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
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.”
The next morning, we alighted at Tynda, the
unofficial BAM capital, nearly 7,000km east of Moscow. The station building was
covered with gigantic faded posters celebrating the railway’s 35th
anniversary in 2009: “the road built with love”. The railway is a Soviet
triumph of man over nature, built in an inhospitable land of extreme winter
cold and mosquito-cloud filled summers. But it was only in the later stages
that the work was done by idealistic young Komsomol (Communist Youth League)
members; between the 1930s and 1950s the railway was built with the blood and bones
of at least half a million people, including inmates in gulag
labour camps and Japanese prisoners of war.
As hard as I tried, I couldn’t locate Tynda’s
main attraction: the statue of the BAM worker, depicted as a muscled man
wielding a sledgehammer. BAM’s most prominent monument, it is symbolic of the sheer
effort of building the railway and a supposedly spectacular example of
Socialist realism. I walked the entire length of the main street, passing a
giant hammer and sickle sculpture, Hotel Yunost (ul Krasnaya Presnya 49; 7-41-65-643-534)
– where travel writer Dervla Murphy stayed while penning Through Siberia By
Accident – identikit concrete apartment blocks and several shashlik (grilled meat skewer) stands. Instead, I stumbled across
the BAM History Museum (ul Sportivnaya 22) next to a replica barracks where BAM
workers lived during the railway’s construction.
Nikolayevna, the middle-aged curator, proudly showed me around the lovingly collected
exhibits that included Evenki reindeer herder artefacts (a shaman’s outfit,
fur-lined hunting skis); a 1980s telephone switchboard used for communication
between BAM towns; and faded photos of the men and women who built the railway.
Lowering her voice in a conspiratorial fashion, she informed me that the statue
of the BAM worker was taken away in the middle of the night a few years ago. No
one knows where it’s gone.
Back on board
en route to Severobaikalsk, the land become mountainous and we passed dense
forest bisected by wide rivers and glacial streams. A low-hanging mist obscured
the foothills of the craggy peaks. My neighbours this time were Galya, a retired
matron who moved from the Urals to Siberia in the 1970s to work as one of the BAM
Komsomol volunteers, lured by the triple pay incentive; and Valera and Nastya, married
carriage attendants on home leave. Galya informed me that life in communist
times was “like paradise”, and that she’d been able to save up for apartments
for herself and her children. She gave me sausages and home-grown tomatoes, refusing
to accept anything in return. Valera came back from socialising in another
carriage, drunk and covered in blood. He’d had too much vodka, lost his mobile phone
and accused of one of his co-drinkers of stealing it. “Poor Nastya, she must
suffer with a man like that,” I commented. Galya was unsympathetic: “They’re as
good as each other; she left her husband to be with him.” Then, with over-familiarity
typical of older Russians, she told me that a woman of my age should start having
children. I was relieved to alight at Severobaikalsk and leave her behind.
If Galya represented
the old Soviet order, then Anya, also alighting at Severobaikalsk, was the best
of new Russia. Devoted to conservation, she was part of the Great Baikal Trail project, an
environmental NGO dedicated to promoting ecotourism in the Baikal area. Every summer,
local and foreign volunteers converge on Lake Baikal, the oldest, deepest and
largest lake on Earth, to signpost and improve the hiking trails that skirt the
water. Jennifer and Joy, American volunteers accompanying Anya, were from the
Lake Tahoe area in California, part of an exchange program for Russian and
American students to learn about conservation and ecology.
back on the BAM and heading onwards to Western Russia, I said my farewells to Lake
Baikal. It was a rainy and cold night, and the four of us were soaking at the
hot springs – heaven for a traveller
who hadn’t had a bath in months. I floated around with a stupid grin on my
face. “In the winter, when it gets to -40C, it’s even better,” Anya said smiling.