The Circum-Baikal Railway tour is a must if you are in the area. After all, the railroad runs along the shores of the lake, and is a perfect way to see its beauty sitting comfortably in an armchair.
I strongly recommend you to take it: it is 89 kilometers of incredible views with stunning landscapes. There are several stops along the route, so you will get out of the train and see the forest, bridges, tunnels and the clear waters of Baikal Lake.
But before you book your ticket, read my travel tips and my impressions about the tour.
Before we go further, some info about me: I am a native Russian speaker, but I am not a citizen of Russia but of Moldova, a former Soviet Republic. This is why I do not need visas to enter Russia. I travelled to Baikal solo from mid-June till the beginning of July.
What is the Circum-Baikal Railway
In 1891 during the reign of Emperor Alexander III they started building the Trans-Siberian Railway that was to join Moscow with Vladivostok in Russia’s Far East. Now the railway runs through the entire country and is about 9,300 kilometers long.
Its construction was split into several parts. The railway was built till Irkutsk, and from Mysovaya (Babushkin now, located on the other side of Baikal) further to the East. Now they had to link Irkutsk to Mysovaya, and it was clear that that part of the road should be built along the shore of the Angara River and Baikal Lake.
The terrain was rocky and they had to dig tunnels and build aqueducts. Needless to say, the job was extremely hard, the workers, who included foreigners, convicts and exiles, didn’t have instruments, and winters were harsh. And exactly this part of the Trans-Siberian Railway, from Irkutsk to Mysovaya, was called the Circum-Baikal Railway. For those times, and some claim that even today, this railway was unprecedented in many terms. But despite many efforts, this part was considered the most dangerous one because of landslides and the destructive forces of the lake.
It was used till 1949, as the Soviets started building the Irkutsk Hydroelectric Power Station in 1950. As a result, the railway on the Angara River shore between Irkutsk and Port Baikal went under water. Naturally, they needed now another way of linking Irkutsk to the Trans-Siberian Railway and built the road on the nearby plateau, from Irkutsk to Slyudyanka. So, the railway from Slyudyanka to Port Baikal became a dead-end one, and today they show it to tourists as the Circum-Baikal Railway.
Fun fact: the Circum-Baikal Railway is called the golden buckle. Buckle – because it linked two parts of the Trans-Siberian Railway, and golden because building one kilometer of this part of the road was almost fifty percent more expensive than in other parts.
Circum-Baikal Railway is a very popular tourist destination and, as it is one railway, there is no variety. Still, there are several types of tours.
– classic and mirror tours: well, it is the same tour with the same stops. The difference is only in the place it starts from. The classic tour starts in Slyudyanka and ends at Port Baikal. The mirror one starts at Port Baikal and ends in Slyudyanka. Every tour has its own day. For example, classic tours take place on Wednesdays and Saturdays, the mirror ones – on Thursdays and Sundays. During peak season they add tours on Mondays and Fridays. But check the schedule of a specific tourist agency.
For classic tours the procedure is the following: you take a train from Irkutsk railway station to Slyudyanka, and then the same train takes you on a tour from Slyudyanka to Port Baikal. In Port Baikal you get on a ferry to Listvyanka, and a bus takes you back to Irkutsk from there.
For mirror tours this is the procedure: you take a bus from Irkutsk to Listvyanka. In Listvyanka you take a ferry to Port Baikal and embark the tour train there. The train takes you to Slyudyanka, where the tour ends, and then to Irkutsk railway station.
Personally, I prefer the classic tour as I find it more convenient. An important thing to note is that the bus (on the way back to Irkutsk) has many stops in the city, so you can get off at the closest one to your hotel.
– short and long tours. A long tour starts very early, around 8 AM, when the train leaves Irkutsk, and you will be back to Irkutsk at about 9 PM. Usually, there are 5-7 stops along the road during this tour: Slyudyanka, Angasolka, Sharyjalgai, Kirkirey, Polovinnaya, the Italian Wall and Port Baikal. I am not sure whether it is still a thing, but in 2019 it was possible to choose a shorter tour. It starts early as well, but has less stops and ends at about 4 PM (if I am not mistaken).
Things to know before booking a Circum-Baikal Railway tour
Here are some things to know and pay attention to before getting a ticket for a Circum-Baikal Railway tour.
1. Trains. Basically, there are two trains on the railway and they run on different days. The first one is a modern electric train and the second one is a so-called retro train with a coal steam locomotive. The retro train is considered more authentic as coal-fuelled locomotives were used back in the beginning of the 20th century. But it doesn’t mean that it isn’t comfortable: it is still an absolutely modern train. It’s up to you which one to opt for.
2. Buy tickets for lakeside window seats. As the railroad runs along the shore of Baikal, it means that one side of the train will always face the lake, and the other one – the walls and forests. And if you want to see the lake during the ride you will need a lakeside ticket. Understandably, it is more expensive, but totally worth it. Every agency will charge you extra for the lakeside ticket, they mention it specifically in their offers. What else you should know: for a better view of the lake you need a window seat on the lake side.
3. Ticket price. The first thing to keep in mind is that tickets for foreigners are more expensive than for Russian citizens, and the difference is around 1,000 RUB. The retro train tickets are the most expensive. In 2019 I paid 5,000 RUB, for 2020 the price is 5,300. If you want a lakeside ticket, you will have to pay an extra 750 RUB. Thus, your tour by a retro train will cost you 6,050 RUB or 76 EUR. Kids pay less: their ticket is 4,300 RUB. Yep, it is expensive. Because of the current situation with the virus agencies don’t update the prices, but I can suppose that tickets for ordinary trains are around 4,000 RUB for foreigners.
4. Where to buy tickets. Here I am going to talk about agencies selling the tickets. When I was walking around Irkutsk I went to the tourist information center. There I saw that they recommended services of Tutu Baikal for the Circum Baikal Railway. Their schedule didn’t suit me, so I forgot about them. I asked Ksenia from Baikal Maverick (I went to Tazheran Steppe with them) to book me a ticket and she did. But I was asked to go to Tutu Baikal and pay for it. It was weird, but my guess is that Tutu Baikal operates the route, and other agencies book some seats. In the end, everything was ok, my ticket was legit and I took the tour. There are many other agencies offering tickets, and you can use their services as well.
5. What a ticket includes. Well, the ticket is for the tour itself, bus rides to/from Irkutsk, train to/from Irkutsk, and ferry from Port Baikal to Listvyanka. Basically, it covers the tour and all other transportation related expenses. For food and beverages see below.
6. Food. As it is a long tour, you will have to think about meals. Well, the tourist agencies have already thought about it, so they offer breakfasts, lunches and dinners, for additional price, of course. I didn’t book any of their meals, but went to a supermarket instead and bought pret-a-manger food. And this option is much cheaper. My neighbour, a local girl, brought open sandwiches. But my other neighbour booked the meal option and he said that the food was good. And take a bottle of water with you. There aren’t many places to buy food during the tour (I remember just one village), but they sell smoked omul and beer on the train. And, I think, they served tea and coffee, or had hot water available, but my tour was a year ago, so I may be wrong.
7. Guide. Yeah, the guide. This one is interesting. When I booked the tour, I was told there would be a guide. Ours was very nice, she announced all stops, told us about the railway and local legends, etc. The thing is that she was a Russian-speaking guide. During the train ride they would announce stops and the duration of those stops. Our neighbour was a guy from Serbia so we translated for him all the announcements in the train, but when outside he would just walk around alone. There were some other foreigners as well, but they didn’t have a guide either, which means they were on their own. There was a big group of Chinese and they had their own guide. Just ask about it when you buy the ticket.
8. Clothes. Well, it will depend on the weather, of course. But, considering you will be close to the lake, it is a good idea to have something thicker and warmer. A water- and windproof jacket would be perfect. Hiking boots would be nice, but not necessary as you won’t have to climb anything. And, if the weather and water temperature allow swimming, a swimsuit will be nice as well.
My impressions about the tour
As the tour is quite expensive, my plan to take it wasn’t definite. Before my trip to Baikal I thought that I would skip it if I spent too much money during the first days. Well, I spent quite some money, and was planning to skip the train ride. But then I told myself: “When will you visit this place again? Let’s do it now”. Basically, it was a last-minute decision and the day before the actual tour I went to get myself a ticket. Frankly, somewhere deep inside I hoped there wouldn’t be any 🙂 Well, I bought the last ticket for the retro train. I am still surprised as usually they sell out quickly.
As it was the last ticket I did not get to choose a seat. Luckily, it was a lakeside one, but not directly at the window. And, as it was my last day in Irkutsk, I had no option of choosing a day with nice weather. I paid 5,000 RUB, which is a normal price: they didn’t charge me extra for the lakeside option as I didn’t have any alternatives.
So, early in the morning I went to the railway station of Irkutsk to catch the train to Slyudyanka. It was cloudy and started drizzling during the ride, but I hoped it would get better. Though I had a lakeside ticket, my seat wasn’t right at the window. Luckily, my neighbour, a lovely local girl, allowed me to sit at the window. I think she doesn’t realize how grateful I am to her for that.
We were late, so when we arrived in Slyudyanka, it was around 11 AM. We had about 10 minutes at the station, while they were attaching the iron steam locomotive to the same train we came by to Slyudyanka. Well, it was a retro train, after all.
Then we finally embarked on our journey. I think the speed of the train was around 20 kilometers per hour, so that we could see the lake. Unfortunately, the weather didn’t become any better, it was still cloudy and drizzling. I guess here I have to explain why it was so upsetting. Because of this weather there was thick fog above the water so one couldn’t see far. Even when the sun came out, it was still foggy, and this definitely spoilt the mood and didn’t make the scenery better.
We had 3-4 stops along the road with different duration, usually about 15-20 minutes. Luckily, the weather became better during the day. Our guide would tell us something about the place and the railway in general, and we had some time to explore the surroundings on our own. The last stop was for 40 minutes, the longest one, and here we could come close to the water. There was enough time to have a swim, and some people did, though the water was cold to my taste. And anyone could get inside the locomotive to see how everything works.
It was already getting dark when we arrived in Port Baikal. Here we disembarked the train and took a ferry to Listvyanka, a village on the other side of the lake. Buses took us from here back to Irkutsk.
I still have ambiguous feelings about the tour. It was a nice tour, and the views were breathtaking, and we had a lovely guide, and I got a window seat, in the end. It’s just… that it was too long. I mean, we spent the entire day in a train, going out for 15-20 minutes only. I guess my expectations were too high. And the weather wasn’t very good in the first half of the day, so we could see the fog only.
If I ever go to Baikal again (I hope I will as the place is spectacular!), I would take the Circum-Baikal Railway tour again. But this time I will buy tickets in advance and choose a window seat, I will check the weather and will definitely opt for a short tour.
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