Lake Baikal and the ‘Paris of Siberia’

There was no mistaking that we were in Siberia, bitingly cold on a September morning, with trees already bereft of leaves and Russians hurrying to work well cushioned from the cold from head to toe.

(Daily Times, 17 July 2014)

At the Russian border town of Naushki, we were struck by the biting cold wind.  Not only were we well and truly in Siberia, it seemed we were stranded as well. What was left of our train were but two carriages without an engine, seemingly abandoned on the tracks.  For us, however, it was home, an island of warm comfort in the middle of nowhere, with Siberia to the north and Mongolia to the south, exactly 5,850 km from Moscow.

Naushki is a very small place. With time to kill, we walked right and left, up and down, and left and right, bought some bread and savories at the small shop, and used the basic toilet facilities of the station with great relief.

Throughout China, Mongolia and Russia, every train carriage comes equipped with an attendant, nearly always female, whose duty it is to lock up the toilets at least 15 minutes before the train arrives at a station and unlock them a quarter of an hour or so after the train has left the station. The attendants on the Russian trains, who are rather fearsome, customer satisfaction being the least of their worries, have a tendency to lock up the toilets much sooner than the required 15 minutes before stops.

We finally left Naushki at 3 pm, a long eight hours after we had arrived, and reached Irkutsk at 7 the next morning, which is 5 hours ahead of Moscow time. All clocks at Russian railway stations display Moscow time, which may be up to 8 hours behind that in Russia’s Far East. Sometimes the clocks may also show the local time alongside Moscow Time, but not always. In Russia, all roads lead to Moscow and all regions must know what time it is in the capital city. 

China has avoided this issue altogether. There are no time zones in China.  The whole country has to follow Beijing time, which is situated thousands of kilometres from the western regions, at least a couple of hours behind Beijing in actual time. And all milestones on Chinese highways indicate the distance travelled from Beijing, not the distance to the next destination.

Midway between Naushki and Irkutsk, our train stopped at Ulan Ude, the administrative capital of the Republic of Buryatia, part of the Russian Federation. With a population of half a million, Ulan Ude is the third largest city in Siberia, about one hundred kilometers southeast of Lake Baikal on the Uda River at its confluence with the Selenga River.

During the short stop at Ulan Ude, the platform came alive with activity, with the local Buryats and resident Russians being seen off by their relatives and friends. The largest indigenous people of Siberia, the Buryat are a major sub-group of the Mongols, numbering about half a million.

Our Russian guide, Sergei, was dutifully present at Irkutsk station to receive us. A very pleasant man, he first drove us to a hotel for breakfast, money exchange and to allow us to refresh ourselves. My wife and I chose to have a walk around in the park opposite the hotel.

There was no mistaking that we were in Siberia, bitingly cold on a September morning, with trees already bereft of leaves and Russians hurrying to work well cushioned from the cold from head to toe.

Soon we were on our way to Listvyanka, about an hour’s drive from Irkutsk by the shores of Lake Baikal and our home for the next two nights. We were driven on what is popularly known as Eisenhower Road, a 65-kilometre stretch which was built in quick order for the American President’s planned visit to Lake Baikal in 1960. The visit, however, never happened, becoming the victim of the Gary Powers/U-2 incident.

In the same spirit, perhaps, but more for form than substance, a historic building in Irkutsk is known as the White House. It was the official residence of the regional Governors-General from 1837 right until the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, after which it became the home of the Irkutsk State University. Now housing the research library of the university, the ‘White House’ was constructed in 1804 as a residence by the sons of the rich Irkutsk merchant M.V. Sibiryakov.

Irkutsk also has monuments to Tsar Alexander III, constructed in 1908 to honour the completion of the Siberian Railway, and to Grigory Shelikhov, whose expeditions led to the Russian colonization of Alaska in the 1790s. Alaska was sold by the Russian government to the US in 1867.

Dubbed the “Paris of Siberia” for its supposed resemblance to the French capital, which is famous for its revolutionary heritage as well as its magnificence, Irkutsk is where Admiral Alexander Kolchak, the supreme commander of the counter-revolutionary anti-Bolshevik White Guards, was arrested and executed in 1920.

In the second quarter of the nineteenth century, many Russian artists, officers and nobles, who were sent into exile to Siberia for their part in the failed Decembrist revolt against Tsar Nicholas I in 1825, ultimately settled in Irkutsk, transforming the city into a hub of intellectual activity.  Some of their wooden houses survive today as a part of the city’s cultural heritage.

Lake Baikal contains roughly a fifth of the world’s surface fresh water, and at 1,642 m, it is also the deepest lake. With a shore length of over two thousand kilometres, 636 km long and an average width of 48 km, the lake is fed by the waters of more than 330 rivers and streams, primarily the Selenga River, whereas the only outflow is into in the Angara, a tributary of the Yenisey River.

The street food on the shores of the lake predominantly consists of smoked Omul fish, a species of the Salmon family endemic to this lake and found nowhere else. One of the primary food resources for the local people, it is considered a delicacy in the whole country. A few of the vendors were young men from the former Muslim republics of the Soviet Union, such as Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

Our train left Irkutsk at 4 pm (11 am Moscow time) for the long journey to the Russian capital, 5,153 km and three nights away.

By Razi Azmi

(To be concluded)


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6 Responses to Lake Baikal and the ‘Paris of Siberia’

  1. Jehanzeb says:

    What endurance, even when travelling in luxury. I can’t imagine sitting in a train for so long. However, the reward of this rare travel is equally enriching and satiating. Informative, as always.

  2. Ali Wako says:

    Gee Razi,

    What is it with you and the long road/train journeys to strange places?

    Thinking about the distances alone is enough punishment for those of us who may never travel that far from our homes. I recently travelled a return journey of 800km from Alice to Ayers Rock and it nearly killed me!

    Keep the good stories flowing…I am learning more from your travels than I will ever imagine.

    • Razi Azmi says:

      Hey Ali, I have driven (with a friend) from Darwin to Adelaide, with a detour to Uluru (Ayers Rock) and can do it again. The open country sends my spirit soaring! Watching people of other countries and cultures going about their business is also a very enriching and thrilling experience for me. Anytime. Always happy to take donations for my trips. Anyone?

  3. Kamran Mirza says:

    While reading your travel log, I feel sorry for not going with you. I appreciate your time & resources which you put in, to share your wonderful experience.
    Good on you, Razi Bhai

  4. Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur says:

    Thank you Razi Sahib for taking us along and educating us on the present scene and past history.

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