Sat 8 Jun ’13 – day 28 Circumbaikal Railway The alarm failed to go off at 06:00 hours and I awoke with a start an hour later, so rushed around to shower and finish packing before going down to check out. Ivan was waiting and helped with putting my suitcase into storage and then once I had collected my passport we were off to the station.
I bought some coke and water for the trip and boarded the diesel coach train. This was a tourist special that runs at the weekends and Real Russia had booked me a seat; it was full as I expected and as the seats were narrow it was likely to be a very uncomfortable trip. I sat next to a gent and on the other side of the table was a gent with his very pregnant wife. There were five Germans and their local guide opposite and an elderly English couple plus an American gent wearing an Arsenal baseball cap with his local guide further down the carriage.
The two coach train left on time and we spend 2¾ hours chugging along the Trans-Siberian main line to Slyudyanka, which is at the southern end of Lake Baikal. This journey was through countryside that I had imagined Siberia would be like; forested with pine trees, hills and deep valleys, with no sign of human habitation.
This stretch of track was built in the 1950’s when the Angara River dam was constructed which raised the level of Lake Baikal and resulted in flooding the original line.
Lake Baikal which is larger than Belgium contains more fresh water than all of the Great Lakes in America combined and is 1642m deep, but below the bottom of the lake the rift is another seven kilometres deep and filled with sediment. The lake which is at the joint of two tectonic plates, is getting bigger every year and at a time in the distance future it will become an ocean once the plates have moved much further apart. If every other source of fresh water on earth disappeared overnight, there is enough in the lake to supply the whole world’s population for forty years
We set off at 10:55 hours going back the way we came, so now facing forward, then the train was switched on to the old Circumbaikal tracks. This was the last stretch of the original line to be built because of the difficulties in constructing a railway line through the rocky terrain and close to the lake. Until the line was finished people used to cross Lake Baikal on ferries built in Newcastle and imported in kit form.
Although this is now a dead-end branch line, a local train makes a regular journey between Slyudyanka and Port Baikal and then back again at night, so the line is controlled exactly like any other part of the track. A lady in the uniform of a Russian railway employee stood outside her railway house / office and signalled that it was clear to proceed.
At each stop everyone got off to explore and even though this was the 2nd week in June there was still snow about in the gullies and on the north facing slopes. Walking along the tracks and through the tunnels was an interesting experience. All the commentaries were only in Russian, but one of the guides spoke English so I was able to establish how long each stop would be. Not that I had to worry as there was always a head count before the train moved on again.
Travelling along this line makes it very easy to understand why it was one of the last stretches of the original Trans-Sib to be completed and why it cost so much to build. However none of the construction is shoddy and the brickwork is still in excellent condition.
The whole area through which the tracks run, except the last couple of kilometres into Port Baikal, is the Russian equivalent of a national park and so in the vast majority of places the train provides the only access to the outside world, unless you travel by boat.
I was surprised by the number of small settlements, some with very small churches, and individual houses along the line; I was informed by the guide that some of the people are railway workers, some employed by the national park authorities, other work for the utility companies and some are fishermen. It must be a hard life especially in the winter, but all the locals I met seemed to be very happy with their lot.
Although I am sitting on the off-side of the train there are some fantastic views as we made our way along; the mountains on the eastern shore are more than thirty miles away and still have snow on the peaks.
A pre-booked lunch was served at 13:00 hours, pork in bread crumbs with rice and peppers, followed by pineapple – not bad.
At the half-way point and named literally that in Russian, there was quite a large settlement and the train stopped here for 1½ hours; a local lady off-loaded her shopping, twelve very large bags, but whether that is a weeks or months shopping I had no idea. Everyone got off to buy gifts from the stalls that the locals had erected as well as have lunch by the lakeside and eat smoked omul, a fish indigenous to Lake Baikal and which was a bit like salmon. I plan to have some tomorrow.
Once we had set off again the train had to stop at one of the few double track stretches of track to the Tsar’s Gold to pass; the passengers would have been bussed down from Irkutsk and then come over on the ferry before setting off again. The coaches were mainly SV (1st class) with a number of very posh looking restaurant cars.
At Port Baikal it was straight off the train and on to the ferry; it was a bit of a rust bucket but it did the job. Then across the mouth of the mighty Angara, the only river that leaves the lake, to the docking station on the other bank.
Ivan said that it was just a ten minute stroll from the dock to the hotel in Listvyanka so I decided not to bother with a taxi. It actually took thirty minutes at a very brisk pace and I was dripping with sweat when I finally arrived at the hotel. The main road was paved, but the road up to the hotel was just a dirt track; it was not actually a hotel despite its name, just a B&B.
I was met by the landlady and shown to my room which was in a two storey wooden extension to the main house. The room had dark flock wallpaper, with dark wooden walls and bedding, but it was warm and cosy with an en-suite which had plenty of hot water; so just the place to relax after three nights on a train.
When I unpacked I had a very pleasant surprise as I found the Lake Baikal and Mongolian guidebooks plus the map of Mongolia tucked away in an inside pocket of my rucksack. I must have put them there in Nizhny Novgorod and that just shows what happens when you don’t put things where they should be.
Tried to drop off to sleep but as it had started to rain the noise on the metal roof was enough to keep me wake. Then people started to return and a Russian domestic argument commenced in the next room.
Sun 9 Jun ’13 – day 29 Listvyanka
This is the start of week five.
I must have eventually dropped off, but was awoken at 05:00 hours by the continuing domestic next door.
My alarm went off at 08:00 hours but I just rolled over and went back to sleep. Got up ½ hour later and having showered went for breakfast – typically Russian, ham cheese, noodles, pancakes and bread. Not bad.
Having returned to my room I still felt weary after the disturbed night, so I stripped off and went back to bed. I intended that this should be a relaxing day.
I finally got up at 11:00 hours, dressed, packed what I needed for the day in to my day sack and headed off down to the main road; really the only road in town as all the others are dirt tracks.
Most of the houses are built with wood in the traditional Russian style.
It took just fifteen minutes to walk to the end of town and on the way back I met the English couple from yesterday and we had a long chat. They now live in Vancouver and as seasoned travellers and I got some very useful information about Uzbekistan, a country I intend to visit in the next couple of years.
Found a bench and sat down to write some more postcards, a never ending task on this trip, then the Belgium couple whom I had meet in the hotel in Yekaterinburg went passed and said “Hello”. The German group and their guide are back-packing and took the hydrofoil further up the lake, probably to Olkhon Island; it had arrived from Irkutsk with lots of day trippers on board. Another hydrofoil makes a brief stop, but this time it was making the reverse journey.
There are lots of boats doing “Trips around the Lake” and this was obviously a very popular place for people from Irkutsk to come and spend the day.
The weather was fine but cooler than yesterday so I am wearing my jumper and I can only see the far side of the lake on occasions.
There are lots of stalls along the waterfront and on the (pebbly) beach selling the same sort of thing, plus omul of course.
Although it was crowded now, I bet that there are very few people here on a rainy or winters day.
All the other rooms seem to be empty, so hopefully there will be no disturbances tonight.
Once the sun had gone down behind the mountain it cooled down very quickly, but it was very peaceful and quiet.
Back to the big city tomorrow.
It takes some time to drop off to sleep even though there is not a single noise to be heard.