Lake Baikal, Russia

A long night last night: the Swedes, Thomas and David, brought us vodka to celebrate midsummer before they went to celebrate with the other Swedes in carriage six. Later they all sang the national anthem on the train platform – much to the amusement of the train staff. We invited the South Africans, John and Christine, two doors up, to our cabin to continue the party and watch an electrical storm over Siberia. 

Later we got up at 4am in Irkutsk because John ‘s passport was being couriered there by the Mongolian embassy and we had to know if it worked out. It seemed unlikely it would, but before we’d pulled our shoes on, the local agent had managed to get right into the train (no mean feat, our carriage attendant is very strict) and was trying to be allowed through to knock on John’s door. 

We slept for perhaps 20 minutes after that before it was time to get up to catch the first glimpse of Lake Baikal, the world’s largest lake, containing a quarter of the world’s unfrozen fresh water and more water than North America’s five Great Lakes put together. It was well worth getting up for: as we rounded the corner and saw it open out before us I nearly cried; after 3 days of overland travel it was so beautiful and unexpected and I understood why travellers had waxed lyrical about it in youth hostels in St Petersburg and Moscow – it felt like a type of baptism just to see it there, all that water, fringed by mountains and the horizon – and all our bleary-eyed carriage-mates stood and gaped and photographed through the open windows until we pulled into the station. 

Our guide-book said it was theoretically possible during the three minute stop to run to the lake and touch it and run back but our carriage attendant wouldn’t let us off and most people went back to bed. We stayed a little longer before our beds called out to us too. 

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