Monday, 16 July 2012

Lake Baikal

Sunday, 15th July 2012

My initial, very brief post, was made on 16th July 2012:-

During Saturday night we’d arrived at Slyudyanka station where we’d remained until morning. So I awoke to find a rather handsome stone built station building on one side and four or five sidings with waiting freight trains on the other side. A diesel locomotive had replaced the electric traction which had brought us from Ulan Ude.

Well, there's a lot more to tell you, and a lot of pictures to post but that will have to wait.

Incidentally, I'm posting this from a restaurant in Irkutsk.

That's all I had time for but I'll try to expand a little now. The 'handsome stone built station building' at Slyudyanka should have alerted me to the importance of this area in the history of the Trans-Siberian Railway but I'm afraid I was completely ignorant of the significance of the Lake Baikal area.

The handsome station building, in pink and white marble, at Slyudyanka.

Lake Baikal is the oldest lake in the world (over 25 million years old), the deepest (5,387 feet) and one of the clearest. It's 395 miles long and 49 miles wide at its widest. It holds 20% of the world's unfrozen fresh water. It's rich in plantlife and animals, many of which are only found around Lake Baikal and is a World Heritage Site. In addition to a Wikipedia article here, there's an interesting site here and UNESCO's site here. Whilst over 330 rivers and streams flow into Lake Baikal, it is drained only by the Angara River which flows north through Irkutsk. In the 1960s, this river was dammed to provide hydro-electric power to the Irkutsk area.

It was only on my return that I learned a little about the construction of this part of the Trans-Siberian, known as the 'Circum-Baikal Railway'. I've written a brief description in The Completion of the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Around 7.00 a.m. our diesel locomotive set off from Slyudyanka with the the ten coaches of the 'Golden Eagle'. We proceeded along the main line past more sidings to Kultuk, where we diverged onto the 'Circum-Baikal Railway' for our journey of around 90 km to what is now the end of the line at Port Baikal. The sun was just rising above Lake Baikal on our right.

Sunrise over Lake Baikal.

Signs of industry fell behind us and we passed through attractive 'Alpine' scenery - pine trees, steep, rocky hillsides on our left and the placid waters of the Lake extending as far as we could see to our right.

Most of the time, the train was snaking on a rocky outcrop raised above the shore. From time to time, our route would take us slightly inland, leaving space for attractive wooden buildings next to the shore. One group of buildings at Sharyzhalgai was neatly painted in brown and yellow and labelled as a 'Resort House for the East Siberian Railway'. Near the buildings, there were usually a number of people, seriously attired for country pursuits. The shores of Lake Baikal are becoming popular with campers and holidaymakers. The variety of wild flowers we could spot from our train confirmed the richness of the flora around the Lake.

There are 39 tunnels on the way to Port Baikal, Galleries and numerous bridges either stone, steel girder or, inplaces, concrete. A variety of designs of tunnel portal are used, all in stone, and tunnel linings are also stone. I believe Italian stonemasons were recruited for this work.

The 'Golden Eagle' entering one of the tunnels.

After we'd been travelling for around two and a half hours, we passed through a very short tunnel (Number 13, 29.8 m), crossed a broad river and came to a stop near a small village, Polovina (sometimes written Polovinny). The only 'platform' was a short section of pre-cast concrete and the train had halted with the front door of passenger coach 1 aligned with this 'platform'. We were only allowed off by walking through the train and exiting at this door.

As soon as we came to a stand, I spotted a member of the train staff jumping off the train with a fishing rod. Later, I saw him return to the train, carrying a decent-sized fish. I don't know what it was, but Lake Baikal is famous for its Omul fish.

As we'd arrived, we'd passed a preserved 'Ea' class locomotive standing on what would have been the second track, before the line was singled. My first task was to survey this. This was one of the American-built locomotives supplied to Russia.

To reach the small beach, we had to cross the line in front of our locomotive. It had been suggested that we might wish to swim at this location but a simple test of the water temperature meant that I immediately abandoned this idea, although a few of the younger passengers did brave the waters. They did confirm that it was very, very cold. Not to be completely thwarted, I paddled in the Lake, and was joined by a couple of our passengers. The water was incredibly clear and, for some hours afterwards, I had a pleasant 'tingling' sensation in my feet.

Jan braves the waters of Lake Baikal.

When we first stopped, I'd spotted a woman emerging from a 'bender' tent on the beach. There was something very business-like about her, so I was not surprised to see that she had set up a little souvenir stall next to the train. This is where I purchased the excellent guide book on the Circum-Baikal Railway referenced below.

There was still time for me to take a walk through the village - very quiet except for the clucking of a number of hens running free. The track led down to the bank of the Polovinnaya River we'd crossed on our arrival. On my way back, I exchanged greetings with an elderly man walking through the village.

It was now time to leave Polovina and continue to Port Baikal. With the 'switcher' design of locomotive, there's a catwalk, provided with a handrail, either side of the engine compartment. Interested guests were to be allowed to ride on the catwalk facing the Lake for a short while. We all clambered up enthusiastically and the train set off. As soon as we left Polovina, the train entered tunnel number 12. At 778.4 m in length, this is the longest tunnel on the line and, unusually, it is completely straight. Although it was rather noisy next to the engine compartment, I found it delightful with unobstructed views of the Lake. I wasn't worried when it started to rain but, all too soon, the train came to a stop and we were invited to rejoin the passenger coaches. A fascinating interlude.

Looking back along the train from our vantage point on the locomotive.

Next, we took lunch in the Restaurant Car and, after another enjoyable meal, we arrived at Port Baikal about half past one, where we had a little free time to explore. I was pleased to find a preserved water crane (from the era of steam traction), complete with its lamp housing which indicated to an approaching train when the crane had been swung so as to obstruct the line. There was also a preserved 'L' class 2-10-0 locomotive. But I had to rush back to the restored station building for an opportunity to look inside the Circum-Baikal Railway Museum. I would have happily spent longer in this small museum but Tatiana was anxious to get us all to the chartered ferry which would take us to Listvyanka at 2.30 p.m.

A model of Port Baikal around 1900, on display in the Circum-Baikal Railway Museum at Port Baikal. The Train Ferry 'Baikal' is in the foreground and the funnels of 'Angara' can just be seen behind.

Just a short walk from the restored station building, a sturdy-looking blue and white ferry was tied-up at the quay. Once the 'Golden Eagle' guests were all on board, the ferry headed out of the harbour. Almost all the wood of the original construction has gone, but the general layout of the jetties remains as built for the 'Baikal' and the 'Angara'. Our destination, Listvyana, lay on the other side of the broad Angara River but we cruised the long way round. As the shore receded and the swell increased, it was difficult to remember that we were on a lake, not the sea. As we approached our destination, we passed a Kometa 15 Hydrofoil (but not moving fast enough to left up properly on the 'Foils'). I gather this is a service between Irkutsk and Lake Baikal. BaikalNature have placed a video showing this craft here. Regular readers may remember that on my trip to Saint Petersburg last year, I became quite used to travelling around on Russian hydrofoils (my posts on that trip are here).

As we approached the quay, it seemed clear that Listvyanka is a resort destination and there were quite a few people around. There was a cafe on the shingle beach, a wandering singer playing the guitar and one young couple, well wrapped up against the wind off the Lake, determing to set on the shingle.

Listvyanka Beach.

A coach was waiting for us and we were soon taken to the nearby Lake Baikal Museum. Anna took us round the exhibits and explained just how special Lake Baikal is. There was also a large aquarium and captive Baikal freshwater seals which I'm no longer happy with. I realise such places are the only opportunity for most people to see these creatures but, nonetheless, it worries me.

The 'Golden Eagle' guests then split into two groups - one visited the open-air Museum of Wooden Architecture but, despite my interest in architecture, I went with the smaller group for a short hike up Chersky Mount. It was an easy hike and, although we couldn't see long distances, we had a splendid view of Port Baikal and our waiting train.

Port Baikal, viewed from Chersky Mount, on the opposite bank of the Angara River.

Although, being summer, there was no snow, the ski-lift was nevertheless running so most of us decided, for variety, to descend using the ski-lift. By the time we were back in our People Carrier, it had started to rain so we were not sure what would happen to the advertised Barbeque Dinner.

The location was a resort village in wooded country quite near the Angara River. Although food, including the local Omul fish, was being cooked outside, we ate in a large wooden conservatory with a long table and benches to sit on. The Omul, related to salmon, is only found in Lake Baikal and I found its delicate flavour preferable to salmon.

It was a very jolly meal but Tatiana had one more surprise for us. On our last evening in Mongolia we had missed the advertised folk performance in Ulaan Baatar through being stuck in a traffic jam. So she had engaged a Buryat man and woman in traditional dress to sing and play for us. Both artists were good but I think the versatility of the man (pipe, fiddle, jaw's harp and 'mouth music') 'blew us away'.

The musical concert at Listvyanka finished a splendid meal.

In a very mellow mood, we rejoined the road transport for the short journey to the nearest ferry jetty, where our ferry was waiting to take us back to Port Baikal. As we approached the quay, we had the welcome sight of the familiar blue coaches of the 'Golden Eagle'.

Port Baikal, with the 'Golden Eagle' waiting to take us back along the Circum-Baikal Line to Slyudyanka.

As I re-joined our train, I noticed a modern diesel multiple unit waiting on the adjacent line, presumably part of the limited tourist service along this very special line. During the night, our train returned us to Slyudyanka after a very special day around Lake Baikal.


The 'Golden Eagle' train.
Slyudianka Station, East Siberian Railway.
The Circum-Baikal Railway.
Plinthed 'Ea' Class at Polovina.
Port Baikal.
Circum-Baikal Railway Museum, Port Baikal.
Listvyanka, Lake Baikal.
Concert in Listvyanka.


'The Circum-Baikal Railway: A Concise Guide Book (3rd edition)' by A.K. Chertilov translated Ye. Luganskaya (Artizdat, Irkutsk) ISBN 978-5-93765-044-3.

[Additional material added 1st August 2012, 8th August 2012].