Probably the most scenic day on the train.
Travelling now in a half empty carriage. Many of the originals are still travelling East with us. The couple with the small boy in compartment 8 are still there, and still not really talking despite V’s attempt to engage them over the man’s Australia-motifed Bermuda shorts. The mum and her daughter in 6 next door are still with us after exchanging ‘Dobre Outra’ pleasantries this morning. The robust middle-aged woman sharing compartment 3 with the Russian-speaking Malaysian girl are both still on board.
One of the things I was really looking forward to on this trip was skirting round the south side of Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest fresh water lake, after passing Irkutsk. Unfortunately, what my travel guides to the journey did not tell me was that the Trans-Siberian schedule ensures that you actually do this at around midnight, real world time. Y told me this on the first day, but I was vainly hoping that travelling around the longest day in the year might just give us an outside chance of seeing the lake. It did, nearly.
As we sat in the restaurant car yesterday evening I was counting down the time from Irkutsk to the next station, a two minute stop at Slyudyanka which would start the Baikal stretch. It got darker and darker. We were back in our compartment by around midnight and the darkness was pretty much complete. After the brief stop I went out into the corridor and looked through the window trying to block out the light of the carriage with my hands.
There was the faintest of orange tinges to the sky in the west. I could just about make out the shape of a large expanse of water stretching out from the train tracks over to the hills on the far side, and the slightest change in the differing shades of black given off by the hills and the night sky above them. To the right, I could make out the light of a single fishing boat on this part of the lake. I pressed my phone against the window and cupped my hands around it to try to shield it too from the lights in the corridor. The camera clicked.
My photograph of Lake Baikal was the mystery photograph at the end of yesterday’s collage. It is a work of the greatest imagination. Your imagination. It has to be. The iPhone camera falls some way short of the human eye in terms of the definition it can capture on a dark, dark night. But I uploaded it there for your enjoyment nonetheless. Click back to the previous blog. Enjoy. Then please rejoin us here.
I’m still on train time now so I woke well into the day this morning, missing the two major night-time stops of Ulan-Ude and Hilok. We are crossing a wide plain. I try to take a photograph of it but Y is waiting for me in the corridor and tells me not to waste my time. I should wait for Chita, he says. It is much more beautiful after Chita, he tells me. Criminalistic Chita, he adds. He is not wrong.
Breakfast time, or rather, time to have breakfast. V decides to wash our latest acquisition of cucumbers and tomatoes. She fetches some boiling water from the samovar and starts daintily dabbling the vegetables with a moist tissue. Y can hardly believe his eyes. What will these crazy people do next? We eat tomato and cucumber sandwiches washed down by “Palpy”, an ubersweetened orange drink with added pulp to convince you that it’s good for your health.
We pass a series of homesteads, villages, and the occasional enclosed ranch-like building. Apparently we are now at the highest part of our journey, almost three-and-a-half thousand feet above sea level. The few trees around us back off into the wider valley, allowing us a clear view of the hills back-dropping our journey. The hills edge into becoming mountains. I spot a new flower and then suspect it is the Polish poppies making a return to our route.
A large lake borders the track. On the far side of the lake low-rise houses progress into stylish apartment blocks, that make way occasionally for industrial complexes with smoking red and white hooped chimneys. Then the right hand bank of the lake begins to swing towards us and we are in Chita, or Chita 2 to be exact. It has no clear criminalistic attributes that I can see.
I wander outside the station to snap an attractive pale-blue fronted church with golden domes opposite the station. Around the station there is plenty of food to buy. A boy from the next carriage cheers himself up by monitoring my interesting use of Russian grammar and vocabulary to make sure I make the purchases that I actually intend. I wander back to the train armed with croissants, black bread, salami and assorted packets of sweets. Y returns with a couple of cans of Coke and something usually more edible than whatever we have chosen. He poses for me beneath the station name. Then the train moves off and we will see just how beautiful the journey becomes.
It does become beautiful. Very beautiful. The journey follows along the side of a river on the way out of Chita with small settlements, dachas, and collections of smallholder allotments lining the side of the banks for several miles. For most of the the rest of the day we are following a wide ambling river that snakes gently across the landscape. Sometimes the plain widens and herds of cows become lost to sight in the expanse along the river’s floodplain.
We pass numerous towns and villages, each drawing its existence from its proximity to the river. A town of wooden framed houses with dull iron roofs and a preponderance of light green gables and window frames stares out across the river at a lone whitewashed church. At times we move away from the river, or our view is obscured by slight undulations in the terrain, but we always return to it, and for the most part it lies to the south of us steering our way eastwards towards the end of our journey. I watch on entranced as S and Y sleep in the upper bunks and V dabs gently at a watercolour of the scene.
We make our scheduled stop at Karimskaya and again I sneak away to snap another light-green church with golden dome. We move on for more tales from the riverbank. At one point we make a brief stop at a bend in the river beside a temporarily stranded freight train and we invite the Provodnik in to capture us at this moment in time on camera. He must be a student of my Baikal period because the photograph he takes is a very dark one on a very bright day.
As the light begins to fail it draws attention to strangely crumpled treeless hills that create their way along the horizon. Then the forest moves back in, forming a backdrop to a couple of formerly grand but now deserted off-white buildings, maybe domeless former churches? Daylight has all but gone when we pull into our final stop of the day, Chernyschevsk Zabaikal’sk.
Mr Chernyshevsk himself is waiting to greet us on the platform. I know this because I finally exchange a few words with C, the Malaysian student, who is reading his statue’s plaque. We only exchange a few words because she moves away quickly, perhaps fearing that I am as dodgy as I probably look like after five days on this train.
The trackside kilometre count has reached 6386 by this station. We are that far from Moscow, but there are still nearly three thousand kilometres to go. This is a long journey.