I am leaving Irkutsk today for Yekaterinburg, my next stop, an almost two full days away. It has been pleasant to get off the train and explore the area like a real tourist. Watching or observing from afar is certainly different from getting my hands dirty, so to speak. But I am ready now to continue my “journey of a lifetime”.
Km 5178 Irkutsk This is still along way to Moscow, and the more European parts of Russia. This is still mostly Asia in feel, and totally Siberia in appearance. Mostly taiga, some tundra, and there is a difference. I will let you look it up.
Km 5124 Usole-Sibirskoye Often called the salt capital of Siberia, it was made the old-fashioned way until 1956. They pumped salty water from shallow wells into pans and left it to evaporate. Now, salt is produced at a salt factory, the biggest in Russia, and the source of the Extra brand of table salt. Across the river is a Tsarist prison founded in 1873. Many participants in the failed 1905 Revolution were imprisoned here.
Km 5100 Malta Here, in 1928, a mammoth tusk carved into a female form, was found here. It was the remains of an ancient settlement from the 13th millennium BC. Many of the artifacts found here are in museums in Irkutsk.
Km 4940 Zima It means winter, and was the place of exile for members of the Sectarian sect. When Tsar Nicholas visited in 1891, he was given a model yurt cast in silver. The Oka River runs through just east of town, where the mineral rich water and earth were used to blacken animal skins, and during cholera epidemics, used as a disinfectant. The downside is that it also causes goiter.
Km 4794 Tulun This town sits at the junction of the Moscow-Irkutsk Highway, and also home to a Decembrists’ Museum. The town also has a large saw mill, and a large open case mine.
Km 4680 Niskneudinsk This town is also known for sawmills, swamps, and insects, mostly of the mosquito type. The Nizhneudinsky Caves further upstream about 75 Km, contain ancient paintings. The area is also home to Siberia’s smallest indigenous group, the Tofalar (Tofy). About 800 Km north, the Tunguska Event occurred in 1908. It is still one of the largest explosions (pre-atomic era) in human history, when some 2000 square km were instantly destroyed. Reliable sources say it was caused by a fragment of Encke’s Comet. It was heard up to 350 Km away, with shock waves that registered on seismic equipment around the world!
Km 4516 Tayshet This is the junction of the Trans Siberian and Baikal Amur Mainline (BAM) railways. The BAM runs 600 to 1000 Km north of the Trans Siberian, and runs through pristine taiga, tundra, and river valley meadows. Tayshet was originally a transit camp for Stalin-era prisoners headed east or west. The major camp was Ozerlag, with upwards of 100,000 prisoners who were forced to work on the Tayshet-Brask section. The factory that makes the railroad ties still operates today.
Km 4098 Krasnoyarsk This major industrial center was founded in 1628 beside the Yenisey River (meaning wide water). The Trans Siberian reached Krasnoyarsk in 1896, and served as an important trading center with the Yenisey River. The river is considered the traditional border between Eastern and Western Siberia. The area is filled with lumber mills, factories, and open cast mines. My new friend Michael, from Switzerland, spent a few days here.
Km 3715 Mariinsk This sleepy stop for postal riders went crazy in 1826 with the discovery of gold. Fifty tons of gold were extracted between 1828 and 1917. This town is also home to train engine repair yards. Whenever two or more main rail lines meet, there is a huge locomotive and repair yard. Huge!
Km 3602 Anzherskaya This town is home to a huge coal field, with 600 billion tons of high quality, low sulphur coal. Much like other mining, most of the miners were Tsarist prisoners.
Km 3570 Tayga This town was once in the middle of dense taiga, no longer. It sits at the junction for a 79 km branch to the ancient city of Tomsk. Many thought this was once one of the prettiest stops on the TSR.
Km 3335 Novosibirsk A large city of almost 1.5 million, most trains stop for a great look at Siberia’s largest station. It required from 1929 to 1941 to build. I tried to meet jack, a nephew of friends, Jim and Kay. But I messed up the times, mixing local time versus Moscow time, and day versus night. Go figure! Now, what do I do with the corn tortillas he requested. Nobody on the train has ever seen them before. I also lose my now dear friend, Alexei from the Altai. We hit it off as cabin mates, shared smoked omul and non alcoholic beer. Who would figure that I would meet the only Russian on the face of the earth who does not drink alcohol!!! We traded emails, and plan to stay in touch. I think he modestly owns this engineering company of over 200 people, since he had a “driver” pick him up in Novosibirsk for the 4 hour drive to his home town.
Km 3332 The Great Ob River Bridge This 870 meter long bridge is still in use today. Known as a hog-backed bridge, due to the hump in the middle of each span, it is made up of seven spans, each with a thick buttress that slants upstream to deflect the huge chunks of ice that float down in the spring runoff. They started building it in 1893, with work gangs perched 30 meters above the frozen Ob, where more than a few dropped to their death. The Ob itself is one of the longest flowing rivers in the world, more than 4000 Km. Impressive.
Km 2712 Omsk This is Siberia’s second largest city, quite industrial, located near the Irtysh River. The line between Omsk and Novosibirsk has the greatest traffic density of any railway line in the world. South of Omsk lies the Kyrgyz Steppes, home of the Kyrgyz people. They are direct descendants of the Turkic-Mongol hordes that joined Genghis Khan’s armies that invaded Europe in the 13th
century. In spring, this place is a hell with gray air created by clouds of gnats and mosquitoes. Each year, hunters shoot about five million birds in this area. A really young, rude Russian businessman got on to share my cabin. What a Jerk, with a capital J!
Km 2565 Nazyvayevskaya Thanks to Nikita Khrushchev’s Virgin Lands campaign, this area was intended to deal with years of chronic grain shortages after WWII. They cultivated 25 million hectares of land (the UK is only 13 million hectares). By the 1960’s, over farming made 5 million hectares into a veritable desert. Another area that is famous for its huge gray mosquitoes.
Km 2431 Ishim This was a huge trading center before the TSR came along. Just up the Ishim and Irtysh Rivers lies the city of Tobolsk, one of Siberia’s oldest settlements. This area was colonized only because of forced migration rather than voluntary mass migration. The first exiles were witness to the murder of Tsarevich Dmitry.
Km 2144 Tyumen This is Siberia’s oldest town, founded in 1586, on the banks of the Tura River. It was named for Tyumen Khan, a ruler of this region. It grew as a trading center with goods arriving and leaving the large port on the Tura River. AT least a million convicts and exiles passed through this town in the Tyumen Forwarding Prison. From here, they were sent on barges to Tomsk. These days Tyumen is popular for its oil and gas, along with older industries of shipbuilding and timber processing. Got rid of the Jerk in the middle of the night.
Km 2102 Siberia officially ends here for me, begins for those who left from Moscow or points west. Until oil was discovered, the area was reindeer herding and farms. George Keenan, in 1887 wrote: “No other spot between St. Petersburg and the Pacific is more full of painful suggestions, and none has for the traveler, a more melancholy interest than the little opening in the forest where stands this consecrated pillar.” The square boundary pillar is where hundreds of thousands of exiles said goodbye to their families forever. I may head out there tomorrow.
Km 1816 Yekaterinburg This is my second stop on the TSR to Moscow. This is still now Europe, but no longer Siberia. This place is famous for bringing in the Socialist era in 1918. The last of the Romanovs were murdered here by the Bolsheviks. It was also the setting for the 60’s U2 affair with Francis Gary Powers. It is also the home of Boris Yeltsin. Let’s get off and see what there is to see.
I had probably the best meal since arriving in Russia. My hotel, the Novotel, has a great American and Russian style buffet breakfast. The coffee needs some work, but the rest was pretty good, including three types of smoked fish, blini, French fries, brie, and fresh fruit.