BAM (Baikal-Amur Mainline) guide
Republic of Buryatia
A lovely fishing village of log cabins, picket fences and traditional carved window frames surrounded by forest and snow-capped mountains on the northern shore of Lake Baikal, Baykalskoe and places like it are important (but often missed out) parts of any BAM railway trip. Traveling from town to town along the BAM, one might be tempted to think that the area is no more than a string of gritty, grey, architecturally uninspiring Soviet towns. Remember though that taking public transport out of the towns can take you to places like Baykalskoe, just 45km from Severobaykalsk. Russian Cossacks arrived here in the 17th century but the site had been inhabited by Buryat tribes and their ancestors since the Stone Age. Nearby there are Buryat holy spots, shamanic petroglyphs, inland lakes, glaciers and views on Baikal and its islands. There are lots of great forest, mountain and lakeside trekking opportunities to local beauty spots but be careful as even in Baykalskoe itself bears can be heard roaring in the surrounding woods! Locals live by hunting, fishing and herding cattle and horses.
Republic of Buryatia
Once a tiny inhabited village, Goudzhekit, like many settlements on the BAM railway, now has no permanent residents. It does, however, attract a steady stream of visitors, usually Russians from Severobaykalsk, due to its thermal springs and breathtaking location amid the mountains and forest. The local turbaza [budget Soviet tourist camp in the countryside] is just a few wooden buildings in the taiga forest but has pools fed by the hot springs, a bar, a restaurant and places to stay. The atmosphere inside is pretty Soviet and there are plenty of opportunities for people watching as locals from Severobaykalsk come to relax on their days off. There are also multi-day hiking possibilities in the surrounding mountains and valleys but remember that this is bear and wolf country! Get here by 1-hour suburban train from Severobaykalsk.
Russian Far East
The BAMâ€™s biggest and prettiest town, Komsomolsk-Na-Amure is only eleven hours from the railwayâ€™s terminus on the Pacific coast (and the ferry to Sakhalin island) or six from Khabarovsk on the Trans-Siberian Railway. It was named after volunteers from the Komsomol youth organization but was actually mostly built by Gulag concentration camp victims. Women from all over the Soviet Union were then sent out to populate the previously all-male city. Unusually for a Stalin-built town, particularly for a BAM town, its centre has pretty, modestly colourful buildings built in the Tsarist style, some wide avenues, strollable river banks, outdoor cafes and even a beach. Not far out of town there are impressive mountains with trekking, rafting and skiing possibilities. There are also some villages of the indigenous Nanai people in the area, although most of what remains of their pre-Russian culture is limited to museum displays.
Khabarovsk Krai, Russian Far East
Traveling for hours or even days along Eastern Siberiaâ€™s BAM railway through endless taiga forests, towering snow-streaked mountains, following the white waters of rivers crashing over lethal looking rapids with chunks of ice the size of houses still melting near their banks, it can be quite a shock when all of a sudden the pristine, primordial, middle-of-nowhere nature disappears to be replaced by somewhere like Novy Urgal. Founded in 1974 mostly by people from Ukraine and the Baltics and with a population of around 6,000, its peeling paint, crumbling walls and lack of any new buildings give the impression that the town has gone into decay somewhat. And, given the fact that itâ€™s the biggest settlement for 14 hours in one direction and 24 in the other, thereâ€™s not really anyone around to do anything about it. Novy Urgal is probably not the sort of place your average tourist will be keen to visit, but for those fascinated by the BAM, the Soviet Union or the Russian Far East in general it makes for an interesting stop.
Republic of Buryatia
This rough-around-the-edges Soviet town on the beautiful, little visited northern shore of Lake Baikal was built from scratch in the 1970s during the construction of the BAM railway. At first BAM workers who arrived from all over the Soviet Union lived in tents in the forest, then small cabins, then, after many years, apartments. Now the grey concrete of the centre contrasts the wooden bungalows of the outskirts, the BAM worker monuments pay homage to the Soviets while the holy spots like the one in the photo above remind one of the area's indigenous Buryat people, and the grimness of the town itself is starkly juxtaposed against the jaw-dropping natural beauty that surrounds it. There is a hostel in town with English speaking staff and itâ€™s possible to organize driving or skiing on the frozen lake in winter, and trekking, boat trips, wind surfing and water skiing in summer. Alternatively you can explore the surrounding area on your own. Locals are very surprised to see foreigners, very hospitable and very proud of local history and their work on the BAM.
Republic of Buryatia
At first glances this little settlement of 9,000 would appear to be a standard built-in-the-1970s BAM town - a dirty little concrete stain against the surrounding natural beauty of the Muysky Mountains. Actually it's history is a little longer though. The area had been inhabited by various indigenous groups for some time but in 1910 an escaped exile who had spent five years travelling along the Vitim River showed up and decided to settle here. At first he set up a little trading post and ten years later a few other families moved to the area and a village was founded long before the railway got anywhere near. Though the town became a major centre for the construction of the BAM railway in the 1980s, the area surrounding Taksimo is still seriously wild wilderness, with trekking and rafting routes abounding for those who come well prepared. Beware though - temperatures in winter here can hit -60Â°C.
Tayshet - the beginning of the BAM
If it wasn't for the fact that this is the place where the BAM railway branches off north from the Trans-Siberian there wouldn't be much reason to come to Tayshet, whose name means "cold river" in the language of the indigenous Ket people. It's a scruffy little railway town with a nasty history - two gulag concentration camps were administered from here under Stalin. It is said that along the railway between here and Bratsk, a station further down the BAM, there are two corpses beneath every metre of rail. Most BAM travellers coming from the West will probably bypass Tayshet unless they have an interest in its history or in the rapidly depopulating Soviet railway and logging towns that dot the Far East. Those coming from the eastern Trans-Siberian or from Abakan may, however, find themselves waiting for a connection here and will likely attract a lot of attention from surprised but friendly locals.