On a satellite image, Siberia at night appears as an expanse of darkness, extending from the cities of western Russia to the Pacific, from the Gobi Desert to the Arctic. Zoom in on the north shore of Lake Baikal, and you can see a faint chain of lights running eastward through this blackness: the electric glow of little towns along the Baikal-Amur Mainline — also known as the BAM.
It is a mostly single-track railway, on which trains trundle at about 25mph through some of the most remote territory on Earth. It runs north of and very roughly parallel to the famous Trans-Siberian but is firmly in its shadow — the BAM is slower, more decrepit, and according to the rail enthusiasts’ website Seat61.com, “is of little interest to most Western travellers”.
It extends about 2,700 miles — from Tayshet, where it branches off the Trans-Siberian, to Vanino, on the Pacific coast. Were you to move those same rails west, you could stretch them from London to Jerusalem, via Paris, Milan and Istanbul. But out here, the BAM passes only a few small, obscure settlements, marooned in inkless parts of the atlas. To step aboard the BAM is to travel for travelling’s sake.
I had wanted to ride the railway since I first read about it — a few paragraphs, hidden near the index of a Russia guidebook. It was described as a feat of endurance, but to me it sounded like an invitation, like the closest you could come to falling off the map on dry land. It proved to be so: my BAM journey lingers in my memory years afterwards.
I can see how it has useful lessons for life under lockdown: inhabiting small places, living in proximity with others. But, during days when we are permanently going nowhere, I miss constantly going somewhere on the BAM — its ever-retreating horizons are the vaccine against claustrophobia. Being a passenger on the BAM is like being Gulliver in Brobdingnag: the rivers are as wide as lakes, the lakes as mighty as oceans, the forests seem infinite. Travelling at 25mph, you watch the vast dimensions of planet Earth slowly uncoil.
What the Wild West was to America, the East was to Russia: a virgin land where dreams flooded in. No dreams were bigger than the BAM. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev declared this railway the “Hero Project of the Century” when work commenced in the 1970s. The BAM was meant to blaze a trail through the wilderness to unlock Siberia's deposits of gold, copper, coal and timber. The metropolises of tomorrow would spring out of the taiga. The BAM would be a bulwark against a feared Chinese invasion: it would connect European markets with the Pacific. Comrades would go forth (in bulldozers) and multiply in this promised land.
But the railway’s story was, like the story of the Soviet Union, one of hubris. This was a land beyond risk assessments. Rails and buildings (even a hospital) were swallowed by shifting permafrost. Houses spun 45 degrees in seismic tremors. Tunnellers accidentally hit an underground lake and unleashed a tsunami from within a mountain. Many comrades deserted: what were to be million-strong metropolises ended up as impoverished villages. Some estimate that $20bn was spent building the mother of all white elephants.
The railway opened in 1991: just as the ideology that it was built to glorify was being abandoned. As the Soviet Union collapsed, locals feared promises being forgotten in the new Russian Federation: even threatening to declare “BAM Land” an independent country. In truth, the BAM felt to me like its own country — an archipelago of little towns, adrift somewhere between the Soviet Union and the modern world.
Even from a passenger seat, you can see the mighty projects of BAM Land, writ large on the landscape. On my first day on board, passengers rushed to the right-hand side as we trundled over the Bratsk Dam, eager for a glimpse of the 2,110 square miles of water, shimmering to the southern horizon. This reservoir was once the largest in the world: it supplies a hydroelectric station that was, upon opening, the biggest power producer on Earth. It’s still there, in the middle of nowhere, ready to supply electricity to millions of settlers who never came. It could have been worse. The Soviet Union once planned to reverse the flow of Siberian rivers using nuclear bombs. As abruptly as it arrived, the Bratsk Sea slipped back into the woods.
I miss idle days riding the BAM: days with little to do but slip into a trance as you gaze out at the scenery. Like a dervish, you become hypnotised by constant motion. BAM trains are less luxurious than their Trans-Siberian counterparts: there is no first class, and the carriages I travelled in creaked wearily. On certain stretches, they swayed like ships on stormy swells. Russian train journeys are often compared to sea voyages, and the BAM is no exception. To travel from west to east takes four or five days, a little shorter than a transatlantic crossing.
During my journey, I read about the story of Valery Malkov. Travelling from his home in Bratsk to Neryungri, Malkov was enjoying a bedtime cigarette in a train vestibule when he accidentally fell out the door, and into the night-time taiga. It was -40C, and he was wearing a T-shirt. Malkov chased the train along the tracks for half an hour: running four miles through the snow in his slippers. By a miracle, he found a guard at a normally unmanned stop, deep in the wilderness. He didn’t suffer hypothermia, and boarded another train the next day. Malkov was lucky. To fall off a train out here can be as fatal as going overboard at sea.
I miss those remote stops along the BAM: little towns that ambush you with a screech of brakes, and the waft of dried fish being loaded into the dining car. They represent the Soviet Union in microcosm: the town of Novy Uoyan — built by Latvian workers, with Baltic-style houses that conjure up the sea spray of Riga — or Kuanda, an Uzbek-sponsored town with Central Asian ambience. Armenians, Georgians, Ukrainians, even Angolan and Cuban comrades worked on the BAM, some leaving tiny mementoes of their homelands on the frontier.
Comrades travelled 4,000 miles from St Petersburg to build the city of Severobaikalsk — my favourite stop — set between mountains and the north shore of Lake Baikal. Unlike St Petersburg, there is no pressure to go sightseeing. I wandered aimlessly among five-storey tower blocks. I visited the monument to BAM construction workers, which proclaimed “Glory to the Tunnel Builders”. After a short while in any BAM town, you actually realise that the grandest building is in fact the first and last place you visit: the station. In the case of Severobaikalsk it is a piece of space-age architecture, with a swooping roof like a sail, allegedly in tribute to the quays of St Petersburg. BAM towns never quite lived up to their futuristic stations.
In the loneliness of lockdown, I miss the ever-changing cast of passengers on the BAM, for whom births, marriages and deaths are often linked to railway timetables. Midway along the line, in the BAM “capital” of Tynda, I met Vadim and Ekaterina: a husband and wife whose eyes first met in a train cabin one Christmas Day in 2004. They were “BAM-binos” — the second generation of residents. Vadim was an engine driver — he said Tynda produces the best drivers in the country. Ekaterina’s father had also been a driver: their son planned to be one too.
In Tynda station, Vadim took us into the cab of an idling engine where we drank coffee and talked about bear sightings along the line. He was frank that Tynda was becoming a ghost town — at the last census its population stood at 36,000, down from a Soviet-era peak of 65,000. He tried to be hopeful for the future.
“Younger generations don’t want to hear about the BAM,” he said. “It’s not taught in history lessons — maybe because it is a story from Soviet times. But we are proud of the railway — in the future people will hear about it.”
Since I left, there has been some positive news for locals: freight traffic has been increasing. Construction of a new spur north to the city of Yakutsk is continuing (the so-called AYAM railway). There have been official announcements of billion-dollar upgrades along the BAM. But the most recent timetables still show passenger trains crawling along at average speeds of about 25mph.
At least, during the pandemic, BAM trains are still running. For many, the railway is the only route in and out — roads are impassable for much of the year. It is the biggest employer too. Essential supplies arrive on two rails: travelling hospital trains serve sick residents along the line. What the Nile is to Egypt, the BAM is to BAM Land, both a highway and a vital artery, sustaining life in a hostile wilderness.
As well as the landscapes, the company and the stories, I even miss the night-times on board: the deep sleeps as you cross time zones. Eating my breakfast in London this morning, I could see the overnight train from Tynda would soon be leaving for Komsomolsk-na-Amur, near the eastern terminus of the line. The Russian Railways website was selling 28 bunks. With the streets around my house eerily quiet, I thought about the chorus of snores on board, the clockwork clatter of the rails. People buried under blankets as the temperature sinks outside.
On my last night on board the BAM, I remember waking in the small hours, and spending some time with my nose pressed against a cold window pane. The reflection of the moon glittered on the rivers. Pine forests were swathed in snow, shadow and silence. Once or twice, the lights of a lineside hut appeared — like a lighthouse in the dark. Most of the time, there was no mark of homo sapiens; we could have been on a train ride through the Pleistocene.
Spending my days between four walls, I miss the BAM’s unfenced horizons. And in future — in an increasingly populated planet — I wonder if these vast open spaces will be more precious than the mineral riches that lie beneath them.
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