The Grand Trans-Siberian Express Experience Part 4: Lake Baikal

This is the fourth in a six-part series of blog posts about my experience onboard the Grand Trans-Siberian Express. To read the other parts, click here: 

Part 1: Moscow to Yekaterinburg

Part 2: Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk

Part 3: Irkutsk

Part 5: Ulan-Ude and Tarbagatay

Part 6: Ulaanbaatar and Terelj National Park, Mongolia

The video above is a 7-part anthology of short films that capture my experience onboard, a highlight reel of memorable experiences onboard the Grand Trans-Siberian Express, taken during the summer of 2017.

The Grand Trans-Siberian Express is the premium version of the legendary Trans-Siberian Railway journey. The GTSE is an all-inclusive "cruise on rails" using a private charter train, with luxury accommodations and fine dining from start to finish onboard the train and at designated stops along the way. Our chosen route took us from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, over the course of 12 days, with guided day trips in between long hours in transit on the train. I had the good fortune of joining this trip thanks to Aeroflot Russian Airlines.

PART 4: Lake Baikal

The road from Irkutsk to Lake Baikal

DAY 9 BEGINS with a scenic one-hour bus ride through the Siberian taiga to Lake Baikal, the road hewing closely to the line of the River Angara. Near the end of the drive, the river opens up and reveals the enormous lake, a smooth vision of the bluest, clearest water imaginable, its far shores so distant that we can barely make out the outlines of the high mountains that make up the shore. We stop to take pictures by the river's mouth, the only river to flow out from the Baikal.

Gazing out towards the invisible far shores of Lake Baikal from the mouth of the Angara

The opposite bank of the Angara

Stopping to take pictures of crystal clear waters of the Angara

We make a stop and spend some time in a museum to learn about the lake. It is the oldest, largest (by water volume, freshwater), and deepest lake in the world, a 25-million-year-old marvel that contains 20% of the world's freshwater and is, particularly in the winter, of remarkable beauty.

Facts about Lake Baikal

Comparing the Baikal to the world's great lakes

We enter the tourist town of Listvyanka, and the entire world becomes bathed in blue. We stop by a hotel for lunch and then walk around the local market.

The view from our lunch venue in Listvyanka

Nothing but blue all around - including our t-shirts. Unintentional, promise.

Weekenders, many from Irkutsk, enjoying a day by the lake. It is not particularly warm, despite the sunny weather!

Blue heaven. My favorite color.

We board a ferry to take us on a short ride to Port Baikal. It's a beautiful ride, albeit cold as winter with the wind. I'm able to put my new fur hat to good use as I stay out on deck to shoot.

Enjoying the warmth of my Siberian fur cap

Approaching Port Baikal

Disembarking at Port Baikal, I am surprised to find our cabin attendants - and the entire Grand Trans-Siberian Express - waiting for us. It's been fitted with a red steam engine instead of the electric engine for what will be the journey's high mark: a circumnavigation of one section of the lake, the rails right beside the water.

The Grand Trans-Siberian Express, fitted with a steam engine for its circum-Baikal journey

Walking up to our carriage

We re-board and enjoy the scenery from the comfort of our air-conditioned cabins. This is, I think to myself, what we came here for. Soon, I'm unable to resist and return to my between-cabin perch to shoot.

Circumnavigating Lake Baikal on the Grand Trans-Siberian Express

View from the rear of the train

We are given the option, for 20 Euros each, to ride on the steam engine for a unique view. Three of us bite, hand over the cash, and, because we are such a small group compared to the others, get an extra special treat: Not only are we on the steam engine, we are literally riding behind the front bumper of the train (This causes some resentment from the Chinese group, which specifically asked for this spot, but were too many to entertain). Meanwhile, we are giddy with excitement at such an exclusive experience.

Do we look happy to be here? (It's really cold)

Best (not seats) in the house!

Being in the front of the train gives us angles we've never had, and it is worth more than every Euro cent we paid.

Front of the train view

The ride goes through a series of tunnels

The beauty of Siberia in the summer, as seen from the Grand Trans-Siberian Express

We return to our cabins as others take their turns on the steam engine. At the end of two and a half blissful hours, the train stops on a bridge beside a small village, and preparations are made for the culminating event of the Grand Trans-Siberian Express: a barbecue by the shores of Lake Baikal, with overflowing wine and, once again, music and dancing.

Preparing the barbecue by the lake. Party time!

Looking down at the inlet and the village by the lake we've stopped by

The pictueresque perch of our train

The Filipino contingent posing in front of the Grand Trans-Siberian Express, all smiles on this wonderful day

Having the time of my life

The musicians warming up

We spend time exploring the area, taking photos, while a brave few plunge into the frigid waters of the Baikal for a dip (as Atom did). We're called for dinner, and I rush over from across the bridge to get my fill of grilled food and red wine.

Dinner time!

After several hearty servings of food and wine, the party commences in earnest. The Asians, ourselves included, begin to shy away toward the edges of the scene, trying not get caught in the gravity of the dancers, while the rest, especially the Spanish-speaking group, let loose. It is heartening to see a group composed mostly of senior citizens take so much joy in dancing outdoors --- I can't help but mention that they have a thing or two to teach us shy young Asians.

The light begins to fade, even on this long summer day, and I use the opportunity to hunt for more photos as blue hour approaches.

The staff of the GTSE having a conversation by a steam engine on display at this site

Taking a moment to take in all the beauty

I walk down a steep path towards the shores the lake for a different view. It is peaceful here, and there is a lovely view of the train above.

The stony shores of the Baikal

Looking back up at the train as the light falls

When I walk back up, the dancing is still on, probably for about an hour by now. It has been such a marble round, perfect day, and I am so happy to be here. I could never have imagined being here, yet there I was.

As night begins to fall, we reluctantly get back on the train as the staff cleans up outside. They all deserve some rest for the unforgettable experience they've provided for the passengers on this day, which has gone without a hitch.

Meanwhile, back in our cabin, Atom and I decide to polish off the champagne I received from the staff of the GTSE during my birthday a few days ago, with a side of talking about life. In the middle of our conversation, I gaze out the window... and a surreal vision greets me: a red full moon rising, unnaturally huge and bright over the otherwise total blackness of the lake. I tell him to shut off all the lights, and we gaze in awe at the apparition.

The full moon rising over Lake Baikal

It is the perfect gift of a way to end a day that has exceeded all expectations. We drift off to bed to the sound of train on the tracks once again, as it wends its way ever closer to the border.


Proceed to Part 5: Ulan-Ude and Tarbagatay

Many thanks to Regina Laquindanum and Lizette Jocson of Aeroflot Russian Airlines for having me along for this trip. If you are from the Philippines and would like more information on booking this trip, you may contact Aeroflot Philippines at:

GSA: VITA Travel Services

Unit 809 8F Tower One, PSE Plaza Ayala Triangle, Ayala Ave. Makati City

T:+632 759 2191 / 759 2192 / 836 8975