Train 263 to Irkutsk was very different to our previous train but just as comfortable. This time we had a four-berth cabin to ourselves, but no private bathroom. On the train we had our first encounter with the Russian language but were not yet prepared with any phrases to talk to the provodnitsa. It took a while for everyone to get themselves and their luggage on the train. Some passengers were carrying not only their bags but also boxes of other things that they struggled to fit into the small luggage compartments. Once everyone had finally boarded we were on our way.
We woke very early the next morning to the sound of our carriage being dropped off at the Mongolia-Russia border. Knowing that the process of getting across the border would be time-consuming, we weren’t expecting anything to happen any time soon. At about 8.30am, we went through the Mongolian customs process and our carriage was shunted across no-man’s-land. We were surprised to discover at this point that we were just a single carriage being shunted by a locomotive.
At 9.30am, the Russian border officials stepped on the train and took away our passports and documents. Shortly after, the customs officials came along with German Shepherds to search each cabin. We were told to lift the seats up, put our bags on the floor and step outside while the dog went through our things. Very little attention was paid to us compared to others who seemed to be bringing goods to trade across the border. Just before midday, our stamped passports were returned to us, but it would be another four hours before a locomotive would come and pick us up, so we went for a short wander around the border town. At 4pm our carriage was attached to a locomotive and a series of other carriages and we made our way through the snowy mountainous landscape.
Time passed pretty quickly on the train. Having done very little, we weren’t hungry, so we passed the time reading, chatting to our Australian friend and getting through our limited supply of warm beer. Unfortunately this train didn’t have a dining car so we were confined to our carriage, but there were plenty of people to talk to. The following morning we were woken by the provodnitsa who told us the next station was Irkutsk.
We were picked up from the train station and taken to a charming little hotel where we have been staying for the past two days. The city is an attractive place with lots of wooden buildings painted in interesting colours that really brighten up the streets in winter. Knowing our time in the city was limited, we were keen to see Lake Baikal on our first day so we took a mini-bus from the public bus station out to the lake, an hour from the city. We got our first glimpse of the gigantic frozen lake from the frosted windows of the bus and were dropped off near the shore where we found an ice-skating rink and an ice-sculpture display. It was quite a thrill to be able to walk over the lake which was covered in about an inch of snow in most parts. Below this was the black ice of the lake which we could tell was very thick from cracks that seemed to have a depth of a foot or more. It was impossible to tell exactly how thick the ice was but we were comforted by the fact that cars were driving around much further out than what we were.
© Richard Munckton