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The Grand Tour Ten Years On—The Lake in the Middle of the World

Four days on the train. Four days when nothing much changes except the world around you. A constant stream of changes, gently but insistently carrying you into a new world. Punctuated only by the occasional train station, offering you a chance to test your Cyrillic comprehension and sometimes even a chance to stretch your legs further than the length of a railroad car.

If I had my time again, I would probably arrange a few more stops along the way. The cities of Russia slipped by and looking back at the photos I took then, I can’t recognise any of them. Storied Novgorod was on the other Trans Siberian line, and while Omsk was on mine, it was just a brief stop among many, where people more sensible than I disembarked.

Omsk railway station, glimpsed only briefly.

There isn’t another rail line like the Trans Siberian. Or rather there is, but it’s the Trans-Siberian’s sister line, the Trans Mongolian, which runs from Moscow to Beijing instead of Vladivostok. This first stage of my journey was the part of the line shared between the two, a four day run from Moscow to Irkutsk. There’s a northern and a southern branch for part of it, but I can’t imagine there’s much difference between the two.

For those travelling long-distance on the Trans Siberian, most of whom are Russian, not tourists, it can be a hypnotic experience. The rhythm of life on the rails infuses everything, from the moment-to-moment rattle of the rails themselves, to the sunrise and sunset schedule of sleep, to the gradual shifting of the immense landscape of Russia, carrying you imperceptibly from fields to mountains to plains that all seem to stretch on forever.

One of many water (signal?) towers on the Trans-Siberian railway.

For four days I shared a four-person cabin with a rotating cast of Russians. Or rather myself and an elderly Russian couple shared the cabin with multiple guest stars. I did my best to communicate when I wasn’t scribbling in my notebook or staring at the landscape as it passed by, but I wasn’t wholly successful. The one fact I did manage to convince them of was that strange Irish tourists couldn’t feed themselves. I’ve no idea how my diet of snack bars, bottled water, and black tea from the carriage samovar could have given them that idea, but they pressed a share of their own food on me whenever they thought I looked hungry.

It was probably standard Catholic guilt over not being able to repay this kindness, along with a breed of recklessness that comes from being train-bound for four days, that led me to supplement my diet with a strange meat and pastry combination from a vendor’s stall on one of the platforms the train stopped at. For the standard Trans-Siberian traveller with guts of iron, this would be a straightforward choice. For me it was to cause significant gastro-intestinal distress over the next few days.

The Trans Siberian is a living experience, a long way from here-to-there travel.

Eventually though, Irkutsk approached. I said my farewells to my long-time companions when they disembarked a few stops before the city. For myself, I lasted around an hour longer before being deposited on the platform of Irkutsk’s main station. I had no time to look around though, as everything had been booked and arranged months before. Myself and a few other travellers were bundled into a jeep and driven along the short and well-paved road to Listvyanka, on the shores of Lake Baikal.

If the Trans Siberian can feel like it crosses half the world, then Baikal feels like the lake at the centre of the world. In the very heart of Asia, there’s much about it that could be dropped into a fantasy novel and not feel out of place. Unfathomably deep, its waters are cold and clear and freeze thick with ice when winter comes. It has its own species of seal and sturgeon, and while I saw neither, I saw sunset over the lake from Listvyanka and didn’t feel robbed.

Sunset over Lake Baikal, as seen from Listvyanka.

Listvyanka as a resort is very popular with Russia’s well-to-do set, but I’d arrived in the off season, so myself and a small group of Australians heading in the other direction on the Trans-Siberian felt like we had the place more or less to ourselves. Despite the ongoing trauma of my culinary adventures the previous day, I felt a deep peace while we were there, whether lazing in our chalet or roaming the shores of the lake itself.

No pause lasts forever, and no moment of ease can be luxuriated in too much, especially when the call of travel continues. But I did have one thing that I wanted to do before I left. On my last afternoon in Listvyanka, I donned my swimming trunks (mostly unused on the trip other than this) and baptised myself in the waters at the centre of the world. It was as cold and refreshing as I’d hoped and worth the trip thus far, even if the Russians on the shore were undoubtedly wondering who the crazy pale person was.

The author post-Baikal dip. Cold but very pleased with himself.

That was it as far as the blue skies and deep waters of Baikal went though. The next morning, the jeep returned to bring me back to Irkutsk, so I said my farewells to the Australians and boarded. My train wasn’t setting off until late in the evening, and the Irkutsk station was pretty unfriendly when it came to people hanging around in the lobby, so I had a day to myself to explore the city.

If St. Petersburg is an imperial city, and Moscow is the seat of power, then Irkutsk is an outpost. From this city, the vast Siberian wilderness had been explored and, if not tamed, at least brought within the compass of the Russian state. Here, the European soul of Russia reached its limits and came to a compromise with its greater Asian self. The museum of Siberian exploration is a must visit for anyone roaming Irkutsk, but there’s just as much to be seen across the city itself.

A photo of Russian explorers, as seen in the museum.

I wandered the shores of the massive Angara River and watched a judo exhibition in the sunlight (Putin was a fan, apparently). I saw another of those fairytale Russian weddings take place under blue skies, with a gilded crystal carriage straight out of Cinderella. I saw Russian Imperial architecture clash and meld with frontier Siberian wooden shacks. I saw statues and fountains of modern Russia sit incongruously amid it all. But at length I saw the sun go down and returned to the train station to wait.

For I was continuing not onwards but southwards. For the next few days at least, I was abandoning the Trans Siberian for the Trans Mongolian. A border crossing or two awaited me, and a nation of people feted across history as conquerors. It was Genghis I was going in search of, and as I settled into a new cabin, with two Icelandic travellers and a Russian tour guide for company, I had an inkling that the best was yet to come.