One of the great pilgrimages a traveller can make is a trip on the Trans-Siberian. It is a 9,000 kilometre train journey through the largest country on earth, and spans almost the entire Eurasian continent. A non-stop trip from western Moscow to eastern Vladivostok takes six days to complete.
But the Trans-Siberian isn’t the only great Russian railway. Splitting off from it at Tayshet is the Baikal-Amur Mainline, or BAM as the locals call it. We had dreamt of travelling on the Trans-Siberian, but once we began doing some research into Russia’s train networks we scrapped the idea and decided to take the Baikal-Amur Mainline instead. The information we found was irresistible: hundreds of people had died during its construction; it was severely under-utilised despite being one of the most expensive projects of the Soviet era; it was constructed by Gulag prisoners and the Communist Youth; its boom towns had since become ghost towns; it was even further north than its more famous cousin, running several hundred kilometres deeper into the Siberian taiga, parallel to the Transib. It was all very intriguing.
We boarded our first train at the dark hour of 7 p.m. It was immediately obvious that one of the facts we’d read about – that the line is underutilised – didn’t ring true. Every seat was full. For this first leg of the journey, Komsomolsk-na-Amure to Tynda, Caroline and I were separated by several rows. I was seated opposite a pregnant woman reading Harry Potter in Russian, and Caroline sat opposite a man who she described as, “Very Russian. I dropped my cape (a woolly neck warmer Caroline bought) and he picked it up for me and smiled. That was it.”
We were rocking third-class: a hive of 6 bunks every two metres. Third-class is a straightforward affair on Russia’s trains. The carriage attendant will stride up the aisle and swap the passenger’s tickets for a sealed bag containing two sheets, a pillow case, and a towel. Passengers pull down their retracting bunks if they’re up top, or fold their tables into beds if they’re on the bottom. They’ll then pluck mattresses from high up on the storage compartments and lay them out on their bunks. The beds are made, and there are enough blankets to keep everybody warm. When it’s time to get off the train, the passengers fold their sheets, roll their mattresses, and retract their bunks. The linen is given back to the carriage attendant in return for the passenger’s ticket.
Just as I settled in my top bunk, a man began to snore like his head was in a bucket of phlegm. Sometimes his breathing slowed to a putt-putt-putt of squidgy gurgles, and sometimes his mouth opened to amplify his bison-mucus roaring. He was several seats away, but his gooey outbursts could be easily heard over the sound of the train. If I had been hungry before, I no longer was. It was like a pig had fallen into a vat of melted cheese and had finally accepted its fate, oinking sadly and waiting for the thick, yellow liquid to completely fill its lungs.
The lights turned off, waited half an hour, and then turned on again. Ten minutes later they turned off completely. One minute later the mood lighting kicked in. A snore chorus rose from our carriage. It was strangely soothing (probably because it blocked out the gooby snorer) and I quickly fell asleep.
The Baikal-Amur Mainline took around 60 years to construct. It was originally conceived because the Russians were worried China would sneak up and take the Trans-Siberian. Having a supply line between east and west Russia was crucial, so it was essentially paranoia that caused one of the biggest construction projects in Russian history. The original builders, in the 1930’s, were Gulag prisoners, and the section they built soon needed upgrading to cater to diesel trains rather than steam. The official start of the BAM line as a whole was in 1974. Some 50,000 members of the Communist Youth put their hands up to work on the railway. What was seen previously as a punishment (or death sentence) to move out to the harsh Siberian wilderness, suddenly became a good career move for these young workers. To attract even more workers incentives were introduced, none more interesting than ‘jumping the car queue’.
To jump the car queue, workers had to labour for three years on the BAM. After that, they were allowed to open a ‘car account’ and start putting money in it. After three more years, they were entitled to buy a car voucher. This voucher could then be traded for an actual car at a government transport agency. It was six years of hard labour for the right to buy a Lada. Unfortunately for these dedicated labourers, the car vouchers became a shit-show. Near the end of the 80’s, the cost of cars rose dramatically and the workers’ vouchers weren’t being honoured. They were asked instead to pay the difference between the voucher and the actual price of a car. This situation led to angry workers performing a hunger strike and flooding government officials with telegrams. Unfortunately for them, the strike was largely ignored. Everyone was too busy worrying about the impending collapse of the Soviet Union.
The official opening of the BAM was in 1991, but the Soviet Union dissolved a year later and took its Siberian mining projects with it. To make matters worse, China didn’t even sneak up and steal the Trans-Siberian. The boom towns became ghost towns, and the railway ran at a deficit until 1996. At that point, ‘BAM’ as an organisation died. Ownership of the railway was then split between the East Siberian Railway (the eastern section away from Tynda) and the Far East Railway (the western section away from Tynda). This means there are no trains running all the way through the BAM. You have to switch trains (and companies) at Tynda.
Today, there are still people who worked on the BAM holding car vouchers, although it’s not very likely that they will get their cars.
In the morning, the pregnant woman in the bunk below me had morphed into an older, plumper woman in a big fuzzy hat. I noticed that my full water bottle was sitting on our shared table when I climbed down. During the night, it had fallen through a crack in the side of my mattress and landed on this woman’s bed. I apologised, and she nodded. We both stared out the window at the Siberian morning. It was 9 a.m., and the sun was just starting to rise. It sat framed on the left of the window, and a crescent moon sat framed on the right side. The rest of the frame was filled with endless snow and towering sticks – birch trees without leaves.
Occasionally we would pass a small station to exchange passengers, but apart from that the scenery hardly altered; snow and leafless birch trees, an occasional bridge, hoof prints, or a frozen river. The stations were not only a welcome change of scenery, they also provided a chance for trains to overtake each other. The majority of the BAM is on a single track, so our train had to stop several times to allow log-carrying freighters past.
Somewhere in the middle of the endless expanse of snow and trees, we changed time zones. Russia has 10.
The Bailkal-Amur Mainline is not the most northern railway in Russia. A project is underway to connect Tynda – the halfway point on the BAM – to Yakutsk, a northern Siberian city built on permafrost. This half-finished railway is called the Amur-Yakutsk Mainline (or, AYAM), and I found three articles about it from The Siberian Times. There are two things I enjoyed about these articles. The first is the slowly seeping pessimism in the 15-month span in which they were written, and the second is the fact that they can’t decide on a city slogan for Yakutsk. Allow me to summarise:
11 July 2014
Introducing the great Siberian Railway. Opening soon!
We’re building a new railway to Yakutsk, The City of Superlatives. Things are going great. We’ve built all sorts of bridges and tunnels, and this railway is sure to attract adventurers from around the world. We had a ‘Golden Link’ ceremony in 2011, and even the president showed up. Our most optimistic estimate for completion is November 2014. Full disclaimer: there might be a tiny funding issue. Just saying…
21 April 2015
Date set for completion of the great new Siberian railway.
Okay, so it took a little longer than we thought, but the Prime Minister has said the work must be completed by July 1, 2015. And if the Prime Minister says so, it must happen. Soon, the railway to Yakutsk, The Diamond Capital, will be ready to go. It’s 90% completed, and we already got a freight train pretty close. Just over the river, really. The ministry of finance has been ordered to make sure there’s enough funding, and it’s a very stern order.
21 October 2015
Siberian railway blow: no passenger trains expected for three or four years on jinxed new line.
Well shit. The plan to connect a railway line to Yakutsk, The World’s Coldest City, is facing a funding crisis. The contractor bailed, and the Prime Minister’s deadline came and went. There’s no way we’ll even be finished by 2016…
I couldn’t find any more articles since that one. The connection to Yakutsk (The Coldest Diamond City in a Sea of Superlatives) has not been completed as of this writing.
If Russia ever manages to finish the line, their plans don’t stop there. One of the long-term ideas is to build a railway connection which crosses the Bering Strait. The Bering Strait is the relatively short patch of water between the eastern tip of Russia and the western tip of Alaska. This would theoretically mean you could travel overland from the US to Europe by train. This connection would probably be easier to accomplish if Russia hadn’t sold Alaska to the USA in 1867, but such is life.
China also has an interest in crossing the Bering Strait; they want to build an undersea tunnel and a bullet train capable of going 300 kph to connect China to the Americas.
And while we’re on the topic of global connections, the ideas don’t stop at crossing the Bering Strait. The current official end of the BAM sits in Sovetskaya Gavan, a Russian city at the edge of the Pacific. There have been plans to build a connection from there to Sakhalin Island, Russia’s largest island (which at one point sort of belonged to Japan). A connecting tunnel was started by Joseph Stalin, but when he died so did the tunnel’s construction. If it ever starts up again, there could be further plans to build a bridge or tunnel between the southern tip of Sakhalin Island and Hokkaido. If all these connections eventually happen, it would mean that you could theoretically be sitting in Brazil and think, “I would like to go to Tokyo overland,” and you could.
It was early in the morning and we were approaching Tynda. The woman in the bunk underneath me had morphed into a different woman yet again, and this one was annoyed because my phone had fallen in the night and hit her head. I smoothed things over with an apologetic Google Translate message, and we had a stunted conversation. A man, whom Caroline had chatted to the night before while I was up in my bunk, leaned over and translated the woman’s questions into English for me. Was she going home? I asked. No, she was going to work, she replied.
The train was toasty, but there was in icy build-up on the bottom inside of the window. The woman used her typically Russian, long blue fingernail to write in the ice -40⁰, and all parties present laughed at my shocked expression. Throughout our journey, people were very curious about our reason for travelling on the BAM during winter. It was hard to explain that due to nature of how we travel, this just happened to be the time of year we ended up here. Most people we chatted to were very warm despite outwardly stern expressions. They would happily babble away to us in Russian – fully aware that we could only understand minuscule amounts of what they said.
After two days inside, the temperature hit hard when we exited our train. It was easily the coldest weather either of us had ever been in, and rightly so; this was the most northern town on the BAM line. I could instantly feel my nose hairs freezing together. Perhaps the strangest feeling was the sensation of my eyeballs chilling. We hurried into the station.
Tynda has two accommodation options: one hotel in town and a few rooms at the train station itself. Booking beds at the station was fun. Many Russian people asked us questions in Russian, and then other Russian people attempted to answer those questions on our behalf in Russian. After the kerfuffle, we ended up with a private room for 24 hours.
When the weather warmed up to a balmy -28⁰, we took a stroll into town. We were wrapped up warmly, but there was always some bit of skin exposed. Caroline’s breath froze all over her hair and turned it into grey strands of ice. My breath formed little icicles on my eyelashes and eyebrows. Our cheeks were rosy and numb, and our extremities slowly gave way to the seeping chill.
For the next leg, Tynda to Severobaikalsk, we decided to see what 2nd class was like. It was about double the price, but we wanted a bigger picture of the BAM experience. In 2nd class, you are in a private room with four bunks. The bunks are a little longer, you get individual lights, and there is a lot more storage space. We booked the two upper bunks because they were cheaper.
When we arrived in our room, all the under-seat storage space was filled with bags. Luckily there was still plenty of space above the bunks for our backpacks. After a few minutes, two people entered the room with more armfuls of baggage. One of these items was a live baby. These newcomers seemed taken aback that we were now in their cabin, and I overheard them asking the train guard how long we would be on the train for. The baby needed to sleep, so we moved to the train’s dining car to have our breakfast.
A very fat man in the dining car took an interest in Caroline. He didn’t say much, but he did wink at her and blatantly stared as she walked past. We decided he would be harmless unless he began drinking. An hour later, he pulled out three big plastic containers of caviar and a bottle of vodka. We’ve seen enough human nature to know when a person is two drinks away from making a scene with us at the centre of it, so we hastily exited the dining car.
Back at our room, the baby people had done the unthinkable. Here, on this train rolling through the beautiful and unique landscape of deep Siberia, they had closed the curtains. They had also taken over the room’s one small table to drink beer and play cards, and we weren’t invited. Some sort of baby chair had been pushed up into our backpack storage area. These baby people had successfully commandeered our room.
We went and stood out in the hallway to see the view. It was either that, lying on our beds in a dark baby room, or the fat, drunken old pervert in the dining car. At least the view was nice:
To the baby’s credit, it didn’t start screaming in the dead of night. In fact it was cute in a babyish way, and kept smiling at us. When it was our time to leave the train, Caroline instigated what would become our longest conversation with the baby people. They were going to Samara city. Okay, good luck!
Severobaikalsk, situated at the northern end of Lake Baikal, was our next stop. The town was filled with depressing, soviet-style rectangular concrete apartments built in the ’70s. Even with its remote location, the streets were bustling when we arrived. It was a weekend and people were off to the meat market, the library, or the Geographiya coffee shop. The stunning natural features surrounding the town made up for the bleak buildings; snow capped peaks stretched in every direction. The enormous lake was frozen over, and the result was a vast, flat, white field, stretching all the way to the distant mountains on the opposite shore.
There were also Ladas everywhere. More Ladas than I’ve ever seen. More Ladas than I imagined possible. The full spectrum of the Lada rainbow was represented: white, red, and green.
The friendliness of the people we met was a stark contrast to the depressing look of the town. Like most places we’d visited in north eastern Russia, the locals were excited to ask us questions even though they knew we didn’t understand them. We entered one place to order soup where a television beamed a conference with Putin fielding questions about Aleppo.
“What do you think of our Putin?” asked the owner, showing us a thumbs-up and a thumbs-down. This was a loaded question. I know very little about Russia’s president, but I know I don’t entirely trust the spin that western media puts on him as some conniving super-villain. We both shrugged.
“Do you like Putin?” Caroline asked in Russian.
“No. Something is not right with him.” He flicked his ears as a sign of distaste.
During our time in Severobaikalsk we took a trip to the nearby village of Baikalskoe. We took so many photos that it became its own post. See here.
Our final leg on the Baikal-Amur Mainline was from Severobaikalsk to Irkutsk. Technically speaking, we left the BAM when our carriage was transferred to another engine at Vikhorevka. The BAM goes all the way to Tayshet, but since our intended destination was Irkutsk, this was the most sensible and fastest route. Should I add some more Russian place names to make this even more confusing? No. Let’s keep moving along. Our train left late on Christmas Eve, rolled through Christmas, and then arrived halfway through Boxing Day.
When you read people’s diaries of travelling on Siberia’s rail networks, the writer inevitably recounts tales of meeting people with names like Alexi and Vladimir. They are working-class Russians journeying home for a break, or they are heading back to some monotonous labour task. They like to drink, and they keep offering the person at the centre of the tale vodka and sausage.
So far on our BAM travels, we hadn’t met people like this. We’d sat in the darkness with quiet baby people. We’d had stunted conversations with women whom I’d dropped things on in the night. We’d avoided the fat pervert in the dining car. I was about to give up hope, but apparently this experience is inevitable.
I awoke on Christmas morning to somebody putting another blanket on me. The person must have assumed (correctly) that I was cold. My bed was the lower bunk at the very end of the carriage next to the bathroom. It was noticeably a few degrees cooler down this end, and the constant flow of people to the unheated toilet kept the door beside my head slamming away happily. Caroline was in the bunk above me and shared a similar experience.
It was a man named Alexander who had given me the blanket. When I had collected my senses, he leaned over from the group of bunks beside ours. We were back in third-class: the community carriages. Alexander offered me some chocolate for Christmas. Russian Christmas falls on January 7th, but Siberians don’t shy away from celebrating on what they call ‘the western Christmas’.
There were three men in the berth: Alexander, Vladimir, and Ivan. They couldn’t speak a word of English and they didn’t know how to use smartphones, rendering Google Translate a one-sided affair. We thanked our new companions for the chocolate, which made them eager to give us more. Alex pulled out his huge suitcase and found a plastic bag containing around 30 blocks. He gave us two more. Then Ivan poured us some breakfast vodka. This was followed by beer chasers in plastic cups and a roll of sausage.
After our drinks we moved on to tea, but our new friends continued to down beers and vodka-spiked coffee. They asked us if we wanted to play cards, and pulled out a deck of 36. What followed was a very confusing hour of Durak (fool) – a card game popular in Russia and the Post-Soviet States. Of course, now I have the internet so I can read up on the rules of Durak, but on the BAM with nobody to translate there was no such luxury. It felt like they were making the rules up as they went, although sometimes we managed to win a hand by accident. Nearly every card I put down was met with a chorus of “Nyet!” The closest person would then look over my cards and play a proper one.
As is often the case with constant daytime drinking, the mood was upbeat at first but began to sour as the day wore on. The Kevin Spacey-jowled, Hunter Thomson-faced Alexander began a line of questioning that I could barely understand. There were a few words that I could pick up on, such as ‘fascist, Hitler, American’, and ‘Ukraine’. At one point he locked my gaze with his pale blue eyes and wouldn’t let go. His drunken questioning was relentless; he wouldn’t let me rest even though I was barely acknowledging him. Caroline had long since escaped to her bunk to avoid Alex’s not-so-subtle advances. Finally, he slunk back to his bed to sleep off the day’s intake.
Another man called Anatoli had arrived sometime during the afternoon. He told us he was an electrician at a far northern Siberian gas plant. He was the only person with a smart phone, and showed us photos of his complex industrial wiring setups. He then played a video that he’d obviously filmed on his phone, and indicated to us that he was part of what we were seeing. It was a rocket launch.
“Satellite,” he said, proudly.
Anatoli also started to grow bitter as he continued to drink, muttering about the west’s views of Russians.
“They say we are just drunks,” he said, digging his fingers into his neck and taking a long draught from his plastic cup. “But we are not stereotypes.” It was difficult to sympathise when the table was covered in half-drunk booze and sausage crumbs.
Third class descended into a shambles as Christmas wore on. We suspected drinking wasn’t the only thing going on; there were many secret meetings in the frosty space between carriages with Alex and whoever decided to follow him. The berth just down from us had two guys contesting over one extremely giggly and loud girl, and the amount of beer consumed meant the toilet door beside our heads was slamming well into the wee hours. The later it became, the more punishment the door took. Our gold-toothed carriage attendant, who seemed very fond of her two foreign passengers, was busy scolding the noise-makers and constantly emptying the bins as they filled with beer bottles.
Boxing Day was a much quieter state of affairs. Our friends hardly spoke a word, and the giggling girl had finally stopped giggling. She appeared to have made her choice in a bone-faced man with fair hair and a murderous gaze. Most people got off at Angarsk. Alex slowly grabbed his giant bag and rolled it down the carriage without saying a word. Vladimir and Ivan smiled and offered curving handshakes that were much firmer that their initial ones.
How did we get our tickets throughout the journey? Well, this part was stupidly easy. We bought all our tickets at the station we were leaving from. To find the right train, we just got directions on Google maps to the city we wanted to go to. Google gave us the time and train number.
Yes, this is the future, and the internet is making it so you don’t even have to try any more. If you grab your phone right now and open Google Maps (sorry Apple people), you too can find out exactly when the next train from Tynda to Severobaikalsk leaves and what number it is. This is why I scratch my head when people pay outrageous amounts for tour companies to plan their holidays.
Caroline would write (in Russian) on a bit of paper:
‘We are going to ___. We would like the number ___ train departing at ___’. We want to buy ___ class tickets.
We’d hand our note to the ticket person, she’d tap the details into DOS on a 486 running Windows ’95 (Russian Edition), and then she’d punch how much we owed into a calculator. It really was that easy.
Well, I am exaggerating a little. Every time we bought our tickets, there was some sort of curveball. There would always be a strange question we had no idea how to answer, and everyone involved would end up in a confused silence. Caroline is some sort of language savant and she can usually pick up enough to get the general idea, but we agreed several times to things we had no idea about. If you ever find yourself in a situation where you need to buy train tickets in Russia, it definitely helps to have a Caroline with you.
As we near the end of the post, please press ‘play’ to hear the official BAM march, then read on:
“Let the crumbling green bosom of Siberia be clad in the cement armour of cities, armed with the stone muzzles of factory chimneys and fettered with the close-fitting hoops of railways. Let the taiga be burnt and chopped down, let the steppes be trampled underfoot. Let all this be, for it is inevitable. It is only on iron and cement that the fraternal union of all peoples, the iron fraternity of all mankind will be built.”
I was hoping Mr. Zazubrin met his end in some ironic way, like having a pine tree fall on him or getting savaged by bear. But instead he was arrested by the secret police and shot.