Moving east from the Urals, the influence and reach of Moscow diminishes as one enters Western Siberia. Unrelenting cold, unforgiving landscape and a history of imperial exile and blizzard-lost gulags give the region a bad rap. That is why it is a real surprise to find out that Western Siberia is friendly, and has a lot to offer the passing traveller. Region is characterized by a unique combination of extreme climatic conditions, natural resources, a multi-ethnic population and contrasts in general. To travel here is to gain an insight into Siberian way of life and what’s most important - experiencing locals’ fabled hospitality.
The key to enjoying Siberia is in leaving the cities. The possibilities outside them are endless, almost as endless as Siberia, which area is about 10 million square km. Go hiking on the Great Baikal Trail, search for Standing Stones in Tuva, or go after Buryatiya’s remote Buddhist temples.
It is impossible not to mention glorious Lake Baikal, when talking about Eastern Siberia. The world’s deepest lake is surrounded by sharp mountains and amazing wildlife.
There is a legend saying that the lake’s crystal waters have miraculous properties, and that taking a swim in it prolongs one’s life. The best places to do so are sandy beaches along Olkhon Island’s shore, and Severobaikalsk shingle beach. Listvyanka is one of the most popular spots for diving.
Olkhon, Baikal’s largest island, is ideal for trekking through wilderness and camping on its dazzling cliffs and quiet and secluded bays.
Svyatoy Nos peninsula offers the most picturesque hiking trail leading to its top with breathtaking 360-degree views over the lake and its isles.
One of the most notable Baikal’s villages is Listvyanka. With its bright and cozy wooden cottages, sprawling through lakeside valleys, and stunning views, it truly is worth visiting. Picnic on the shingle beach and try smoked whitefish or shashlyk.
Between December and April, Lake Baikal freezes over, giving rise to hovercraft ice rides, ice fishing, snowmobiling and ice-biking. In Listvyanka, the Baikal Dog Sledding centre arranges dogsled rides through the winter forest. If you want to hike across the ice from the mainland to Olkhon Island, enterprising locals set up yurts on the ice, so that hikers can break up the 20km trek mid-way.
The remote Barguzin Valley – an expanse of open steppe punctuated by salt lakes, small Evenk and Buryat villages, and shamanic sites situated against the backdrop of craggy Barguzinsky Mountain range – is the eastern and the least accessible of Baikal’s shores. With a frontier feel, it rewards the adventurous undaunted by the prospect of long and infrequent bus journeys and those who relish camping in the wild.
The short, picturesque Circumbaikal Railway running between Slyudyanka and Port Baikal along Baikal’s southern tip makes a great day trip and allows you to appreciate the sheer feat of engineering that made it possible. As the steam engine chugs along the shore, barely faster than walking pace, count the number of tunnels and bridges created after years of blasting and chiselling through cliffs.