Before completion of the Circumbaikal Loop, a vessel named the Baikal was employed as both a ferry and an ice- breaker. It was built by a British firm, Sir. W.G. Armstrong, Mitchell and Company. It was constructed with inch thick steel plating, reinforced internally with two foot thick timber sheathing. It was powered by three steam engines generating 3750 horsepower driving two steel propellers and a bronze forescrew in the bow, capable of breaking ice up to four feet thick.
Three lines of track were laid on the deck to accommodate an entire train (or 25 loaded flat cars). But experts miscalculated the depths to which the lake was capable of freezing. The only way to operate in winter was for the Baikal to break the ice without a train on board to forge a passage. A smaller vessel, the Angara could follow. In severe weather, both vessels became ice-bound.
After the Japanese attack on the Russian fleet at Port Arthur, Prince Khilkov put into operation a plan to lay rails over the five feet thick ice. During an experiment with a test engine, it suddenly plunged into the lake due to the warm springs under the surface. It made a hole in the ice almost 5 feet wide and more than 14 miles long!!! After this disaster, engines were dismantled, laid on flat cars and dragged across the ice by huge teams of men and horses. This was a 17 hour journey.
Most interesting is the account of Francis E. Clark in 1900, “Crossing the Holy Sea Westwards”. Quite colorful prose: We found Lake Baikal in a peaceful mood, but it is not always so by any means. “No man has ever said his prayers until he has ventured on Lake Baikal,” is a common saying of the peasants on the shore. Lying, as it does, in a comparatively narrow valley, between the mountain ranges, the terrible gales which have their homes between the mountain peaks are often let loose with but scant warning. Then woe betide the little fisherman’s craft that is caught far from shore, and even the passengers on the stout steamer may well tremble.
Clark goes on further: The crystal lake, fifty feet deep at the shore, dashes in places against precipitous cliffs, the banks are clad in freshest grass, dotted with poppies and lilies, and blue honeysuckles, while a little village nestles in a cove beneath a frowning cliff. Rarely have I seen in all my travels a scene more lovely than is presented as the ice-breaker makes her way cautiously into the little artificial harbor of Listvinitschnoie, at the southwestern end of the Holy Sea.
Moving on to 1928, and Bassett Digby’s account of his match with Baikal: Before the construction of the Trans-Siberian railroad, one crossed the ice by sledge. There were specially trained horses for this traffic, accustomed to wearing shoes with long spikes in them. The camels of the tea caravans from China, too, used to wear such shoes for the crossing of the frozen lake.
Though he never crossed Baikal, the words or Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1797) came to mind of Maurice Baring in 1905.
And now there came both mist and snow,
And it grew wondrous cold;
And ice, mast-high, came floating by
As green as emerald.
Our guide says the lake can freeze to a depth of about ten feet. I find it difficult to comprehend, on a day like today. It was cold and slightly windy, but the lake was relatively calm. Can you really see the wisdom and foresight of placing rails on the ice? I can understand a horse drawn carriage, however.
Today is a beautiful Spring day. My guide said it has been an unseasonably warm winter. Welcome to the club, as I told her we are in a severe drought in the USA.