January 01, 2001

The Road to Irkutsk

rkutsk, located on the Angara River (a tributary of the Yenisey) is one of the great centers of Siberian culture. Indeed, we could say that Irkutsk is the culmination of Siberia, both geographically and culturally. The great rift that created Lake Baikal also serves as a dividing line between Siberia proper and that part of the Russian Far East known as “beyond Baikal” (Zabaikalye).

But before Irkutsk, let us return to Tomsk (see Russian Life, November-December), the point of departure for this final segment of our Siberian journey. Getting from Tomsk back to the mainline of the Trans-Siberian railway is far more difficult that it should be, particularly if going eastward. In a major blunder, the city’s merchant elite made no attempt to persuade Russia’s Ministry of Transportation to build the mainline north through Tomsk, and therefore the city had to settle for a branch line, constructed in 1896, to a lonely junction known as Taiga, 80 kilometers to the south.

As a result, a typical connection to Krasnoyarsk involves taking a small train in the late evening down the Tomsk spur to Taiga, which is indeed in the middle of the taiga forest, anchored by nothing more than a major rail junction. At Taiga, the train car from Tomsk is uncoupled and sits, unventilated, for a couple of hours until the express from Novosibirsk pulls in. At that point (after midnight), the Tomsk car is slammed into the end of the express and the journey continues.

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