The Great Baikal Trail, Russia
In 2009 I volunteered on a project to help construct part of the Great Baikal Trail; a series of interconnected hiking trails around the world’s deepest freshwater lake in Siberia, Russia.
In this article, we will look at everything you need to know about volunteering for GBT and what it’s like to camp in the Siberian wilderness!
The Great Baikal Trail is a volunteer project to create a hiking path around Lake Baikal in Siberia.
The Great Baikal Trail is located on the shores of Lake Baikal in Siberia, far eastern Russia.
The purpose of the trail is to encourage eco-tourism and socially responsible travel in Russia.
You can check the official website for a current list of volunteer projects.
About Lake Baikal
Lake Baikal is the deepest and largest body of fresh water on the planet (by volume). It covers 31,145 kilometres squared which isn’t as big as Lake Superior or Lake Victoria in terms of surface area, but as it plunges to depths of over 1.6 km, it still holds the title for largest body of fresh water.
Baikal is also the world’s oldest lake dating back almost 25 million years. The lake is fed by up to 330 rivers with only one (the Angara) feeding out to the arctic sea thousands of kilometres to the north.
If those unique facts weren’t enough, the lake is also home to some species found nowhere else on earth such as the nerpa seal; the only freshwater seal in existence and the omul; a salmon-like fish endemic to the lake.
Baikal’s water is incredibly clear and it’s possible to see a staggering 40 metres down thanks to the epischurella baikalensis; a type of plankton that feeds on the lake’s impurities. However, it’s not all good news as factories built around the lake have harmed this unique ecosystem and continue to pose a danger.
A final impressive fact (well, maybe not so much now I come to think of it) is that the Trans-Siberian railway used to run across the ice in winter until two trains went down, sinking thousands of metres to their doom.
About my experience working on the Great Baikal Trail
After visiting Russia two years prior, I had been aching to return and see more of this vast and mysterious land. I remembered seeing a beautiful picture of Baikal in my hostel in Moscow (Napoleon Hostel) and thinking that one day I would return and visit the majestic land of Buryatia in Russia’s far east.
And so it was that after doing some research online I came across the website for the Great Baikal Trail (GBT). GBT offered two-week-long projects where volunteers would help construct or upgrade parts of the trail while living deep in the Siberian wilderness.
The work would only last a few hours each day and there would be plenty of time to hike, explore, forage for food, swim in the crystal-clear waters of Baikal and more. It didn’t take me long to sign up, and I also managed to rope in a friend of mine to come along.
The Road (or rails) to Siberia
Did you know there is a special branch line of the Trans-Siberian called the Circum Baikal Railway? It’s another great way to explore this oft-neglected part of the world.
Even back in 2009 I was an avid fan of overland travel and tried to avoid flying where possible. I spent weeks working out a way to travel the entire distance to the far east and back by train (and boat, bus, taxi etc etc).
I would be starting at home in Colchester, before moving on to London to catch the Eurostar to Brussels. A quick change to the Thalys train to Cologne and then up to Rostock where I would catch a ferry to Helsinki in Finland; a two-day sailing across the Baltic Sea.
From Helsinki I would take another boat to nearby Tallinn and then the overnight train to Moscow where I would meet up with my friend after a few days (he had work commitments). After a few days exploring Moscow we would take the legendary Trans-Siberian to Irkutsk; an 84-hour (4-day) journey.
Arriving in Irkutsk
The journey went pretty much to plan and I had an incredible few weeks crossing Europe and most of Asia. We arrived in Irkutsk in the middle of the night and were met by one of the GBT staff members who took us to our hostel. We had four hours sleep before being taken to the station to pick up our ride to Baikal; a marshrutka (minibus with a fixed route).
The four-hour journey from Irkutsk to the lake was very scenic; nothing but deep pine forest (taiga) as far as the eye could see. Eventually we caught our first glimpse of the lake and it looked like an ocean, stretching as far as the horizon.
We arrived in the tiny village of Tankhoi on the shores of Baikal and were met by another two volunteers (one of whom was a flamboyant Aussie who I sill keep in contact with and who even paid me a visit in China not long ago on his way to motorbike across northern Pakistan).
We gathered at at the Baikal Biosphere Reserve Centre and tidied up some paperwork. From the centre you could see down to the lake and in the other direction, the one we were headed, the Khamar Daban Mountains.
It was a long hike to our camp deep in the Siberian wilderness. It was tough going with all our gear, but worth every pant and drop of sweat to be walking deeper into the wild.
Arriving at the Great Baikal Trail camp
After two hours hiking up into the mountains and following the Osinovka River, we finally made it to our camp. There was a wooden hunter’s cabin, a large fire with seating and a long table under a tarpaulin. Around ten or eleven tents completed the encampment.
The camp was two or three metres above the fast-flowing river and this is where we would wash and take our water for drinking and cooking. To say that it was a little cold would be something of an understatement, but it was certainly refreshing in a heart-attack-inducing kind of way.
We were introduced to the other volunteers who were a mixture of Russians, Germans and an American. The camp was overseen by a weathered backwoodsman named Lavra who kept the fire going at night to ward of bears (unsuccessfully on one occasion).
Working on the Great Baikal Trail
The work constructing the trail was strenuous but enjoyable. Each team was assigned a different section of trail to work on and this included things like striping away undergrowth, sawing through tree trunks obstructing the path and making wooden steps.
We worked for about four or five hours per day with a long rest break for lunch. Each day a different team of two people were in charge of cooking duties.
A few days in I managed to swing my pickaxe straight into a wasp’s nest hiding in an old tree trunk and was promptly stung by about four wasps. Thankfully they seemed to be regular wasps and not the Asian giant hornets we have here in China.
First Day Off – Lake Baikal
On our first day off everyone was excited to be heading down to Baikal for our first proper loo at the lake. Many of the projects are on the lakeshore but ours was perhaps five or six kilometres away up in the mountains, so we hadn’t yet been properly acquainted with Baikal.
The hike out of the forest was fun as we followed the fast-flowing Osinovka and crossed rope bridges over large ravines. We looked out for the different flora and fauna around us and a few of the Russians managed to forage some mushrooms.
We met congregated at the reserve where we were free to do as we pleased for the day and meet back in the late afternoon. Some people opted for the banya (Russian sauna) and the four of us English speakers set off on our own to explore the lake.
Our first stop was the Tankhoi village store where we stocked up on beers and snacks before heading down to the lakeshore. There was a stony beach backed by trees that ran down to the water’s edge. Baikal’s water looked as pure and clean as we had heard and it wasn’t long before everyone was diving in for a refreshing dip.
After bathing and swimming in the freezing Osinovka every day, Baikal felt quite warm. Although we were in Siberia, famous as one of the coldest places on earth, it was August and the outside temperature was around 30 degrees Celsius.
After a fun day had around the lake we met back up at the reserve and needed to collect more supplies to take back to camp. As well as more food, we needed to bring in two new benches for the campfire, made out of long planks of wood. I shared the load of one of these with one of the German volunteers and it was a tough hike back carrying a large lump of wood!
We got a couple more days work done and the trail was starting to take shape. There was a great sense of achievement seeing what only one week ago was dense forest and now looking like a real trail.
After a couple of days, the rain set in. We had been given advance warning and told that the weather system was likely to get stuck over the mountains and last a while. All work stopped and we huddled around under the tarpaulin or taking it in turns to sit in the log cabin to warm up.
The days passed slowly with little to do. It reminded me of camping holidays in England as a child. The rustle of wet nylon and damp walks. It wasn’t altogether unpleasant, just mildly frustrating.
After three or four days the rain stopped and we were able to commence work again. I think by the end of the two-week project we had completed around 2 kilometres of trail. It might not sound much, but it was still a nice achievement.
The four of us English speakers left the camp together and made our way from Tankhoi back to Irkutsk. The Trans Siberian Railway runs next to Baikal for many kilometres on this section and the views were incredible.
My friend and I returned to Moscow on the Trans Siberian a few days later where we would meet up with the Australian again for a couple of days.
All in all the trip had taken six weeks. Two weeks in the forest, eight days on the Trans Siberian and the rest of the time travelling and exploring.
Working on the Great Baikal Trail was an experience I will hold dear for the rest of my days, and I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in eco-tourism, nature and the outdoors. For further information see the official Great Baikal Trail website.
Update January 2021! The team at GBT have just found out that they will not receive a govenment grant for the first time in their 18 year history, which jeopardises the continued great work that they do. If you are able to spare anything to help them, you can donate here.
If you would like to read more , you can get a FREE download of my book, Siberian Odyssey by subscribing to my email list below.
Looking for more places to visit in Russia? Check out this guide of 11 things to do in Russia!
Main Picture and Baikal in Winter – no copyright
Photographs of Baikal and the camp © Tim Cooke and Stephen Anthony Rohan
About the author:
Steve Rohan is a writer from Essex, England. He has travelled to over 60 countries, lived in China and Hong Kong, and is now living the digital nomad life on the road.
Steve prefers “slow travel” and has covered much of Europe and Asia by train, bus and boat.
Where I am now: Yerevan, Armenia 🇦🇲