I woke up when the train’s soporific rocking and chugging came to an abrupt halt, momentarily disorientated. I was somewhere along the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM), the 3,140km-long railway that runs through northern Siberia. I was heading west, towards home.
It was 8 am, and around me the denizens of the open-plan platzkartny (third class) carriage were starting to wake up. There were two new passengers on the bunks below who had got on in the middle of the night, somewhere west of Komsomolsk-on-Amur. Andrei, who looked like a Russian George Clooney, was drinking a litre can of Baltica beer and heading north, beyond the town of Neryungri, to work in a mine. Yura was returning to Tynda, his hometown, because the mining company he worked for near Khabarovsk hadn’t paid him for four months. “Some friends called me, told me that there’s a job back home,” he said.
The BAM was originally conceived in the 1930s as a hugely ambitious engineering project that would blaze a path through some of Russia’s least hospitable terrain, creating easier access to Siberia’s vast mineral wealth and facilitating colonisation of the region. Running parallel to the Trans-Siberian railway – from the Tayshet junction in the west all the way to Sovetskaya Gavan on the Pacific coast – one of its goals was to help divert heavy freight traffic from the more famous rail line. But despite costing around billions of rubles to build – with construction not fully complete until 1991 – the Baikal-Amur Mainline remains underused.
Unlike the busy cities along the Trans-Siberian, which have undergone rapid change over the last few years due to increased train traffic and an influx of foreign travellers, the towns along the BAM remain part of the land that time forgot, their Soviet architecture virtually unchanged. The BAM is only 400km north of the Trans-Siberian, but the difference is palpable: BAM passengers tend to be predominantly local and poor – and, with the exception of Severobaikalsk (the jumping off point for Lake Baikal), very few foreigners ever climb aboard.
“Have you ever had caviar?” asked Valera, a blond man with a scar on his cheek. He was off to work in a gold mine north of Tynda, and his sister had given him a tub for the road. We ate it with big spoons, washing it down with hot, sweet black tea. Tanya, a 21 year old from the village of Fevralskoye, halfway between Komsomolsk-on-Amur and Tynda, fended off Andrei’s drunken advances firmly but with good humour.
Everyone wanted to know what life was like in my home country, the UK. How much does a one-bedroom flat cost? How much is a loaf of bread? What’s the weather like? They fell about laughing when I told them that, for decades, the UK’s coldest weather was -12C. Yura said that in winter, the temperature in Tynda drops to -47C. “When we moved to Khabarvosk, where it doesn’t get below -30,” Yura said his son asked, “‘Dad, when are we going to have winter?’”
Outside, the dense forest seemed endless. We stopped at the tiny settlement of Etryken, one of several built to service the heavy freight traffic that never really materialised, despite the railway bisecting Russia’s rich mining districts. A number of mining projects planned during the last years of the Soviet Union never came to fruition, turning settlements into ghost towns as the younger generations fled to the cities to find work.
I talked into the night with Nikita from Khabarovsk. Despite completing university, he was looking for work in the mines to be able support his family. “All I want is to live and work with dignity, to earn enough to raise my child, to go on holiday sometimes and to know that my job is stable,” he said. He added that he was tired of the corruption, the bureaucracy, the rudeness, the lack of patriotism: “Everyone just grabs a piece for themselves. Russia is divided into ‘clans’ and if you’re not part of them, it is difficult to get anything done.”