Hong Kong to UK by train: Day 10
We’d passed through Ulan-Ude before dawn and woke to a Trans-Siberian sunrise with over 5000 km still to go. The low-rolling hills and Mongolian pasture of the afternoon before, that had shone after the morning’s rain, had morphed into hillsides forested with fir and spruce as we approached Lake Baikal. We were in a different land now, where the taiga would soon stretch seemingly forever with the same despairing permanence, the faces outside no longer Asian.
It was still early, only just gone 9:00 am Mongolian time, as I jumped off my top bunk bed and made my first tentative trip to the dining carriage. I felt like I hadn’t eaten a proper meal for the past four days. In truth, I probably hadn’t. The only other people in the dining carriage were a young Russian guy in tight black t-shirt and jeans and what can only be described as a Trans-Siberian dinnerlady. The guy was nonchalantly smoking a cigarette beneath the No Smoking sign, looking like some kind of Russian James Dean as he handed me the menu. I sat down and opened it with trepidation.
But the gourmet delights on offer, on paper at least, were pleasantly surprising. I’d expected maybe a half dozen different shades of the same rank meat and a damp assortment of boiled vegetables. Instead, there was salmon, herring, chicken, salad, yoghurt, muesli and a choice of pancakes. I decided on the chicken with fresh vegetables, and if I’d been given two more plates of the same, I would still have been asking for more. It was more greasy spoon than Michelin star, and the potatoes were fries, not potatoes, which in itself was no bad thing. But for a first taste of Trans-Siberian dining, it was far more agreeable than the foul emetic I’d envisaged.
It was while polishing off the last of my peas that the train rounded a corner to reveal on our right the endless blue shimmer of the famous Lake Baikal in all its early morning glory. The deepest lake on the planet, Lake Baikal measures a mile deep at its deepest point. It is 630 km from north to south and contains nearly a fifth of the world’s fresh, unfrozen water, more than America’s five great lakes combined. It is the world’s oldest lake, having been formed some 25 million years ago, and has an ecosystem all of its own. 80% of the species found in Lake Baikal are unique to the lake, with the millions of minute crustaceans that live there working as a biological filtering system that also makes it one of the clearest lakes in the world. In some places, visibility can reach up to 40m, and it is said that because of the industriousness of these creatures in breaking matter down, nobody that has ever died in Lake Baikal has ever been recovered.
But like the Mongolian steppe of the day before, Lake Baikal too is under threat. In 2010, the Baykalsk Pulp and Paper Mill was reopened after promises that its 2008 closure was permanent. It’s lakeside location means that the waste from its chlorine bleaching process is again able to find its way into the water, while polluted inflows, which bring untreated waste from Mongolia and elsewhere in Siberia, are also threatening to upset the delicate Baikal ecology. Added to this, the constant threats of pipelines, and even a mooted nuclear plant, being built nearby, have kept the vociferous green movement that campaigns to keep Lake Baikal clean, busier than they would ordinarily like.
From ecologists and activists, to residents whose livelihoods depend on the lake, a vigilant watch force has now been mobilised to help monitor and respond to threats against the Baikal ecosystem. But despite a recent 125,000 signature petition being submitted to the Russian government requesting Lake Baikal be granted greater protection, the lake and those that campaign for its preservation, are facing an uncertain future. Independent citizens’ groups and environmental organisations are coming under pressure from the authorities, while mining, illegal logging, tourism and development, are all still on the increase.
We jogged along the lake’s southern shore, and would do for the next 200 km, as the mountains on the far side seemed not to waver in their stage-set constancy. I gawped at the blueness of the water as our Russian James Dean and the Trans-Siberian dinnerlady busied themselves ignoring it all, filling the carriage with blue-grey cigarette smoke whilst sharing an early morning beer. James had set up his laptop and was playing his latest Russian trance mix and the scenery rolled by to its new 120 bmp soundtrack. By the end of the day we’d be almost through another time zone. There would be four more to pass though before we reached Moscow and a further three beyond that. I stared out of the window wondering what time it was at home.