The Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM) is one of Russia‘s two great railways. The other, the Trans-Siberian Railway, is much more famous and well-travelled. The BAM, however, running parallel but about 500km to the north, takes you through much more spectacular scenery, much less spoilt parts of Lake Baikal (the world’s oldest and deepest lake) and through some towns that feel as though the Soviet Union never ended and very rarely receive any foreign visitors.
The BAM was built so that a link would remain between Moscow and the Pacific Coast if the Trans-Siberian Railway should fall into Chinese hands. Between the 1930s and 1950s 150,000 concentration camp victims died during its construction. After Stalin’s death it was abandoned unfinished for twenty years until in the 1970s Brezhev recommenced work on it, hailing it as “the construction project of the century” and drawing workers from all over the USSR. People came and lived in tents in the virgin wilderness the railway was crawling its way across until cabins were brought and eventually small towns built around the railroad to accommodate its workers.
In 1991 the railway was completed just as the Soviet Union collapsed. Funding for the area’s mines, towns and the railway itself became scarce. Many of the former BAM workers left the area, leaving many of the towns that had been built specifically for them completely deserted, as they remain today. It has only a single set of rails, so only one train can run on it at a time. Due to how little the BAM is used today, the 150,000 people who died building it, the large number of ghost towns along its length and the US$14 billion expended on its construction, it is generally regarded as one of the biggest wastes of time, money and lives ever.
Why travel the BAM rather than the Trans-Siberian?
There is less tourist infrastructure along the BAM than along the Trans-Siberian and fewer actual tourist sites. The advantages are however in my opinion that the scenery is better (mountains and taiga forests compared to empty steppe) and the BAM part of Lake Baikal is less spoilt than the Trans-Siberian part. BAM locals are also very unused to seeing foreign tourists and are extremely warm and hospitable. I venture to suggest that traveling the BAM you will meet more actual Russians than you would on the touristy Trans-Siberian and will see some really typical Russian towns and villages.
BAM towns along the railway are usually visually unappealing clumps of Soviet concrete starkly contrasting with the surrounding mountains and taiga forests. If you get local buses away from those towns, however, you can get to beautiful villages of traditional log cabins with carved window frames and cows wandering the dirt streets. An example of this is the 1-hour bus from Severobaikalsk to Baikalskoe.
At the town of Tayshet the Trans-Siberian Railway forks. The northern fork becomes the BAM, running north of Lake Baikal while the Trans-Siberian continues south of it. The BAM runs paralel with the Trans-Siberian 4,300km all the way to Sovietskaya Gavan on the Pacific coast. At several places linking lines join the two railways, such as between Tynda on the BAM and Bamovskaya on the Trans-Siberian, between Novy Urgal on the BAM and Izvestovskaya on the Trans-Siberian or between Komsomolsk-Na-Amure on the BAM and Khabarovsk on the Trans-Siberian. There are several other small branch lines but the only really important one is the soon-to-be-completed railway from Tynda on the BAM to Yakutsk 1100km to the north, from where the Road of Bones runs a further 1900km to Magadan. Also, from the terminus of the BAM at Sovietskaya Gavan on the Pacific coast ferries run to the Russian island of Sakhalin and from Sakhalin onwards to Japan.
The BAM is divided into two sections, the western and eastern halves, both beginning at the town of Tynda in the middle of the BAM line. No trains run the full length of the BAM, most terminating or starting at Tynda. From Tynda they run all the way to Moscow if heading west or all the way to Sovietskaya Gavan if heading east. Therefore, to travel the full length of the BAM you will need to change trains in Tynda.
There are no flights from Moscow or St. Petersburg to anywhere on the BAM. If you want to start traveling from the western end of the BAM, the closest place you can fly to from Moscow is Krasnoyarsk, a town on the Trans-Siberian a few hours before the beginning of the BAM at Tayshet or 30 hours before Severobaikalsk on the northern shore of Lake Baikal. If you want to start traveling from the eastern end of the BAM, the closest place you can fly to from Moscow is Khabarovsk, a town on the Trans-Siberian six hours by train from Komsomolsk-Na-Amure on the BAM. Both Khabarovsk and Krasnoyarsk often have very cheap flights from Moscow (as low as 3000 roubles one way) with airlines such as S7. Check www.skyscanner.ru to find cheap deals. Both Khabarovsk and Krasnoyarsk also have multi-day direct trains to Moscow.
If travelling the BAM in winter, be warned: January temperatures in many places AVERAGE -30C and sometimes drop as low as -60C. Make sure you have very good clothing, such as that sold by Marmot or Northern Outfitters. In July on the other hand averages are between +25C and +30C. See this website’s main Russia page for sugestions on dressing for really cold weather.
Click here for my blog about my time in Krasnoyarsk. It’s a big city and not actually on the BAM but includes information and locals’ stories about the BAM and its workers. It’s 2240 words and 12 photos.
Click here for my blog about the train ride on the BAM from Krasnoyarsk to Severobaikalsk. It’s 2566 words and 7 photos.