A journey along the Circum-Baikal Railway line is an incomparable cultural, historical, technical and scenic experience. It is one of the most complex railway lines in the world, running for 89 km (56 mi) along a narrow mountain shelf, going through 56 tunnels and galleries and over 248 bridges and viaducts, and passing more than 170 architectural and natural monuments.
Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest lake, lies directly in the path of the Trans-Siberian Railway and, before the Circum-Baikal was built, trains had to be uncoupled and transported across the lake by ferry. The Russo-Japanese War of 1904 made it imperative that this final link in the Trans-Siberian line was completed to carry troops and supplies. Huge sums of money and the forced labour of thousands of convicts were thrown at the problem of constructing a railway along the vertical granite mountainsides of the lake’s southern coast. In terrible conditions, constantly threatened by landslides and mudflows, the prison work-gangs hacked out ledges and tunnels using only chisel and sledge hammer. The line became operational in 1905 and, in reference to its massive cost, rapidly acquired the sobriquet “the golden buckle in the steel belt’.
The Circum-Baikal became redundant in the 1950s when a hydroelectric project necessitated flooding a section of line and building a by-pass. Today it is a quiet back-route, serviced by excursion trains that trundle along at 25-30 kph (15-20 mph), stopping every so often for passengers to look at the incredible engineering – all the more incredible for having been built without the aid of machines. The railway runs through a region of outstanding natural beauty with breathtaking views of Lake Baikal’s astounding scenery. It is a spectacular testament to Russian skill in engineering and design, quite unlike any other railway journey in the world.
WHEN TO GO:
May to October
TIME IT TAKES:
4 hours and 40 minutes
Ulanovo – see the remains of the original railway sleepers and tunnels.
Local culture in villages along the route.
Belaya Valemka (White Cutting) – marble outcrop, rare combination of minerals of outstanding geological significance.
Polovlnnaya and Shabartuysky Bridges – ferro-concrete arched viaducts.
YOU SHOULD KNOW:
You can also explore the railway line on foot, going through disused tunnels and over viaducts as you hike along the lakeshore.