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The Baikal-Amur Mainline Railroad

Buzz Poole
08/14/2012 - 05:58
View from north end of Lake Baikal, James Hill via New York Times

For those keeping track, you know that long-distance train travel is of great interest to me, primarily, I think, because I haven't done much of it. Of course, of all the world's great rail journeys, the Trans-Siberian Railway is one of the most fabled, running 5,000 miles from Moscow to the Sea of Japan. So it should come as no surprise that Finn-Olaf Jones's feature article in last weekend's New York Times, The Other Siberian Railroad, grabbed my attention.

Jones and his traveling partner decided to forgo the tourist-ridden Trans-Siberian route and opted for five days on the Baikal-Amur Mainline railroad (BAM), a 2,5000 mile offshoot of the Trans Siberian "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." Fearing that the Chinese would storm the border and sieze the Trans-Siberian, Stalin conceived BAM as an alternative for shipping lumber and other raw materials. Completed only in 1991, the route remains as desolate as ever.

Jones started his journey in Khabarovsk, one of two points where the Trans-Siberian and BAM intersect. Having flown in from South Korea, the town's Asian population sits in stark contrast to the European architecture. But while architectural remnants of a bygone era dot the landscape, what Jones makes clear is that this trip is about expansive wilderness where inhabited outposts are more like novelties than necessities. As Jones writes: "[T]here was an undeniable romance riding through Siberia’s vast wilds on this implausible, impractical, yet epically scenic railroad."

With random short stops to stock up on food and vodka, passengers spend their days talking and staring out the window: "We rolled along, we chatted long into the night with fellow passengers, we watched the pale sun rise and fall through the trees and the distant mountains, we darted back and forth for boiling water to the omnipresent samovar installed at the end of the car, we toasted each other with endless cups of tea and hourly glasses of vodka (out here the stuff seemed to be drunk at a pace more medicinal than inebriating), and we dozed off, rocked gently to sleep."

Apparently, Jones was the only foreign passenger, a dynamic that seemed to fulfill his desire to get off the beaten path and ultimately enhanced his experience. Not being a Russian speaker, I wouldn't want to make this trip without a Russian-speaking friend, but if you have one of those, the article makes the whole trip sound very appealing!

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