Connecting the Trans-Siberian Railway

Construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway began at the turn of the 20th century. Today, the map is quite extensive, carrying passengers and supplies across Russia, central Mongolia, and Manchuria.

rr map

Constructing a railway was no easy task, and at first the map did not look like this. Lake Baikal, covered in ice for six months of the year and surrounded by steep mountains, stood in the way of a completed Trans-Siberian line. Desperately needing to transport soldiers and provisions from one side of the country to the other during the Russo-Japanese war, Russia strained to connect the lines between Irkutsk, on the western side of Baikal, and Ulan Ude, on the eastern side of the lake. Under the guidance of Tsar Alexander III, who is remembered by a statue in central Irkutsk, the Russians built two ice-breaking ships.

good ol' alex III
Tsar Alexander III in central Irkutsk

The first ship, the SS Angara, is now docked in Irkutsk as a museum. It is named after the Angara river, which is the only river that flows out of the lake rather than into it. This ship carried passengers and supplies across Baikal between mid-April and late December. Three different eastern ports were attempted until Tanhoy was established as the shortest route to the western port of Lestvyanka, and, depending o=n the amount of ice on the lake, the journey took approximately 4.5 hours from one side to the other. The second ship, the SS Baikal, carried not only passengers and supplies, but also train cars. The SS Baikal was destroyed by fire during the civil war in 1920.

ss angara
SS Angara

At 9 pm on our last night in Irkutsk I was lucky enough to catch someone still at the museum, a docent named Stass. He offered to give me a brief personal tour of the ship, in Russian, with his five-year-old grandson trailing behind and proudly stating the facts he already knew. First, Stass brought me below decks to the engine room. He told me that while the boat was still in use, the main engine was powered by three stoves worked by 18 men at all times. Some essential engine parts were made in New York, and experts from London helped to engineer the ship, including the ice-breaking hull. I liked that Stass mentioned Russia’s openness to international cooperation, because the country’s current climate sends a message of “every man or country for himself”.

Stoves in the SS Angara
SS Angara engine room

The lower and upper decks of the ship were spacious and included four small life rafts. The main cabins were also quite comfortable, with a piano and pleasant upholstery. By 1947, the SS Angara was no longer used for transportation, as the railway line through the mountains on Baikal’s southern shore had been completed. The boat was used for a short time as a research vessel before being converted into a museum. Today, the cabins serve as museum exhibitions, containing models of boats, old navigation equipment and maps.

upper deck
Upper deck
maps of lake
Maps of Baikal

I thanked Stass for the tour. He said he was glad to talk to me, and was interested how I, a young American, had ended up in Irkutsk, as most tourists are Chinese or Korean. He apologized for not knowing a single word of English – like many Russians I’ve talked to, Stass thought of English competency as an essential life skill, a skill that he was embarrassed not to have.

Article written by jonlinc

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