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Siberian BAM Guide: rail, rivers & road

Siberian BAM Guide: rail, rivers & road

Excerpt:
Sample route guide


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


UST-KUT TO SEVEROBAIKALSK

The route (see Route Map 1, p366)
From Lena to Komsomolsk-na-Amure, more than 3,000km, is the section of the BAM built between 1974 and 1989. All of the route and most of the settlements are entirely new.

The route crosses three major mountain ranges and threads through the watersheds of all three major waterways of Siberia and the Far East, the Yenisei, the Lena and the Amur. Apart from the settlements clustering around the railway, the BAM takes you through the largest fertile wilderness in the world. For most of the route, the roads are at best rugged, at worst non-existent.

From Lena, the railway crosses a low range of hills to the Kirenga, a tributary of the Lena. It crosses the Kirenga's swampy meadows, then heads into the rugged Baikal Range, famous for its scenic beauty, passes through the 6.7km Baikal Mountain Tunnel and winds down to the north end of Lake Baikal.

The time is Moscow time +5 hours.

Ust-Kut 715km
Ust-Kut is one of the most vibrant towns on the BAM, as it is a major rail and river terminal for the Lena and the Republic of Sakha (Yakutiya).

Orientation
Ust-Kut is 40km long and lies at the junction of the mighty 4,400km Lena river and the 408km Kuta river. The town sits astride the BAM, which runs parallel with the Lena river. Present day Ust-Kut was created in 1954 by amalgamating several settlements. From west to east they are Kirzavod, Ust-Kut, Lena, Rechniki, Rechniki-2, Geologists, Neftebaza (�Oil Terminal�) and Yakurim, This amalgamation causes confusion with travellers as the main passenger station in not Ust-Kut but Lena. A short walk from Lena station will bring you to the Lena River Passenger Station, known as Osetrovo.

The freight port is located near Ust-Kut station. In the late 1980s, this port shipped 80 per cent of all cargo for the Sakha region.

History
Ust-Kut was founded by the famous explorer Yerofei Khabarov in 1631 and it rapidly became an important trading port as it supplied most of eastern Siberia with food and equipment until the 20th century. Rich deposits of salt were discovered nearby which were exploited until the beginning of the revolution. Several pre-revolutionary exiles found themselves in Ust-Kut, including Leon Trotsky in 1902 (he escaped).

Rail traffic first reached Lena in 1958 when a temporary railway was laid across the Bratsk reservoir. The town now has a population of 70,000 and has one of the nation's few river transport institutes.

Lena 722km
This is the main passenger station, rather than Ust-Kut, as travellers for the river vessels that travel to the Republic of Sakha depart from nearby Osetrovo River Passenger Station.

Getting there and away
From the west there are a Moscow�Lena train and a Moscow�Tynda train (via Kazan) on alternate days, a Krasnoyarsk�Severobaikalsk train every other day, and a Kislovodsk�Tynda train twice a week. The last three also go east on the BAM. There is also a daily local train east to Vikhorevka.

The town has air links with Irkutsk, Bodaibo, Yakutsk, Chita, Kirensk, Lensk, Mirny, Olekminsk, Kirenga, Mama and many other smaller settlements.

A good road connects Ust-Kut with Novaya Igirma and Khrebtovaya.

From late May to September, it is possible to go by regular passenger boat down the Lena to Yakutsk (four days, nine hours) and by hydrofoil both down and up the Lena. Tickets are bought at the Osetrovo River Passenger Station, ul. Kalinina 8, tel 2-63-97 (dispatcher), 2-65-06 (chief), fax 2-07-28 and 2-15-00 (attention: Osetrovo River Port), tel 2-32-53 (general),,

Travelling the Lena river
The mighty Lena river is the second biggest river in water volume in Russia (after the Yenisei), yet it is virtually unknown outside Russia. The 4400km river starts in the mountains to the west of Lake Baikal and snakes through north-eastern Siberia until it floods into the Laptevykh Sea in the Arctic Ocean. Since the mid-1600s, the river has been the lifeline to the capital of north-eastern Siberia, Yakutsk, supplying it with grain, salt, guns and adventurers. It was from here that the exploration, conquest and eventual colonisation of eastern Siberia and the Russian Far East were launched.

The Lena is a godsend for travellers as it is one of the most interesting ways of exploring hidden corners of Russia. As few foreigners have ever travelled these routes, you are guaranteed an extraordinary insight into the lives of river villages, both Russian and indigenous. In addition, the complete lack of Intourist's presence, except in Yakutsk, means that the price of tickets and accommodation is reasonable.

For information on travelling the Lena, see Sakha and Yakutsk via the Lena River and AYaM (pp229-278).

Getting around
The main bus station is in front of Lena station. Bus No 1 goes to Ust-Kut; bus No 2 to Kirpichny Zavod mikroraion (and passes the Ust-Kut Sanatorium); bus No 3 to Neftebaza mikroraion; bus No 4 to the hospital complex near Rechniki mikroraion; bus No 6 to the other side of the Lena river; bus No 101 to the airport; and bus No 102 to Yakurim mikroraion.

Where to stay
The most expensive hotel in town is the new 9-storey 220-bed Lena Hotel. It is opposite the railway station and the prices are single from $60, bed in twin $40. All rooms have full facilities. There is an air-ticket counter in the lobby of the Lena hotel.

The best value accommodation is Hotel Moststroi-9, ul. Kirova 85-A, tel 2-07-66, Although its name means the Hotel of Bridge Constructors Unit No 9, you don't have to be a builder to stay there. It is a 15-minute walk from Lena station or two stops on any bus heading east. The hotel is well-hidden at the back of a compound, so you will have to ask around. Prices are $20 single and $18 for a bed in a twin room. The rooms have full facilities and are well-kept.

Osetrovo River Passenger Station also has a few rooms including five 4-person bedrooms, tel 214-80.

Where to eat
There is a small buffet on the ground floor of the office section of the building housing Hotel Moststroi-9. There is a restaurant in Lena Hotel. There is a market between the post office and Lena Hotel and there are several food shops. From some of the kiosks in front of the railway station you can get hot snacks and shashlik.

Getting assistance
Irkutsktourist Travel Company, located in Lena Hotel, can book rail and boat tickets and arrange excursions. Its main business is organising travel for Russians and it has been operating for more than 10 years. The Director is Elvira Musatova, tel 21-880, fax 20-729 or 21-500 (att: Irkutsktourist).

Foreign currency can be changed at the bank on ul. Kirova, across the street from Lena Hotel.

What to see
The Regional Museum (closed Sunday and Monday) contains information on the BAM railway and the region. It is near the Osetrovo River Passenger Station. Also worth a visit is the Palace of Culture, 500m east along ul. Kirova. It is a white and dark green building built in the Stalinist style, but wholly of wood. It is also possible to tour the river fleet shipyard known as REB, which was founded in the 17th century. To get there take bus No 6 to the other side of the river.

Another option is to visit the balneological-pelotherapeutic mud spa at Ust-Kut Sanatorium, renowned throughout Russia. The spa uses diluted sodium chloride brine containing bromine and silt mud from Lake Ust-Kutskoe. The baths are used to treat muscular, gynaecological and peripheral nervous system disorders. The spa is 3km from Ust-Kut and the easiest way to get there is to take bus No 2 (along the ul. Kirova from the Lena station towards the west) until you see a footbridge across the river. Cross the bridge. At the end is a wooden gate with the word ‘KURORT’, meaning ‘spa’, on it. tel 2-32-92.

Another interesting sight is the Ust-Kut freight port. Bus No 1 goes to the freight port and onwards to Lena station.

Lena-Vostochnaya 736km
On the west bank of the Lena is the station Lena-Vostochnaya which is the official start of the BAM railway.

After leaving Lena-Vostochnaya, the train passes over the first bridge built after Brezhnev announced that the BAM was to be built. The 418m bridge was completed in 1975.

Zvezdnaya 786km
In February 1974, construction work started on Zvezdny settlement. The town became famous throughout the USSR as the first of several hundred new towns to spring up in the path of the BAM. It was named after the cosmonaut settlement of Zvezdny near Moscow but commemorates terrestrial rather than cosmic pioneers. There is a memorial board in the town listing the 14 male and two female Komsomol youths who were the ‘first’ pioneers to arrive at the future town site located on the banks of the Tayura river. In reality, Zvezdny was built on the site of an old village called Tayura.

Zvezdny today is a combination of rustic wooden cottages, new concrete buildings and an impressive railway station. The town has shrunk considerably since the 1970s as the promised new industry which justified its construction never materialised.

Kirenga 890km
Kirenga is a small railway settlement with the nearest town being Magistralny which is 12km to the east. There are regular buses between the two places. Magistralny is a sizeable town of 10,000 on the Kirenga river and its main industry is timber. The river port is called Klyuchi – ‘springs’ – but since the construction of the BAM, few craft ply the river. A one-hour drive to the north will bring you to the small town of Kazachinskoe, the capital of the raion. This isolated town was founded in 1776 and its inhabitants’ main occupations are farming, hunting and fishing. Until the arrival of the BAM, with its large influx of workers, expeditions used to visit Kazachinskoe to study ancient Russian dialects, which had been preserved by descendants of early settlers.

There is a Locomotive Brigade Hostel with a canteen.

As you cross over the Kirenga river, notice the road bridge alongside. This 391m bridge was opened in October 1998 as part of the modernisation of a temporary road running along the BAM. Both the road and the new bridge are important to the development of the nearby Kovykta gas-condensate deposit.

Ulkan 931km
This town of 10,000 is located on the Ulkan river, a tributary of the Kirenga. The BAM town of Ulkan was sponsored by the Crimean Regional Komsomol Party, which is reflected in road names such as Crimea Street. About 1km from Ulkan is the ancient village of Yukhta which is surrounded by two smaller villages called Tarasova and Munok. A total of 51 men, virtually the entire able-bodied male population of the three villages, departed to fight in the Great Patriotic War. Sadly not one returned and consequently the villages have become virtual ghost towns. The war memorial in Yukhta lists the names of those who died.

Between Ulkan and Kunerma are several hot-water springs, which are regarded as having great healing power. There are no tourist facilities.

Kunerma 983km
Kunerma is a nice place to visit on a day trip from Severobaikalsk, as to get here you pass through scenic mountains. The town is also attractive as it consists of a number of wooden two-storey apartment blocks, a recently refurbished station and a single shopping complex. Only 700 people live here and it provides an interesting insight into small town life. It is also a popular fishing destination as there is a well-stocked lake nearby.

As well as the daily trains from Tynda to Moscow, suburban trains terminate here from Severobaikalsk. There are three suburban services to Severobaikalsk daily. There is no accommodation in the town.

The train grinds up an alpine valley between stony mountains, where the wooded taiga gives way to tundra. You may see scarves of cloud hanging below the 2,000m peaks and in summer runnels of water foaming down their flanks.

Delbichinda 1,005km
Delbichinda is the last station before the 6.7km Baikal Mountain Tunnel, The line makes an abrupt left U-bend and enters the tunnel. This tunnel was the easiest of all the BAM tunnels to build and took only three years and eight months to complete. It was opened on 1 October 1984. Between 1979 and 1984 trains ran over the mountains on a dangerous 15km bypass, whose remains can be seen about 5km from the western entrance of the tunnel on the right side. About 500m to the right of the Baikal Mountain Tunnel entrance is another rail line going into a tunnel. This was an exploration tunnel and extends for less than 100m. To visit the exploration tunnel and the bypass, you need to get off at Delbichinda and walk about 10km.

Daban 1,015km
As soon as you emerge from the eastern tunnel entrance, you pass the tunnel guard-tower and the barracks and come to the station of Daban. The stop, at 1,500m above sea level, is a popular starting point for hikers and cross-country skiers. The only building at this stop is the station and there is no accommodation here.

As you descend from the mountain, you will see the Goudzhekit river on your left and, after a few kilometres, a solitary red brick chimney in a large field. This is all that remains of the town that was constructed for the 3,000 workers who built the tunnel. Eliminating all traces of construction and returning the area to its natural condition was an important element in the BAM's environmental policy. A further 3km from the tunnel on the left side is the military camp that supplies guards for the tunnel entrances.

Between Daban and Goudzhekit, you cross the signless border separating the Irkutsk oblast and the Buryatiya Republic,

Goudzhekit 1,029km
This town was once a holiday resort and, although its trade has died with the economy, it still has its attractions, including hot springs, a swimming pool and a small, basic hotel.

Tyya 1,043km
The Goudzhekit creek joins the Tyya river. On most rail maps this stop is called a rail siding or is simply not mentioned. However, near the station is the medium-sized town of Solnechny. Near the town is a 340m down hill ski run with a tow and ski rental. Three suburban trains a day stop at Tyya. Just outside Tyya on the left is a disused shooting range beside a small house on a lake. In the Soviet era, these ranges were financed by the Ministry of Defence as a way of maintaining military skills among citizens.

The train emerges from the narrow Tyya valley and makes an immense counter-clockwise circle around the first settlement of Severobaikalsk. On your right you glimpse the northern end of Lake Baikal and on your left the grand boulevard of new Severobaikalsk, the westernmost of the new BAM towns. You draw up beside the cathedral arch of the station.

Siberian BAM Guide: rail, rivers & road

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