It was our third night on the Trans-Siberian Express in mid-July, and we had grown accustomed to the heat. The prehistoric cars contained neither air conditioning nor showers. My husband Dennis, who doesn’t speak any Russian, was left to play with his new fancy video camera, but I was more fortunate ‒ I could listen to conversations. As I stood in the narrow hallway of the train, waiting my turn to use the bathroom, the two middle-aged Russian guys in front of me in the queue were having a heated debate about the infamous treasure train that rattled along these very tracks a century ago, possibly setting the course of the Russian Revolution.
“The gold’s buried in the woods right out there,” said one of them, jabbing his finger at the vast Siberian plains flying by outside the window. “The guards stole a bunch of it en route.”
“No, the gold fell into [Lake] Baikal! That’s why no-one can find any trace of it.”
You may also be interested in:
• The town that gave Russia its name
• The lost jewels of Bad King John
• Why Genghis Khan’s tomb can’t be found
The men were arguing over one of the most enigmatic Russian legends: that of Tsar Nicholas II’s family gold reserve, a chunk of which supposedly disappeared during the Russian Revolution 100 years ago.
The story is part of the reason why we were on this train, so I couldn’t help but interrupt. “Don't historians agree that all of the gold was found and accounted for?” I asked. “I read it in Sergey Volkov’s book, The Ghost of Kolchak’s Gold Train.”
The man at the head of the line laughed. “Yeah, right. We always believe what we read in a book!”
The bathroom door opened and an elderly lady squeezed past us. The man stepped in, but before he shut the door, he stuck his head out and informed me condescendingly, “Anyone can write anything in a book. If you want to know the real story, you listen to the people.”
My family moved to New York City from Russia nearly 30 years ago, but I’m still weirdly drawn to the country’s old sagas ‒ and the tsar’s lost gold is one of the most enticing.
Before World War I, Russia possessed the third largest gold reserve in the world, bested only by the US and France. When the war broke out, the tsar’s supporters, the White Forces, moved nearly 500 tons of gold from the capital of St Petersburg, which they felt was too close to Russia’s western border for the gold’s safekeeping, to Kazan ‒ my hometown ‒ a big trading city on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, about 640km east of Moscow. The Bolsheviks’ Red Army, led by Vladimir Lenin and his commander Leon Trotsky, laid siege on Kazan to seize the treasure from the tsar’s troops. Whoever got the gold would have enough money to pay for arms and soldiers, and would win the revolution.
Whoever got the gold would win the revolution
In the summer of 1918, after a bitter fight with the White Forces, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks took Kazan. But when the Red Army soldiers triumphantly marched up the steps of the Kazan Bank, they found the vaults empty. The treasure was already on its way to Siberia, which was not yet under the control of the revolutionary regime. Trotsky assembled his own train and gave chase.
Having done my nightly ablutions over a rattling sink in the train’s closet-like bathroom, I lied on my berth, leafing through the book that Volkov, a lifelong Russian historian with expertise on Siberia and Baikal, had published in 2011, and picturing the two armoured trains chugging through the same woods as my Trans-Siberian Express. It would take me three days to reach Siberia from Kazan, but a century ago the same journey would have taken months. The trains, powered by hand-loaded coal furnaces, moved slowly. And more importantly, hobbled by intermittent battles, fuel shortages, harsh winter weather and the general chaos of war, neither the White Forces nor the Bolsheviks could advance quickly. The chase, which was more like a schlepp with obstacles, progressed in slow motion.
A few months into the race, halfway across Siberia, the treasure train arrived into the hands of general Alexander Kolchak, the White Forces’ newly minted commander-in-chief. With Trotsky’s troops on his tail, Kolchak directed the train further east, as far away from the enemy as possible. He brought the train to Irkutsk, a trading city near Lake Baikal. And that’s exactly where my train was stopping next.
We arrived in Irkutsk in the dead of night, when the city is so empty that even taxi drivers were gone. With only a vague sense of where our hotel was, Dennis and I dragged our luggage through the darkened streets, avoiding stray dogs who made their home in the overgrown bushes. Streetlights didn’t seem to work in this part of town, so we spent an hour walking in circles with the moon as our only light. We could barely believe our luck when we finally discovered our hotel behind a patch of tall trees.
It was here in Irkutsk that the Czech battalions, who had been hired by Russia to fight alongside them in World War I, were stranded after the Bolsheviks seized Russia’s western part and cut off all routes to Europe. The Czechs wanted to go home, so when the treasure train arrived in Irkutsk, they captured Kolchak and the gold and handed them over to the Bolsheviks in exchange for permission to set sail from the Vladivostok port in Russia’s far east. The infrastructure in eastern Russia hadn’t yet been ravaged by the war or the revolution, so for the Czechs, heading east was now safer than taking the more direct route west.
The collateral worked. The Bolsheviks took the gold, let the Czechs begin their journey and promptly shot Kolchak, who for the next 70 years was portrayed in Soviet history books as an enemy of the people and thus deserving of his death by firing squad.
But as Dennis and I wandered along Irkutsk’s broad streets the next day, I made a surprising discovery. In one of the city squares I found a recently erected monument to Kolchak, honouring him as an important political figure. Russian historians clearly have rewritten that chapter of the revolutionary chronicle; the monument’s brass plaque explained that he fought for his ideals and died protecting the empire’s treasure.
Kolchak’s story culminated in Irkutsk, but the treasure’s journey didn’t. The Bolsheviks loaded the gold onto a new train and sent it back to Kazan. According to Volkov, the treasure was returned in its entirety. But some historians insist the numbers don't add up, easily being off by 200 tons, if not more. Local lore sides with the latter: with such tremendous fortunes at their fingertips, would the hungry, angry, war-ravaged Czech soldiers really hand it all to the Red Army without saving some for their return trip? The local theory purports that the Czech troops stashed crates of gold on their own trains as they headed east through the rocky slopes of the Sayan Mountains, which stand almost perpendicular to Lake Baikal. It was on that rickety, old track where one of the overloaded trains is said to have lost traction and tumbled down into Baikal’s kilometre-deep waters.
And as the legend has it, that’s where it still lies today.
The next day we took the Circum-Baikal train ‒ an old-fashioned, coal-powered locomotive capable of pulling only two carriages ‒ to trace what may have been the final leg of the gold’s journey. As we disembarked at our first exploration stop, a flattened patch of land on top of a rocky cliff overlooking Lake Baikal, our soft-spoken blonde guide Tatiana issued a warning. “Be careful going down, the slope is very steep!”
We passed by the village babushkas selling bread and smoked omul, a Baikal fish, and headed down a meandering path overgrown with stinging nettles. The crumbly soil didn’t hold up well underfoot, making us grab at tree branches and rocks for balance. While a few daredevils went skinny-dipping in Baikal’s frigid water, which barely reaches 10C, I sat on a mound and stared up the slope so sheer that I could no longer see our train. Yes, any carriages that lost their footing here would inevitably tumble down to the lake.
Back then accidents happened all the time
Tatiana sat next to me and I couldn’t help but ask, “So is this where the famous gold train fell off?”
She gave me a wide smile. “That depends who you ask,” she said. “People from Moscow don't believe this story – they think we made it up. But the local elders, who heard it from their parents, they know something happened. And if you think about it, back then accidents happened all the time. The old trains were wobbly and unbalanced.”
Her words made me wonder what it was like to ride a train here 100 years ago, so when I climbed back uphill, I headed straight to the train crew. For a small tip, the crew let Dennis and me ride with them in the old locomotive, next to the sizzling, hand-loaded coal furnace.
“Looking for the gold, huh?” one of the crewmen asked me as the train pulled off with a deafening whistle. “My friend’s father was a diving pro who could stay underwater for five minutes. He dove for that gold every summer but found none. Baikal keeps its secrets, you know.”
“So is the gold really there, at the bottom?” I asked.
Baikal keeps its secrets, you know
The other crewman jumped in. “When the research submersible Mir did its Baikal dives in 2009, the team found train wrecks at 700m deep. They saw small objects glistening through the sediment in a crevice, so they couldn’t get to it, couldn’t grab it to bring it up to the surface. If that wasn’t gold bars then what was it, I’m asking you?”
The train picked up speed and the rattle of its huge metal wheels became overwhelming. For the next hour, we were thrown around the small cabin and smacked by tree branches while trying to look out the window. But I got to see how incredibly close the tracks were to the precarious edge, and the spine-tingling feeling of hanging over that nothingness made me dizzy.
That evening, I sat in the outdoor terrace of my hotel in the rustic resort town of Listvyanka near Baikal’s southern tip, recovering from the bumpy train ride and watching the sun set into the lake, colouring the waters a shimmering gold. I was embroiled in yet another debate with yet another local ‒ this time a matronly lady who had the familiar, irrefutable, pro-gold argument. Her son, a gangly man in his 20s, listened quietly, but she was getting upset that I dared to question the legend. “You can’t just go by what’s written in a book,” she raved. “You should listen to the people!”
And then it dawned on me. In Russia, which lived through decades of propaganda, the printed word changes from one regime to the next, capricious like Baikal’s weather. The Kolchak monument I saw in Irkutsk is a perfect example of that. But while the information published in books and periodicals may change with the tide, the people, who see, hear and pass on what they remember, act as their own historians. Even if they add new details and drama now and then, their memories may indeed hold more truth than a heap of pages fresh off the press.
We want the legend to live on, it's just too beautiful to die
Silenced by this sudden revelation, I didn’t respond to the lady’s fervent speech; she decided I was ignoring her and walked away with an indignant snort. “This is a delicate subject for my family,” her son explained. “My mother told us that her grandfather helped the soldiers bury some gold in the woods, but when he went back he couldn't find the spot. He spent every summer searching for it, until one year he didn't come back. He disappeared.”
“I’m sorry,” I apologised. “I didn’t mean to offend your mother. I’m just curious if the lost gold really exists.”
“So are we,” he assured me with a smile. “That’s why we want the legend to live on. It’s part of our landscape now, part of Baikal, part of Siberia. It’s just too beautiful to die.”
Join over three million BBC Travel fans by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter and Instagram.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter called "If You Only Read 6 Things This Week". A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.