The Other Siberian Railroad
“For me, a young girl in Belarus, listening to the late-night radio broadcasts of them building this rail line in the Siberian frontier had a romance that made me want to be part of it,” said my newest train friend, Mila Kozlova, 57, as we rocked back and forth in our coupe across the Siberian wilderness. She gazed contentedly at the ocean of birch trees rolling by our window, and pulled out two jars of home-pickled vegetables from her canvas bag, adding them to the smorgasbord crowding the windowsill table. A day into our trip on the Baikal-Amur Mainline railroad — Russians call it BAM — had become a 2,500-mile all-you-can-eat buffet.
For the last three hours, we hadn’t seen a single road, village or human in this forest wilderness. Looking out, I couldn’t imagine another place in the world that could be more pristine, and devoid of human habitation, all within sight of a transcontinental rail line. Occasionally the rail bed lifted us above the trees where we could see snow-topped mountains gleaming above the green horizon. Mila was right; there was an undeniable romance riding through Siberia’s vast wilds on this implausible, impractical, yet epically scenic railroad.
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. “Stalin built BAM because he thought the Chinese might zip across their border and seize the Trans-Siberian, and that didn’t happen,” Mila said. “Brezhnev built more of BAM to make a pioneer utopia, and that never happened. Now,” she said, shrugging in her bulky homemade sweater, “who knows what will happen other than a beautiful trip?”
For years I had been planning to cross Russia on the Trans-Siberian with my travel mate, Yulia Dultsina, a Russian now living in New York. But then we stumbled upon florid descriptions of the BAM in old Soviet Life propaganda magazines and were intrigued. Tracing the rail line though these enormous blank spots grabbed us — here was an alternative to the tired old itineraries on the tourist-clogged Trans-Siberian.