldn’t find any reliable online map of the Irkutsk public transport system.

… by mini-bus or by plane

Even though the train station is probably the most common location to arrive to Irkutsk as a tourist, there are both an airport and a bus terminal available. The latter only connects to towns within the Siberian surroundings of Irkutsk and is mostly used by locals only. Besides, many mini-buses are not equipped in an easily accessible manner. As a consequence, I would not recommend using them, not even from the train station to your hotel, if you require a wheelchair or any other forms of assistance.

The airport of Irkutsk is very close to the city, only 4 km away from its center. This is why you may watch the landing planes while strolling through Irkutsk. If you depart from Irkutsk, pay attention to enter the correct terminal building. The airport consists of a domestic terminal covered by reflecting glass windows and a smaller, brightly-blue colored, international terminal. When I traveled from Irkutsk back to Germany, I had to start from the domestic terminal in Irkutsk and walk over from the domestic area to the international departures at the airport in Moscow. Back then, the international connections available from Irkutsk were, due to the city’s location, to Seoul (South Korea) and Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) only.

If you are flying in/out of Irkutsk and need any special services, you are requested to inform the ticket agent upon reservation and purchase. I couldn’t find any proper information on how to request assistance online. Therefore, a travel agent speaking the Russian language might be very helpful in such cases. In any case, I highly recommend bringing a document explaining your issues and the required help and/or medication in Cyrillic letters / Russian language. Even though I didn’t request any assistance back then, I couldn’t communicate to airport staff using English language.

Strolling through the oldest Siberian city

The city of Irkutsk is not big, though it contains beautiful churches, cool viewpoints, and other monuments. I highly recommend doing this free walking tour, which is tip based and as such the guide will most likely be very engaged. During the tour, I learned about monuments, historical facts, local culture, and spirituality. We walked around the whole city center and were recommended some restaurants for high-quality and affordable local food. Back when I did the tour, I had to reserve a spot online (without any payment, of course). This is important for the guide to know if there are any/enough people requesting it. We were a group of six, including our guide, a very good size, in my opinion.

There are different hostels or hotels available in and around Irkutsk. I highly recommend the Rolling Stones Hostel within the historic center of Irkutsk. No matter your age, this hostel combines convenience and comfort. There are both capsule-like dorm rooms and private rooms available. Moreover, the kitchen was well-equipped with some stock of pasta, oats, and spices, perfect for backpacker’s needs. Next to the hostel, there is a bar with good and cheap drinks. Upon request, the staff also arranges tours to Lake Baikal.

Exploring the Lake Baikal from Olkhon Island

Getting to Olkhon island

There are different options available to reach Olkhon island starting from Irkutsk. Obviously, the fastest (4-5 hrs) and most expensive option is a private drive by car which is around 8500 RUB. In contrary, the cheapest option (1200 RUB) is the public bus service via mini-bus taking 5-6 hours. Additionally, there are half-private mini-bus tours available with a price between the 8500 and 1200 RUB. Honestly, the price depends on where you book your spot on the mini-bus. If you organize your spot yourself, you might get the cheapest option. Booking through tour providers or the hostel might increase the costs.

The public bus departs at different times, depending on the season. I recommend taking the earliest option possible, since the bus ride will take several hours and the ferry might not be on during nighttime. No matter which type of transportation you use, they will most likely take a break at a specific roadhouse. There, you can get (traditional local) meals, drinks, and bathroom access. Considering the long ride from Irkutsk to the Olkhon island, even a small dish is delicious.

On a map, the distance from Irkutsk to Lake Baikal and even to Olkhon Island looks comparatively short. However, Lake Baikal is the deepest (1624 m), with an age of 25 million years the oldest and, moreover, the most freshwater-abundant lake on earth. It is 673 km long with a width of 82 km. Olkhon Island is by far the largest island in Lake Baikal, with an area of 730 km2. The drive from Irkutsk to Khuzhir, the capital of the Olkhon Island, is ~295 km. For as long as you are on the mainland, the street is paved but very bumpy. As soon as you are on Olkhon Island, there are no streets anymore.

Staying at Olkhon Island

On Olkhon Island, the main village, or Island capital, is Khuzhir. In and around Khuzhir, you will find the majority of sleeping options. There are some hotels available as well as family-stays. Moreover, some more tiny villages also gather sleeping options, even a camp spot. You are lucky to consider a trip to Olkhon Island in our days. Actually, Olkhon Island only has access to electricity through a high-voltage underwater cable since 2005. Before, people still had to rely on diesel generators. Within this year, they also positioned the first mobile communications antenna on the island. However, people on the island do still not have any access to running water.

I stayed in the Baikaler Rural Hostel “U Olgi”. In my case, I booked the hostel together with the mini-bus ticket. Nevertheless, I would recommend booking the accommodation and bus ticket individually, this might save you some money. At this hostel, I had a twin room with another German tourist who was on the same minibus, what a coincidence. At the hostel, we got both breakfast and dinner provided. I stayed at Olkhon Island for two nights, using the remaining hours of the first day to explore Khuzhir and the full (second) day to travel around the island on a tour.

Exploring Olkhon island


After checking in to the U Olgi Hostel, the other German girl and me went out to check out the village of Khuzhir. There are cafés, a school, little shops for souvenirs, a supermarket, and a pharmacy in town, I even recognized a disco/pub. So everything for daily life is available to avoid a trip to the mainland. The buildings are all very tiny and mostly made out of wood. Starting at the little boat-harbor of Khuzhir, we went along the coastline until we reached the Shaman Rock. The sun set while we were walking, immersing the lake and nature into stunning lights.

Shamanism is very present in both Mongolia and around the Lake Baikal region. People would most likely not call themselves to believe into Shamanism, but they still stick to one or the other Shaman practice. On Olkhon Island, I experienced a higher presence of Shamanism compared to most parts of Mongolia (except for the Gobi) and Irkutsk. Especially during dawn, people approached us offering shaman practice (for some money, of course). At the same time, many young people gathered at the coastline, chatting and listening to music while the night approached. I felt so connected to these people who decided to gather within beautiful nature instead of in front of the phone, laptop, or TV.

Tour around the northern island

My new German friend and me decided to do a tour of the northern island on the next day. Another tour was available for the southern part of the island. I picked the northern island, since the highly recommended natural spots are all located north of Khuzhir. The sights were really cool, however, we had an “interesting” experience with the other two tourists carried on the same van. We rather got into the role of relationship-therapists for those two. The major stops and sights of the tour consisted of:

  • Viewpoint close to the Shaman Rock
  • The White Cape, Mys Sagan-Khushun
  • Mys Khoboy (in impressive and nice little walk to reach the northernmost point of the island) and its Shaman context
  • Mys Shunte-Levyy

Further Options to check out around Lake Baikal

If you have either more days available or not enough time for the Olkhon Island, I recommend you checking out Listvyanka village. If you intend to spend many more days within the Lake Baikal region, you might even head off to some less accessible places around its northern and northwestern coastline. There are hiking tracks available, however, consider to be self-contained as a requirement. Moreover, the bus or taxi ride starting from Irkutsk might be more than a whole day long.

Listvyanka is only a one hour’s drive away from Irkutsk, and as such a good day trip option. At Listvyanka, the Angara river connects to Lake Baikal. Since this village is so close to Irkutsk, it offers different options for tourists. On the train, I have learned that many tourist groups head to Listvyanka for the day, sleep in Irkutsk, and then head along with the next available train along the Trans-Siberian Railway. I didn’t go to Listvyanka myself, the Olkhon Island was far more stunning that a day trip to Listvyanka could have been in any circumstances.

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