Nowadays tour operators are wise to the increased interest from tourists and have created readymade packages for this route, making a journey to Lake Baikal more commonplace and accessible than ever before.
Those looking for a less cliché but still epic journey through the Siberian hinterland should consider travelling east on the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM), a 4324-kilometre journey that connects Tayshet, near Irkustk, to Sovetskaya Gavan, a town on the Pacific Ocean. Like so many of the region’s engineering marvels , Gulag labour was largely used to construct long stretches of the railway line first in the 1930s and then the mid-1940s when Japanese and German prisoners of war were forced to build the extensions. A large portion of the BAM railway crosses a permafrost zone and the natural scenery can be breathtaking all year round with the trains running over an astounding 4000 bridges.
Railway boom towns
The BAM was expanded during the Brezhnev era, with the long-time Soviet leader boldly describing it the “project of the century.” With a price tag of around $14 billion spent and numerous boomtowns developing round the tracks in the late 1970s, its clear why Brezhnev made this statement. Tynda is one such town that came out of nowhere to serve the railway line and is as Soviet a town as you will find anywhere in the country and is referred to as the BAM’s unofficial capital.
The relatively recent Orthodox Church in the town is probably the only non-Soviet structure you will find there. Its population, which peaked at 62,000 in the late 1980s has since dramatically halved with many residents seeking greener pastures in central Russia. For those interested in the indigenous people of the Russian Far East, a small Evenki village is located very close to the city that would be well worth seeing. In the region there has been a revival in attempts to preserve the original inhabitants’ culture. Organisations like the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development are actively supporting such initiatives.
For travellers seeking to explore off the beaten track, Tynda is a major railway junction for access to both China to the southeast and Yakutia, which is connected to the region with the Amur-Yakutsk mainline, also known as the ‘Little BAM.’
Blagoveshchensk, which is 568 kilometres away from Tynda, shares a river border with Heihe in China, a Manchurian boomtown that sits across the Amur. The contrasts between a rising China and a neighbouring Russian Far East on the decline are glaringly obvious from this river crossing.
The Russian internal republic of Sakha is also a stone’s throw from Tynda, with the coal-mining town of Neryungri, roughly 200 kilometres away. Construction work is in progress now to connect the line to Yakustsk, which is a further 800 kilometres. Diamonds, the republic’s best-known asset, are the main trade here as there is such an abundant supply. The Lena Pillars National Park, which is now on the UNESCO World Heritage List, also provides a great attraction.
To the Pacific coast
The railway line east from Tynda leads to Komsomolsk-na-Amure, a picturesque riverside town with broad avenues, beautifully well-maintained European architecture and rickety trams. Built to be an industrial powerhouse, Komsomolsk houses a Sukhoi factory, where the SSJ-100 jet is manufactured.
The best way to break a long-distance train journey into more manageable pieces is to visit some of the cities that are well off the beaten track. Komsomolsk is an extremely cultural city surrounded by nature. After a 1500-kilometre train ride from Tynda, it can be a delightful change of pace - a perfect place to relax for a few days. Lake Amut, which is in the outskirts of the city is one of the area’s prime ski resorts. In the warmer months its an ideal spot for treks and camping.
The terminal station of the BAM is Sovetskaya Gavan (Sovgavan), a port on the Tatar Strait. A unremarkable town with no activities or architecture to speak of, Sovgavan is surrounded by hills that offer stunning panoramic sea views. The area shares quite a few similarities with the landscape in the summer with the American northwest, which shares the same ocean with the Russian Far East.
Sovgavan’s raison d’être is its timber industry, which now supplies nearby China. Although the nearby port of Vanino has acquired prominence after oil and gas companies set up shop in Sakhalin, the effects of the economic boom on the island are not visible in this side of the Tatar Strait. When asked about what else there was to do in the town besides watching an American film in an old single-screen cinema hall or going to a modest museum, a local taxi driver could only suggest a trip to a casino! It seems currently the options in this area are slim, but with Russia looking to become a major player in the Asia-Pacific, smaller towns on the Pacific Coast may still have bright prospects.
A trip on the BAM and AYAM lines can leave the traveller feeling like some sort of pioneer, exploring some of the most isolated and exotic frontiers of the great Russian landmass.
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