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Introducing Nerchinsk

Anyone with a knowledge of Russian history will be familiar with the name Nerchinsk. The 1689 Treaty of Nerchinsk recognising Russia’s claims to the trans-Baikal region was signed here and 130 years later the Decembrists were sent to work the silver mines around the village. Once one of Eastern Siberia’s foremost towns but inexplicably bypassed by the Trans-Siberian Railway just 10km to the south, Nerchinsk leads a forgotten existence with just a few fading reminders of its rich past. If you’re looking to break up the long 2200km trip from Chita to Blagoveshchensk, hop off here. Most don’t.

The only visitable attraction is the Butin Palace Museum. Mikhail Butin, the local silver baron, built himself this impressive crenellated palace, furnished with what were then claimed to be the world’s largest mirrors. He’d bought the mirrors at the 1878 World Fair in Paris and miraculously managed to ship them unscathed all the way to Nerchinsk via the China Sea and up the Amur River. These four mammoth mirrors form the centrepiece of the collection, along with a delightful pair of hobbit-style chairs crafted from polished tangles of birch roots. Three-quarters of the palace, including the grand, triple-arched gateway (demolished in 1970), still stands in ruins.

A block from the museum, the active 1825 Voskresensky Cathedral looks like an opera house from the outside; its interior is plain and whitewashed. Head around the sports pitch with its little silver Lenin to the imposing though now crumbling 1840 Trading Arches, desperately in need of renovation. Nearby is a fine colonnaded pharmacy and the very grand facade of the pink former Kolobovnikov Store, now a barnlike Torgovy Tsentr filled with some desultory stalls and kiosks.

About 1km south of the museum, just before the post office and bank, a little pink column-fronted building was once the Dauriya Hotel. As locals will proudly tell you, Chekhov stayed here in June 1890. Diagonally across the same junction a minuscule bus station is the departure point for services to Priiskovaya.

To reach Nerchinsk, take any train from Chita to Priiskovaya (platskart/kupe R900/1200, six hours) on the trans-Siberian main line, 10km from Nerchinsk. Change there onto local marshrutky.