Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Circum Baikal Railway

Baikal, the enormous lake in eastern Siberia, is a place of superlatives--deepest lake in the world, oldest lake in the world, a UNESCO world heritage site containing more fresh water than all the Great Lakes combined. It even has a species of seal called the nerpa, a small rotund animal found nowhere else on earth. The rare Barguzin sable, prized by furriers, can be found along its shores.
However, Baikal is not easy to explore. Much of it is inaccessible by road. Hikers roam trails along the lake, but many of them are steep and forbidding. One way to see a lot of the lake on a day trip, and to enjoy some early 20th century railway architecture, is to travel on the Circum Baikal Railway along the shore of the lake from Port Baikal to Kultuk. This involves taking a bus from Irkutsk to the lake, then a short boat ride to Port Baikal where you board the tourist train. The trip can take up to 12 hours and costs about $50. The price does not include meals or drinks, and travellers are advised to bring their own. At some stops there may be people selling drinks and local delicacies such as smoked omul, but you could be very hungry by the time you reach them.
The train makes five stops where passengers can explore the surroundings, marvel at the engineering and architectural achievements of the builders, and even take a dip in the crystal clear but usually frigid water. On the return trip to Irkutsk the Circum Baikal uses the track of the Trans Siberian Railway, so even if you don't have time to take that fabled train you get to ride on some of its track and roadbed.
I'm a train lover and enjoyed this small train very much. But even if you aren't, it offers a good way to see remote stretches of the lake if you don't have your own transportation. You pass by small wooden homes accessible only by water, and catch a glimpse of the real Siberia away from the cities.

Below, some passengers disembarking from the Circum Baikal train.

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