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Siberian BAM Guide: rail, rivers & road

Siberian BAM Guide: rail, rivers & road

Planning your trip

Contents list | Introduction | Planning your trip | Itineraries | Sample route guide

This chapter explains what you need to know when setting off for Russia, and for north-east Russia in particular.

Russia as a whole has little tourist culture and the north-east has none whatever. This means that you are unlikely to be shuttled in private buses, shepherded by English-speaking guides, served group meals or herded into folkloric museums. Instead, you will travel with ordinary Russians going about their regular lives – business people on business trips, workers on jobs, soldiers on travel orders, families going to visit their relatives, school parties, even bums. You will be granted the ordinary courtesy and camaraderie of the traveller, but nobody will offer you, or even know how to offer you, the special consideration of a tourist or the obsequious service of a rich customer. (Equally you are unlikely to be cheated or tempted with tourist scams). But this means that you will be expected to know what you are doing and what you want to do, or at least to be able to ask for directions.

Thus the purpose of this chapter and the next is to inform you how to get into Russia, how to travel, how to find a bite to eat and a place to sleep, how to get where you want to go and see what you want to see, and how to share life with a rugged, buoyant and warm-hearted people.

Getting information
The maxim ‘You get out what you put in’ is just as true for travelling as it is for anything else. For this reason, it is advisable to read as widely as possible about Russia and its north-east before travelling.

This guide provides the detail for the traveller – the routes through the region, the cities and towns and villages, how to travel, where to stay, the wilderness and mountains and wild rivers and how to experience them, as well as the history and character of the people. Other resources – such as travel guides and other books, documentary and fiction films, and travellers’ tales on the web and elsewhere – are listed in Appendix E (p355).

Russia is a centralised, industrialised country. In the north-east you will find the same towns, government buildings, schools, highways, railways, police, food-stores, hotels, markets and pharmacies that you will find in other parts of Russia. The way of life is European, though the longitudes range from that of Thailand on the west to that of Japan in the east. Knowledge of life in Russia will prepare you for the north-east. Yet the people have a frontier character – physically tough, active, self-reliant, outgoing and humorous – contrasting with the cautious and sometimes melancholy people of western Russia. Many are from families that faced the worst that society could throw at them – confiscation, exile and imprisonment – and they survived and prospered.

English-language books about the north-east include a few travel guides, regional histories, economic studies, chronicles of the gulags, and the glossy albums, communist propaganda hero-constructor novels, and technical books about building the BAM.

The best sources of information are in the region. The section Travel Agents (see pp17-19) lists agents in most major centres of the region; besides making local and tour arrangements for you, they can put you in touch with local people and with other travellers. Several of the agents have websites and email.

While it won't help you when preparing for a trip, once you are over there it's worthwhile going to libraries and bookshops and asking for maps or other information on your particular areas of interest. Sometimes, tucked away on the shelves, are maps of trekking routes in the mountains, fishing guides and other rare finds. Another source of information once you are over there is local (Russian) papers which provide information on upcoming public celebrations, museum displays as well as interesting things to see and do.

Learn as much as you can. On the other hand, don't believe everything you read. The Russian north-east is a long way from most media and is correspondingly mythologised.

Remember that only bad news sells and that most of the media coverage of Russia as a whole is negative. (Typical of this tendency to exaggerate was the so-called ‘Food Crisis’ in 1991 and the 1994/5 ‘Crime Wave�). Misinformation is especially rife about the north-east. Remember that Komsomolsk-na-Amure is nearly three times as far from Moscow as it is from Tokyo. Several documentary and TV crews have asked the writers of this guide to help them film ‘the real horrors’. Moscow sources (including travel agents) told us that the north-east is full of criminals, that there is famine, and the trains don't run. Maybe they are genuinely afraid, remembering how long Moscow has been banishing its rejects to the farthest corners of the country.

None of this is true, though perhaps the north-easterners don't wholeheartedly contradict their reputation.

Getting there
To Russia
Since the end of the Soviet system independent travel is legal and feasible in Russia. There are no prohibited areas any more except military and secure sites. Provided you have a visa, you can enter and leave Russia by any passenger port of entry. Effectively, any airport with international flights, any place where a railway or a main highway crosses the border, and any port at which foreign ships dock is a legal port of entry. Therefore you have a wide choice of routes to approach Russia.

From Moscow you can take a plane direct to Irkutsk, Yakutsk, Komsomolsk-na-Amure and Khabarovsk. Khabarovsk has the largest airport in the Russian Far East and has international flights from Japan, China and other countries. Remember that in Khabarovsk you are seven time-zones away from Moscow and only five time-zones (and an International Date Line) from Alaska and six time-zones from California.

Ports include Vladivostok (ferry from Japan) and Vanino (ferry from Sakhalin) on the Pacific coast, Nikolaevsk-na-Amure at the mouth of the Amur river, and Tiksi near the mouth of the Lena river.

Foreign rail links are from Mongolia (the Trans-Mongolian), China (the Trans-Manchurian), and North Korea.

So you can enter Russia anywhere and then travel to the north-east.

The visa
A Russian visa is essential. In the Soviet days, a visa was issued for a specific route at a specific time. The state travel monopoly, Intourist, provided a visa for as many days as accommodation was booked. The hotel at which you stayed and the transport that you used would check your authorisation and report your presence.

Those days are gone and now you can get a visa for as many days as requested. A visa is issued against an invitation from a licensed Russian organisation or from a private person who has registered your intended visit with the authorities. You must attach the invitation to your visa application and present it with the appropriate fee to the Russian consulate. In practice, however, the consulates prefer to cut through the bureaucracy by dealing with a visa service, an organisation with an arm in Russia that issues invitations and an arm in your country that presents your application to the consulate (and charges you a fee). The consulate will supply a list of such visa services. If a travel agent gets you your visa, it may operate such a visa service or use one.

Until 1999, a Russian visa listed your itinerary, This is no longer the case.

The old system and the new co-exist uneasily over the question of towns listed on your invitation. Though no towns are listed on your visa, Russia is still insisting that they must be listed on the invitation. A visa service will gladly type any destinations that you request on your invitation. Nobody really knows if you are forbidden to visit other places. The important thing is that some hotels and some police forces think that this is so, and particularly so in places that see few visitors or that have a history of security concerns.

If you find yourself in a town not listed on your invitation, and the hotel or police or the railway challenge you on it, the matter is usually solved in an accommodating way. In our experience you will not be deported or imprisoned or made to sleep in the waiting room. You should not argue, but promise to leave tomorrow, and plead that you are in transit or had to make an emergency stop or that the consulate in your country assured you it was all in order. At worst you may have to pay a fine, of the order of US$10.

Certain places have specific visa regulations or have a bad reputation for visa hassles. The Republic of Sakha (Yakutiya) requires the names of the towns you wish to visit on your Russian invitation. Therefore if you intend to visit Yakutsk or one of the Sakha gold or diamond towns, have them listed on your invitation ahead of time. (For more on this see pp230). In addition, one of the editors had a huge hassle with the railway police at Vanino because the town was not listed, so list it if you intend to stay there or to take the ferry to Sakhalin.

A one-entry/one-exit visa is valid for a period of 30 days from entry. A multiple-entry visa is valid for one year. A stay of more than three months (13 days in Sakha) requires a doctor's certificate of freedom from HIV.

As Russian visa rules and regulations change all the time, you should contact your local consulate, travel agent or visa service for the latest information.

To the north-east and the BAM
Besides the international connections just listed, there are direct flights from Moscow to Yakutsk, Magadan, Khabarovsk, and Irkutsk, roughly forming the four corners of the north-east. Many towns and even small settlements in the north-east have air services if you are willing to change and possibly wait around.

The best connections are by railway. There is a direct train from Moscow every day to either Lena or Tynda on the BAM. This train branches off from the Trans-Siberian at Taishet. The BAM runs from Taishet to the Pacific north of and roughly parallel to the eastern end of the Trans-Siberian. From Tynda there is a daily train to Komsomolsk-na-Amure and from Komsomolsk-na-Amure a daily train to Vanino. For information about this route see the sections starting on p61.

There are three south-north branch lines that link the Trans-Siberian to the BAM (see pp206-224). In addition, you can reach the BAM by taking the hydrofoil from Irkutsk down the Angara to Bratsk (see p70), from Irkutsk up Lake Baikal (see p88), and also down the Amur river from Khabarovsk to Komsomolsk-na-Amure (see pp224-228).

The roads of the north-east range from rugged to non-existent. There is no paved road across the Russian Far East, let alone the north-east. Crossing the Far East by four-wheel drive, motor cycle, or pedal cycle has spawned a small literature of travellers tales (p356, Appendix E). However, there are highways, and some of them have bus services. The most important highways, not paralleled by railways, link Yakutsk – the AYaAD Highway to the south (see pp272-278) and the Kolyma Highway to the east (see pp279-290).

Siberian BAM Guide: rail, rivers & road