I WAS NAMED AITO TRAVEL WRITER OF THE YEAR 2014 AND SHORTLISTED FOR PPA WRITER OF THE YEAR 2015 FOR THIS STORY. IT ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE MARCH 2014 EDITION OF LONELY PLANET TRAVELLER (lonelyplanet.com/magazine)
Join comrades on a journey aboard the other Siberian railway line – hearing stories of Soviet heroes, asteroid impacts and bear attacks as the taiga slips past your window
TAYSHET – SEVEROBAIKALSK (20 hours, 661 miles)
It is just before dawn as train 72 crosses the Baikalsky Mountains, and the winter snow falls thickly outside the cabin window.
It is not the fluffy snow of the Christmas-time Coca-Cola adverts. It is bad-tempered, Russian snow – the sort that can freeze your eyelids together, turn your skin beetroot red and leave tiny icicles dangling inside your nostrils. It settles silently on a winter landscape coloured pale lilac by the pre-dawn light – on endless forests of birch and pine, on mountain streams long since frozen to a halt.
In 1888, a party of engineers set out into this landscape, surveying for the construction of the world’s longest railway line: the Trans-Siberian. But upon reaching the Baikalsky Mountains, things started to go wrong. They found themselves blocked by mighty peaks; greeted as an all-you-can-eat buffet by mosquitoes. Bugger this, the engineers soon decided. Plans were revised: the Trans-Siberian instead took a detour through easier territory to the south, where it trundles along happily to this day.
It would take almost a century before another railway ventured where the Trans-Siberian feared to go – a line that struck through the Baikalsky Mountains and onward into the coldest, loneliest landscapes ever crossed by iron rails. For train 72 has begun its journey on the Baikal Amur Mainline – the ‘BAM’ – a railway with a story of triumph and tragedy worthy of a Tolstoy novel.
Little heard of outside Russia, BAM was described as the greatest building project in human history when work started in 1974: a 2,700-mile line running through frozen wildernesses north of the Trans-Siberian. The Soviet Union billed BAM as the ultimate showdown between Mother Russia and Mother Nature at her most inhospitable: a glorious project to open up remote corners of mineral-rich Siberia. It was a project as ambitious as the Soviet space programme, covering similarly vast distances.
Few tourists visit BAM today. Those who do go for the simple, hypnotic pleasure of watching endless landscape rolling past the window. A BAM journey can feel more akin to a sea voyage than a train ride.
We emerge from a tunnel, and the landscapes the first BAM builders battled against swing into view – Narnia-esque forests and glaciers glinting in the first rays of morning sunshine. The only signs of human life are the reflections from our own warm railway carriages, skimming along the snowbanks heaped by the trackside.
In the 1970s, young volunteers from across the USSR came to Siberia to build BAM. Soviet propaganda promised a new utopian society in the model towns along the line – if that didn’t convince them, they also promised workers a free car. This was the dawn of a new era. When generations in the West had Woodstock and the ‘Summer of Love’, the young communists would have BAM instead. In between construction there were even music festivals (featuring Soviet glam-rock bands).
One man who volunteered for BAM duty was Albert Ivanovich – a former bulldozer driver who wears an impressive set of Soviet railway-building medals on his jacket, jingling as he walks. I meet him after our train hauls into Severobaikalsk – the model town to which he emigrated as a young man, set on the northern shore of Lake Baikal.
‘When I first came to Severobaikalsk it was August,’ he recalls. ‘The first snow had settled on the mountaintops, and the mountains were reflected perfectly in the lake. I knew this would be my home.’
Albert shows me around the town’s small BAM museum. The exhibits stir his memories: of days long ago clearing passes in his bulldozer, and summer nights singing around the campfire, nameless mountains standing silent all around.
Severobaikalsk, too, looks back fondly on its BAM past. Along the town’s wide boulevards are signs reading ‘BAM IS THE PROJECT OF OUR YOUTH’. Others offer advice like ‘REAL MEN BUILD TUNNELS’ to passing motorists. It is a town typical of settlements on the BAM: Soviet-era concrete tower blocks with puffing chimneys and tangled plumbing; homes where Virgin Mary icons hang on the walls, boots dry by the stove and the smell of smoked fish wafts about.
In 1984, Severobaikalsk joined in the celebrations as the Soviet Union announced the completion of BAM. In the museum there are pictures of the occasion: people cheering, children being hoisted up into the air. Rumour had it US spy planes were flying over, concerned by this miracle of engineering.
There was one small problem with this, however. BAM hadn’t been completed at all. It was all a whopping great fib.
SEVEROBAIKALSK – TYNDA (22 hours, 798 miles)
Long before 1984, things had started to go wrong on the BAM. The free cars didn’t turn up (they still haven’t) and some volunteers were disillusioned
There were reports of BAM officials disappearing with funds on ‘business trips’ to the Philippines. Some history books paint a bleak picture of the later days of BAM construction – a dangerous cocktail of daredevil engineering and bathtub-brewed booze.
Meanwhile, the track itself was in a bad state. In some parts the permafrost had warped the rails until they looked like roller-coaster tracks; on others, train drivers insisted on hanging out the doors so they could jump if their engine crashed off the rails.
Contrary to propaganda, BAM was only completed (with exquisite tragicomic timing) in 1991, right after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The mineral wealth it promised to untap has yet to materialise. Some utopian cities along the route are now little more than ghost towns. BAM is seen by many today as a railway to nowhere – the punchline to jokes about the USSR.
But, for all the jokes, BAM remains a lifeline for those still resident along the railway.
From Severobaikalsk, I join passengers bundling aboard a lunchtime train eastwards: supply teachers and dentists commuting to isolated villages, engineers on missions to set wonky rails straight. Everyone gathers in the corridor as we skirt the shore of Lake Baikal – a vast inland sea, capped by a six-foot-thick crust of ice during the winter months. In one doomed episode, long ago, rails were laid on this ice – resulting in at least one steam engine currently rusting in Baikal’s mile-deep waters. We pass fishing villages of rickety timber cabins and frozen wharfs. In the distance are the pinprick figures of fisherman drilling holes in the ice beside their cars.
Life on board quickly lapses into a lazy rhythm. The engineers potter off to play cards in their compartment. A carriage attendant knits a red scarf in her office. Day turns to night, cabin seats are converted into bunks and clock hands are adjusted as we enter another time zone.
Living in a country of almighty distances, Russians are accustomed to spending time on two rails. Trotsky plotted battle tactics in his armoured train; tsars ate caviar in their palatial carriages (which housed libraries, bathtubs and room for a cow to supply fresh milk). Space rockets, mobile hospitals and even chapel carriages have all rattled along Russian rails.
TYNDA – NOVY URGAL (22 hours, 590 miles)
On Tuesday, 30 June, 1908, an extraordinary thing occurred a short distance north of today’s BAM line. Just after breakfast time, a huge asteroid entered the Earth’s atmosphere, triggering an explosion a thousand times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Known as the Tunguska Event, it burned millions of trees to a crisp, turning an area about the size of Herefordshire to scorched earth. And the end result? Almost nothing whatsoever. No-one was killed. Indeed, few people noticed. By all accounts, no-one bothered to investigate what had happened at Tunguska until almost a decade later.
This has nothing directly to do with the BAM, but it is indicative of the near-cosmic vastness of Siberia; how its emptiness can somehow make even apocalyptic explosions mute and irrelevant.
From Tynda, the most desolate leg of the railway stretches eastwards. On a line of latitude between the Arctic Sea and the settled belt of countryside along Russia’s Chinese border, there are almost no roads. BAM is the only way of getting overland from east to west: a single corridor about as wide as your arm span across some 1,500 miles of otherwise uninterrupted emptiness. From space, BAM appears as a trail of faint lights across a sea of darkness.
We depart from Tynda, and the landscape outside the window slips by with the repetitiveness of a broken record: birch forests, rivers, meadows, a station where an old steam engine is parked (icicles growing in its boiler) – and then more forests.
It wasn’t always this empty. These lands once heard the footfalls of passing woolly mammoths, whose tusks are still regularly found across the taiga. Before the Russians settled Siberia, nomadic tribes like the Evenk roamed here, sleeping in birch-bark tents, finding their way around the landscape using twigs as markers. These days, however, most Evenk people live in towns. Russia’s last woolly mammoth toppled over with a thud more than 4,000 years ago – soon after the last stones were hauled into place on the Great Pyramid of Giza.
Every so often our train stops to let a freight service pass by. There’s a rumble, a streak of bright lights, a cloud of powder-fine snow suspended in the air – and then silence. Before long we are on our way again.
In the Russian imagination, Siberia was a void that encouraged horror stories. Legends spoke of tigers so bloodthirsty that they would devour corpses in graveyards; of Siberian bears that would wet their fur in rivers so they could extinguish campfires and gobble up pioneers in the dark. It was said there were earthquakes so fierce they could make the earth split open and the church bells ring of their own accord. But, in truth, nothing is quite as frightening as Siberia’s emptiness: the idea of being lost in the taiga with no sign of civilisation, and no company but the vapour trails of planes crossing the sky.
The afternoon sun lingers on the horizon as our train nears the town of Novy Urgal – catching the underbelly of the clouds with pink light – before the moon swings high into a star-flecked sky, lighting the landscape with a phosphorescent glow. Before long the muffled snores from nearby compartments blend with the arthritic creaking of the carriages. The line speed on the BAM is slow, and trains clatter noisily over the rails throughout the night. It is a sound that is easy to fall asleep to, perhaps because it closely matches the tempo of a human heartbeat.
NOVY URGAL – KOMSOMOLSK-NA-AMURE (13 hours, 324 miles)
From the town of Novy Urgal our train enters the final leg of the BAM, crossing broad rivers on their way to the Pacific. In doing so, it enters into a region with a dark history.
In 1974, BAM workers on this part of the line happened across a surreal sight: an abandoned railway tunnel. Further inspection revealed rusting tools, human corpses, a candlestick holder made out of a human skull and a bust of Joseph Stalin. What they had uncovered were relics of a secret railway from the 1930s – one built by slave labour from Stalin’s gulags. They were reminders from a time when millions perished in camps right along Russia’s Pacific coast – prisoners of war, political dissidents – imprisoned not so much by walls but by vast, unbridgeable distances.
By the time the BAM workers arrived, the so-called Dusse-Alin tunnel had long become jammed solid with ice. In an extraordinary undertaking, the railway engineers mounted jet engines on wheels, using the back-blast to melt their way through the tunnel so it could be reused. We pass through the Dusse-Alin tunnel, and some hours later arrive at the station of Komsomolsk-na-Amure – the last major stop on the BAM, and a town also built by gulag labour.
Like the line itself, the story of the BAM does not end in a happy place – its bold utopian experiment was recently described as a mistake by President Putin himself. But there are hopeful voices: old pioneers echo a Soviet dream that one day the railway will extend north to the Bering Strait and cross to Alaska – the first railway to link Eurasia with the Americas, and a feat to vindicate the fist-pumping statues still standing in the towns along the BAM.
In the meantime, train 963 is ready for its noon departure back to Tynda from Komsomolsk station. Passengers shuffle about the platform: grandmas and grandpas off to meet new grandchildren; students heading home for the holidays. People wave farewell to loved ones, following the moving carriages along the platform as the wheels begin to turn, keeping pace until the train accelerates into a fog of snow and out across the mountains and time zones of Siberia.
In a strange way, it seems the young BAM pioneers who first set eyes on Siberia’s virgin territory found something far more precious than minerals and gold; achieved something more remarkable than the utopia once promised to them. BAM had plunged deep into one of the last and greatest empty spaces left on Earth. And here, it had made a home.
PHOTOGRAPHY: PHILIP LEE HARVEY (philipleeharvey.com)