BAM: The Other Siberian Railway

This is a wonderful New York Times travel piece on the Baikal-Amur Mainline railroad, otherwise known as BAM:

When most people consider crossing Siberia by rail, they think of the Trans-Siberian Railway, the 5,000-mile-long rail line stretching from Moscow to the Pacific, which was finished in 1916. But two-thirds of the way through the continent from Moscow, the Trans-Siberian sprouts an artery — the BAM — that inexplicably darts north through a blank spot on the map with few towns or even paved roads, a mysterious and enormous railroad loop through nowhere.

Begun under Joseph Stalin as a northern alternative to the Trans-Siberian, the BAM was finished only in 1991 though it’s still being tinkered with to meet growing Asian demand for Siberian lumber, gas and oil.

The author posits that the BAM isn’t so tourist friendly, and that it doesn’t offer all the plush comforts of the Trans-Siberian. The BAM:

…[W]as built for freight and people who have business in the wilderness. The dozen cars on the first leg of our trip were half-filled with workers and managers destined for Siberia’s lumber camps and oil and gas fields, as well as people working on the train line itself. As such, it is more of a utilitarian train, with a nothing-fancy dining car that served essentially as a round-the-clock bar, a couple of packed third-class wagons with clothes draped across bunk beds crowding dormitory-like spaces, and a few second-class cars with four comfortable berths in separate minivan-size cabins.

My favorite portion of the article, the camraderie offered on the train:

Thanks to the dozen passengers who rotated into our coupe during the weeklong journey — among them an engineer heading to the oil fields north of Lake Baikal, a navy officer on leave, a college student who didn’t say a word — our table was a perpetual buffet of pirogi, boiled chicken, pickles, hams and lots of tasty things I couldn’t pronounce. Our contribution was whatever local snack we could buy from the babushkas during the 10- to 15-minute stops the train made at various stations, and the omnipresent, daily replaced bottle of vodka. 

I’ve added this piece to the travelreads collection on this blog.

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