We could spout some astounding statistics at you about Lake Baikal – that it holds 20% of the entire world’s freshwater, that it is the deepest (over a mile) widest (49 miles) and that it freezes for 6 months of the year, but we thought it would be more interesting to ask John Drogan from the Golden Eagle to be our guest blogger and describe his experience of this truly awesome feat of nature.
We were aware of a shunt in the night as we would leave our electric engine behind on the main Trans-Siberian train line to take the original track that skirts the lake from the south up to the Angara river, travelling via tens of tunnels and clinging perilously to the Cliffside above the water; the electricity lines do not run along this now tourist only route. The train used to run along the Angara River from Irkutsk however the hydro-electric dam raised the river level so much, the track disappeared forever.
We recognised an unusual sound but as we were still half asleep, we dismissed this until we opened the curtains to see lake Baikal opening up before our eyes and a plume of smoke wisped by accompanied by a shrill whistle, the familiar aroma of burning coal and the unmistakable chug of steam! Russian railways had provided, to everyone’s surprise, two classic soviet steam engines to haul the Golden Eagle on this spectacular section of the journey.
After breakfast, we prepared to enjoy the nature of Lake Baikal. As the Golden Eagle was the only Trans Siberian train using this section, we could stop almost anywhere along the shore. We came to a sheltered bay from where we could swim in the clear and icy waters… if we were crazy enough. I may never get to Lake Baikal again so I had to take the plunge. Mythology says that if you place your hands in the water, you will reduce your age by 5 years, if you take a paddle, 10 years, and swimming, well that was 25 years! I don’t want to live forever but an extra 25 years sounded appealing. There was only one way to do it; run and dive in…… OMG! Thankfully the ambient temperature was less than 60 degrees so the water didn’t give my heart too much of a shock however we estimated it to be around 5 degrees in the water.
John taking a dip!
On leaving the water, the air felt warm and pleasant so in I went again and as I was still alive, a number of the passengers joined in. The staff had set up a refreshments table (okay it was Vodka!) and as I returned to the beach, a shot was thrust into my hand, the instant warmth enjoyed as it travelled around my freezing body. It was a superb opportunity for everyone to let their hair down.
We left the train and joined a small ferry boat sailing into the increasingly sunny lake view, heading for Listvyanka village, which took on the appearance of a much more affluent community with attractive quaint hotels and houses.
We were taken to the local Baikal museum to learn all about this natural wonder, how it was formed, its unique flora and fauna, some of which were featured in the aquarium display. The area is a vast wilderness and home to brown bears, lynx, wolves, huge sea eagles and the unique freshwater Baikal seals.
A short drive would take us an unmade road which we walked down to the home of a local family, a traditional wooden house surrounded by a spectacular display of colourful flowers and fresh produce. Also in the garden was a typical “Banya” or bathhouse.
Heading up the Angara river valley, we came to The Taltsy Museum of Wooden Architecture and Ethnography, with over 40 exhibits depicting Russian and Buryat life in old Siberia.
Fresh local produce & telecommunications
Travelling back down towards the lake, we stopped at a beautiful clearing in the woods alongside the river to enjoy a wonderful open air feast. Barbecued meat, chicken and freshly smoked “Omul” the unique and very tasty white fish found only here.
As the sun hung lower in the vast Siberian sky, we headed back to the ferry for our journey to Port Baikal and The Golden Eagle, and with a blast of the whistle and the whoosh of steam we would travel on into the night…
John Drogan, July 2011