What was once a hard earned achievement of Man vs. Nature, Circum-Baikal Railway, is now mostly a sideshow, as the main line of the Trans Siberia Express takes a different route now to Irkutsk from Slyudyanka. This train sadly only runs a few days a week, so we had to make significant timing choices to be able to catch this train, including spending a night in Port Baikal as this time of year the last ferry leaves before we arrive.
Even though it has significant value as a tourist attraction, it is mostly used as a general purpose rural train, linking the small villages and retreats dotted along the south-western side of Lake Baikal with Slyudyanka (and therefore the rest of Russia). It was hard to believe that the train ticket for this 5+hr scenic journey was only 85r ($2) each – essentially the same price as the 10 minute taxi ride we just had from our hostel to the station.
The train, Matanya, is a regular service and leaves Slyudyanka station at 13:20 on Monday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday. Tickets were purchased inside the station, like any regular train. The only timetable that I could find was on http://kbzd.irk.ru/Eng/. There is a lot of information on that site, and not exactly easy to follow, but it proved correct for us – thankfully.
The carriage was a basic 3rd class carriage, and the majority of the other passengers were not tourists, just locals heading to one of the small villages. Even so, I was surprised that most passengers were more interested in drinking and chatting than the view outside, leaving us plenty of window seats to choose from. The other (Russian) tourists were heading to/from one of the summer camps built on the side of Lake Baikal.
I’d heard that the train was slow, but experiencing it is another thing. For most of the way, cycling would have been quicker. But, we weren’t in a rush, so we just made ourselves content with staring out the (dirty) windows.
A little after we started moving, the carriage attendant gestured to us that we had to get our bags and move – but not now. We weren’t really sure what it meant, but we were happy with our (dirty) window seats and weren’t really keen to be shipped somewhere else. About an hour later, the train stopped in what looked to be the middle of nowhere and it was gestured that we had to get our bags and move. But, she wasn’t moving us to new seats, she was taking us off the train. She then walked us to the front of the train, where the driver told us that it was another 200r ($5) each for a ticket. I had no idea what was going on, but it felt like we were being shaken down for more money. We went along with it, but were a little upset.
It turned out that that extra fee was to ride inside the actual locomotive with the driver. The driver spoke some English, and told us to put our bags down. It felt like a step backwards, as there weren’t any seats for us inside, and we couldn’t really see out of the windows.
… and then he took us OUTSIDE THE FREAKING TRAIN! We got to stand at the very front of the train and see things clearly. It was amazing, and I felt like such an arsehole for getting upset about being moved. It was worth many times more than what we paid.
The only problem with being outside – it was cold. It was really, really cold, especially through the tunnels, where there were still icicles growing from the floor. Risa lasted about 15 minutes before returning back inside the locomotive, I managed about 45, but that was my limit – my forehead was burning from the cold, my inner ears ached, and I couldn’t stop shivering – yes, I know it was probably stupid to spend that much time being so cold, but I was loving it so much that I didn’t want it to end.
The driver was an interesting guy, and it was fun chatting with him. It was also just awesome watching a train being driven – I can think of a few train nerd friends who’d be pretty jealous of this.
But, by the four-hour mark, we were ready for the ride to end, and to do something else other than sitting on the train. It was the laws of diminishing returns, and by now we’d had a pretty thorough view of the lake. There were the occasional beautiful outcrops and tunnels, but it did start to feel all the same – no wonder the locals were stretched out and sleeping.
We got off one stop before the end at the station called ‘74km’, rather than the terminus ‘Port Baikal’ as it was closer to the accommodation.
I saw that there are quite a few tour services selling packages that cost up to 5000r ($125), but other than having to make a few odd accommodation choices to make it work, it was simple and cheap to do on our own.