May 01, 2007

The Railroad Less Traveled

“Only the train can get you there,” the bartender said as we gaped at miles of forbidding, snow-covered mountains and endless miles of lonely taiga. “With the plane, you never know, and the car? Forget it. This is the way to go.” Almost stunned by the vastness of this empty, frozen zone, warmed by a comfortable bar car and our 100 grams of vodka, we had to agree. Only the BAM could reach into Siberia: the land of the gulag and ancient tribes, Soviet pioneers trying to tame the land — and the future. This was definitely the way to go.

One of the great engineering feats of the twentieth century, the 2,305-mile-long Baikal-Amur Mainline (BAM), is barely known outside of Russia and not much better known within. Running about 400 miles north of and parallel to its older and better-known cousin, the Trans-Siberian Railway, the BAM crosses a cold and virtually empty landscape, winding through taiga and mountains, connecting up loose threads of Russian history. 

Like other Soviet remnants, the BAM is still quaking from the country’s implosion. Critics see it as money wasted in a distant, unforgiving deep-freeze, while those whose lives are tied to the line hope for its revival. After 75 years of planning and building, the colossal project, seeking its place in a brave new world, reflects the lives of average Russians, also feeling their way in uncertain times.

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Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.

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