We reached Irkutsk after spending three nights on the Trans Siberian Railway. Irkutsk was the first large settlement we had seen in 5,000 kms of travel. All we had seen out our cabin window were forests of birch trees, conifers, grasslands and swamps. Irkutsk has an unfriendly climate. It’s record minimum is just short of -50C. The average minimum in January is -21.8C rising to an average maximum of -12.8C. The corresponding figures for July are plus 13.0 and 24.8C. Irkutsk is a service city of 600,000 people and also is a drop off point for tourists travelling to Lake Baikal, world’s largest fresh water lake.
Irkutsk relies on a mixture of private and public transport. The diesel bus fleet is old and appears to be poorly maintained. It is supplemented by medium sized buses carrying around 20 people. We saw no renewable energy initiatives in Irkutsk. As in the rest of Russia, recycling seems to have a low priority. Rusty machinery litters railway yards. We saw no domestic recycling.
It was interesting to visit a reconstructed historic timber village outside Irkutsk. The Siberian inhabitants prior to and during the Cossack era had to be very tough and inventive to survive the winter. Their pine log houses had to be air tight and constructed more than a metre above the frozen ground. The people survived by sleeping around and on the stove. The cows and horses were kept in well constructed barns for the winter months.
Two more nights on the train brought us to Yekaterinburg (population 1.4 million) on the western edge of Siberia and within thirty kilometres of the imaginary line dividing Europe and Asia. In Soviet Times (1922-1991) Yekaterinburg was a “closed city” because of the atomic research and chemical factories that the administration wanted to keep from Western eyes. With the advent of globalisation in Russia, Yekaterinburg is transitioning into a bustling Western city with lots of construction and road works. Road works in Russia can only be undertaken in the warmer months. Most of the newish car fleet is European, Japanese or Korean with a few old Ladas from the Soviet era. The soccer stadium is being rebuilt in time for the 2018 World Cup that Russia is hosting.
Yekaterinburg’s public transport is a mix of diesel buses, electric trolley buses and underground rail. The metro was once listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the shortest in the world (5 stations) and even now most of the stops on the map are “projected” stations that were promised 20 years ago. Thirty year old Tatra (Czech) trams make up most of the fleet. They are reliable but hard to board as the floor is placed above the wheels. These are supplemented by modern, lower Ural trams.
We reached Kazan (population 1.2 million) after another night on the train. Kazan relies on the oil/gas industry for its prosperity. Like the rest of Russia, the low price of oil is slowing growth. We were only in Kazan for 20 hours so we were not able to personally observe the 7 station metro or the extensive bus network that is partially privatised.
The last 770 kms of our train trip to Moscow was on the pride of the fleet. Shortly after boarding, we pulled down the bunks and slept soundly until the outskirts of the Russian capital. When we reached Moscow we had travelled over 9200kms by rail since leaving Vladivostok eleven days ago.