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July, 27, 2017

Anton Chekhov: Letters about Lake Baikal

Even in the second half of XIX century a journey through Siberia was a journey as long and dangerous as a travel to the most remote places of the world. The journey from Moscow to Sakhalin could take more than two months before the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway! Anton Pavlovich Chekhov set on this way in 1890.

Chekhov planned the journey to Sakhalin as a part of an entire trip to the East. After visiting the island he scheduled his travel by a steamship through the Asian seas and the newly constructed Suez Canal to Odessa. However, the main goal of the journey was Sakhalin. Chekhov abruptly responded to the humiliating review of Suvorin (a publisher, a writer, and a theatre critic) on March 9, 1890: “Sakhalin may seem unnecessary and not interesting only for the society that does not exile thousands of people there and does not spend millions on it ... This is the place of the most unbearable sufferings which can only be done to a free or a bonded person”.  Once Chekhov’s relatives, friends and acquaintances learned about his plan, they warned him against the danger of the adventure in eager rivalry, but Chekhov was unyielding. And only shortly before his departure he asked his friends “not to bear any ill will against him” in his usual jocular manner, and just in case he “would drown or something like this” he called his sister Maria his heiress (in his letter to Suvorin): “... she will be the one to repay my debts”.

The voyage around Asia was conceived as an entertaining “contrast” to the first exploratory part of the route. The writer wanted to visit Japan, get acquainted with the great civilizations of Asia – those of China and India, breathe in the heat of the Arabian desert, cross the Indian Ocean, sail through the recently dug Suez Canal, walk through Constantinople ... Looking ahead, let us not note that Chekhov managed to visit only four ports that were open, despite the epidemic of cholera, - Hong Kong, Singapore, Colombo and Port Said.

It should be noted that this route had already become familiar to people in some parts. Crews with officials and officers were rushing, the strings of carts with immigrants were dragging, exhausted convicts went by foot along the Siberian tract (“the biggest and, as is seemed, the most ugly road in the whole world”). There was also a river route, through Amur and Shilka, used by the Siberian merchants to carry tea from China.

The letters sent by Chekhov to his relatives and friends made up a whole collection that was published and republished many times. Below we will quote the fragments of two Chekhov letters describing his route from Irkutsk to Shilka.

June 13, 1890. Listvenichnaya.

I’m going through silly days. On June 11, the day before yesterday, we left Irkutsk in the evening, being desperate to get in time to the Baikal steamship departing at 4 o’clock a.m. There are only three stations between Irkutsk and Lake Baikal. At the first station we were told that there were no horses, therefore it was impossible to proceed. We had to spend a night there. Yesterday morning we left that station and arrived at Baikal by noon. We went to the wharf and the answer to our question was that the steamship would depart no earlier than on Friday, June 15.

We rode to Baikal along the bank of the Angara River flowing out from Baikal and into Yenisei. The banks are picturesque. 

Mountains are everywhere over and over again, they are all covered with forests.

The weather was wonderful, quiet, sunny, warm; along the way I for some reason felt that I was unusually healthy; I felt so good that it is impossible to describe. This probably happened because after I used to sit a lot in Irkutsk and because the bank of the Angara reminded me of Switzerland. That’s something new and original. We rode along the bank, reached the river mouth and turned to the left; there was the coast of Lake Baikal which is called “Sea” in Sibera. The lake water was like mirror. Of course, the opposite coast could not be seen: the distance to it made up 90 versts (96 km). The coast is high, steep, stony, covered with forests; you can see capes protruding into the sea on the left and on the right, just like Ayu-Dag or Tokhtabel in Feodosiya. It looks like the Crimea. 

The station of Listvenichnaya is located near the water and is strikingly similar to Yalta; if the houses were white, it would have been the complete analogue of Yalta. Only the mountains have no buildings on them here, for the mountains are too steep and you cannot build anything on them.

We moved in a shed-apartment, reminding of some of Kraskovkie summer houses (dachas). Baikal begins right at your windows, at a distance of 2-3 arshines (about 1.5 meters) from the base. We pay a rouble per day. The mountains, forests, mirror of Baikal water: everything is poisoned by the thought that we will have to sit here until Friday. What are we going to do here? In addition, we do not yet know what we have to eat. The local population eats only wild garlic. There is neither meat nor fish; they did not give us any milk, only promised to do this. A small loaf of white  bread cost us 16 kopecks. I bought buckwheat and a piece of smoked pork and asked to cook gruel; it turned out to be not tasty at all, but there is nothing to do, we’ll have to digest it. We have been searching whether anyone would sell a chicken in the village, but did not find anyone...

It is raining today, and Baikal is drowned in the fog. I should sit down to write, but I am no good worker in a bad weather. I can foresee unmerciful boredom; if I were alone, it would be tolerable, but lieutenants and a military doctor who like to talk and argue came with me. They understand little, but say a lot about everything. One of the lieutenants resembles the character of Khlestakov a bit and is a braggart. You should be alone along the road. Sitting in a carriage or in a room alone with your own thoughts is much more interesting than doing this with people.

The fog cleared. I can see clouds on the mountains. What a sight! One could mistake it for Caucasus for a second ...

Goodbye.

Your Homo Sachaliensis * A. Chekhov.

* the resident of Sakhalin (lat.)

June 20, 1890. Shilka, “Yermak” steamship. 

June 20. Hello, dear family! I wrote to you from Listenichnaya about being late for the Baikal steamship, so that I had to go through Lake Baikal not on Tuesday, but on Friday, which implied that I would get in time for the Amur steamship only on June 30. But the fate is capricious and often plays unexpected tricks. On Thursday morning I went for a walk along the coast of Lake Baikal and saw that a pipe of one of the two steamships smoked. I asked where the steamship was going. They said they were going “beyond the sea”, because some merchant hired them in Klyuevo to transport his string of carts to the other side. We also needed to get “beyond the sea”, to the Boyarskaya station. I asked them, how many miles there were from Klyuevo to Boyarskaya? The answer was: 27. I ran to my companions and asked them to take a chance to go to Klyuevo. I say “take a chance”, because as we went to Klyuyevo where there was nothing but a wharf and a watchman’s hut, we risked not finding horses, staying in Klyuyevo for a long time and being late for the Friday steamship, which would have been worse than death for us, because in that case we would have to wait until Tuesday. However, the companions agreed. We took our belongings, walked cheerfully to the steamship and immediately headed to the buffet: for the sake of God, we wanted soup! We would kill for a bowl of soup! The buffet was rather dirty, built on a system of tight water closets, but the cook Grigory Ivanovich, a former Voronezh yardman, did his best as a man of his occupation. He fed us rather well. The weather was calm and sunny.

The water on Lake Baikal is turquoise, more transparent than in the Black Sea. They say that in deep places the bottom can be seen from a mile’s distance; and I myself saw such depths with rocks and mountains drowned in turquoise that the sight sent cold shivers down my spine.

The travel through Lake Baikal turned out to be wonderful, I will never forget it. Only one thing was wrong: we traveled in the III class, and the whole deck was occupied by cart-drawing horses that raged like mad. These horses gave a special flavor to my journey: it seemed that I was traveling on a robbers’ boat. In Klyuevo the watchman agreed to take our baggage to the station; he rode, and we walked behind the cart by foot along the picturesque coast. Levitan was wrong in refusing to go with me. The road went through the forest: forest to the right, spreading to the mountain, forest to the left, descending down to Baikal. What ravines, what rocks! The tint of Baikal is gentle, warm. By the way, it was very warm. So, instead of Friday we left on Thursday; moreover, we were a day ahead of the post carriage which usually takes away all the horses at the stations. 

We began to ride with might and main, with a weak hope to get to Sretensk by the 20th of June. I will tell you how I rode along the coast of Selenga and then through Transbaikalia when we meet, now I will only say that Selenga is all beauty, and I found everything I wanted in Transbaikalia: Caucasus, Pela Valley, Zvenigorod District, and Don. During the day you ride across the Caucasus, at night - along the Don steppe, and in the morning you wake up from a slumber and see: it’s Poltava Province - and this way the road continued throughout the way of thousand versts. Verkhneudinsk is a nice little town, Chita is bad and resembling Sumy. Of course, I had no time to think about sleep and food. We rode, changed horses at the stations and worried only whether there would be any horses at the following station or we would be detained for 5-6 hours.

We made about 200 versts (213 km) per day – a larger distance was simply impossible in summer. We were stunned. Besides, the days were scalding hot, but the nights were so cold that I had to put on a leather coat above my cloth coat; one night I spent wearing a sheepskin coat. So, we rode and rode forward, and arrived in Sretensk this morning, exactly one hour before the departure of the steamship, paying the coachmen at the last two stations a tip of one rouble each.

Chekhov’s journey continued with sailing through Amur, exploring Sakhalin and its inhabitants, as well as visiting the mysterious countries of the East. Nowadays the route from Moscow to East Asia through Siberia is quite popular among tourists; and it’s not so difficult, but all the same tempting, to follow the path of the great writer.

Selenga is all beauty, and I found everything I wanted in Transbaikalia: Caucasus, Pela Valley, Zvenigorod District, and Don. During the day you ride across the Caucasus, at night - along the Don steppe, and in the morning you wake up from a slumber and see: it’s Poltava Province - and this way the road continued throughout the way of thousand versts
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