Monday, 16th July 2012
During Sunday night we’d arrived back at Slyudyanka station around 2.30 a.m. This time, I woke up briefly but soon went back to sleep until about six, when my ‘Blackberry’ awoke me (I’d not paid for radio coverage but I used it as an alarm clock on this trip). Once again, we’d the handsome stone station building on one side and the sidings with waiting freight trains on the other side but this time it was raining.
Perhaps because this was a working weekday there was more railway activity than the previous day and, every few minutes, one or other of the waiting freight trains would move off, either towards Irkutsk or in the opposite direction, to be replaced shortly by another freight which would stop to wait its turn. Whilst we waited for our departure time, a couple of Electric Multiple Units going in the opposite direction paused briefly at the station – the first an elderly design with a rather dated-looking round ‘nose’, the second with a modern wedge-shaped ‘nose’.
With an electric locomotive on the front, we set off around 6.50 a.m. for the remaining 126 km to Irkutsk. This ‘new’ line was built just after the Second World War (the ‘Patriotic War of 1941-1945’ in Russia) and has the steepest gradient on the Trans-Siberian. We were told to look out for the 7 km Angasolka Loop which is supposed to be very beautiful. Unfortunately, the weather was foul and we saw very little. We descended this gradient, losing 400 metres in elevation in 30 km. This presents few problems to electric traction, but I noted that the overhead catenary had double conductor wires, presumably because of the high power demand made by ascending trains.
We arrived at Irkutsk about ‘right time’ (10:22) and our electric locomotive was quickly uncoupled and drawn ahead to await the signal.
All the guests were gathered-up for a day in Irkutsk with Anna from the train as our guide. Outside the station, I took a quick picture of the elegant station frontage which was restored in 2011 for the 350th anniversary of the founding of the city. Then it was onto the bus for a city tour.
Both Anna and Tatiana, the Tour Manager, were brought up in Irkutsk and went to college in the city. We were told that the three consonants at the end of ‘Irkutsk’ should each be properly enunciated – something like ‘ear-coots-c’ (with the final ‘c’ as in ‘cat’).
Irkutsk has been called ‘the Paris of Siberia’ because of the elegant design of many of the older buildings in brick and stucco. It’s still an impressive city but most of the older buildings are a little down-at-heel now. The city has a large number of traditional wooden buildings, many run-down but in use and some beyond repair. Some buildings are being moved to an open-air museum in the city and restored.
We parked near the river Angara which flows out of Lake Baikal to look at the war memorial with its Eternal Flame, the promenade alongside the river and the various restored churches, brought back into use quite recently having previously been converted for non-religious purposes during the Soviet period. I visited the Russian Orthodox Church of Our Saviour (which had been used as an Observatory but has been restored, including the impressive external murals, and re-consecrated in 2006).
The recently re-consecrated Church of Our Saviour, showing the restored external murals.
We looked at the monument to Tsar Alexander III, commemorating his authorisation of the building of the Trans-Siberian Railway. This monument didn’t last long – it was destroyed in the Soviet era but re-created in its original form in 2003, in time to commemorate the centenary of the railway.
I declined the chance to visit the local museum. It dates from 1782 when I think it was called the East Siberian Branch of the Emperor’s Russian Geographical Society. A fire in 1879 destroyed the museum and its collection. The present brick building dates from 1882. I skipped the museum for a walk around the area looking at the other buildings. We met up outside the museum and our bus took us to a street of shops to visit a supermarket (some of the guests wanted to buy vodka). I had a quick look in the supermarket (prices seemed comparable to England, generally) then took another walk looking at buildings. I could see why the city was compared to Paris.
The bus took us to a different part of town for a very good lunch at 'The Old Café'. The free Wi-Fi worked, too, once we had the password. The limited toilet accommodation caused a few problems after the long morning. We then split into a party who would go by coach to visit an apartment dwelling and the museum of wooden houses and a second group who would go (in a people carrier and car) to visit a preserved icebreaker and the same apartment dwelling.
Of course, I was in the icebreaker group and it was an amazing visit. We were able to explore the engine and boiler rooms and even climb to the Crow's Nest. The vessel, the ‘Angara’, was built by Armstrong Whitworth in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and shipped in pieces to Russia where it was finally commissioned in 1899. Before the Trans-Siberian railway was completed, the ‘Angara’ was one of two passenger vessels which joined the two halves of the railway by providing a ferry service across Lake Baikal. I've written about this period in the article The Completion of the Trans-Siberian Railway.
We then moved back to the city centre to visit a private apartment. The approach to the apartment block was not very cheerful and maintenance was clearly required. But, once we stepped through the heavy steel door to the apartment (steel doors are very common in Russia), we entered a colourful world of eclectic taste. The owner, a widow, was clearly very proud of her home and we were invited to look everywhere. Her two daughters were working away, so she was looking after her teenage grandson and granddaughter. We were invited to table for an enjoyable afternoon tea, after which we extended our thanks and made our way downstairs (there was no lift) to our waiting transport. Rather different from the house in the 'Old Believers' village we'd visited just two days previously (see article 'Into Russia'.
In complete contrast, our next stop was at the house of Prince Volkonsky, now preserved as a museum. The house had closed for the day but re-opened for a private visit by the 'Golden Eagle' guests. The house was an elegant, wooden villa, re-decorated internally in the appropriate style and, where possible, furnished with original items.
Prince Volkonsky was part of the 'Decembrist Revolution'. Yes, I was very hazy about the details. In December 1825, a group of officers and men of the Russian army protested Nicholas I's assumption of the throne. The revolt was crushed by the Tsar and five leaders of the revolt were hanged. Others were exiled to Siberia, including Prince Volkonsky. Prince Volkonsky's wife, Maria, followed her husband into exile and they appear to have led a fairly agreeable life, having quite a civilising effect upon Siberia. There's more information in the Wikipedia article.
After looking around the principal rooms of the house, we gathered in the Music Room for a private concert with a professional pianist, a female vocalist and teaching professional, a professional male vocalist and a Master of Ceremonies who's a professional actor. At the end of the concert, the performers toasted us with champagne, and we returned the compliment.
Our final stop, after an exhausting programme, was at the modern Marriott Courtyard Hotel for dinner. Oddly enough, it was probably the poorest meal of the whole trip but at least the Wi-Fi worked! Finally, our coach returned us to the 'Golden Eagle' train.
During the day, our train had been moved to the 'Tourist Platform', a siding next to the river bank with a wide tarmac promenade. No locomotive had been attached to our coaches so we had a little time, in the quiet of the evening, to walk, watch the river and ponder all the experiences of the day.
The 'Golden Eagle' train.
Slyudyanka Station, East Siberian Railway, Russia.
Irkutsk, East Siberian Railway.
Icebreaker 'Angara', Irkutsk.
An Apartment in Irkutsk.
The Mansion of Prince Volkonsky.
[Material added 9th August 2012.]