The great Russian writer Anton Chekhov, when he came to the shores of Lake Baikal, wrote that when he arrived at the Pearl of Siberia, he realized that everything he had seen before was prose. “Everything afterward was poetry,” he wrote.
This sacred body of water really does have that sort of effect on people. Chekhov claimed that the water was so transparent that he could see some 3,500 feet down (a Russian verst), and the view of submerged rocks and mountains “plunged in the turquoise-blue” sent a shiver over him. This is certainly within reason. With 20 percent of all the unfrozen freshwater on the planet, this ancient rift lake boasts superlatives such as being the deepest, clearest, and, scientists say, the oldest lake in the world.
What’s on its shores, of course, will take one’s breath away. “The banks are picturesque,” Chekhov described. “Mountains and mountains, and dense forests on the mountains. I felt so happy that I cannot describe it. The scenery on the Angara River is like Switzerland. It is something new and original.”
The Chinese called Baikal the Great Northern Sea. Certainly for early explorers, even the Russian Cossacks who spent a lifetime riding from one end of the continent to the other, the idea that this was one huge lake boggled the mind. “It is like a mirror,” Chekhov noted. “The other side, of course, is out of sight; it is 90 kilometers away. The banks are high, steep, stony, and covered with forests; to right and to left there are promontories that jut into the sea. It’s like the Crimea.”
The lake sits in the middle of the largest landmass on Earth. Eurasia is a place so vast that it takes a train on the Trans-Siberian Railway more than a week of travel to cross. And all around the lake is the taiga. A once-impenetrable boreal forest that defined Siberia in the minds of Europeans, the taiga remains today one of the Earth’s greatest biomes. “It’s not the giant trees, nor the deathly stillness that constitutes its power and enchantment,” Chekhov noted. “Rather, it’s in that only the migrating birds know where it ends.”
As it was in Chekhov’s time, one of the brightest gems on Lake Baikal is the village of Listvyanka. Named for the larch trees that dominated the forests here, the locale has attracted tourists, scientists, and even Russia’s leaders of state for its convenient location and inspirational beauty. “This station lies at the water’s edge, and is strikingly like Yalta,” Chekhov described it. “If the houses were white, it would be exactly like Yalta.”
One of the best ways of seeing the lake is on a private cruise, and Travel All Russia has a perfect options for experiencing the wonder that is Baikal. Just remember, tradition has it that if you wash your feet in the waters of this sacred sea, it is said that five years will be added to your life. Perhaps not even Chekhov could come up with a better reason to visit this must-see world destination.