May 19, 2022
A railroad around Baikal Lake: along its winding shore it does snake.
Despite these hard times, we continue our work saving the world from all manner of cyber-maliciousness. We adapt; we carry on. Meanwhile, I hope my travel notes and photos will bring a little cheeriness to all who view them – because there’s hardly a better way to do that than with the beauty of nature.
Rounding off our MYB winter road trip, it was time to change mode of transportation. We parked up the tired Land Rovers, and headed to Baikal Port. As in – for ships and boats; with a Lake Baikal completely and utterly frozen over. Confused? Well, actually, Baikal Port also features a rail terminal. And it was there that we were to board a train for an excursion along the full length of the Circum-Baikal Railway to the town of Slyudyanka. But this isn’t just any old railroad. This happens to have been one of the most difficult engineering feats when it was constructed, and also happens to be one of the most scenic in the world. See for yourself! ->
The Circum-Baikal Railway hugs the lake’s shore (though it doesn’t go round its full circumference, as the name might suggest), and though it’s just 160km long, it features around 40 tunnels and 250 bridges!
Practically all the way it’s the mirror surface of beautiful Baikal to one side, and sheer cliffs to the other (which although don’t quite compare to the breathtaking beauty of the lake, still have a charm of their own:) ->
Pardon me: not a mirror surface; that’s what you get in summer. But endless flat winter whiteness – that’ll do too!…
It has several stations the train stops at, and out you jump for a walk-and-explore. Then it’s back onto the train and onward you choo-choo:
We stayed at the Legend of Baikal hotel in Listvyanka the night before our rail excursion, which sits right on the shore where the lake meets the Angara river. The hotel was not bad at all. Warm, cozy, and the food was great. Recommend:
We check in and get to our rooms. Out the window – we see… ice rafting. A dinghy sits upon a block of floating ice in-between two mini-hovercraft that are also on the ice block. Then the hovercraft rev up their motored propellers and the block is… propelled, apparently from one bank to the other. Seems like fun. But given the weather, we decided to pass on this unusual (unique?) activity…
So what is there to do in Listvyanka? Plenty. Taking in the views of the Angara, walkies on Baikal, ice rafting, railroad tunnel inspecting… there’s also a museum – the Baikal Museum of the Russian Academy of Sciences, dedicated to the lake’s geology, tectonics, flora and fauna. There’s also an aquarium featuring seals!
You can also go downhill skiing, after walking up the hill or taking the ski-lift. And the views from up top – as you’ve guessed: OMG! ->
And that’s where the railroad goes – winding around capes and bays hugging the lake’s shore practically non-stop:
The water that flows into the Angara comes from deep within the bowels of the lake: it’s warmer down there and it never freezes; accordingly the head of the Angara is always free of ice. Here are those ice rafting tourists we saw earlier returning to shore. The going is slow for them as the tide’s working against them:
In a word Angar-aahhhhhh ).
That ferry over there is the one we’ll be taking tomorrow…
Baikal sunset reflecting on the water, highlighting the ice blocks moving their way slowly in the direction of Irkutsk ->
And here’s the sunrise the following morning:
Onto the ferry we pile, and we head out and over to Baikal Station:
Over the Angara…
The Circum-Baikal Railway Museum is a small one, but very interesting and informative. You can learn here about all the technical difficulties they had building the railroad, about the temporary ferry crossings, and a lot more besides:
Baikal Port village:
Our horse and carriage for the day:
As per, the day ahead in just over a minute in video format:
Now, I belong to that category of folks who can stare forever, fully content, at the road, or the train tracks, or even just the sea while traveling along/upon it forever. And that’s just what I did on this day – all day!
Wait… “stare at the train tracks”? But how do you do that looking out the window of a carriage? Yep – normally you can’t. But today – we were lucky enough to be able to sit in the driver’s cabin! And lucky is the right word, since normally tourists only get to sit in the carriages. VIP service, no less!…
Circum-Baikal Railway selfie:
Thankfully, the driver’s cabin is huge – we all fitted in, and even those on the fourth (!) row of seats had a reasonable view of what was up ahead, and of course to the sides:
50+ tunnels, like this one:
One hundred sixty kilometers of meditative railroading. The mantra for the day: the clickety-clack of the wheels on the tracks. The meditative object of the day to fix the eyes upon: take your pick; my pick: the white expanses ahead and to the left of us…
There are several stations along the way, some of which we stopped off at for walkies ->
Sometimes the tracks enter man-made gorges carved out of the rock specially for the railroad:
All the tunnels look to be well built the old way – with bricks; none of your modern-day ugly and dull concrete (actually… see below:) ->
On and on we choo-choo, at around 30–40km/h…
Possibly the world’s smallest train station. Just look at the size of the terminal! ->
The railroad used to be double-track, as confirmed by these pics. Here you can see how there wasn’t enough room for the second track on the shelf between rock and lake – so they dug out a tunnel for it (which is now, I guess, a ghost tunnel!) ->
The first set of tracks were laid in 1902–1905 (details). Here’s a highlight from those details:
“Owing to the lack of a flat shoreline all the materials (with the exception of stone mined at the site) were brought by water to the site of construction (by barge during the summer, by animal-drawn carts in the winter). The complex terrain of the rocky shore compelled the builders to lay the majority of the route in tunnels or on artificial platforms cut out of the rock; the sides of the railway were strengthened with retaining walls. The workers, already suffering under the hot summers and harsh winters, were required to carry out the majority of the construction by manual labour.”
The second set of tracks was constructed in 1911–1914. In the ten years in-between construction technologies and materials had changed (for example, concrete appeared), so the engineering that went into the second line differs from the first. A little later there’ll be photos showing this…
Meanwhile, another mammoth terminal. I reckon it could have a café. Alas, we pass it without stopping ->
One hundred kilometers covered already (we missed the 111 distance marker:). Another micro-station, with its “Italian Wall”:
Turns out engineers from abroad took part in the design and construction of the railroad, and with a name like Italian Wall, I guess that included those from a certain sunny southern European country too! Got to hand it to them: it’s still standing proud without a single sign of age or disrepair 110+ years later! Ben fatto!
As per, up goes the drone…
Back onto the train we climb, but this time I go for the rear locomotive – rear at least today, in the direction we’re going:
Nice and roomy it was too, since I was alone! After a stint here I figured I should go inform the others of the benefits of the rear-view in terms of spaciousness. Funnily enough – everyone then transferred to the back, while I was left alone up front! So it was feet-up and a chat with the driver, man to man ).
Btw, in the middle of the twin-locomotive train there’s a dining car section with a bar. And you don’t miss any of the action outside while you’re there: you can watch the proceedings on a monitor hooked up to a dash-cam! ->
Another sturdy wall, this one not Italian:
Next, we pass the Baikal Neutrino Observatory, home to the Baikal Deep Underwater Neutrino Telescope:
Interestingly, the tunnels differ somewhat in their shapes and the building materials they’re constructed of: some – bricks; others – concrete, for example. This is due to their construction taking place years apart and by different builders – sometimes from different countries, as mentioned:
Bridges – two, side-by-side. The iron one: built first (early 1900s); the other: built more than 10 years later, and made of reinforced concrete:
One of the very first reinforced concrete constructions of Russia – here! ->
And here’s the original train that used to choo-choo along Lake Baikal:
Another several kilometers, and another station with a village next to it. A quick stretch of the legs is in order:
Back on the train, next up – unexpectednesses: horses! They weren’t startled by the train trundling past; I guess they’re used to it. And it only ever gets up to 40km/h anyway…
Onward. For some, things were getting a bit samey and tiring. Accordingly, many headed to the restaurant/bar for refreshments. This freed up some room up front for the youngest of the passengers – who even got to hoot the horn a few times: now there’s something they’ll never forget for the rest of their lives. Wait… I had a few hoots of it myself. Yes, “forever young” – folks are always telling me ).
Our next stop: at the 137th kilometer – the Tsar’s Manor:
Nicely refurbed inside it is too:
It was here we were able to… have a bathe. Yes – in Lake Baikal in February! But of course ) ->
Evening was approaching, and it was time so say our farewells to the Baikal ice. Some of the group, Petrovich included, couldn’t be pulled away! ->
Goodbye ice, and back onto the train:
A little later – and that was that: circum-Baikal train-ride – done. Oh what a wonderful, calming, meditative day. Must repeat; and I suggest you have a go for yourselves too, dear readers (with access to the driver’s cabin:)…
The Circum-Baikal Railway
Over there: the Trans-Siberian Railway ->
Here’s the last station – in the town of Slyudyanka, which also happens to be a stop and major railroad junction for the Trans-Siberian Railway:
The station building – made out of locally-mined marble. And it’s just as neat on the inside:
Just like at our HQ ) ->
Working hours: Monday–Sunday, round-the-clock
A while later, we were on a plane flying back to Moscow – our Magadan–Oymyakon–Yakutsk–Mirny–Lake Baikal–Irkutsk auto-expedition finally over. Wow, what a trip.
I think I’ve covered everything, and I hope you all liked my tourist-brochure format for this unusual – unusually great – adventure tourism destination! It hardly needs saying (again), but… I highly recommend it! Over and out folks; do svidaniya…
The rest of the photos from our MYB expedition are here.