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Journeying Through History: The BAM Railway Experience

Inside the Soviet Union’s Monumental Engineering Feat and the Wonders Along Its Path

Traveling by train on the Trans-Siberian has already become a classic of world tourism. Seven days to Vladivostok have been traveled by thousands of adventurous tourists and musician David Bowie. Before the pandemic, special luxury trains for foreign tourists operated, tours on which cost several tens of thousands of euros. But for traveling to the Far East, there exists an equally important and beautiful alternative route – via the Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM). We tell you what to see on the way and how to organize such a trip.

The mainline was the largest, most expensive, and last mega-project of the Soviet Union. In the 1980s, the entire country built the road, with each station being overseen by a separate region or republic, and the “all-union construction” was directly reflected in the architecture of the stations. For instance, Armenia built the “Zvezdny” station, the building clad in traditional Armenian pink tuff. Azerbaijan was given the “Ulkan” station. Its facades are clad in Azerbaijani marble, and the window grilles are executed in the eastern style of shebeke. In the Siberian and Far Eastern taiga, the entire geography of the vast country was concentrated – a higher concentration can perhaps only be found by looking at the pavilions at the VDNKh exhibition.

When boarding the train, I decided to wipe the outside of the coupe window. Dirty windows, unfortunately, are one of the “sore spots” of rail transport in Russia. The conductor was initially surprised, but then, learning the reason and that I was planning to observe the nature of the BAM from the window of the carriage, actively joined in and helped with a cloth. According to her, the first time she was on the BAM, she was impressed by the local nature, and this charm has not passed to this day. After many years, the landscapes of the BAM continue to amaze her, even though she sees them several times a month. The BAM passes through high-mountain landscapes comparable to the landscapes of Austria and Chile and much more colorful than the plains of the Trans-Sib.

The railway is virtually the only and at the same time comfortable and accessible way to see these amazing places. Not all populated areas are connected by roads, and they are not of the best quality. Traveling on the BAM is also a social experience: along the way, you can meet local residents and hear stories about their far from ordinary fates. At remote stations, cyclopean volumes of food are unloaded from the carriage in just a few minutes. Now and then, builders (sometimes inebriated) board the train, and their stories convey the full weight of working in the harsh conditions of the north.

There simply is no other road of such length and beauty, laid in such difficult conditions, and available to tourists anywhere in the world.

What is the BAM and why was it built?

The length of the BAM is 4,287 kilometers (the length of the Trans-Siberian is 8,300 kilometers), and the mainline runs through the territory of six regions of Russia, for a significant part of its length – in sparsely populated areas and regions of perpetual permafrost or increased seismic activity.

The BAM begins in the Irkutsk region at the “Taishet” station. At this point, the mainline meets the Trans-Siberian, and this is the station you cannot bypass when traveling by train across Russia from west to east by any route. From Taishet, the BAM goes north of the Trans-Siberian by about 500 kilometers, passes through Bratsk and Severobaykalsk, skirts Lake Baikal to the north, and further through Tynda and Komsomolsk-on-Amur reaches the coast of the Sea of Japan in the area of the Sovetskaya Gavan station in the Khabarovsk Territory.

The length of the BAM is 4,287 kilometers, and the mainline passes through the territory of six regions of Russia. Source: Svetlov Artem / Wikimedia.org
The length of the BAM is 4,287 kilometers, and the mainline passes through the territory of six regions of Russia. Source: Svetlov Artem / Wikimedia.org

The construction of an alternative railway connecting Baikal with the Pacific coast was contemplated as early as the 19th century. Options to bypass Lake Baikal both from the south and from the north were considered. The “northern” railway option was rejected following the results of two exploratory expeditions by Voloshinov and Prokhaske. They deemed the uninhabited areas through which the modern BAM passes unsuitable not only for railway construction but even for human habitation.

The idea of construction was revisited in 1932, partly due to the worsening relations with Japan. Its troops were located in China, near the USSR borders. The Trans-Siberian was too close to the borders of potential enemies and could be captured, which would cut off railway communication with the Far East. The decree on the construction of the BAM envisaged the creation of the mainline (over 4,000 kilometers) at “super-impact Bolshevik” speeds within three years, which, of course, was impossible even for Stalin’s times. For this, BAMlag was created – one of the largest camps in the USSR, through which more than two million people passed, and the number of deaths has not been counted to this day. The construction of the BAM required the labor of Marina Tsvetaeva’s daughter Anastasia, priest Pavel Florensky, poet Nikolay Zabolotsky, and even the future marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky.

In 1974, the BAM was declared an "All-Union Komsomol Shock Construction Project." Trains with brigades of young Komsomol builders from all over the country headed to Siberia and the Far East, and railway troops were also involved in the construction. Photo: Fortepan / Wikimedia.org
In 1974, the BAM was declared an “All-Union Komsomol Shock Construction Project.” Trains with brigades of young Komsomol builders from all over the country headed to Siberia and the Far East, and railway troops were also involved in the construction. Photo: Fortepan / Wikimedia.org

Construction began from the approaches from the Trans-Siberian to the future BAM route. By 1938, when BAMlag was disbanded, only the first branch from the Trans-Siberian to Tynda, spanning 190 kilometers, had been built, and the BAM itself had not even been started. In 1942, the second approach was completed — from the “Izvestkovaya” station to “Urgal,” but immediately after, an order was given to dismantle the first and send the rails to the front for the construction of the Volga Military Road — the country was preparing for the Battle of Stalingrad. Not a single kilometer of the BAM itself had yet been put into operation.

In 1943, an order was issued to accelerate the construction of the road from Komsomolsk-on-Amur to Sovetskaya Gavan, and this time the rails from the second constructed approach, which was also dismantled, came in handy. By 1951, only two sections of the BAM had been built — ironically, the very beginning and end of the mainline — from Taishet to Ust-Kut and from Komsomolsk-on-Amur to Sovetskaya Gavan. They were separated by 3,000 kilometers of impassable taiga. In 20 years, less than a third of the mainline had been constructed, which literally rested on the bones of convict builders. There are no exact figures on the number of deaths over the entire period, but it is known that 40,000 people died between 1933 and 1938.

After Stalin’s death, the construction was frozen due to the reforming of the camps and the absence of essentially free labor. Work on the BAM resumed only in the Brezhnev era. In 1974, the BAM was declared an “All-Union Komsomol Shock Construction Project.” Trains with brigades of young Komsomol builders from all over the country headed to Siberia and the Far East, and railway troops were also involved in the construction. Construction took place simultaneously along the entire future mainline, with brigades of earthworkers, tracklayers, electricians, and signalmen following one another. The road was built from west to east and from east to west. The junction (the so-called laying of the “golden link”) occurred in the autumn of 1984. After that, another five years were required for refinements and corrections — the BAM was finally put into operation only in 1989.

Construction took place simultaneously along the entire future mainline, with brigades of earthworkers, track layers, electricians, and signalmen literally following one another. Photo: Igor Vinogradov / Wikimedia.org
Construction took place simultaneously along the entire future mainline, with brigades of earthworkers, track layers, electricians, and signalmen literally following one another. Photo: Igor Vinogradov / Wikimedia.org

Work was carried out in areas where there were no populated places for hundreds of kilometers, except for the dwellings of the few indigenous peoples. The BAM passed through areas historically inhabited by the Evenks, Nanai, Orochs, and other peoples, which is clearly evident from the names of the stations, many of which come from the languages of the indigenous inhabitants. “Tynda” means “a place where deer are unharnessed,” “Urgal” means “stale water,” “Sigikta” means “difficult-to-pass thicket,” “Murtygit” means “a place where a horse was eaten,” “Olyokma” means “a river that cannot be avoided.”

The BAM passed through areas historically inhabited by the Evenks, Nanais, Orochs, and other peoples, which is clearly evident from the names of the stations, many of which are derived from the languages of the indigenous inhabitants. Photo: V. Yakovlev / Wikimedia.org
The BAM passed through areas historically inhabited by the Evenks, Nanais, Orochs, and other peoples, which is clearly evident from the names of the stations, many of which are derived from the languages of the indigenous inhabitants. Photo: V. Yakovlev / Wikimedia.org

Each major settlement and station was sponsored by a republic or region of the USSR, which is reflected in the architectural design of the stations. To this day, the BAM remains a living monument to the friendship of the peoples of what was once a single country. Indeed, to understand which republic sponsored a particular station or settlement, one can often tell just by looking at the station building.

StationBuilt byWhat to see
ZvezdnyArmeniaFacades clad in Armenian pink tuff and a “flower clock”
NiyaGeorgiaTraditional Georgian wood carving and embossing, monument “Russia — Georgia” with a sword and shield
UlkanAzerbaijanFacades clad in travertine and Azerbaijani marble, window grilles in shebeke style, mosaic panel “Tale of Azerbaijan”, monument to Farhad — national hero of Azerbaijan
KunermaDagestan, Ingushetia, North Ossetia, ChechnyaPatterns with eastern ornament and metal composition “Dagestan to BAM”
SeverobaikalskLeningradStation building resembling a sailing ship and a concrete tent with the names of the pioneers of construction
AngoyaAzerbaijanLancet windows and a panel made in Baku
KyukhelbekerskayaArmeniaFacades clad in Armenian pink tuff and an extended arcade
Novy UoyanLithuania
TaksimoLatvia
KuandaUzbekistanMonument in honor of the BAM junction
Novaya CharaKazakhstanStation in the form of a yurt, wooden panels with scenes of nomadic life and the monument “Kazakhstan to BAM”
IkabyaGeorgiaCanopies of residential building entrances with paintings from the history of Georgia
YuktaliChelyabinsk RegionGiant metal clock with a pattern
LarbaTurkmenistanOrnaments around windows and mosaics “Turkmen woman” and “Nature of Turkmenistan”
TyndaMoscowThe tallest station in the Far East shaped like a bird and typical “Moscow series” houses
AlonkaMoldovaMetal panels “Friendship of the Moldovan and Russian peoples” and “Alonka — BAM — Chisinau”, ornaments with storks and grapes
Novy UrgalUkraineMedallions with images of neighboring stations, mosaics with scenes from the life of Soviet Ukraine
SoloniTajikistanMosaic cornices and national mosaics above the entrance
PostyshevoNovosibirsk RegionBas-reliefs with images of builders

How the Route Works

Unlike the Trans-Siberian, on the BAM there is no train that travels the entire mainline. Along the way, you will have to make at least two transfers — in Tynda and Komsomolsk-on-Amur. Passenger traffic on the BAM is not very well developed. The train schedule is the main factor that will determine your travel plan, and you will have to adjust to it.

  • From Taishet to Severobaikalsk, five trains operate — from Barnaul, Moscow, Adler, Kislovodsk, and Irkutsk.
  • From Severobaikalsk to Tynda — two trains. On even dates, the Kislovodsk — Tynda train remains, and on odd dates — Krasnoyarsk — Neryungri.
  • On the Tynda — Komsomolsk-on-Amur section, there is one daily train.
  • Afterward, you will have to transfer again to the Vladivostok — Sovetskaya Gavan train.

The BAM can be crossed in four days — this is the fastest option if you do not linger and transfer from train to train as quickly as possible. For a journey with stops and exploration of the most interesting cities, you should plan for at least seven to ten days. You can travel from west to east and in the reverse direction, but among all trains, only one (No. 97, Kislovodsk — Tynda) traverses the most beautiful section of the BAM — the Kodar and Mururin passes — during daylight hours.

How to Get There

Taishet. The nearest major city to the starting point of the BAM, Taishet, is Krasnoyarsk. You can fly here from many Russian cities. Then you will have to transfer to a train and travel six to eight hours to Taishet.

Sovetskaya Gavan. From the final point of the BAM — the city of Sovetskaya Gavan — you can fly to Khabarovsk, Vladivostok, and Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk by plane. Alternatively, you can take a daily train to Khabarovsk (a day’s journey) or to Vladivostok (36 hours).

Also, from Sovetskaya Gavan, you can travel to Vanino and continue your journey by sea to Sakhalin. Passenger ferry tickets are sold at the “Vanino” railway station or at the ticket office in Kholmsk (Lenin Square, 5). They can also be booked by phone: +7 (42137) 740-88 (Vanino), +7 (42433) 508-80 (Kholmsk). The ferries run daily, with the journey taking 18–20 hours. A seat costs 760 rubles (7.63 euros), and the cheapest place in an eight-berth cabin costs 1400 rubles (14.05 euros). A dining car is available on board.

“The Flatland BAM”: Bratsk Hydroelectric Power Station, Lena River, and Lake Baikal

  • Section: Taishet — Bratsk — Lena — Severobaikalsk
  • Length: 1063 kilometers
  • Travel time: 21–25 hours

Taishet — the gateway to the BAM

The starting point of the BAM, Taishet, is a major railway junction. However, the city, located 3600 kilometers from Moscow, is otherwise unremarkable and tends to induce gloom with its dilapidated houses, potholes on the roads, discount grocery stores, and microloan advertising. Taishet is the gateway to the BAM, but it’s best to pass through these gates quickly and without paying too much attention.

Bratsk — the largest HPS

The first section of the BAM from Taishet to Ust-Kut resembles the familiar landscapes of Russia’s mid-latitudes. The train covers it in 12 hours, and the main attraction is Bratsk, a city of power engineers. It is here that the famous Bratsk Hydroelectric Power Station is located — the largest power station in Russia in terms of average annual energy production. Yevgeny Yevtushenko dedicated a poem to it, and Valentin Rasputin wrote the tragic novel “Farewell to Matyora” about it.

Bratsk consists of several districts, which are separated by vast forest tracts — effectively, they are separate mini-cities. Unfortunately, it is not possible for independent tourists to visit the Bratsk Hydroelectric Power Station itself, even as part of a tour. You can view the massive dam from a viewing platform or visit the Museum of the History of Bratskgesstroy and the city, where the history of the construction and operation of the station is detailed.

Unfortunately, it is not possible for independent tourists to visit the Bratsk Hydroelectric Power Station itself, even as part of a tour, but the massive dam can be viewed from a viewing platform. Photo: Pavel Gurenchuk / Wikimedia.org
Unfortunately, it is not possible for independent tourists to visit the Bratsk Hydroelectric Power Station itself, even as part of a tour, but the massive dam can be viewed from a viewing platform. Photo: Pavel Gurenchuk / Wikimedia.org

Ust-Kut — the largest port

In Ust-Kut, the railway crosses the Lena River, where the largest river port in Russia, Ossetrovo, is located. In 1974, the “shock Komsomol construction” of the BAM started from here. The main goal was to provide northern supplies via the Lena River to the Irkutsk Region and Yakutia. The navigation period on the Lena does not exceed 150 days, so all necessary goods must be delivered within this short time frame.

In Ust-Kut, the railway crosses the Lena River, where the largest river port in Russia, Ossetrovo, is located. In 1974, from here began the "shock Komsomol construction" of the BAM. Photo: Artem Svetlov / Wikimedia.org
In Ust-Kut, the railway crosses the Lena River, where the largest river port in Russia, Ossetrovo, is located. In 1974, from here began the “shock Komsomol construction” of the BAM. Photo: Artem Svetlov / Wikimedia.org

Severobaikalsk — Buuz and Mountains Against the Backdrop of Baikal

Gradually climbing onto the Stanovoy Plateau, six hours later the train reaches the shore of Baikal, on which the city of Severobaikalsk was built “from scratch.”

City

Lake Baikal is visible in Severobaikalsk almost immediately after exiting the train — one only needs to ascend the pedestrian bridge over the tracks. Just a ten-minute walk down the alley from the station — and you find yourself on the shore of the country’s main lake. The panorama against the backdrop of the Barguzin Mountains competes well with Alpine landscapes, and the northern Baikal, set against a backdrop of rocky slopes, is much more beautiful than in the south, near Irkutsk. Indeed, this is the main reason why a stop in Severobaikalsk should be included in the plan of any journey on the BAM — the impressions from Baikal will be brighter than in Irkutsk’s Listvyanka or Slyudyanka, and there are significantly fewer tourists here.

Lake Baikal is visible in Severobaikalsk almost immediately after exiting the train. Just a ten-minute walk down the alley from the station — and you find yourself on the shore of the country's main lake. Photo: Raki_Man / Wikimedia.org
Lake Baikal is visible in Severobaikalsk almost immediately after exiting the train. Just a ten-minute walk down the alley from the station — and you find yourself on the shore of the country’s main lake. Photo: Raki_Man / Wikimedia.org

Opposite the station, there is a monument to the city’s builders, topped with a small ship that remotely resembles the spire of the Admiralty — Severobaikalsk was designed and built by people from Leningrad. Analogous to Saint Petersburg, it received the status of the “second capital” of the BAM. The first and main one is Tynda, designed by Muscovites. Leningrad architects took care of the comfort of the city’s future residents, located in a seismic danger zone: residential buildings can withstand nine to ten magnitude earthquakes, and the houses are layered on top of each other — this protects the courtyards from piercing winter winds. In many courtyards, larch trees from the taiga, on which the city was built, have been preserved.

The "Severobaikalsk" station was built by people from Leningrad. Here, there is an unusual station building — a sailing ship and a concrete tent with the names of the pioneers of the construction. Photo: Yuri Samoilov / Wikimedia.org
The “Severobaikalsk” station was built by people from Leningrad. Here, there is an unusual station building — a sailing ship and a concrete tent with the names of the pioneers of the construction. Photo: Yuri Samoilov / Wikimedia.org

If you are passing through Severobaikalsk — do not despair, there is still a chance to visit the lake. All passenger trains make a stop here for at least one hour, and this is quite enough to reach the shore and touch the waters of Baikal. You need to exit the carriage, go up the stairs to the pedestrian bridge, and walk to the side opposite the station. The path through the deciduous forest to the lake shore takes about ten minutes and leads to a panoramic platform, from where you can take photos with a view of the Barguzin Mountains. Soon, a visitor center is planned to open on the platform.

Surroundings

Eco-trail. In the vicinity of the city, there is an eco-trail, part of the “Great Baikal Trail” — one of the largest volunteer projects in the tourism sector in Russia. The GBT is unique in its systematic approach — it’s not a one-time event, but a long-term program for creating and maintaining a network of hiking trails exclusively by volunteers. Since 2003, hundreds of volunteers have been setting up routes along the shore of Baikal to make it more accessible to tourists. The trail, which starts in Severobaikalsk, can be walked in two days.

Since 2003, hundreds of volunteers of the "Great Baikal Trail" have been developing routes along the shore of Baikal to make it more accessible to tourists. Photo: Great Baikal Trail / Vk.com
Since 2003, hundreds of volunteers of the “Great Baikal Trail” have been developing routes along the shore of Baikal to make it more accessible to tourists. Photo: Great Baikal Trail / Vk.com

Glacial Lake. Another attraction near Severobaikalsk is the glacial lake Frolikha, located 45 kilometers from the city. The lake with crystal-clear water is surrounded by snow-white mountain peaks. The easiest way to get there is by boat to the Ayaya Bay. The trip can be booked in the Frolikha Nature Reserve. From the bay to the lake leads an eight-kilometer equipped eco-trail. By the way, the bay is home to one of the largest rookeries of the Baikal seal — the animals love to bask in the sun here.

In Ayaya Bay, there is one of the largest rookeries of the Baikal seal — the animals love to bask in the sun here. Photo: Serstef / Wikimedia.org, The Reserved Podlemorye — The Unexplored Side of Baikal
In Ayaya Bay, there is one of the largest rookeries of the Baikal seal — the animals love to bask in the sun here. Photo: Serstef / Wikimedia.org, The Reserved Podlemorye — The Unexplored Side of Baikal

Thermal Springs. In the vicinity of Severobaikalsk, there are decent thermal springs, the most popular being Goudzhekit and Dzelinda, 25 and 70 kilometers from the city, respectively. Goudzhekit can be reached by electric train to the namesake stop or by shuttle bus. Dzelinda is accessible by electric train to the “1156 km” stop or by taxi. The springs are open year-round, equipped with changing rooms and baths, with water temperatures around plus 45–50 degrees Celsius. The quality of the infrastructure, of course, cannot compare with the springs in Budapest — keep this in mind.

Food

Despite Severobaikalsk being the second largest city in Buryatia, the majority of the city’s population are Russians. The main influence of Buryat culture is expressed in the food: almost any cafe in the city serves pozy (or buuz). Inside the dumpling, which traditionally should have 33 “pinches” of dough, there is a filling, the most popular being meat. Some of the best pozy are served at “U Albiny” cafe (60 years of the USSR Avenue, 5).

The main influence of Buryat culture in Severobaikalsk is expressed in food: almost every cafe in the city prepares pozas (or buuzas). Photo: Nos Viatores / Flickr.com
The main influence of Buryat culture in Severobaikalsk is expressed in food: almost every cafe in the city prepares pozas (or buuzas). Photo: Nos Viatores / Flickr.com

Quality coffee is made in the only city coffee shop “Geography of Coffee” (Parkovaya Street, 6a). According to the barista, it took the team three to four years to overcome the barrier “How can a cup of coffee cost 200 rubles (2.01 euros)??” (yes, for many people, this is still a lot of money). “Geography of Coffee” also sells souvenirs with ethnic themes.

If you decide to make a stop in Severobaikalsk without staying overnight, it’s better to arrive during the day or in the morning, and continue the journey on train №97 Kislovodsk – Tynda. It departs from Severobaikalsk towards Tynda around 22:00 and the next day passes through the most picturesque section of the BAM — the Kodar and Mururin passes.

“The Mountainous BAM: towering passes, a unique tunnel, and Siberian sands

  • Section: Severobaikalsk – Kuanda – New Chara – Khani – Tynda
  • Length: 1285 kilometers
  • Travel time: 24-26 hours

Severomuysky Tunnel

To reach its most picturesque part, the BAM breaks through the Severo-Muysky ridge via the longest railway tunnel in Russia — 15.3 kilometers long. When choosing the route, the geological conditions were not fully known, and the builders faced a mass of technological “surprises” — from constant rockfalls and breakthroughs to radon waters and increased radiation background. Four tectonic faults are encountered along the tunnel’s path, and it was in the Severomuysk area that the strongest earthquake in the history of the USSR was recorded. The single-track tunnel was completed in 2003, 26 years after it began. It is considered the most challenging tunnel ever constructed in the world.

To reach its most picturesque part, the BAM cuts through the Severo-Muysky range via the longest railway tunnel in Russia — 15.3 kilometers long. Photo: Morovictor / Wikimedia.org
To reach its most picturesque part, the BAM cuts through the Severo-Muysky range via the longest railway tunnel in Russia — 15.3 kilometers long. Photo: Morovictor / Wikimedia.org

The train takes 20 minutes to pass through the tunnel. The tunnel gates are usually kept closed to maintain a constant microclimate and are only opened when a train is approaching. Before the tunnel was put into operation, trains followed a temporary road 64 kilometers long, with gradients twice the permissible level for railways. The detour was so dangerous that passenger trains traveled empty, and people were transported from one end to the other by bus. A feature of the detour route is the semi-circular Devil’s Bridge, a structure 35 meters high above the Itykit River valley, which shuddered every time a freight train passed over it. The bridge is located on double-deck thin supports, which closely resemble matches, making the whole structure appear frighteningly unreliable.

The bypass road is an attraction of the railway in its own right, but there is no official way to travel on it — only on a work train. The beginning of the detour can be seen when approaching the western portal of the tunnel (from the Severobaikalsk side). There is a dirt road under the bridge, but reaching it is not at all simple.

The Devil's Bridge rests on double-deck thin supports, which closely resemble matches, making the whole structure appear frighteningly unreliable. Photo: A. L. (loading) / Wikimedia.org
The Devil’s Bridge rests on double-deck thin supports, which closely resemble matches, making the whole structure appear frighteningly unreliable. Photo: A. L. (loading) / Wikimedia.org

Kodar Range

Beyond the Severomuisk Ridge begins the high-mountain and most beautiful part of the BAM. Train No. 97 Kislovodsk — Tynda travels through it all day long — about 1000 kilometers and 20 hours on the road. There are almost no settlements or connections here, only nature. And the main activity is to look out the window: it’s really hard to tear your eyes away from the landscapes. The slopes of the mountains with snow-capped peaks are covered with larch taiga, and stone scree is covered with lichen. Wolverines, bears, elk, lynxes, and muskrats inhabit these places, and occasionally they can be seen from the train window.

Beyond the Severomuisk Ridge begins the high-mountain and most beautiful part of the BAM. On the slopes of the mountains with snow-capped peaks, the larch taiga stretches, and the scree is covered with lichen
Beyond the Severomuisk Ridge begins the high-mountain and most beautiful part of the BAM. On the slopes of the mountains with snow-capped peaks, the larch taiga stretches, and the scree is covered with lichen

At the Kuanda station, a monumental monument to the connection of the BAM has been erected. Originally, the laying of the “golden link” was planned at the station itself, but difficulties in constructing the Kodar Tunnel did not allow completing the work according to plan. The builders rushed to finish the work by the November 7th celebration, violated the temperature regime, and a major collapse occurred. On September 29, 1984, the teams of Andrey Bondar (who came from the west, reached Kuanda and advanced further by 42 kilometers, catching up with the delay of the team from the east) and Ivan Varshavsky in the area of the Balbukhta siding connected the western and eastern sections of the railway. Now, the connection site is marked by a stele of two converging pairs of rails, on the sleepers between which the names of the stations located to the west and east of the siding are written. It was a moment of sincere human joy and the culmination of the efforts of thousands of people, champagne was drunk straight from construction helmets. The official ceremony took place at the Kuanda station on October 1st, where two sections of the track were removed and relaid in the presence of party leadership, but it was merely a simulation.

The laying of the "golden link" took place on September 29, 1984 — in the area of the Balbukhta siding, the western and eastern sections of the railway were connected.
The laying of the “golden link” took place on September 29, 1984 — in the area of the Balbukhta siding, the western and eastern sections of the railway were connected.

After Kuanda, the BAM begins to ascend the Kodar Ridge, and right after the Kodar Tunnel, the train travels between two brother lakes — Big and Small Leprindo. This place is one of the most picturesque on the BAM and is absolutely uninhabited. The lakes are nestled between high mountain ridges covered with larches, the water in the basins is clear, and the bottom can be seen even from the train. The landscapes resemble Chilean Patagonia, located on the opposite side of the world.

After Kuanda, the BAM begins its ascent up the Kodar Ridge, and immediately after the Kodar Tunnel, the train passes between two brother lakes — Big and Small Leprindo. Photo: S_Mezhin / Wikimapia.org
After Kuanda, the BAM begins its ascent up the Kodar Ridge, and immediately after the Kodar Tunnel, the train passes between two brother lakes — Big and Small Leprindo. Photo: S_Mezhin / Wikimapia.org

If you stay in Kuanda for a few nights, you can go on a day trek in the Leprindo area. For this, you need to take the morning train to the Leprindo railway crossing (about two hours journey), where the trail begins. In the evening, you must catch the return train from New Chara and return to Kuanda. It’s important to remember that these places are completely wild — there’s no mobile connection, no stores, and no civilization at all. However, there are bears and wolverines, dangerous to humans. At a minimum, you should take mosquito repellent and a supply of food and water. In 2018, this territory became part of the Kodar National Park, but the infrastructure for ecological tourism is still lacking.

New Chara — Shifting Sands

Initially, when designing the BAM, the plan was to create 11 large industrial centers: the South Yakutsk black metallurgy cluster, the Upper Lena pulp and paper industry complex, the Selemdzha non-ferrous metallurgy complex, and so on. The operation of such centers was supposed to ensure the road’s load. In the end, only two of the eleven were developed, one of which is located near the New Chara station — the Udokan copper deposit. The settlement was built by workers from Kazakhstan, and the steppe motifs are clearly visible at the station. The station is made in the form of a large yurt, and inside it is decorated with wooden panels with scenes from the life of nomads.

For tourists, New Chara is interesting primarily for its vast array of shifting sands. Some of the dunes are 170 meters long and 80 meters high. The landscape is very similar to the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula, with one main difference — the Chara Sands are surrounded by snow-capped, sharp mountains 2000–3000 meters high, rising directly above the sands. The most beautiful time in the Chara Sands is May when the Transbaikal snowdrop — the purple sleep-grass breaking through the sand — blooms. However, it’s impossible to reach the desert itself during these days due to heavy flooding.

The landscape of the Chara Sands is extremely similar to the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula, with one main difference — they are surrounded by snow-capped, pointed mountains of 2000–3000 meters height, which rise directly above the sands. Photo: Natalya Girsova / Wikimedia.org
The landscape of the Chara Sands is extremely similar to the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula, with one main difference — they are surrounded by snow-capped, pointed mountains of 2000–3000 meters height, which rise directly above the sands. Photo: Natalya Girsova / Wikimedia.org

The sands can be visited on foot or as part of an off-road excursion tour. If traveling to the Chara Sands independently, from the Novaya Chara station, one needs to take a taxi to the Chara village, and from there, walk ten kilometers along a trail, which includes crossing the Middle Sakukan river via a ford about 40 centimeters deep. It’s important to consider that during rains, the river rises quickly and becomes impassable.

Khani and the Mururin Pass

After passing Novaya Chara, the train continues its ascent to the highest point of the BAM and indeed the highest point of all Russian railways — the Mururin pass (1323 meters). The train travels through high mountain terrain, with almost no vegetation, and thanks to this, excellent panoramas of the Kodar Ridge open up from the windows for an hour and a half.

After passing Novaya Chara, the train continues its ascent to the highest point of the BAM and indeed the highest point of all Russian railways — the Mururin pass (1323 meters).
After passing Novaya Chara, the train continues its ascent to the highest point of the BAM and indeed the highest point of all Russian railways — the Mururin pass (1323 meters).

Due to the steep ascent and lack of oxygen (the locomotive cannot operate at full power), heavy freight trains are not only pulled from the front but also pushed by a second locomotive from the back. The ascents here are so prolonged that drivers are even allowed to pass a red semaphore signal at minimum speed. If a freight train stops on the ascent, it will be practically impossible to continue the journey uphill.

Descending from the pass, the train travels along the Khani River for a long time, and the landscapes of Chilean Patagonia give way to those of the Caucasus — the river is surrounded by mountains on both sides, cliffs overhang the rails, and the turbulent water beats against the stones. It is here, in the middle of the river, that the point where the borders of three regions converge — the Transbaikal Territory, Yakutia, and the Amur Region.

Unexpectedly, five-story buildings rise in the middle of the valley, the last thing you expect to see after hours of uninhabited landscapes. This is Khani station, where the train stops for a few minutes, during which dozens of boxes of food are unloaded. The railway is the only way to connect these places with the world.

Unexpectedly, in the middle of the valley, five-story buildings rise up, the last thing you expect to see after hours of uninhabited landscapes. This is Khani station, where the train stops for a few minutes, during which dozens of boxes of food are unloaded. Photo: LxAndrew / Wikimedia.org
Unexpectedly, in the middle of the valley, five-story buildings rise up, the last thing you expect to see after hours of uninhabited landscapes. This is Khani station, where the train stops for a few minutes, during which dozens of boxes of food are unloaded. Photo: LxAndrew / Wikimedia.org

Khani is probably the best place to grasp the scale of the BAM. Khani belongs to the Neryungri district of Yakutia, yet the district center is 715 kilometers away by rail, or 17 hours by train. To the republican center of Yakutsk is more than 1500 kilometers. It’s practically the length of the European Union from Poland to the English Channel in France.

By the way, it was on the stretch between the Mururin Pass and Khani station that a tragedy occurred in 1992, when an uncontrollable locomotive with failed brakes descended from the pass and caught up with a passenger train. At Khani station, only one track was free, next to which was a freight train carrying industrial explosives. Thanks to the actions of the station dispatcher Valentina Zarubina, within minutes another dead-end track was cleared at the station to divert the passenger train onto it. Literally seconds later, the runaway locomotive rushed down the main track and was later stopped well beyond the station. A feature film “Mururin Pass” was made about these events two years later.

Tynda — the capital of the BAM

After Khani, for many hours the train follows along the Olekma and Nyukzha rivers, hills give way to marshes, locally called “mari”. Not a soul around, and only the automated voice from the speakers at the deserted stations reminds that humans have been here. The feeling of solitude disappears only when the train arrives at the capital of the BAM — Tynda.

After Khani, for many hours the train travels alongside the Olekma and Nyukzha rivers, hills give way to marshes, locally called "maris."
After Khani, for many hours the train travels alongside the Olekma and Nyukzha rivers, hills give way to marshes, locally called “maris.”

What to see

Tynda is rightfully called the capital: it was designed and built by contracting organizations from Moscow. It has the tallest station in the Far East, built in the shape of a bird and separated from the city by a river. Here, sixteen-story residential buildings, after days of desolate expanses, appear as true skyscrapers. There is its own Arbat and its own Krasnaya Presnya street, and in the appearance of houses and schools, Muscovites can easily recognize typical Moscow designs.

Tynda is rightly called the capital: it was designed and built by contracting organizations from Moscow. Here is the tallest station in the Far East, the building is constructed in the shape of a bird and is separated from the city by a river. Photo: LxAndrew / Wikimedia.org
Tynda is rightly called the capital: it was designed and built by contracting organizations from Moscow. Here is the tallest station in the Far East, the building is constructed in the shape of a bird and is separated from the city by a river. Photo: LxAndrew / Wikimedia.org

Noteworthy here are monuments reflecting the specificity of the city, which arose for the sake of the railway — the “Give BAM” stone from the construction of the railway line (25th Anniversary of BAM Square), the stylish monument to bridge builders “Man with a Sledgehammer” (Mokhortova Street, 10) in the avant-garde spirit, and even a monument to the titanium molecule (Shkolnaya Street, 1), the deposit of which is located nearby in the Tynda district.

The monument to bridge builders "Man with a Sledgehammer" in the avant-garde spirit. Photo: Museum of the History of the Baikal-Amur Mainline
The monument to bridge builders “Man with a Sledgehammer” in the avant-garde spirit. Photo: Museum of the History of the Baikal-Amur Mainline

In Tynda, there is a fascinating BAM History Museum, where you can easily spend two to three hours. The two-story building with elongated corridors is easily recognizable as a former kindergarten. You are likely to be the only visitor, but the caretakers will happily tell and show you numerous exhibits. The nine halls present in detail the history of these places — the life of indigenous peoples, the mainline projects during the Russian Empire era, the construction of the “old” BAM, BAMlag, geological explorations, the massive all-union construction project, the operation of the BAM. The variety of exhibits and the richness of information are on par with the best industry museums in the country. Just note when planning your visit that the museum closes for a one-hour lunch break.

In Tynda, there's an enthralling BAM History Museum where you can easily spend two to three hours. Photo: BAM History Museum
In Tynda, there’s an enthralling BAM History Museum where you can easily spend two to three hours. Photo: BAM History Museum

Accommodation

When traveling on the BAM, it’s impossible to avoid a transfer in Tynda: the station is the terminal for all trains on the line — except for the Yakutsk train to the city of Neryungri. There are almost no comfortable hotels in the city, and the Russian “Bronyevik” only offers a few apartments, so the most optimal option would be to stay right at the station in long-term rest rooms. Freshly renovated, ensuite bathroom, and charged for 12 hours, which is quite enough to get some sleep and freshen up after the trip. Accommodation can be booked in advance by phone at 8-800-775-69-29 or on the website.

Food

In response to the question about the best place to eat, all Tynda residents unanimously name the Uzbek cuisine cafe “Fays” (Amurskaya Street, 33). The location near the garages and local market is fully compensated by the impressions inside: a variety of Middle Eastern cuisine and its own tandoor. The only coffee shop in Tynda with an espresso machine is “Coffee Shop at Mokhortova” (Mokhortova Street, 7a).

In response to the question about the best place for dining, all residents of Tynda unanimously name the Uzbek cuisine café "Fais." Photo: fays_kafe
In response to the question about the best place for dining, all residents of Tynda unanimously name the Uzbek cuisine café “Fais.” Photo: fays_kafe

Tynda — Komsomolsk-on-Amur — the slowest train in Russia

  • Section: Tynda — New Urgal — Komsomolsk-on-Amur
  • Length: 1469 kilometers
  • Travel time: 37 hours

On the section from Tynda to Komsomolsk-on-Amur, only one daily train No. 351/352 operates, and, by the way, it is the slowest passenger train in Russia. The distance of almost 1500 kilometers is covered by the train in 37 hours with an average speed of less than 40 kilometers per hour. The landscapes on this route are less colorful than on the central BAM, and the road itself was built by railway troops, so all small stations are built according to uniform, unremarkable projects.

Of interest is the Alonka station, constructed by Moldavian SSR, with metal panels depicting Moldovan women and bunches of grapes. Also notable is the Soloni station, whose entrance groups are decorated with mosaics in Central Asian motifs — arguably the most remote example of Tajik culture from Dushanbe. The most beautiful sections of the route are between the Isa and Etyrken stations, and in the area of the Dusse-Alin station, when the train cuts through the ridge of the same name, but unfortunately, this section falls into the night in both directions.

The Alonka station was constructed by builders from the Moldavian SSR. Above the entrance group, there are metal panels depicting Moldovan women and bunches of grapes
The Alonka station was constructed by builders from the Moldavian SSR. Above the entrance group, there are metal panels depicting Moldovan women and bunches of grapes

Komsomolsk-on-Amur — the city at dawn

The train arrives in Komsomolsk-on-Amur at dawn, with clouds lit by a gentle pink light, making the city fully match its alternative name “City at Dawn.” Komsomolsk is also called “City of Youth.” These names are no coincidence, as the city got its name in honor of the Komsomol members who built it. Like the BAM, the city emerged practically from nowhere by a decision of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee. In 1932, the first builders, Komsomol volunteers, landed on the Amur shore. However, within a year, nearly half of the volunteers left the construction site due to unbearable living conditions, and then the proven labor of prisoners was utilized. Squads from Amurlag and BAMlag were sent to the future city. Historians and journalists still debate over who was more numerous in the construction of Komsomolsk-on-Amur: Komsomol members or prisoners.

The train arrives in Komsomolsk-on-Amur at dawn, the clouds illuminated by gentle pink light, and in such a guise, the city fully lives up to its alternative name "City at Dawn."
The train arrives in Komsomolsk-on-Amur at dawn, the clouds illuminated by gentle pink light, and in such a guise, the city fully lives up to its alternative name “City at Dawn.”

Thanks to its aviation and shipbuilding plants, the city is developing and is the largest settlement on the BAM, with 236,000 inhabitants. Here, steel is cast, ships and “Sukhoi” airplanes are manufactured, and the roar of military jets performing test flights is regularly heard in the sky.

Komsomolsk-on-Amur is perhaps one of the most vivid examples of what a “Soviet city” looks like in the best sense of the term. Built “from scratch” according to a unified master plan, it gained a thoughtful layout, numerous parks and walking areas, social infrastructure, and Stalinist architecture. The width of some avenues is such that even with modern traffic, they appear deserted. Prospect Pervostroiteley, Alleya Truda, and Boulevard Yunosti; parks Sudostroitel and Zheleznodorozhnik; cinema “Krasny”; hotel “Voskhod” — walking through Komsomolsk-on-Amur literally transports you to the Soviet era.

On Victory Square, there is a memorial made of seven granite blocks, on which the faces of warriors (infantryman, tankman, sailor, aviator, partisan woman, sniper-nanai, son of the regiment) defending the Motherland are carved
On Victory Square, there is a memorial made of seven granite blocks, on which the faces of warriors (infantryman, tankman, sailor, aviator, partisan woman, sniper-nanai, son of the regiment) defending the Motherland are carved

The Youth House was personally opened by Yuri Gagarin, and its facade is adorned with the colorful panel “Glory to the Komsomol.” On Victory Square, there is a memorial made of seven granite blocks, on which the faces of warriors (infantryman, tankman, sailor, aviator, partisan woman, sniper-nanai, son of the regiment) defending the Motherland are carved. It is one of the most expressive and sincere memorials dedicated to the Great Patriotic War. The sad gaze of the huge stone eyes penetrates somewhere inside.

The facade of the abandoned river station (Naberezhnaya Street, 7) on the bank of the Amur is decorated with an aluminum panel, depicting the city’s first builder uprooting a stump. From the Amur embankment, there is a panoramic view of the high left bank. In 2022, for the 90th anniversary of Komsomolsk-on-Amur, the embankment was landscaped and renovated. The local history museum details the city’s history—from the exhibition about local nature and Amurlag, typical for all local history museums, to the times of Perestroika and the current flourishing of the military-industrial complex.

The Youth House was personally opened by Yuri Gagarin, and its facade is adorned with the colorful panel "Glory to the Komsomol."
The Youth House was personally opened by Yuri Gagarin, and its facade is adorned with the colorful panel “Glory to the Komsomol.”

If you’re staying in Komsomolsk for more than a day, you can make a trip to the high-mountain Lake Amut, located 60 kilometers from the city—in some ways, it’s the younger sibling of Lake Frolikha near Severobaikalsk. They are similar in landscape and appearance, both are mountainous, but Amut is much smaller in size and was formed by a landslide. The reservoir is situated at an altitude of 740 meters and is surrounded by mountains. Its water clarity rivals that of Lake Baikal. In May and October, in the Bolon Nature Reserve on the right bank of the Amur, you can observe migratory birds in the swamps and flood meadows.

Lake Amut is located at an altitude of 740 meters, surrounded by mountains, and is considered one of the cleanest lakes in the world. Photo: Yakovlev.alexey / Wikimedia.org
Lake Amut is located at an altitude of 740 meters, surrounded by mountains, and is considered one of the cleanest lakes in the world. Photo: Yakovlev.alexey / Wikimedia.org

If you plan to end your BAM journey specifically in Komsomolsk-on-Amur, there is an airport from which you can fly to Blagoveshchensk several times a week. Trains go to Khabarovsk (about 12 hours) and Vladivostok (about a day on the road).

The “Old” BAM: The Sea of Japan and the Indigenous Orochi People

  • Section: Komsomolsk-on-Amur — Sovetskaya Gavan
  • Length: 462 kilometers
  • Travel time: 13 hours

The road from Komsomolsk-on-Amur to Sovetskaya Gavan is called the “old BAM”. It was laid during the war years of the 1940s and cuts through the Sikhote-Alin range with mountains up to 1400 meters high. The route is winding, and the small stations still have wooden stations. Approaching the coast of the Sea of Japan, the train follows along the Tumnin River, the vegetation noticeably differs from the rest of the BAM because the climate here is much milder. The names of the stations reflect the unique character of these places — Dyuanka, Mongokhto, Chepsary, Ust-Orochi, Tuluchi.

As the train approaches the coast of the Sea of Japan, it follows along the Tumnin River, where the vegetation noticeably differs from the rest of the BAM due to the much milder climate. Photo: German Viktorovich Romashov / Wikimedia.org
As the train approaches the coast of the Sea of Japan, it follows along the Tumnin River, where the vegetation noticeably differs from the rest of the BAM due to the much milder climate. Photo: German Viktorovich Romashov / Wikimedia.org
Many of these words originate from the Oroch language — the indigenous people who inhabited the area along the coast long before the railway appeared. Currently, about 500 Orochs live in Russia, with more than 300 in the Khabarovsk Krai. Almost none of them lead a traditional lifestyle anymore, and the main advantage of belonging to the indigenous population in the 21st century remains fishing quotas. The language has been preserved, but according to the 2021 All-Russian Census, only 43 people speak the Oroch language, and 28 use it in everyday life.

The Tumnin River flows into the Tatar Strait, and the train makes a sharp turn — and to the left, the expanses of the Sea of Japan unfold — a landscape completely unfamiliar after four thousand kilometers of taiga. The Baikal-Amur Mainline ends at the seaport of Vanino, from where cargoes are shipped worldwide.

The Baikal-Amur Mainline ends at the seaport of Vanino, from where cargoes are shipped worldwide. Photo: Raita Futo / Wikimedia.org
The Baikal-Amur Mainline ends at the seaport of Vanino, from where cargoes are shipped worldwide. Photo: Raita Futo / Wikimedia.org

Cargo flow on the BAM is constantly increasing. If in the 1990s there were talks about the redundancy and unprofitability of BAM, by 2022, the Eastern Polygon transported 158 million tons of cargo (mainly coal), and the capacity is still not enough. On the BAM, a special principle of train prioritization had to be introduced. The single-track road is already unable to handle the load — here, as on the rest of the BAM, a second track is being laid so that trains can travel in both directions simultaneously. It is planned that by 2024, the throughput capacity of the polygon will reach 180 million tons per year, and by 2032 — up to 255 million tons.

Sovetskaya Gavan — the Coast of the Sea of Japan

For about half an hour more, the train follows along the coast, rounding bays, until it finally stops at the wooden station of the terminal “Sovetskaya Gavan — Sorting”. The station was built by Japanese prisoners of war in 1947 and looks very harmonious here, next to the Sea of Japan. It even managed to retain its original appearance after renovation, despite the Russian Railways’ great love for siding. Unfortunately, this fate has befallen many stations on the BAM. The city of Sovetskaya Gavan is about 30 kilometers from here, accessible by bus No. 101, which waits for the arriving train at the stop opposite the station. Similarly, you can return the same way: the bus leaves the city about an hour and a half before the train’s departure, and it’s best to check the schedule with the conductor.

The wooden station "Sovetskaya Gavan" was built by Japanese prisoners of war in 1947
The wooden station “Sovetskaya Gavan” was built by Japanese prisoners of war in 1947

Before the formation of the USSR, the harbor was known as the Imperial Harbor, and the area was discovered during Admiral Nevelskoy’s Amur Expedition and later explored by Arsenyev’s expeditions. It was here that the famous frigate “Pallada” was sunk – these significant events, as well as the culture of the Orochs, can be learned about in a small local history museum. Otherwise, the museum serves as a somewhat sad memorial to the city’s heyday during the Soviet era – displays filled with bottles of soda and vodka from the local food plant (closed), fish products from the oceanic fishing base (bankrupt), and photos of the ship repair yard docks (non-operational). A separate ticket is required for photography (an artifact rarely found in modern museums), but payment can be made by credit card.

The main attraction of Sovetskaya Gavan is undoubtedly the sea. The city lacks a natural promenade, but there is a small artificial promenade in the park, built on stilts right over the water. If one desires to enjoy the nature of the Tatar Strait, it is best to walk along the equipped 3.5-kilometer ecological trail of Arsenyev. It starts near the city cemetery at Mount Kekurnaya, passes through the Witches’ Circle – a whimsical rock formation with a shaman’s yurt, and ends on the shore of Bazar Bay, offering stunning views of the Pacific Ocean.

Another route (unprepared) runs along the False and Situan bays to Cape Red Partisan, where a 19th-century lighthouse is installed on the high rocky shore. The route is about 12 kilometers long. The road starts in the village with the charming name Lososina, accessible by bus departing from Sovetskaya Gavan every 15–20 minutes.

Another route runs along the bays of Falshivaya and Situan to the Cape Krasny Partizan, on whose high rocky shore a lighthouse built in the 19th century is located
Another route runs along the bays of Falshivaya and Situan to the Cape Krasny Partizan, on whose high rocky shore a lighthouse built in the 19th century is located

Advice

Connectivity

Along most of the BAM route, mobile coverage is only available at major stations, often limited to a single operator (MTS). From Novaya Chara to Tynda, you might find yourself without any signal for almost the entire day—keep this in mind when planning.

For Photographers

Be sure to bring a dust cloth to wipe the window in your compartment. Trains on the BAM operate under diesel traction, and windows quickly become covered with a layer of soot—a clean window will enhance your experience of the landscapes significantly. It’s most convenient to clean the glass at stations with high platforms (such as in Severobaikalsk or Tynda). Alternatively, you can ask the conductor for a mop.

The BAM is cautious about people photographing the railway. In such cases, a polite reminder of the right to free amateur photography can help. However, be prepared to interact with the police and explain why you are taking pictures of trains from a viewing platform with a telephoto lens.

Route

If you don’t have enough time to travel the entire length of the BAM, it’s best to fly to Nizhneangarsk Airport (there are direct flights from Irkutsk, Krasnoyarsk, and Ulan-Ude several times a week) and take the train from Severobaikalsk to Tynda. This section offers the highest mountains and, consequently, the most beautiful views. From Tynda, you can fly back to Khabarovsk, Blagoveshchensk, or Irkutsk. Such a trip would take three days.

In some trains on the BAM (especially on the Eastern section), there are only one or two compartment cars, and the demand for spots is high, as railway employees book official tickets for the train. If you want to travel in a compartment without fellow travelers, you can purchase a ticket at a family rate—depending on the type of train, the discount can be up to 40 percent.

When to Go

The best time to travel the BAM is the end of May or early June and September. In spring, there are no annoying midges, and the days are the longest. By September, most of the leaves have fallen, allowing for much clearer views through the trees than in summer, and the numerous larch trees, turned yellow, give the photographs a cozy autumnal feel.

The best time to travel the BAM is the end of May or early June and September
The best time to travel the BAM is the end of May or early June and September
Text: Artyom Zhorin
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