12 June 2019
Monday 10th June
This part of the journey was different to all the rest. Today our train was not heading for Moscow, but for Lake Baikal, pulled by two steam engines. I awoke around four, as we stood in a station beside the lake. The sound of a steam locomotive's whistle sounded, and were off along a track that had been incredibly difficult to build, along the steep side of the lake. There were many tunnels, and the dense black smoke from the engines kept sneaking into the cabin. The view was terrific, across the mirror-calm lake in a clear dawn as the sun came up on the mountains in the distance, with their residual snow at the summits. The lake's ice only thawed a couple of weeks ago, we later learned.
After breakfast the train reached its destination for the day at Port Baikal, and we all piled out to get on a boat. First we took photos of the two engines, coupled back to back, at the head of the train. So old they had CCCP on the cab.
The boat came with its own gangplank attached at the bow, so we climbed aboard and sailed across the mouth of the Angara river to Listvianka, where our minibuses were waiting. We were assured that our bags were in the Spanish bus, and we would get them at the museum. We could hardly contain ourselves, at least I couldn't. So off we went to the museum, which revealed the extent of research and academic thoroughness that has gone into the study of this amazing lake, which holds 20% of the world's unfrozen drinking water. It is extremely deep, clear, and all the creatures that live at the bottom of it have eyes. There is one fish called the oil fish which migrates vertically from the surface to the bottom without showing any signs of the bends. There is a huge fish that hunts wildlife on the surface and can walk on land using its lateral fins. One was caught with a squirrel in its mouth, and when they opened it up they found six more in its stomach. That is what we were told, in all seriousness. This fish must be part of our transition from gills to lungs. Anyway, the only freshwater seal in the world lives here, and looks like a little fat jet-propelled egg in the water, head withdrawn into the body, and tail flippers propelling it very fast, often upside down, as it cavorts in the tank for the tourists.
One curiosity in the museum was the display of two models of icebreakers, which had been built in Newcastle, England, broken into small pieces and transported to Lake Baikal, reassembled, and were used briefly on the lake. One of them could hold 22 carriages of the railway, when there was no other way to connect the two halves of the TSR before the present route was created. We later saw one of them moored as a museum in Irkutsk. We asked why England, and were told that England had a good reputation for shipbuilding so it was the obvious choice. Those were the days!
I couldn't wait any longer and went to see our bags, just to be sure they were ours. It was after all a whole week since we last saw them at Glasgow Airport. And there they were, transferred to our bus, sitting happily in the boot. Relief!
Then a trip to the fish market via a souvenir shop, where we bought the usual t-shirts. The fish market had a lot of smoked fish for sale, held open by cocktail sticks.
Back to the bus, and up to a hotel with a great vantage point for photographs, then off to lunch in a nautically themed hotel restaurant beside the lake. A replica of Captain Nemo's submarine sat outside the window, while a replica tall ship concealed the hotel's banya or sauna equivalent. Lunch was really good, even the soup.
After lunch we were off to the ski lift up the mountain to capture really good views of the lake and the mouth of the river Angara, the only one to flow out of the lake. The three hundred others all flow into the lake. The Angara flows through Irkutsk and out into the Arctic.
Back to the boat, this time carrying our bags. We were given lots of help in getting them aboard, and off again at the other end of the short journey.
The train we had photographed from the ski lift viewpoint had magically swapped the two steam locomotives to the head of the train, thus explaining why they were back to back. Amazingly they seemed to be burning logs as well as coal. We spent some time opening our bags and finding stowage space for everything.
Our evening treat was a picnic dinner in a holiday resort on the lake. The train just stopped, let the restaurant crew dismount with bags pots and bottles, and we wandered about the resort for half an hour before going into a large building with tables and chairs and could help ourselves to barbecued chicken with vegetables etc.
The train sat there, chuffing quietly, no other traffic on the single track, until we got the word to rejoin the train, and headed quietly for bed. Tomorrow would be an early start.
Tuesday 11th June
Happy Birthday grandson Edmund!
Anyway, back in Siberia, we got up very early and got off the train in Irkutsk for a very long day, starting with breakfast in a huge former Intourist hotel. Our guide for the day, and for yesterday, was Oxana, who was born in the Crimea, is doing a PhD, and does tour guiding in the vacation summer months. Her English was fast and fluent, with some slightly quirky pronunciations, explained perhaps by her never having visited any English-speaking countries. Churches, for example, became chorches. Badges became bedges, and bad luck became bed lock. It was entertaining, accidentally.
Her first anecdote was hilarious. The emblem of the city when it was founded was to be a Siberian tiger with a sable in its mouth. Because of an error in reading and understanding the description of this by officialdom in the capital, the new logo came back with a beaver instead of a tiger, but still with a sable in its mouth. Unwilling to hang about to get the error corrected the locals tweaked the logo a bit so the decidedly beaver-looking tiger with a fluffy tail graces all the flags and statues and carvings around. A monumental screwup, immortalised forever!
Irkutsk dates from 1661 or so, a really old well-established city on the confluence of two very fast flowing rivers, which do not ever freeze in winter.
Then we were off to the chorches. Lots of chorches. Ladies wear scarves over their heads, but hats were OK. Ju tried wearing her hat only to have the woman in the chorch shop going mental because she thought she was a man and should therefore take her hat off! That was enough for me, I headed for the exit.
We learned about the Decembrists, a bunch of aristocratic rebels close to the Czar who thought the system should be changed, and were condemned by him as criminals to exile in Siberia as a result. We hadn't heard of them, and it was interesting that not only the communists were against the Czar. One of the Decembrists was Tolstoy's uncle, but even Tolstoy did not dare to write about this issue, so it was kind of hidden in history. Interesting.
When we ran out of chorches and had visited the Decembrist's house museum, it was time for lunch. This was to be in an Italian restaurant. I had hopes, but they were dashed when the usual second course of soup arrived. Looking the same colour as mushroom soup, that's what I thought it was at first. But there was a grainy almost gritty texture to it that you don't get with mushrooms. So we made the fatal mistake of asking what it was. Turkey soup, they replied, with an air of triumph. I could barely eat any more. I waited with amusement to see what the French group made of it, as they arrived later than us for the meal.
In the afternoon the plan was to drive around 47 km out of the city to visit a museum of wooden architecture. I immediately thought of Blair Dunc, he would love it. It turned out to be more than just architecture, but a history lesson on who the Cossacks were, and how they lived in a community like the one recreated here. There were a number of different sized log buildings, all with different functions. A school, a defensive fort, all built using larch and pine. An ice house, with a roof of logs laid together like tiles, cut to a C shape in cross section, one facing down on top of one facing up, if that conveys it. Watertight certainly. Cool also.
A trio of men dressed as cossacks in the entry tower of the fort treated us to beautifully harmonised singing, and offered cds, so we bought one.
A drive back to the city in sunshine, then some free time to go shopping or just relax. So we to photos of a sculpture of the city beaver/tiger statue, then went into the obligatory Irish pub for a glass of guinness before dinner.
Back to the train for our only remaining on board day tomorrow.
Wednesday 12 June
A great sleep. Today we have a lecture about the building of this amazing railway line, mostly electrified in 1961! Completed in 2002 all the way to Vladivostok, 9288 kms of it. Glasgow to Edinburgh was only electrified last year!
In the programme for this afternoon is a violin concert! Otherwise nothing much to do apart from getting the blog up to date.