In 1886 Alexander III decreed that a Trans-Siberian rail route should be built. Construction started in 1891 and by 1900 the journey could be made by rail (though partly through China and partly by ferry). Heading east from Irkutsk the obstacle of Lake Baikal was encountered and in 1900 an icebreaking ferry service was established across the lake to Mysovaya. Building a railway along the shore of the lake was planned from 1901 but nothing happened. In 1904 the Russo-Japanese War meant that a winter interruption of the rail service by ice too thick for the ships threatened national security. Tracks laid on the ice and utilising animal power were of limited use.
In 1902 work started on building a line along the shore from Kultuk in the south to Port Baikal near Listvyanka. In engineering terms this was a magnificent achievement and was completed in 1905 thus allowing through operation of trains. The line remained the main route until 1949 when a shorter, direct route was opened from Irkutsk to Kultuk. In the 1950s flooding of the Angara valley to create a lake for hydro-power led to the loss of the line between Port Baikal and Irkutsk. Today the line from Port Baikal to Slyudyanka is still open with a sparse local service, but also carries regular tourist trains.
The line was quite a feat of engineering and cost substantially more than estimated. It snakes along the side of the lake through tunnels and cuttings. After the river was dammed, the section of line between Irkutsk and Lake Baikal was flooded and a new railway line had to be built, which cut across country from Irkutsk to Slyudyanka, where it rejoins the original line.
There are a few isolated settlements along the line with no road access and the only communication is by an infrequent passenger service. There is however a regular tourist train which runs along the old railway line to Slyudyanka and then back to Irkutsk along the new section.
From Listvyanka it is a short drive for the ferry across the River Angar, which stays free of ice, to Port Baikal. This is the terminus for the railway. A new station has been built which houses a small but interesting exhibition on the railway.
It was May 1st. It had snowed first thing that morning and mist was hanging round the lake and trees. It looked magical. The lake was still frozen.
We were in a modern, heated unit – not so atmospheric as the old coaches, but warm and comfortable. We were joined by a large group of happy Russians out celebrating a birthday party. They demolished vast amounts of food and even larger amounts of vodka during the trip. They were always good-natured, but their love of karaoke became a trifle wearing as the day progressed.
It is a lovely run following the shore of Lake Baikal with several stops for photographs at a water pumping station, disused tunnel with a steep water culvert, remains of an old bridge and to admire an old American steam loco which had been used on the line.
There is a longer stop at Polovinnaya, the station halfway along the line giving time to explore the village.This was a small collection of wooden houses surrounded by small gardens. Enterprising locals were selling food and handicrafts.
As we got closer to Slyudyanka, there were small fishing sheds along the edge of the lake with slipways. There were also a few brave souls camping. By now we had lost most of the snow but it was still a dull grey day.
It was getting dark as we returned along the new line to Irkutsk. This was through rolling wooded countryside with a very few scattered settlements.
This was an enjoyable trip through an area with no roads.
Our pictures are here.