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How About A Trip On The Northern Alternative To The Trans-Siberian Railroad?

August 12, 2012

After all the heavy news from the Sunday papers I like to escape on the pages of the travel section.  Today was a real treat.  That the main article each week reads like a small story only makes the adventure in print all the more enjoyable.

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?”

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Even though the BAM is a populist ride, it was as punctual and rode as gently as any train I’d been on in the United States. Czarist and Soviet Russia had always been proud of its impressively sprawling yet well-managed railroad system, and the tradition survives in the immaculate uniforms of the attendants who seemed to be constantly cleaning and polishing this big wilderness machine. Despite constant stream, hill and mountain crossings we never spilled a drop from our Russian tea glasses with metal handles balanced on the table. “Amtrak should only be this smooth,” Yulia said. And yet we would be riding over 2,000 bridges and some two dozen tunnels in areas so rugged that construction material often had to be floated inland on barges. The remoteness of this country, and the limited train traffic coming through here, means that trains often run along only a single track, which, at steep curves we could see trailing behind us into the unkempt tundra like a ball of yarn.

After our second night, our train stopped at the hamlet of Novy Uoyan, where for 15 minutes, we stepped out into the brisk Siberian air and bought a bag of dried omul — local troutlike fish — and a jar of garden-grown raspberry jam from a scrum of kerchiefed women huddled around the station gate. The building was a block-size behemoth with a sculptural roof that dwarfed the half-dozen concrete buildings that made up the rest of Novy Uoyan.

I asked a station attendant if there were many bears here.

“All over,” he said. “During the spring you can see them from the track all the time. Sometimes we get calls from railroad workers along the tracks to help rescue them when they get cornered.” He smiled tightly. “Occasionally we get there and find nothing but blood.”

THERE’S a certain smug joy to looking at the perils of a rugged, lonely wild country from the comfort of a train; here we are, linked directly to Moscow on a double stream of metal, a windowpane away from the Heart of Darkness. Our days became a pleasant routine of wildness streaming by outside and an intimate, ever-shifting community of travelers in comfortable, tight, yet strollable conditions inside.

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.

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