Ride Report: Russia, Baikal Lake

An adventurous horse riding holiday starting in Irkutsk where we drive to the shores of Baikal Lake and ride on Orlov cross horses through the Tazheran forest-steppes.


An adventurous horse riding holiday starting in Irkutsk where we drive to the shores of Baikal Lake and ride on Orlov cross horses through the Tazheran forest-steppes.

Stunning Lake Baikal
Stunning Lake Baikal

Unicorn Trails clients Ingrid and Victoria went on our Russian Baikal Lake Trip, they also added the Moscow & Trans-Siberian extension to the adventure. Here is a detailed report from Ingrid.

First stop – MOSCOW

Victoria and I arrived a few days before the rest of the group. We met them on Saturday evening and were taken for a cruising trip. The cruise was nice and a good opportunity to get to know everyone. It lasted for about 2.5 hours and allows you to see most of the Moscow sights from the river, at night.

On Sunday morning we met at 8am at one of the hotels where most of the group was staying for the Moscow visit. Unfortunately it wasn’t brilliantly organised by the guide and we only managed to see very little from the city (Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Red Square/GUM, Zariady Park). Then it was off to the station to catch the train.

Next – TRANS-SIBERIAN RAILWAY EXTENSION (Sunday 1.50pm – Thursday 6am)

Be prepared for a long train ride! It is long, very long.

The bunks are very basic but ok, 4 persons per bunk, and you are provided with clean sheets, one (small) towel & slippers.

There is a restaurant aboard the train. Victoria and I did not actually go, we managed with the supplies we got from the supermarket in Moscow and then we were able to buy food during the longer stops of the train. I understand the restaurant was not great, often the food was cold and not fresh – worth considering if you plan on adding this extension to your trip. In the various wagons, you can buy from a small selection of minute noodles or similar, chocolate, biscuits, crisps. When the train stops for 20 minutes or longer (there is a schedule with all the stops and their duration in each wagon), you can get off the train and there are small shops where you can buy food and drinks from (buns, sandwiches, minute noodles or mashed potatoes, crisps, snacks, ice cream etc.). Locals also come to the station with fresh stuff (fruits, vegetables, fish, meat, etc.). There is a samovar (a Russian kettle) in each wagon, with boiling water. It is a good idea to bring a mug with you, and supplies for coffee/tea.

Worth noting that there are only two toilets per wagon and no showers.

I actually enjoyed the train experience, I found it contemplative, being forced to boredom somehow. Make sure you bring books, or a charged device with films downloaded. The train was a good opportunity to get to know some of the others. You get to speak to people, you sleep and read and eat and kind of loose notion of time.

Finally on to Baikal Lake

Arrival in Irkoutsk

At the train station we were welcomed by the Ivan, who was the interpreter for the whole trip. He has a very good English, he is extremely knowledgeable about his region, the way of life and is also a lovely person. We set off to the Baikal Lake, the drive was about 4 hours long.

Arrival in Baikal Lake

Baikal IV 6We were greeted by Olga, who was one of the two guides of the trek. We settled in our rooms, very basic but comfortable. The guesthouse is just by the lake (a few hundred steps to get to the beach), has wifi only in the main area. It is made of one main house where we had our meals, and another house where the rooms are. Victoria and I shared a bathroom with two other group members (no en-suite rooms).

We had a shower (long awaited!), lunch and in the afternoon we set off for the test ride and to get acquainted with the horses.

The guesthouse is located on the western shore of the lake, facing the Olkhon Island.

First ride and our horses

The horses very kind and affectionate
The horses very kind and affectionate

The first ride took place on the Thursday afternoon. We were assigned the different horses by Olga and Anton (the two tour leaders) according to our riding experience. Mostly grey horses, extremely gentle and quite, they know their job very well.  They were super well taken care of, Anton and Olga spoilt them, social horses who love to be cuddled and taken care of. My horse, Sensei was gentle and a lot of fun.

The tack was good, too. (After seeing the Kazakh tack anything will do!) The saddles were local trek saddles, comfortable. It is worth taking waist or backpack as there may not be saddle bags available for your belongings.

The test ride was about two hours long, we went around the village where the guesthouse was. Anton and Olga checked that we were all comfortable with the horses and we had a short trot and canter. Olga and Anton are super nice, friendly and fun and tried their best despite the language barrier. They were very excited to be welcoming groups of foreigners and keen to learn more about us and more English, too.  Ivan (the interpreter) was not with us during the rides, but he was there the whole time at camp.

Olkhon Island

Shaman prayer flags
Shaman prayer flags

The Friday was dedicated to a day-trip to the breathtakingly beautiful Olkhon Island, known as the heart of the Baikal Lake. We were greeted at the guesthouse in the morning by a Russian-speaking guide called Natasha, she was very knowledgeable about the area and the island, she knew everything and would answer any question. A very sweet woman, a little bit shy at the beginning but she really made it a cool day. Ivan was with us and did a super job interpreting her. We took a boat and set off to discover the Island, known for its Shamanism traditions. We stopped in the high spot of Shamanism, which was beautiful, and then continued towards the North of the Island. We drove almost up to the North  (nearly 70 kms) and stopped along the way for sights (mostly beaches and breathtaking landscapes) and for lunch. Natasha told us the various legends along the way. All the roads are dirt roads and towards the North they became quite steep and scary, typically the kind of stuff one would not do if not on a holiday and feeling invincible 😉

We got back to the guesthouse at the end of the day, had dinner and an early night.

Saturday morning

In the morning we were taken by Natasha and Ivan on a boat to one very small island, another high place of Shamanism. The trip lasted about 3 hours and was pleasant. We all walked three times around the temple on the island for good fortune.

In the afternoon we set off for the actual trek.

Horse trek

Our first ride
Our first ride

Before setting off for the trek, we were given a 70 litre dry bag that was to include all the stuff needed for the 6 days-ride. In it we had to fit the mats provided to us (yoga-like mats, not very thick and comfortable so you might want to bring your own inflatable mat) our sleeping bags, and clothes and other toiletries. The bags were big enough so space was not an issue and we all had enough supplies. The rest of our stuff was left in our traveling bags and would be brought to the guesthouse where we would end the trip. I was not worried about safety of the stuff but you may wish to bring a lock for your belongings.

Warm clothes are essential – even in August, temperatures were around 20 degrees at daytime, but whenever there was wind it felt colder. Good rain gear is also a must!

The Team: the team was made of Olga and Anton, the two guides, Ivan, the interpreter, the cook and two young boys who, if I understood well, were somehow related to the company’s owners and who were there to help out at camp. A driver would come everyone morning to pick all the stuff up and bring it to the next camp. Everyone was very friendly and trying their best to make sure we had a good time.

Day 1 – We set off on the Saturday afternoon for the trek. The first day ride was actually a half day, we rode up the shore but stayed in what they call the “Small Sea” area. The ride was easy but quite long and after about 4 hours we reached camp.

A typical camp meal set up
A typical camp meal set up

The camp and our tents were all ready when we got there. Fresh tea and coffee was served every time we got off our horses. Anton and Olga took care of the horses, we usually helped them untack, water the horses (always in the lake), get them settled for the night (the horses spent the night attached to a rock or a tree with a very long rope that gave them enough leeway while preventing them from getting too close to each other).

The tents were single (except for one couple, they shared a bigger tent). Victoria and I each had our own little tent, which was perfect. Dinner was served at around 7.30/8pm, always very tasty and varied. There was meat at all meals except for vegetarians (many of the vegetarians meals were with eggs). Quantities were never huge, but we all had enough to eat. We all slept well.

Day 2 – after the first night camping, breakfast was served around 7.30am (juices, tea/coffee and always something warm to eat) and we set off around 9/9.30am. Olga and Anton were getting the horses ready, some of us helped them brushing and tacking up but once again, this was not compulsory.

We set off towards the South, directed towards the Open Baikal Lake and away from the Small Sea. On that day we started seeing the proper steppe, away from civilization, cars and noises. In total the ride was about 5/6 hours, mostly walk and a few stretches trotting or cantering. Olga and Anton were very prudent with the group, they did not want to take any risks with the riders. Not everyone had the same riding ability, it was quite a diverse group and most of the riders were quite happy walking. Anton and Olga accommodated some canters/gallops from time to time for myself, Victoria and Emma. The “slower” riders would set off trotting or at light canter with Olga, and the three of us would wait and then catch up with Anton.

In the evening we reached a stunning bay where we were to stay for 2 nights. The camp was already set, and after helping untacking the horses and watering them, we were offered some tea/coffee/juices and snacks.

Taking the horses for a swim
Taking the horses for a swim

Olga and Anton offered to swim with the horses. I followed suit but the other ones felt a little bit cold. We had a lot of fun, the horses are extremely well-mannered and gentle and showed us a good time.

On that camp there were 2 toilets (one male, one female) shed in wood. The lake temperature must have been around 13-14 degrees, I had a swim and a wash but it was extremely cold. The team also had a shower tent available and one could, on request, be provided with warm water for a wash, hair included!

Day 3 – the previous day Olga explained us, through Ivan, that day 3 was either a rest day, staying at camp and enjoying the lake and the bay for those who wanted a day-off riding.

Or, for the others, an excursion to some caves was proposed. The caves were 2h30 riding away which is longer than we were originally told, so Victoria and I decided to have our lunch rather than taking the tour. The others who went in the caves had lunch when finishing the tour, and after a while we got back on the horses and went back to the camp.

We all thought the day riding would be shorter but in the end it was quite long… We were back at camp around 5pm. We had a chance to swim with the horses again, Emma and Victoria joined me that day, a lot of fun again.

The horses enjoying some free time
The horses enjoying some free time

Day 4 – like all mornings, breakfast was served around 7.30pm and we set off around 9pm. Day 4 was quite a long ride (5/6 hours riding). We paused for lunch in a shepherds’ village in the middle of nowhere. That was the day we got to experience the Siberian rain. We were taken to see some ancient rock paintings (under the pouring rain) and at the end of the day we reached camp. This was probably the most beautiful setting of all camp spots. We were camping not far away from the lake, at the crossroads between river and lake, a swampy area with beautiful colours and such a peaceful spot. The place was stunning. The horses were let free and went in the water on their own to graze some water grass. We had quite a few showers in the evening, but got to try out the group tent that was set up. The tent was a blessing that evening, we had dinner inside and spent the evening there. I must say that all tents were of high quality, because despite the heavy rain we all slept on dry floors!

Day 5 – the day ride took us through steppes but also through more forest-like landscapes. The day was quiet, easy-going ride even though we must have been in the saddle for a good 5 hours. The camp for the end of the day was once again set in a beautiful bay with an easy access to the lake. We were not alone in the bay, a large family had settled down obviously for the summer, harvesting hay and they had a camp by the lake. Ivan and the team hence decided to set the camp higher up on the hill, with a lovely view. We had a swim with the horses once again, always a lot of fun despite the cold waters. A few of us helped Anton and Olga take care of the horses, watering them end finding them the perfect spot for the night… Dinner was served as usual

Day 6 – We set off in the morning as usual. After about 2 hours riding, maybe more, we stopped and got off the horses. We had lunch and then walked down a steep path to reach the shore. Once by the water we were surrounded by beautiful cliffs and were able to observe fragments of ancient rock drawings, plenty of them really well preserved. Olga explained some of the drawings and their history. She also told us one of the many tales around the Baikal Lake and its legends (Olga was quite fond of tales!), and we ended up looking for heart-shaped rocks that were a gift of the lake to its visitors (and a pretty souvenir!). We then walked back up the path, got back on the horses and rode for another 2/3 hours before reaching the lodge where we spent the very last night.

Stunning scenery and happy horses
Stunning scenery and happy horses

Upon arrival we were greeted by Ivan, we first got off the horses and took them to the lake (a good 1km walk) to water them, and then set them for the night. I must say I really appreciated the attention provided to the horses well-being by both Anton and Olga. The horses always came first, riders were welcome to help but did not have to. But the horses were extremely well looked after and taken care of.

Once the horses were settled we went to the lodge. We all got a proper bedroom with a real bed, we were able to have a hot shower and were offered snacks and tea/coffee. The lodge was very simple, power was only available at set times but it was comfortable and extremely cosy. After some time relaxing we had dinner. Then the tour manager joined us for a Russian vodka-tasting and some live music by one of their friends. This was a wonderful moment, they explained us how Russians (or rather, Siberians) drink vodka and of course we put all of that into practice. And they sang for us beautifully, Russian songs, it felt like we were in a movie and it was a moving moment and a beautiful last evening together.

They had also prepared the banja (Russian sauna), a few of us went in and Anton joined us to explain and show us how Russians do it, with the whole routine that has to be respected. It was a lot of fun and a good way to relax.

Day 7 – Time to say goodbye. We set off really early in the morning after breakfast. Ivan came with us until the airport but it was time to say goodbye to Anton and Olga. A few tears were shed, those two are a great team and they took care of us and made sure everyone was happy. They showed us proper Siberian hospitality, good spirits and great knowledge of their region.

Baikal IV 10To conclude:

I had a wonderful time on Baikal Lake. The area is absolutely beautiful and as soon as you get away from the various settlements around Orkhon, you have that “alone in the world” feeling that, I guess, we all kind of crave for when choosing those destinations. The camps were always set in breathtakingly beautiful bays, with possibility to go for a swim (with or without the horses) and we fell asleep with the sound of waves, which was magical.

The horses were amazing – extremely gentle, very well educated and so trustworthy. Mine was also quite cuddly and cute, which always helps!

The team went out of their way to make sure we were comfortable and happy. Ivan, the interpreter, was fantastic and very knowledgeable. Anton and Olga were amazing, as I say, there was a slight language barrier (but after a few days they trusted themselves more and tried talking English more). I do not think they are used to foreign riders, but they were super happy to show us the region they love. The food was great, too, not easy for the vegetarians in the group though and not large quantities, but nothing worth complaining about.

All together a great trip that I would definitely recommend!

Ingrid travelled with Unicorn Trails on the Baikal Lake Trip click the link for more info.

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