Christina Gibbons escorted a group tour on our Bam railway trip. In part 2 of her blog, she writes about the experience…
Main image by Paul Whittle
After two nights on transiberian trains we finally set off on the ‘true’ BAM. No frills on these trains, but our intrepid group of train spotters has not come for comfort. After a night in a hermetically sealed sub-tropical carriage we awake to a Christmas card scene. Once again we wonder at the vastness of the landscape. Finally we feel we are truly in Siberia. As far as the eye can see is a forest of spindly birches iced with freshly fallen snow; bronze and reds peak through where the sun has touched the tree tops; catkin like buds of snow dangle from the tips of branches. This winter wonderland is tinged with remorse for the victims of Stalin’s purges who faced almost certain death forging the track through this wild land. The drive to extend the railway to the Far East cost the Soviet Union more than the space race.
Tynda, the end of another leg of the BAM, is still sleeping and locked in a blizzard as the train glides in to the starless early morning. A Saturday morning, out of season and nowhere, apart from the rail station, is open. The greasy spoon station café has to suffice until the BAM Museum opens its doors. The museum curator, a retired English teacher, is somewhat surprised by this group of western tourists. Overcoming her initial shock she is delighted to practice her English and shows us the delights of the exhibits dedicated to the 40th anniversary of BAM. Time to leave the ‘wonders’ of Tynda and back on the train.
Temperatures drop as we enter the virgin landscape of scrubby trees, partially frozen rivers and towering mountains. True Siberia.
Severobaikalsk is not used to visitors. Hotel Tourist is out of town, adjacent to the railway sidings [much to the delight of some of the more hardened rail enthusiasts]. From the diggers and other heavy plant parked outside, tourists are not the regular clientele. The proprietoress of this illustrious establishment seems somewhat surprised and more than a little miffed that she and the sullen staff have to accommodate us. Rooms are allocated at random with most of us having ‘suites’. The décor is somewhat exotic and a job lot of power showers [without the power] have been installed. Some rooms have kettles but no cups and vice versa. In spite of having the correct number of twin and singles our charming proprietor cannot understand why having allocated two of the four single rooms required there are still two people left waiting for a key! Thankfully, as there is nowhere for miles to dine or shop for provisions, the staff rustle up a cheap and filling evening meal. Given the rumpus in the night with drunken guests, I could understand why the hotel does not stock any alcohol.
There are no words in any language, which can do justice to the pure beauty of Lake Baikal, with its ever-changing colours and pristine, clear waters surrounded by snow capped peaks. Fresh snow makes the beaches appear as if they were made of the powder sands of the Caribbean. The trek over the headland in soft, fresh snow is magical.
Life for ethnic tribes around the lake has continued more or less unchanged for centuries, in spite of the efforts of communism to ‘improve’ their lot by destroying their homes. Still they survive by fishing and small scale agriculture.
Image by Paul Whittle
Severobaikalsk is only 40 years old – another socialist ideal of the 70’s. Romantics, idealists and pioneers from all over Russia came to build the dream in this remote corner of the Far East. As with other BAM towns the golden years are a distant memory.
Our last train, as all others, glides silently out of Severobaikalsk station.. Two more nights and we arrive at the end of our Siberian adventure. Somewhere along the route the train stops for 80 minutes and changes numbers. I guess this means a split since our original train number ends Krasnoyarsk. Even so it is still a sobering moment to watch our carriage, containing all our worldly goods trundle off down the track, hopefully to return at the appropriate time.
We have made a big detour west to double back east to Irkutsk. The terrain down the banks of Baikal being too mountainous to lay track.
Irkutsk station, built in 1905, reminds one of the splendour and ambition of the original railway buildings, a stark contrast from the more recent stations built in concrete and steel. Maybe future generations will appreciate the Soviet style of architecture. For the present they are a reminder of a dream turned sour.
From the hotch potch of constructions in the former quaint fishing village of Listvyanka it is apparent how money can overcome any planning restrictions. A resort out of season can be a depressing place – Listvyanka with its abandoned or closed cafes and amusements is no exception. But there are still plenty of ‘Omul’ fish for sale in the market. The good ladies behind the fish stalls sound like the chirping of the dawn chorus as they try to attract our attention with their shrill cries.
The Circumbaikal tourist trains have ceased for the winter but we find a captain willing to take our small group across to Port Baikal, an almost abandoned harbour, apart from an odd ferry or tourist boat. In the early hours of the morning a scheduled train still stops at the old station, which has been spruced up as a hotel and railway museum. At this time of year the staff were more than a little put out to receive visitors. Money crossed hands and the museum lights come on.
The Lake is calm and steely grey apart from the wash from our boat. A curious seal follows us for a while. We could have been on the high seas as the mountains are obscured in mist on both shores.
In contrast to the greyness outside our hosts at the Baikal chalet give us such a warm welcome it makes the 88 step climb to the lobby worth the effort. This typical wooden chalet construction is located on a hillside 600 metres from the centre of the village. Tea, coffee and biscuits are free at any time and the food is good, freshly prepared Russian cuisine.
Our last full day dawns bright but the clouds and mist soon descend as we approach Irkutsk. It is hard to build up enthusiasm for this vibrant city when it is shrouded in a grey smog from forest fires and industrial smoke. The dresses of the constant stream of ‘child’ brides look distinctly off-white. An almost Disney like street of reconstructed typical wooden structures is in the heart of town. No longer dwelling places but a collection of bars, restaurants and shops. For a more authentic retail experience the old market is still open.
Hotel Victoria is in a prime position on Karl Marx’s street within walking distance of the centre and most places of interest. However, the entrance is obscured in a dingy courtyard off the main road. Yet another hotel which does not serve alcohol – Putin must be attempting to curb Russians propensity to drink copious quantities of any hooch they can lay their hands on.
And so the long journey home begins. It seems appropriate that snow is falling and we all feel like pioneers to the wild East. Transiberian – how passé. BAM is the real train experience.
Image by Paul Whittle
Read more about our BAM railway group tour.