Travel by train in Russia, level 2: the BAM line

Have you enjoyed travelling on the Transsiberian railway?

Why don’t you consider a follow-up adventure: Transsiberian level 2, a journey on the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM) railway.

BAM map
Official map from the RZD (Russia’s railway company)’s website. The BAM is the orange line, in the Russian Far-East and more Northern than the Transsiberian here in green.

The BAM line was built under Stalin as a strategic alternative to the Transsiberian Railway, that was considered too dangerously close to the Chinese border.

Whilst travelling by train in Russia requires some degree of familiarity with the codes and rules, I found the experience on the BAM – which I moreover did in the middle of winter just to make the task even more challenging – considerably more special, and here is why:

1. It is one of the craziest civil engineering works and was built by gulag prisoners

Nature is beautiful in the Russian Far-East, but it doesn’t make communication and construction easy. The BAM railway is over 4,000 km long with 21 tunnels and 4,200 bridges, a large part of which built over permafrost.

270 - komsomolsk
Mountains and extreme weather conditions: the Russian Far-East is beautiful but not the ideal environment to build a giant railway line!

Of course, this was all possible only because of forced labour from the gulag prisoners, who did all the work for free during interminable decades – the Bamlag division of the Gulag administration peaked at 201,000 prisoners in 1938 who were working on the railway.

2. An embarrassingly empty train

Don’t get me wrong: less people on the dorm carriage is good news on a long journey. More quiet, less snoring at night, just you in your bubble. But that much less people can be embarrassing, too. At some point, we were just a couple of passengers, highlighting the relative uselessness of this notwithstanding deadly construction.

333 - BAM
Somewhere between Komsomolsk and Tynda. On this 20 hour-long journey, we were only a handful of passengers on board, you can see the empty couches.

3. Even more extreme temperatures contrast

Did you read the joke about the temperature in Russian trains? It is a fact that in my experience, it is always so hot on Russian trains and the BAM was no exception. What was exceptional though, was the incredible contrast with the outside temperature: can you imagine how you feel when you step out of the train and the temperature is more than fifty Celsius degrees lower?!

334 - BAM
Inside the train: 24 degrees Celsius. Cosy!
336 - Tynda
Outside the train, here the more extreme I experienced in Tynda: minus 38 degrees Celsius. 24 inside, minus 38 outside? That’s 62 degrees less! Insane.

4. Extreme confusion with the time zones

One day in a small town deep in Siberia, the train stopped and the provodnista told me to go for a walk as the train was going to pause here for a few hours. She stressed I should be back by 1:30 pm.

376 - Bikhorevka
On the 4,300 km long BAM railway, many stations have platforms named by their direction: East or West, rather than a number.

The problem: what means 1.30 pm when you are completely lost in the time zones? In Russia, train tickets are edited in Moscow times and so 1.30 pm was Moscow time. When I got on the train the previous evening, I was in a Moscow +6 time zone; when we reached that town it was already the next day and I wasn’t sure in which time zone we were!

Russian time zones span from UTC +3 to +12, but all train times are expressed in Moscow time, which sounds a bit irrelevant when you are so far away and can be pretty confusion when you don’t really know in which time zone you are.

When I came back to the station, and did not find my train on the platform, my blood boiled. Did I get back at the wrong time? Far from the large railway stations of the Transsiberian route, it wasn’t easy to get the right information with certainty. Luckily, I was too early rather than too late, and the train was yet to return from a technical check!

5. Being a hero to the locals

What betrays I am a foreigner is not so much my appearance but rather my backpack! As a foreigner, on the Transsiberian you are rather a curiosity. On the BAM, as a foreigner you are a hero. Several people called me that word, which I found very amusing.

BAM what i do
Everyone’s reaction to my travel plan amused me and inspired me this little montage in the same fashion as was very popular on social media at the time.

That morning when I arrived in Severobaikalsk, the lady running a tiny guesthouse got so excited about my presence that she called all her friends to tell them she had a “touristka“: I was the first since the past 6 weeks. That sort of hero!


2 thoughts on “Travel by train in Russia, level 2: the BAM line

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