Train trip to Irkutsk was relatively short at less than 20 hours – we had the carriage to ourselves which was a surprise but not when we realised it was a somewhat clapped out regional train which started in a city I had never heard of on the Black Sea!
On arriving in Irkutsk we decided to skip the city entirely and head straight for Lake Baikal which involved a tram ride and trying to negotiate on to a minibus to Lystvyanka where our bags took the places of people who wanted to travel. After a cramped hour on the minibus we arrived down to the shores of Lake Baikal with the snow-capped peaked mountains in the background.
Lake Baikal is the deepest and oldest lake in the world – so deep in fact that it alone contains 20% of the world’s fresh water. They say that if it were drained all the rivers in the world flowing for a year would not fill it. Supposedly and somewhat implausibly it is said to have special life enhancing properties due to the high levels of oxygen which add 5 years to your life if you put your hand and an improbable 20(!) if you go swimming. It probably assumes you don’t have a heart attack from the cold.
We took a boat trip out on the lake and around to the Trans-Baikal railway. This was the most challenging bit of the Trans-Siberian to build as they had to blast their way through sheer cliffs. In fact for several years they used to have a ship designed in England and shipped in parts to the lake in order to take the full train aboard and across the lake to continue the journey. In the winter when it froze over they would lay a temporary track over the ice which occasionally resulted in engines and carriages going into the icy depths!
It took several years and many trains of dynamite to blast their way around until the line was fully uninterrupted between Moscow and Vladisvostok.
We also visited the Lake Baikal museum which had a plethora of information about how the lake was formed geologically and the wildlife in it – all in Russian alas so we muddled through however we came across two Nerpa seals doing lengths in aquarium tank. They were very cute blimp-like creatures but couldn’t help wishing they were out in the lake.
With the lake done we headed back to Irkutsk for our train onward to Mongolia. As we headed south and through the Trans-baikal mountains the peaks gave way to undulating grassland which rolled on and on toward the border.
The border crossing was an exercise in bureaucracy mostly on the Russian side. It took us 5 hours to pass through passport control – and this is for people leaving the country! They also changed the engines on the train which startled quite a few people who had gotten off to stretch their legs and go to the toilet who saw the whole train reversing away down the track only to return 10 minutes later.
Our passports were checked no fewer than 4 times by different people the purpose of which was unclear to us but presumably not to them. Our Japanese roommate Seiji was put through the ringer on account of his trip through the Ukraine by petty border officials.
The formalities complete we trundled through a barbed-wire and guard tower landscape over and we were finally in Mongolia and bid farewell to Russia with us finishing off the bottle of Baikal vodka with the occupants of the next compartment.