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The International Writers Magazine: Rail Travel Archives

The Alternative Trans-Siberian Railway
Steven Tizzard
The Trans-Siberian railway is the world's greatest train ride if not one of the world's great journeys. Describing the route from Moscow to Vladivostock as epic almost feels like an understatement.


In reality the Trans-Siberian is not one linear journey, but a network of railways linking European Russia with the Pacific coast, Mongolia and China. The lesser known  Baikalo-Amurskaya Magistral (Baikal-Amur Mainline or BAM) runs for 3400 km through beautifully bleak Siberian landscape. It is an alternative, parallel route from the Pacific coast to Moscow. Detouring deeper into this vast, unknown region, it is a track less travelled by foreigners with a supporting cast of provodnitsas, the female attendants who rule Stalinist supreme in their carriage domain, yet cannot hide a bullish matriarchal affection; drunken industrial workers on leave,migrating families, and the others, usually lonesome but quick to make friends, heading home or visiting relatives, seeking work or travelling on business, each with a story, a history. For many the BAM is just a job or a journey. The cheapest and easiest way to get from one place to another, nothing more.

Trans The BAM line begins at the naval base of Sovetskaya Gavan on the Tatar Strait, but this journey began at Komsomolsk-na-Amure, the largest city on the line after two nights train ride from Vladivostock via Khabarovsk.

We arrived at half six in the city built for the Komsomol (Young Communist League), the sky still dark blue with night slowly receding. We cowered weary in the station's waiting room until grey daylight two hours later. It was an icy walk to Voshkod Hotel, which we found on a busy crossroads opposite the main Russian Orthodox church. No problem getting a room. European price for European standards – the standards of thirty years ago. The décor was 1970s blue movie chic – as opposed to safe house style, the other main hotel interior design school of the region.  There weren't many other guests, just a North Korean sports team in tracksuits.

Soviet grandeur was the aim of this planned pioneer city: wide boulevards, monolithic buildings, a square for the mandatory statue of Lenin. The glory days had clearly passed on the autumn streets slushy from rain, melted snow, fallen leaves, dirt. The city had been built on a swamp. This was not too hard to believe. We were exiled in Komsomolsk for three days due to the train timetable whereas three hours was probably enough to see the main sights. We were, however, extremely lucky. Tens of thousands were exiled here, worked until they died here. Having almost missed a small stone memorial to Japanese prisoners of war in a run down park, a footnote to a forgotten chapter of the past, we walked to the beach on the Amur River. A rasping wind slashed the icy air with vicious intent as if punishing for the sins of the past. It found a new force by the water's edge. The beach and the ferry terminal were deserted, almost derelict, and we pressed on to a statue commemorating the pioneers who first came to the city in 1932, their idealistic beginnings, the myths of a city built on bones and swamp by slave labour. Further down the river, two fishermen waited, but we headed inland towards the towering World War Two memorial, a standard feature of every Siberian town. We watched wedding parties come and go, posing for cameras, laying flowers by the eternal flame, throwing coins for good luck. Loitering youths made for the scattered cash once the groups left. I couldn't help feeling sorry for Komsomolsk-na-Amure. For all that had happened and all that would never happen.

Our Tynda-bound train left late evening and we had a kupe (second class) compartment to ourselves for the first night. We woke in the carriage warmth to a scene of snow covered trees, deep snow on the ground. A monotonous landscape amplified by the clack on the track, but captivating, the forests, the snowy embankment, the grey milk sky, an anaemic disc of sun feebly burning through the haze as if the end of time neared, a final winter. A forbidding blackened expanse of Siberian larch arched like bows ready to fire a last shot before sinking in the snow, lifeless, defeated. It was comfortable travelling. We spent the day taking advantage of the endless hot water from the boiler for tea and instant noodles, the staples of any train journey in Russia.

Hours later came the human drama of the BAM: the drunken workers who clamber on at some obscure station at a ridiculous time clumsily invading the compartment with huge torsos, bulging necks, and cavernous snores. During the early hours of the second night I woke. The train had stopped and there were voices, thuds of boots and luggage in the corridor. People getting on, some getting off. I heard someone at the door. I got up to let them in. A shadowy bulk, a mountain of a man, almost fell on top of me, but he regained his balance as I dodged, staggered and spoke to me in Russian. The lights clicked on. I explained that I didn't speak Russian in badly spoken Russian. I shook hands with  Vadim who continued to speak. I could not work out if he was angry. He seemed angry so I tried my best to look apologetic. He didn't seem to understand that I didn't understand. My girlfriend pretended to sleep. Vadim's older travelling  companion, bald, middle aged, came into the room mumbling, then clambered with simian ease onto the top bunk and passed out, waking every now and then to pour Sprite into his cut-throat partially toothless mouth. Another friend, another Vadim, younger, brawnier, drunker than his namesake, watched from the corridor, detached with shyness, trying to focus until the door closed. It was an uneasy sleep.

Next morning early, visitors came to our compartment and the drinking continued. I was invited to share. Russians don't seem to take it too kindly if you turn down a glass of their poison. It's probably worse than insulting their mother. You need a good excuse ready.

Religion is acceptable: there are over 100,000,000 adherents to the Russian Orthodox Church and almost 30,000,000 active members. Instead I chose one closer to the truth: alcoholic. That got me out of the vodka without causing offence or losing face. The two Vadims were actually friendly, family men in the daylight, showing us photos of family and girlfriends. They were big men with shoulders as broad as the snow ploughs and diggers they drove for a living. The only harm they were likely to cause was an accidental hugging to death. They were men who loved their mothers and treated their girlfriends like princesses. At midday when the train stopped for a few hours at Tynda, a small inconsequential town apart from being the headquarters of the BAM, we said somewhat sad goodbyes, final goodbyes. The train left a few hours later. Again we were rewarded with solitude, a day and evening of peace, tea and noodles. Yet again it was the early hours and I woke.  The train had stopped and there were voices, thuds of boots and luggage in the corridor. People getting on, some getting off. I heard someone at the door. I got up to let them in.

After another night and morning with drunken BAM mates (this time Sergei and Yuri, bear hunters and traders of dubious legality) we arrived in Severobaikalsk unscathed. We made our way in the snow, the temperature the wrong side of zero, about a kilometre south of the train station to a guest house close to the relatively undeveloped northern tip of Lake Baikal. The town itself, north of the track, is no beauty; another underachievement of Soviet planning aesthetics. It has a hard-working feel, unpretentious. The centre is grimly urban, but quickly gives way to surrounding countryside.

The next morning we headed downhill to Baikal. We crossed a frozen pond following the path of a retired couple ahead to reach the snowy bank of the planet's deepest lake. The view from the hill had not disappointed, but actually standing lakeside gave a new perspective, a grandeur; participating in the tranquillity of snowy mountains, an early sky of mesmerising clouds that waltzed with the sun's rays, magnifying and shifting them endlessly, whispering light over the roofs of colourfully painted  dacha, summer houses by the water's edge - one fifth of the world's fresh, unfrozen water, crystal shining - lapping on the pebbles, the drift wood. No one about now, the old couple gone, not even a fisherman seeking omul, Baikal's main fish. This morning was intensely calm, but a calm hanging on a thread because Baikal can rage in an instant. On this day tranquillity prevailed. The lake remained silent. From Severobaikalsk, the BAM continues over 1000 km to Tayshet. That would be the epilogue of our journey, the last leg, a chance to reflect.

© Steven Tizzard

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