A Trip Through Putin Country
Russia's Baikal-Amur Mainline railway is not nearly as well-known as its much older rival, the Trans-Siberian Railway. But it is the BAM – a halcyon relic from the height of the Soviet Union – that offers a more useful window onto the mood among most Russians today.
VLADIVOSTOK – Russia’s Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM) railway “can be hardly named as a popular tourist attraction,” says one tourist website of the some 2,000-mile railway traversing Eastern Siberia and the Russian Far East. “Most people even never [sic] heard of it.”
The BAM’s older rival, the Trans-Siberian Railway, is certainly more popular. Since opening in 1916 it has attracted many big names, including the travel writers Peter Fleming, Paul Theroux, and Colin Thubron. But it is the BAM – this unloved northern spur, initiated by Stalin in the 1930s, and completed under Leonid Brezhnev in 1984 – that offers the more useful window onto the Russian mood outside of cosmopolitan Moscow and St. Petersburg. Today, BAM land is overwhelmingly Putin land.
I was inspired to take the BAM across Siberia by Dervla Murphy’s book, Through Siberia by Accident, even though Murphy, an intrepid Irish grandmother, broke a leg slipping in the train car’s primitive toilet. I was further motivated by the fact that my great-grandfather had built the far-eastern section of the Trans-Siberian Railway in the 1890s, yet I had never been to its terminus, Vladivostok, where my father was born. So three friends joined me on an improbable two-week railway adventure across Siberia.