The train arrives in Irkutsk (pop. 600,000) at 7.27 (or 2.27 Moscow time as displayed on the platform). The practice of using Moscow time in the system works well if you’re on the same train for the entire journey but takes careful thought if you’re getting on and off in multiple time zones. As we leave, the train climbs up through several valleys passing dozens of small houses plastered to the hillsides. The thick slabs of snow on the roofs seem to be on the verge of sliding off. However, it’s apparent that there is still another month to go before ‘dacha season’ starts. In a few places, remnants of the narrow terraces, tracks and bridges from the original railway are visible. Another reminder of the remarkable undertaking that the Trans-Siberian was and is.
About 2 hours out of Irkutsk, we arrive at Lake Baikal, the highlight of the day. The lake is frozen and glistens in the sunlight. Baikal is of course the deepest lake in the world, 1642 meters at its deepest. and holds more water than the Great Lakes put together
I see that the ice next to the shore, and in some parts inside the lake, has thawed. The surface in those parts is a dark blue colour which means that the water is close to the surface. Indeed, a few streams are now open and running into the lake. However, that hasn’t stopped a few brave souls who are fishing through holes in the ice. There are even a few motor cars out on the ice. At this time of the year, knowledge of local conditions is critical to say the least. The train crawls along parts on the edge of the lake where the tracks which are apparently weaker because of occasional flooding: Baikal is renowned for its storms and waves.
The line around the lake had been one of the biggest challenges when building the Trans-Siberian and an early solution had been to lay temporary tracks across the ice. This strategy failed when the weight of an engine caused it to fall though the ice. Thereafter the engines were dismantled and dragged across the ice. In summer, the coaches were loaded onto a steamer but that too resulted in extensive congestion and delays as passengers could wait for weeks at a time for berths on the ships.
Taking photographs from the train is a challenge. Everything is by necessity done through the windows, which are fortunately new and kept quite clean. Poles and wires are accepted as part of the scenery (the entire line in Russia is electrified) and can of course be used to add ‘motion’ to an image (that option gets tired). Freight trains passing frequently are the biggest challenge; in some parts the interval between trains is only a few minutes. Most of the cargo is either fuel or timber. No sooner has one spotted something interesting alongside the track than a freight train comes barrelling along. Some of them are more than 40 wagons long so that by the time they’ve passed, not only has the moment passed, but the view is also completely different!
Sleeping on the train comes easily and one drifts through the time changes until only the phase of sun matters. The compartments are comfortable: mattresses, pillows, sheets, blankets (appropriately from Mongolian wool), plus space, clean water, hot water, and enough room in the toilets to take a daily shower (of sorts). Everything is kept clean, the toilets in particular, and the floors and carpets are swept and vacuumed frequently. I cannot speak for the other classes in the train, and didn’t venture down to look at them. Nonetheless, if anyone is contemplating the Trans-Siberian/ Mongolian, I do recommend a spalny vagon ticket. If you cannot afford one now, then save up and wait until you can. I don’t know if there is much charm to making forced acquaintances in an environment of close and 4-day-long proximity. You have as much risk of meeting a vodka bore as you have of meeting someone with something interesting to say.
Today, we stop at Slyudyanka (pop. 19,000 - a village along the southern tip of the lake ), Ulan-Ude (pop. 430,000 - the capital of Buryatia - the Buryats are cousins to the Mongols), and Dzhida (pop. very few - known for its airforce base).
After Baikal, the vegetation changes quite dramatically into brownish grasslands and there are cattle running around. There is still snow on the hill tops and slopes though the rivers are heavily frozen. The houses are also different; fewer housing blocks, more individual structures often laid out in Asian style around a central courtyard. A friend who spent time in Ulan Ude some years ago related how running water inside the home was a rarity.
At Ulan Ude, the train turns south to Mongolia and China from the line heading on to Vladivostok. Further south, at Lake Gusinoye ("Goose Lake"), I see what I think is a speed boat on the lake. On closer proximity, it turns out to be a car speeding over the ice – in spite the fact that the ice has thawed on the sides of the lake.
We reach the border at Naushki at about 8 pm. This is the 23rd and final stop in Russia. Everyone is told to remain in their compartments. Every cabinet, panel and anything else that opens and shuts (including parts of the ceiling), is opened for inspection. A lady with a torch examines very nook and cranny followed by a man in uniform with a very friendly dog sniffing for something. In the meantime, the lady from immigration arrives, scans the passport, waits for feedback from above (in this case, the internet), stamps and moves on. Finally, customs arrive for a rather cursory check. It’s all done very professionally and the procession leaves the train after about an hour, and as unobtrusively as it arrived. We move on a short distance to Sukhbaatar at the Mongolian border to repeat the process, again very pleasantly and professionally done but a somewhat lighter version. Much of the attention revolves around the heap of parcels, now lying between the wagons, that have been handed to the train attendants, from Mongolians who had approached the train at various stops as it passed through Siberia. Later on a money broker arrives which helpfully enables me to change cash for a taxi upon arrival in Ulan Bator.
The engine is changed from an electric to a steam engine. Somehow my wagon has now ended up at the front of the train and the smoke drifts through the wagon for a while as the train starts out. A bag of coal is loaded into each wagon to heat the wagon and the samovar. This is the last night, finally a more traditional railway experience as the train puffs on in the dark through Mongolia.