1 trip, 2 backpacks, 36 hours, and 1400 kilometers: We were ready for a train journey through Siberia’s taiga!
How did that happen?
With distances being so vast in Russia, we’ve become selective in where we drive. Fortunately, train travel is big here and a great way to ‘experience’ Russia!
So when we learned we could visit Komsomolsk-on-Amur without having to drive hundreds of kilometers, we had found a new adventure: a train journey to one of the Soviet Union’s important military-industrial cities.
This, by the way, was not the famous Trans-Siberian Railway. We rode on the lesser-known, white-elephant project known as the BAM (Baikal-Amur Mainline).
“We could take the train to Komsomolsk-on-Amur,” Coen spoke his thoughts.
I looked at him for a second.
“Okay, let’s do that. What a brilliant plan,” I responded before he would change his mind.
We stood in the hallway of Tynda’s вокзал (‘vaksal’ – railway station), looking at train schedules for no apparent reason. We had just driven south from Yakutsk and our ‘sort-of-plan’ had been to drive west to Chita. This train journey, on the other hand, would take us to the opposite direction: east.
Until now there had been no talk whatsoever of train travel.
Always open to new experiences, we bought tickets. Our couchsurfing friend Dilshod knew the train would leave in the evening and arrive in the morning. However, he did not know that there were an additional 24 hours in between, which we found out only after we had bought the tickets.
Our train ride would take 36 hours to cover 1400 kilometers; clearly the train intended to halt at every other tree (of which there are many on the taiga). For this we paid the equivalent of US$45 (for 2 tickets).
Outside we walked up the stairs and from the footbridge we took in the labyrinth of railways, many with incredibly long freight trains, the open wagons full with coal.
Over the past months our roads have often followed the railway tracks of either the BAM or the Trans-Siberian Railway and it has not ceased to amaze us what massive quantities of resources are transported across the country by railway.
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Tynda, in Russia’s Far East and east of Lake Baikal, is the headquarters of the Baikal-Amur Mainline, better known as BAM. This is one of Russia’s two great railways, the other being the much more famous and well-traveled Trans-Siberian Railway. For the most part the BAM runs some 500 kilometers north of or parallel to Russia’s more famous railway.
The total length of the BAM is 4300 kilometers. At Tayshet, in Central Russia, the Trans-Siberian Railway forks with the northern fork becoming the BAM. Via Lake Baikal, Tynda and Komsomolsk-on-Amur the BAM runs to Sovetskaya Gavan on the Pacific Coast. Along the way it crosses 11 full-flowing rivers and 7 ridges and runs through a total of 30 kilometers of tunnels.
The BAM grew in stages throughout the 20th century. The earliest sections were built in the 1930s by gulag convicts and after The Great Patriotic War by Japanese prisoners of war as well. In the 1970s construction was resumed, this time by volunteers. From all over the country young people from the Komsomol (Communist Youth League) flocked to Siberia and contributed.
Here are more details on the BAM – the gulag contribution noticeably left out, however, it’s clearly mentioned in museums that display the BAM history (e.g. in Tynda).
In the Train
Back at Dilshod’s home we packed our bags and returned to the station.
Our train journey had begun.
On platform 1, a train stood ready to be embarked. It wasn’t ours, but next to every wagon stood a provodnik, carriage attendant, in long, dark-blue and warm looking winter coat. We checked with one of them where we had to go. “Across the bridge, to platform 3,” she said. People stood on the platform, smoking their last cigarette before boarding. At each door, an attendant checked tickets and IDs – what a stroke of luck that I had thought of bringing our passports!
The train was spacious and clean with benches in bright blue covers. Throughout the train journey, the female attendant regularly cleaned the toilet, emptied the bins, and swept the floor two or three times during the day. We were quite impressed by how comfortable the journey was (having said that, the way back we had a male attendant and he clearly had lower standards for hygiene).
Each wagon could accommodate about fifty people. At night the upper berth came down and above the upper berth was another platform for futons and blankets. The luggage could conveniently be stowed in the compartments under the seats.
Our reserved seats were 37 and 38 (lower and upper berth on the right side), at the far end, before the door that led to a small hallway with a toilet and garbage bins. Passengers were super disciplined in taking their garbage away. An LCD screen above the door indicated it was 25 degrees Celsius (bloody hot!), the time and the date, whether the toilet was occupied or free, and the speed of the train (which averaged about 40 kms/hour).
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At the entrance of the wagon was a hot-water dispenser and the attendants sold basics such as tea, Nescafe, snacks, and dried puree (like with dried ramen noodles, you add had water and have a simple meal), as well as BAM gadget souvenirs.
The attendants took our tickets. We had this happen once before, in China. This way she knew exactly who had to disembark when, making sure you don’t stay on the train longer than you paid for. At least that’s our guess; however, it doesn’t work anymore in the digital era. On the way back we showed our digital tickets (bought with the help of a local) on our Smartphone and that was good too. Another attendant handed out bed linen and even a small towel. We were well taken care off.
We settled in, smiling.
Getting a Stranger’s Visa Card
When the train left around five p.m., rocking and chugging its way in a steady kedengedeng rhythm, passengers took out their bread and soup, had their dinner and made their beds early. A small group of men, about five of them, was drinking but kept it quiet. One of them was super curious about us and came over for a talk. His name was Dimitriy and this was the second time he saw foreigners.
With his two words of English and our two words of Russian we didn’t have much of a conversation but it was a nice exchange nonetheless. We now noticed how curious other passengers had been too, but nobody had dared to say anything. All were listening in and laughed at the struggling conversation.
Dimitriy returned to his drinking and when we had just gone to bed, he returned and woke Coen and asked for his signature. In return, Dimitriy wanted to give Coen his signature as well but he had no paper and pen so Coen suggested taking care of it the next morning. But no, Dimitriy was about to get off the train and so he gave Coen a visa card (“No, no money on it,” Dimitriy insisted) because it carried his signature.
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A Doctor Visiting Patients
The unfortunate part of this train journey that we left just before night fell. Of the 36 hours we spent maybe 15 in daylight and so we saw relatively little of the countryside. Additionally I slept a few of those daylight hours as well, after a sleepless night as a result of a snorer.
I got up only at nine. The snorer meanwhile had had his own issues, it appeared. A doctor had been called and while I was catching up on sleep in the morning hours, a doctor had gotten on board, given the man a big injection of one thing or the other and had left again (another would return later that day for an additional check-up). How that service works or is paid for, I have no idea.
We ate breakfast of ready-made oatmeal from a package to which we added an apple for texture. I had enough to do: study Russian, write stories, reading Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia – or should I continue Abraham Ascher’s informative read A Short History (I’m not patient enough to read only one book at the time)?
We didn’t have Internet connection for most of the journey so hardly anybody was on Smartphones either. People stared, watched a movie, talked a bit but mostly slept through the entire journey and woke only to eat.
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The taiga passed by, an unbroken vista of coniferous forest stretching off to the horizon only to be interrupted by an occasional village or town. Not much of it was unspoiled; large stretches of open fields, sometimes dotted with charred stumps or thin, young trees.
I guess that over time too many fires have razed large parts of the taiga, whether by forces of nature or the hand of mankind – the latter on purpose or because of a reluctantly thrown away cigarette butt.
Late afternoon we saw snow, a welcome change of scenery. First some specks on the ground and distant mountaintops carpeted with white. Further on, snow-streaked hills and around Novy Urgal a thick pack of snow was wrapping the trees in a fresh layer of white.
We passed streams meandering its way through the taiga or wide rivers which water seemed thick and moved slowly. Sometimes the railway hugged a lake with vegetation reflecting in the still, black water. This scenery of water and forest felt eternal. The railway and adjacent power lines were crudely cutting through the timeless landscape.
After the oceans, the boreal forest is the world’s largest biome. Vast and endless, its monotony is dramatic in its own right. The sky and clouds, on the other hand, are constantly changing; the skies in Siberia are marvelous.
Along the railway were workers in orange vests, some warming themselves around wood fires. Dilshod had told us that all wooden sleepers are being replaced by concrete sleepers. At one point stood loads of carriages with wooden sleepers that were being discarded and the new ones ready to be put in place.
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The train regularly stopped, we assumed because often there was only one track and the trains had to wait for each other. We also stopped in villages and towns where smokers ran out for their one minute of satisfying their addiction, frantically smoking their cigarettes before the time was up.
Exhausted after another sleepless night (same snorer) I was happy to arrive in Komsomolsk-on-Amur. The idea was to stay one or two days and return. We stayed four.
Because we had a fantastic adventure. Couchsurfing this time.
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